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Chapter 2

They could have slept in the house that night, in a comfortable bed. The nights were turning cold, in any case, and the house was welcoming and warm. But instead they spent the dark hours poring over books in Blair’s cell; Blair not wishing to take the dangerous volumes into the house out of cautious habit, yet wishing desperately to show James more of the information he had discovered while they had the chance.

Some of the information was startling in its scope. “This book – an ancient history of the baronies – seems to suggest that once there was a vast civilisation on these shores. That thousands upon thousands of people lived in huge cities, in buildings that almost touched the sky. Traversing the land could be swiftly accomplished in carriages without horses, it says here. Some of them even flew through the air, and could carry people to faraway lands, places I’ve never heard of, which are further away even than the southern continent.”

“Most of that sounds implausible,” James noted. “And certainly there is no trace of such remarkable cities or flying carriages now. Although I have often wondered if other lands exist, far out across the sea.”

Blair squinted at the book, flicking through the pages and trying to decipher the ancient script, seeking answers. “It says here there was a great war,” he said. “That the destruction was vast and devastating, resulting in earthquakes which levelled the cities into dust and remoulded the landscape.” He looked up, wide-eyed, at James. “It says that the primal forces which caused the destruction opened a window to another world, and that is where the night terrors came from.”

At last, something of what Blair said registered with James. “It’s odd, but when I listened to the beasts in their burrow, I got a sense of them being otherworldly. I strongly felt that they don’t belong here.”

“I remember you saying that at the time,” Blair noted. He looked back down at the book. “Maybe there is some truth in this.”

“If there is,” James pointed out, “and the night terrors came into a world already devastated by a terrible war, the resulting forgetfulness of each generation would ensure that whatever knowledge that former civilisation once held would be lost forever, and that the human population would never again increase to such vast numbers.” He shook his head sadly. “Human beings have undoubtedly become fewer in number over time, and the night terrors have multiplied every time they spawn. This time around, they vastly outnumber us.”

Blair nodded his understanding. If they could not find a way to defeat the beasts, both of them understood all too well that, by the time the next cycle of gorging was concluded, there would likely be no humans left at all.

Blair went back to the books, wishing to show James one text in particular which had caught his eye, and which was all the more significant now that James had proved the night terrors to be emitting a sound that muddled the mind. “This journal – the pages are old and yellowed, so some of it is hard to read – is by the same man who wrote about the noise the night terrors made. He was a compulsive journaller, by all appearances, but I’m only just beginning to look at his writings, which span several decades. It’s going to take some time to go through them all.” Blair showed one such volume to James. “This was written when he was an old man, according to the date. It seems he believed that the sound that tormented him was the method by which they exerted control over everybody else.”

James nodded. “That would be in accord with what I sensed.” He frowned. “It’s hard to describe what it was like. Don’t take this the wrong way, Blair; this is a bad analogy. But it reminded me of what you and I share in our link. A powerful emotion, conveyed almost mind to mind, except that it is done through the medium of sound.”

Blair was not at all offended; in fact James’ observation confirmed the conclusion he had come to himself. “So, what do we do?” he queried. “It seems that the key to their influence is the sound they make. It’s obviously inaudible to normal ears, and even to sentinel ears if you don’t make an effort to consciously perceive it, yet it has a strong influence over the mind, unless you’re somehow immune, like me.” Blair shrugged helplessly. “Other than somehow making everyone deaf temporarily, it is difficult to see how this knowledge can help us.”

“The alternative,” James suggested thoughtfully, “would be to render the beasts themselves silent.” He shrugged. “That seems equally impossible.”

“Yet knowing the cause of the delusion,” Blair persisted, “I find it hard to accept that there is not some way to address it, if only we could discover it.”

They sat together broodily for a few moments, both of them considering their dilemma; the pop and sizzle of wood settling in the fireplace and the dancing flames reflecting around the walls lending the prison a deceptively cosy air.

Finally James spoke again. “This ancestor of mine, whose writings you have been perusing,” he asked. “Does he have a name?”

Blair squinted at the first page of the journal. “Robert, son of William,” he said.

A shadow had passed over James’ face, his unquiet emotions easily transmitting themselves to Blair. “And the date; this is more than a hundred years ago, you say?”

Blair nodded. “The earlier journal was written just after the night terrors spawned during the last cycle. This later one was written when he was an old man, nearly fifty years later.”

James stood, running a hand over his face. His obvious distress made Blair ask, “James, what’s wrong?”

James looked up to the shadowy ceiling as if seeking inspiration by which to frame his answer, then fixed his gaze on Blair. “Robert, the second son of my great, great grandfather, was the man for whom this prison was built. His brother James – my great grandfather – was baron at the time, and it was on his orders that Robert was locked away. It has been said that he may have murdered someone, but the details have never been clear.” James laughed humourlessly. “It seems Robert was perhaps not mad after all but, like you and I, all too sane.”

“What happened to him?” Blair asked.

“I believe he eventually died here.” James’ face was like alabaster – impervious to emotion, yet all too easy for Blair to read. “It seems I am not the only member of my family to condemn an innocent man to a fate worse than death.”

Despite empathising deeply with poor Robert who, it seemed, had not been half so lucky as Blair in that he had lived out his life in this dismal place, Blair had certainly had his fill of James indulging in unnecessary guilt. “So, you’re entirely to blame, just like your namesake before you.” He opened his arms wide in entreaty. “And where does that profound revelation get us, exactly? Hm?”

James didn’t look at Blair. Instead he scuffed at the ground, reminding Blair with amusement of Gwen’s boys during a scolding. After a moment he looked up bashfully. “Precisely nowhere?” he ventured.

Blair could have offered comfort to the chastised brat, but instead he decided to go for merciless; James could take it. “Get back over here, you idiot. We’re going to go through some more of this stuff, then we’re going to bed. If you have a problem with that, take it up with the other barons. It’s not as if they’ll try you for heresy or anything, just because you’re reading seditious texts and sleeping with me.”

It shouldn’t have been funny – their situation was far too dire for that. Yet James dissolved into helpless laughter anyway, and Blair soon followed him.

They slept together that night in the bed in the cell, the dwindling glow of the fire allowing Blair to fantasise at odd moments, as he lay in James’ arms, that they were back in their cosy bedroom at the castle. But their lovemaking had a sorrowful edge to it, and late in the night, when James finally slept the sleep of a sated man, Blair lay awake savouring the warmth of his lover at his back, committing the sensation to memory in readiness for the inevitable long, lonely nights to come.

***

Time passed after that in an agony of anticipation. James had suspected that the inspection might happen sooner rather than later, all the better to give him little opportunity to prepare and thus catch him in a lie. But as days and then weeks went on it became clear that the barons’ intent was rather to hold the threat over him, to ensure that he understood that the authority he held over his own barony was hanging by a thread and could be challenged at any moment. And with no allies among his peers, and at least one deadly enemy in the shape of Baron Bannister, his position was precarious indeed.

The return of James’ good health was the most positive aspect of that time. Physician Wolf was astonished at James’ recovery. “My lord, I cannot fathom it,” he said. “I was certain you were on the verge of a catastrophic fugue, yet suddenly you are in the peak of health. One would almost think that you had reconciled with your guide.”

There was a hint of suspicion in his eyes as he spoke, which disturbed James greatly. He had no option but to dispel Wolf’s misgivings by lying shamelessly. “The hedge-guide’s daughter, Gwen, has proved to be a passable guide in her own right,” he said. “I... find myself enamoured of her, which is one reason why I have visited the estate more often of late. I believe it is her influence which has resulted in my returned vigour.” He had the grace to feel ashamed as he added, “I am considering making a marriage bond with her. It will not be a true pairing, of course, since my former guide still lives, but I believe it may adequately serve my needs.... and hers.”

Wolf seemed to be reassured at that, and he offered his hearty congratulations. James graciously accepted his good wishes, worrying all the while which of them was most likely to kill him for his presumption – Blair, Gwen or, more likely, Rowena.

The weather turned to sleet and snow soon after that, making the roads difficult to travel. As winter progressed James became more and more certain that the barons would not risk sending an envoy now until spring, but Blair insisted on carrying on their ruse nevertheless, sleeping each night in the circular prison. Both of them understood the necessity to maintain the deception, even though the sight of his guide in that dismal place, his beard and hair growing daily more unkempt, wounded James deeply. For Blair’s part, he insisted it no longer troubled him. “I know this place so well, now, it’s almost like home,” he said, making James grimace in dismay as such a bizarre statement so easily fell from Blair’s lips. “More to the point,” Blair clarified, easily sensing James’ unhappiness, “I am not truly a prisoner, so it’s not the same as before.”

James, however, knew that not to be true. They were all prisoners of the night terrors’ deception, forced to live a lie or pay with their lives. And to his mind, Blair had paid more than any of them. His grief at that fact, and his shame at having been instrumental in bringing Blair’s confinement about, could never be assuaged, no matter how often Blair assured him it was not his fault.

Even in the icy conditions of midwinter James continued to visit Blair as often as he could, the two of them taking great solace in those precious yet brief times spent together. No matter the treacherous track he was obliged to traverse to reach him, James could not bear the thought of leaving his guide alone in that place any more than necessary. And their continued contact kept his senses sharp, his health keen. In the time since Blair had guided him to block out the night terrors’ signal he had never felt better, despite his ever-present worry about their constant peril.

Blair apparently spent the dark winter days and nights when James was not with him perusing the books they had found, displaying an academic fervour which surpassed even Simon’s enthusiasm for study. It seemed that every time James went to visit, there was some new snippet of knowledge Blair had gleaned about their mortal enemies.

“During their infant stage,” Blair told him one night, his eyes sparkling with discovery in the flickering light of the multitude of candles James insisted they light to brighten the cell, “when it is important for them to spread their mind-altering influence far and wide, it seems that they divide into groups, each of which gathers in one single flock in or near a place of habitation. This commenter,” Blair held up a battered volume, “says that the flocks inhabiting towns are considerably larger, and they tend to roost in the eaves of houses and tall buildings. Which is what you’ve observed, isn’t it?” When Jim nodded, he went on, “But out in the country, he noticed that there was just one very small flock associated with each village or isolated homestead. Because the houses are less substantial, and do not block out the sunlight sufficiently - which seems to cause the fae great discomfort - they usually roost together in an underground burrow or cave nearby.” 

“Like the flock we rode out to listen to,” James noted. “I am certain, having cast out my senses around the area, that the burrow they were sleeping in is the only place they inhabit within twenty miles.”  James could understand why. “There simply wouldn’t be enough of them otherwise to influence everyone, and their survival into adulthood counts on influencing everyone. Getting the vast majority of humans to worship them is their only defence while they are small, as substantial pockets of ‘heresy’ could potentially be fatal. They have no choice but to spread themselves thinly throughout the land.”

Blair nodded. “You’re right. What’s more, in another of these books it is noted that once a single flock of infants arrives in a location, they settle in and make it their own. They don’t leave that area until they are fully grown, and they do not interact with other flocks. Instead, they grow safely to adulthood by firmly insinuating themselves in their chosen settlement. By the time they are big enough to eat sheep out of the fields and take children, their position in that community is already established by precedent and custom. They no longer need to live right there alongside humans, but fly in instead each night to feast, or congregate in the lowlands where there are plentiful herds of cattle. And by that stage, no one questions why they are forced to lock themselves inside every night and tether beasts outside for the creatures to eat; it’s just the way things are.”

“And by then,” James noted, “they are ferocious enough to protect themselves, even though they no longer twist people’s minds to the same extent. And the blessed fae become a distant – and revered – legend, unconnected with the night terrors.”

“Exactly,” Blair said.

To James, this knowledge presented an obvious solution. “Then we go to each village and destroy them in their burrows while they sleep.”

Blair shook his head. “It won’t work.”

“Why not?”

“Because the influence they have over people is not immediately dispersed,” Blair said. “Well except for exceptional cases like you, obviously, but hardly anyone else is a sentinel so that doesn’t count.” He smiled at James briefly, before becoming serious once again. “Remember what happened with Simon? He was here, away from their influence, for a considerable time before he retained his rightful memories, and compared with how long it took Gwen and her two sons to recover, he got them back quickly. If we were to ride out tomorrow and set fire to the local burrow, there would be an immediate outcry from the villagers because, like Simon, they would retain their love of the fae until the effect wore off, which might be days or even weeks afterwards, depending on each individual.”

James followed Blair’s vision of what would happen to its logical conclusion. “Even if we were not caught in the act they’d suspect heresy was to blame, and act upon that assumption long before their memories had a chance to return. There would be a witch hunt: impromptu trials, executions, devout fae-worshippers punishing any scapegoat they could find.”

Blair nodded gravely. “They’d scour the countryside looking for suitable culprits, and they would go to town and present themselves at the castle, looking to you for help.”

James put his head in his hands. “And I would be forced to condemn the so-called heretics, and send innocent people to their deaths, or be unmasked as a heretic myself.”

“And that’s not all,” Blair went on. “The town is full of night terrors, and full of people who would join in the anti-heresy crusade the minute they found out what happened. And while it is entirely possible to destroy the burrows near villages, how do you propose to kill the beasts in the town itself, when they are spread throughout all the buildings, and worshipped by the people who live there? It just won’t work, James.”

As Blair spoke, James fell deeper into despair. It was all so hopeless, especially when the oblivious victims of the beasts were simultaneously their greatest champions. “Then what can we do?” he asked dejectedly, knowing full well that if he did not have the answers, then certainly neither did Blair. “What use is it to know these things, only to come to the conclusion that we can do nothing?”

Blair shrugged. “If there is a solution, James, we will find it. All we can do is keep searching, and do our best to stay alive. Because what other choice do we have?”

***

As winter progressed, Blair pondered their dilemma unceasingly. They knew now what was causing the madness – the noises the creatures emitted which, although beyond the range of normal hearing, had an influence so malign that people’s thoughts and memories were drastically altered.

Yet he, Rowena and little Fernie, alone of those that he knew, had been unaffected. Rowena was certain they had been spared because of the guide-gifts all of them possessed, but sometimes Blair wondered if it was something altogether more mundane, perhaps a deficiency of hearing that the three of them shared. He was moved to remember an elderly woman he’d known in the capital, a domestic servant in the Academy, who’d had trouble hearing the voices of the guide-children and women studying there, but could hear well enough the deeper baritones of the men. Maybe the nuances of hearing that various humans possessed made some more susceptible to the night terrors’ influence than others?

Once Blair began to consider that possibility, he couldn’t help but wonder if there were others, like them – either those with the Sight or people with differing degrees of deafness – who knew the truth, but were too afraid of reprisals to acknowledge it. The fact that James had told him tales of  heretics murdered by their fellows throughout the land seemed to lead to that conclusion; guides, even hedge-guides, were not so plentiful in number that every heretic killed could have been one of them. James had also told him, not too long ago, about an old man in the town who had failed to revere the beasts, and who had been murdered by his fellows. He had been well-known to Rowena, and had not possessed even a glimmer of the Sight, but was certainly as deaf as a doorpost.

So what to do? As they’d already conceded, there was no way to prevent every single person affected from hearing the creatures.

The more Blair delved deeper into the dusty volumes in his possession, focusing painstakingly on trying to decipher the faded script in the journals of the previous occupant of this cell, the more he realised that his long-ago fellow prisoner had considered the very same issue at great length. And what’s more, Robert son of William seemed to have come up with a solution which, it turned out, had been the very thing that had precipitated his confinement.

The answer, according to James’ unfortunate ancestor, was deceptively simple: a combination of simple herbs and minerals, most of them commonly available throughout the baronies. While thoroughly benign on their own, when distilled and combined in particular quantities and taken as a potion, they caused irreparable paralysis of nerves in the throat, thus rendering a person permanently silent. And if they could mute a person, Robert had posited, why not a beast as well?

Robert, so it seemed, had encountered such a potion in his youth, during a trip with his father to the northernmost kingdom of the southern continent. Enforced silence was still a punishment inflicted upon those who spoke treason there; a somewhat barbaric sentence, to be sure, as the effects were irreversible and prone (in some cases) to result in death by choking, due to the paralysis spreading to the muscles of the throat. Yet the southerners extolled it as a far more humane method of muting than the historical (and now defunct) northern practice of cutting out a miscreant’s tongue, which they denounced as inhumanly cruel.

Blair shuddered at the thought. Neither option seemed, to him, truly less brutal than the other.

So Robert, having determined to try it as a means of silencing the night terrors, had gathered the ingredients and made the potion. And while still living at liberty in the castle, he had abducted a single night terror and dosed the beast with it.

It seemed he had used too much of the potion, and the beast had died; although he was certain that he’d managed to silence its voice before it breathed its last. He’d tried a much lower dose on a second beast, and that one had lived. And as Robert was blessed with uncommonly good hearing – a legacy of the sentinel abilities which were so strong in his family – he was certain that it had worked, although it seemed to have worn off after a time, which convinced him that he needed to refine the solution through further experimentation to establish the correct dose.

Unluckily for him, however, his experiments came to an abrupt end, when both the carcass of the dead night terror and the caged living beast were discovered in his possession. Robert had been taken and punished cruelly, before eventually being imprisoned in the cell now inhabited by Blair, which had been constructed exclusively for him – all the better to lock away out of sight the baron’s heretic brother.

Robert’s determination to find a solution, however, had not ended there. After many years in his cell, still convinced he had been on the correct course and obsessed by a desire to try one more time, he had gradually collected the ingredients, representing his desire to obtain them to his jailors as a means of alleviating the aches and pains he suffered in winter, after his many years of confinement. And unsuspecting (since none of the constituent parts were at all regarded as lethal or dangerous individually) he had been furnished with what he needed over a period of time. He’d experimented thereafter with the amounts, trying to work out the exact dose of the potion that would be needed to strike the beasts permanently dumb, yet not kill them. And eventually, suicidally frustrated by the absence of a beast to test it on, he’d taken the extraordinary step of drinking it himself. As a result poor Robert had lived out the rest of his days in silence, his jailors assuming him to be the victim of a seizure that caused him to lose the ability to speak.

Blair’s vision blurred, emotion nearly choking him, as he read further. Robert had lived out his life here; chained-up, alone, and devoid of any kind of meaningful contact or tenderness. A silent madman, to be kept hidden away from the rest of the world forever. And reading his later entries it was clear that he’d finally become mad in truth; fantasies and delusions and bizarre, disjointed gibberish peppered the later editions of his journals until they stopped altogether, the last few pages blank.

Blair looked up from the final volume, feeling utterly shaken by what poor Robert had endured. In comparison Blair himself had been lucky, because even if James had never come to his senses Blair would have simply died here, felled by an infected night terror bite. He would not have suffered alone without hope for decades, as Robert had.

Forcing himself to shake off the intensely melancholic thoughts that Robert’s fate had inspired, desperate to make the poor man’s sacrifice count for something, Blair took the recipe to Rowena to ascertain what she thought of it, because if anyone knew about potions, it was she.

Rowena pursed her lips thoughtfully as Blair outlined the ingredients. “It’s all obtainable, certainly,” she told him, after he’d read out Robert’s list. “Powdered farrow is perhaps more difficult to get, but it does get imported for its medicinal properties; there’s a supplier in town who deals in it, in fact. It’s pricey, though, coming all the way from the far south as it does. But I dare say the baron could afford it.”

“But would it work on them, in the way that Robert hoped?” Blair prodded. “He worked out what he believed the right dose would be, based on weight,” he noted. “He calculated the amount based on how much it took to take his own voice away.”

Rowena shrugged. “We won’t know for sure until we try it,” she said. “It depends on whether what works for a man will work for them. The trick would be to get one of them to take it, and see what happens.” She looked at him dubiously. “If you’re suggesting that you get every last one of them to swallow it, though, I’d say you’ve got your work cut out!”

***

Determined after consulting Rowena that, at the very least, they needed to try it, Blair set about persuading James on his next visit to obtain the items he needed to make the potion. “If it works,” he told him, “the creatures will lose their voices, but not suffer any other ill-effects. No one will know there is anything wrong with their precious fae but, deprived of hearing the sound they make, they will gradually and naturally recover their wits. They will not notice anything is different until their memories begin to return.”

“What if it doesn’t work?” James said, and Blair could clearly sense his anxiety. “What if it does work, and the fae react badly to losing their voices? What if they attack people? There are too many risks, too many things we can’t be certain of.”

Blair sympathised with James’ reluctance. The baron took the responsibility he bore for the people in his demesne very seriously indeed, and if they got this wrong there could be catastrophic consequences. But conversely, Blair was determined to try, because what other choice did they have? “Isn’t it better to do something, rather than nothing?” he insisted. “This is the only thing we’ve found that might give us a way to save ourselves. And James, if we don’t find a way to beat them, in fifty or a hundred years time it won’t matter, because every human being in the world will be dead!”

So James conceded, and on his next visit brought with him the ingredients he had asked Physician Wolf to procure for him from his own stores, as well as some rarer items he’d bidden him to fetch from a vendor in the town. “I told Wolf these were for you,” he said aside to Rowena as he handed them over to Blair.

Rowena pursed her lips. “I don’t imagine he was impressed, given the other uses those things have,” she said. “I know what he thinks of the likes of me and my hedge-magic.”

Blair, who was peering interestedly at the packets and jars, looked up with a frown. “You don’t think he’ll suspect anything, do you? Rowena, if this puts you in danger-”

“Hush, child,” Rowena butted in. “All of these things have sound medicinal purposes, at least in my profession, so he won’t suspect anything other than that I’m practicing some quackery that he doesn’t approve of, given his high-and-mighty training. He can’t know what we’re planning, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

***

The first order of business was to make the solution. Rowena, as the acknowledged expert in such matters, took on that task, while James and Blair put the next part of their plan in action.

They needed to abduct a night terror.

These midwinter days were short, and sunset was a mere hour or two off, so time was of the essence if they were to do this today. And James knew absolutely that, if they didn’t do it now, together, then Blair’s determination was such that he would do it by himself after James left tomorrow.

But that was something James was equally determined to prevent. Blair was a capable man; more than capable, in fact. But he was James’ guide, and James would not see him put in danger. If the villagers discovered him out alone, trying to wrest one of the creatures out of its burrow, he would be killed on the spot. And not only that; Blair had been desperately hurt by the creatures twice before, both times because James had obliviously put him in their path. James was determined that, on this occasion, he would keep his guide free from harm, both from man and beast.

Frost lay over the moorland as they rode out, the sun a pale yellow ball low in the sky, its rays diluted by the freezing mist that blanketed the land. Their breath curled out like smoke, their living essence merging with the fog and disappearing within it with every exhale. The sound of the horses’ hooves were muted and muffled, and James and Blair’s voices, the few times they conversed, hushed as though they were both afraid to disturb the stillness.

Perhaps they were both afraid to disturb it. James certainly was; there was a sense of something expectant in the air, as though they marched towards something momentous. It was as though the gods of their ancestors were keeping pace beside them, silently willing them on.

James could only pray to those same gods that they would prevail, for the good of all.

As they neared the burrow where the creatures hid, James cast his senses out. The villagers, to his relief, were all in their homes, the cold air and clear threat of snow to come having chased most of them indoors to crouch cosily with their families before roaring fires in the last few hours before nightfall. There was no one at all wandering outside its bounds, apart from them.

The burrow itself was likewise silent. The creatures, it seemed, slept, taking their rest in the hours before darkness, when they would emerge from their nest to feed. James could hear the dry, leathery rustle of their bodies as they shifted against each other in sleep, oblivious, and he forcefully repressed the urge that came over him at that knowledge: to slaughter them all as they slept, and thus wipe their poison from the world.

Sadly, as both he and Blair knew, that would solve nothing.

They tethered the horses some way from the burrow, and crept silently towards it, James’ senses focused the whole time on the sleeping beasts who, it seemed, were totally unaware of their approach. Committing that knowledge to memory – that the creatures were vulnerable right before nightfall - James knelt down beside the entrance. It was an old badger’s set, he could see, the original inhabitants no doubt devoured by its new occupants.

Blair settled down beside him, a spade in his hand and an expression of sheer determination on his face. “Where’s the best place to dig?” he whispered.

Using his senses to scan the burrow, James shook his head. “No need,” he said. Thankful that because of the cold he was wearing his thickest leather riding gloves, he lay down full length and gingerly reached an arm into the hole. He dreaded at any moment that claws and teeth would sink into his flesh, but to his astonishment the creatures did not wake, even when he hooked his fingers around the single fae he discovered nearest the entrance and pulled it outside.

Once the thing was out in the daylight, however, its peaceful slumber came to an abrupt end. It squirmed in James’ hand, coming fully awake and squinting as if the light hurt it, then screeched so piercingly that even Blair flinched at the sound. As James brought his other hand to bear to restrain it, it struggled ineffectually and began to gnaw and scratch at James’ leather-protected hand, and at the same time James heard its brethren begin to shift in response. Hurriedly he stuffed it into the sack they had brought with them for that purpose, thrusting it back into darkness and silencing its cries. Then he swiftly rose to his feet. “Come on,” he whispered urgently to Blair, who was pale with dread, and casting worried looks at the entrance to the burrow. “We have to move.”

After secreting the sack with the squirming thing inside in his saddlebag, James and Blair wasted no time in mounting up and setting off back towards the estate.

They were almost home when James felt it. Something on the wind; something foul and intent upon harm. Reining in his suddenly skittish mount, he sniffed the air, and the acrid odour which assailed him left him in no doubt. “The night terrors,” he called to Blair, who was watching him in concern. “They’re aloft, and following us!”

Blair needed no further urging, both of them setting heels to their horses and covering the last half-mile at a gallop. As soon as they entered the yard, Blair was crying out to the others: “Rowena, Gwen!” the women came to the door of the house at Blair’s call, their worried expressions indicating they had picked up the urgency in Blair’s voice. “Where are the boys?” Blair demanded, dismounting quickly.

“Up in their room,” Gwen told him. It was, after all, almost full dark, and they always strictly observed curfew.

“Good,” Blair said. “Go inside, make sure all the shutters are closed. We’ll be in presently.” Blair turned to Jim, his obvious dread contained within a shell of resolve and practicality. “James, the horses. We have to stable them.”

“No time.” James could already hear the flapping of hundreds of tiny wings just seconds away. “Leave them.” He dismounted and retrieved the squirming sack from his saddlebag, the thing within now emitting a piercing sound so high in pitch that James suspected only he – and its airborne fellows - could hear it.

“But-”

Blair’s protest was shut off as James grabbed him by the arm and hustled him toward the door. “I said, no time.” Jim pushed Blair inside, and cast one regretful look at the two horses, the black cloud already descending upon them, before he closed the door and bolted it.

***

It was like being thrown back into the nightmare days of yore, Blair thought. He could hear the horses crying out piteously as the flock descended on them, the clattering sound of their hooves on the cobbles indicating the precise moment they bolted. After that the night terrors mercifully left the poor beasts alone. Instead they turned their attention to the house, scratching incessantly at every door and shuttered window, persistently seeking entrance. Before long they could be heard scrabbling and scratching in the attic, having presumably found a gap in the roof-tiles which had permitted them to enter.

It was unlikely the beasts would get into the house itself – they’d have to scratch through solid plaster and wood to manage it. But the children were brought safely downstairs, nevertheless, and all seven of them set up camp in the kitchen, the boys wrapped in blankets by the fire, with the door firmly closed between the kitchen and the rest of the house.

It was best, at times like this, to focus on practicalities and try to ignore the wolf at the door. First of all, they needed to deal with their tiny prisoner, whose high-pitched call to its fellows, while way beyond Blair’s ability to perceive, was clearly setting James’ teeth on edge. Blair could see his sentinel’s jaw muscles bunching and the tight lines of pain around his eyes, and he ached to give comfort in his usual manner, but now was not the time.

After searching through the pantry Blair managed to find a huge, wide-necked glass jar of the type used for storing winter preserves, which he hefted out and placed on the table. Putting on his riding gloves James reached into the sack and retrieved their hostage, then without ceremony dropped the beast into the jar which Blair immediately stoppered.

Blair leaned down to look, captivated by the sight within. In the combined glow of the fire and the flickering of the candles Rowena had lit against the gloom the creature seemed eerily beautiful, just like the one Grace had captured so long ago. Its skin was not simply black, but instead shimmered with rainbow-colours as it caught the flickering light, its tiny wings unfurling and revealing a delicate filigreed pattern which likewise glistened with living colour.

But its face belied the ethereal splendour of its hide. It was like a parody of humanity, frozen in a ghastly, horrific grimace, its long pointed teeth bared in fury in its oversized jaw as it glared out through the glass at them.

James winced. “The sound it’s making. I’ve never heard anything like it.”

Without hesitation, Blair turned his full attention onto James. “Listen to my voice,” he said. “Focus in on it, and let the other sound go. Focus, James. Focus. Listen only to me...” He carried on talking, guiding James firmly away from the sound which was hurting him, leading him to safety.

As James’ pained features evened out into serenity, and he breathed easier, Blair felt the most intense and profound satisfaction. He would never get tired of this. Never.

At last James took a deep breath and smiled at Blair; the most tender, loving smile, which made Blair’s heart miss a beat with wonder. “Thank you,” he said, his eyes soft and adoring. “My guide.”

His heart bursting with love and pride Blair could only smile back, lost for any further words.

The spell was broken by Rowena, who placed a plate down on the table beside the jar. There were chunks of meat upon it; chopped mutton intended for tomorrow’s stew, by the looks of it. “Let’s see if this works, then,” she said, producing a small medicine bottle.

“You made it already?” Blair queried. “That was fast.”

Rowena shrugged. “There ain’t much finesse to it,” she said. “I just measured it out and mixed the ingredients together.” She removed a small dropper from the bottle, and held it over the meat. “Just two drops at this concentration should do it, if Robert was right,” she said, applying the solution.

After that Blair cautiously unstoppered the jar, and James dropped the meat in piece-by-piece. The little creature fell upon it immediately, clutching it in its claws and gnawing and tearing at it ravenously and messily until every last bit of it was gone.

Blair watched in horrified fascination, both appalled and enthralled by the voraciousness of the creature. Then he looked inquiringly at James. “Is it still making a noise?”

James focused in on it, then nodded. “I can still hear it,” he said. “It’s not screeching anymore, but it’s still making a sound; that same sound they all make.” He frowned. “It’s quieter, though. It’s...” he cocked his head, then looked at Blair in wonderment. “It’s stopped.”

Blair peered back into the jar. The fae did not seem distressed in any way. Instead it was intently licking and worrying at its claws, rather like a cat grooming itself, making sure to devour every last scrap of its meal. Blair addressed James as he watched, unable to tear his eyes away from the fae. “We’ll need to keep it here, and see how long the effect lasts.”

“Yes,” James agreed. Then he held up his hand to forestall any further conversation, clearly listening. “The other ones,” he said, presently. “They’re leaving. Heading off toward the village to feed.” He strode towards the kitchen door. “I’m going up into the loft,” he announced, as he opened it. “I’ll find out where they got in, and block it up. I’ll make sure they don’t get in again.”

The rest of the evening was spent returning the household to some semblance of normality. After blocking up the hole between the tiles and putting down a fresh layer of the repelling substance Rowena had manufactured, James declared the attic safe from any further threat of invasion. Then as a further precaution he busied himself for several hours checking and shoring up every other potential weak spot in their defences. The initial excitement over, the children were eventually fed and tucked up in their beds. And in the meantime Blair fashioned a new stopper for the jar with holes bored through it, which would allow air to circulate so that the creature within wouldn’t suffocate.

It was late in the evening when James and Blair finally came back together in the deserted kitchen, Rowena and Gwen having long-since followed the children up to bed. Both of them were inexorably drawn to the jar on the table, so they stood side by side to study the creature crawling around restlessly inside, which in turn paid them no heed.

Blair found himself mesmerised by the vile little thing. The last time he’d been this close to any of the fae, he’d been savagely attacked by them and almost died as a result. He couldn’t help but assume that this was one of those which had molested him in his cell, since it was part of the only flock for miles around.

“It’s still quiet,” James noted after a few moments. “It’s not making any sound that I can detect at all.”

“Maybe that’s why the others flew away,” Blair theorised. “They couldn’t hear it crying out to them anymore, so they just left.”

“You could be right,” James agreed, “although it might also be that they just needed to feed, and there was nothing for them here.” He looked at Blair seriously. “Whatever the case, I think you should be very careful while this thing is here. Make sure that you’re all indoors and that the place is secure well before nightfall. If it reclaims its voice, and it was that which drew them, they could come back.”

“We will,” Blair agreed readily, shuddering at the thought of the beasts invading their sanctuary again. The proximity even of this single, trapped creature made his flesh creep, and brought back memories he sometimes wished he’d had the leisure to forget like everybody else. Unconsciously he scratched at the misshapen scar on his hand, until James captured it in his own and raised it to his lips, his eyes sorrowful as he tenderly nuzzled the ugly, puckered flesh on Blair’s palm.

Blair turned his hand in James’ grasp to envelop the other man’s hand in his own, the sentinel’s regretful, tender gesture moving him to immediate rebuttal. “Don’t you dare tell me you’re sorry,” he said, squeezing tight, showing James by the strength of his grip exactly how well he had healed. “You’re not to blame. You never were.”

James smiled sadly. “I do not think I will ever cease to regret what I caused – no matter how unwittingly – to happen to you,” he said.

“Then I will have to make you forget it,” Blair said. “Come on,” he urged. And holding his sentinel by the hand he decisively led the way.

Blair had taken the time earlier to set a fire in the bedroom he’d used before he’d taken to spending every night in his lonely cell. Illuminated by the flames’ rosy glow they shed their clothes, their eyes feasting on each other all the while, dual hunger and insurmountable love suffusing their emotions and enveloping them both in a cocoon of togetherness and safety.

Outside the world might be in turmoil. Right now, right at this moment, none of it mattered.

***

When they arose the next morning, the night terror was dead.

“I was afraid that it seemed too easy,” Blair admitted despairingly, as they peered into the jar at the still body of the creature. It seemed clear that the potion they’d used was lethal to the beasts after all.

James’ lips were set in a thin, hard line, his disappointment clear. “I... I didn’t dare to hope,” he said. “I’m sorry, Blair. I know how much you wanted this to work; to make Robert’s sacrifice worthwhile.”

“Not just for Robert.” Blair felt, suddenly, as though the world had lost all colour. “For Gwen’s boys, and for Grace. To give them a chance of a future, so they can raise their own children without fear. But mostly,” he swallowed, looking miserably at James, “for you and me.” For the first time since this all began, the absolute futility of their situation hit Blair full force – even in the midst of his deepest despair, he’d never truly lost hope until now. “I... I hate this, James. You’re in danger every minute we’re apart, and I wish more than anything to be there with you.”

James had no answer to that, of course, other than the hard, hopeless hug that followed. And there were scant few other words between them as they went out to recapture the spooked horses, before James rode off, defeat the match of Blair’s own in his eyes.

***

Back at the castle, James found himself forced to face a situation he’d hoped would never come to pass.

“The man was apparently caught red handed,” Simon told him grimly. “He’d killed every single fae in the eaves of his house, and was taking the bodies in a sack to be buried. He is unrepentant, and has been speaking ‘heresy’ openly since his arrest. I’ve had to set men I know well and trust to guard him, simply for his own safety. It’s a wonder he has not been lynched already.”

James put his head in his hands. “How can I do this, Simon?” he begged. “I can’t condemn an innocent to death. Yet if I do not, I bring suspicion down on myself and, by extension, on Blair and the rest of you.”

Simon, it seemed, was equally dispirited, having been appraised by James of the failure of the potion. “I... I sometimes wonder if it would better for those of us who are unaffected to leave; to maybe find some place that is not affected by the creatures. Maybe that would give us time to regroup and to consider other solutions.”

“Does such a place exist?” James asked. “Is not the whole world under their sway?”

Simon shrugged. “My enquiries have revealed that the southern continent is as badly afflicted as the Baronies. Possibly more so – the punishments for heresy in the south have been widespread and brutal. That leaves only the eastern wilds, where the tribes live. I... I have no way of knowing whether the creatures have the same influence there as well. But if there is no chance of overturning them here, then that uncertainty is the only option left to us to explore. Perhaps far on the eastern seaboard, in the remotest regions where the tribespeople are few and far between, there may be an oasis of sanity. One can only hope.”

“But we cannot know,” James said bluntly. “This is pure conjecture upon which to base a hazardous journey across inhospitable lands, taking who knows how many months, with an old woman and three young children in tow.” James shook his head. “But that’s beside the point. I will not leave my people, Simon. I have a responsibility to them, and I cannot cast that aside, no matter the danger to those of us who know the truth.” He took a deep breath, forcibly burying pessimism beneath a sense of stoic duty. “We can’t give up. It is a setback, yes, that the potion failed. But we must move on; find some other way to beat them. To do otherwise is unthinkable.”

“And the prisoner, my lord?” Simon prompted softly. “What of him?”

A world of misery descended on James; the burden of a leader, which was his alone to bear. “I must do what I must do,” James said. “And may the gods of my ancestors forgive me.”

***

Obsessed by the failure of their plan after James rode away, Blair gazed miserably at the still body of the night terror, which still lay on a piece of sacking on the kitchen table. In death it had the same, innocuous look of any lifeless creature; bereft of animation and totally devoid of threat.

Sighing, he was about to wrap the thing up and take it outside to dispose of it when Rowena dumped a rolled-up cloth bundle down on the table beside it with a thud.

Blair glanced at the thing – it was Rowena’s surgical kit – then over at her quizzically.

She shrugged. “Don’t know when we’ll get another chance to take such a close look at one of these beasts,” she said. She unrolled her kit, and retrieved a sharp looking, delicate knife.

“What are you going to do?” Blair asked.

“I’m going to open it up and see what it’s made of,” she said determinedly. “Let’s find out how it’s put together; whether there’s anything we can learn about why the potion didn’t work.”

Appalled and fascinated in equal measure, Blair could only watch as Rowena got to work.

***

The evidence was damning, and left James with no choice. In council the next day, burying his guilt and despair deep, he passed judgement on the accused before a packed hall. The sentence, of course, was death – his people would accept nothing less.

He could hear some surreptitious mutterings of dissent, however, at the way he ordered it to be carried out – a hanging, quick, clean and merciful. That, seemingly, was too merciful a penalty for the preferences of some.

The prisoner, a man named Gareth, balked at James’ words; his despair that he alone was free of the madness which had overtaken the world, and that this would cause his death, plain to see. Gareth was middle aged; a widower who had lost his wife during the dreadful summer when the night terrors held sway. Something about Gareth drew James’ eye, a subtle quality to his voice, even harsh with stress as it was, which was almost resonant of his guide. That realisation did not surprise James – it seemed to be the case that those with guide gifts, however nascent, oft-times possessed vision to see the truth which was keener than even the most gifted sentinel.

When the trial was over the man was taken, begging and crying, down into a cell to await his fate, which would be carried out at dawn.

Much later, in the dark hours while the castle slept and with Simon running appropriate interference, James put his plan into action. The prisoner rose to his feet, sleepless and trembling, when James entered his cell. “Is it time, my lord?” he said hoarsely, clearly very frightened.

“No,” James told him. “Be at ease, and listen to what I have to say.”

The man subsided, inclining his head respectfully, so James continued. “There is a horse tethered in the copse to the north of the castle walls. There are provisions in the saddle bags, enough to set you on your way, as well as a bag of coins which should buy you lodging throughout the winter; although you will need to find work once they are depleted to support yourself. In a moment I will leave this cell, and the door will remain unlocked. The guards have just gone off duty, and those who are due to replace them have been delayed, but you will need to move quickly if you are to get out unnoticed. I recommend you close and lock the door of this cell behind you when you go, so they do not see that you have departed.”

“Why?” the man gasped. “Why are you doing this?”

James fixed the man with his direct gaze, holding nothing back. “Because, just like you, I know about the night terrors. But I am wise enough not to let that fact be known, hence forcing you to endure that sham of a trial. I strongly suggest, if you wish to live, that you be more circumspect from now on.”

The man looked thunderstruck. “I thought…” he began, swallowing. “I thought I was alone. That I was the only one who remembered the truth. I was beginning to think I’d dreamed it all; that I was going mad!”

“You’re not.” James wished he could assure him of how many of them there were, but to do so would be too hazardous – this way, if Gareth was ever caught, then James alone would take the blame. He had toyed with the notion of sending Gareth to join the others at the estate, but did not want to risk it – Blair’s position, for all that he was most afraid for James’ safety rather than his own, was more precarious than anyone’s, and if Gareth was caught on his way there, with the knowledge of Blair’s location in his grasp, the consequences could be unthinkable. “Ride towards the capital,” James advised. “There are farms there, places where, when spring comes, an extra pair of able-bodied hands will be more than welcome. They might not remember the true reason why, but they lost many people to the night terrors in that region.”

Gareth looked like he was going to cry. “I feared I’d never hear anyone else say those words,” he said. “The night terrors. The night terrors,” he repeated, his voice full of bitter hatred. “They killed our people, and now they are worshipped like gods.” He moved forward and, taking James’ hand in his own, raised it his lips and kissed it. “May the gods of our ancestors bless you, my lord, for this. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

James covered Gareth’s hand with his own. “May they bless us all,” he returned, “but you’re not out of this yet, Gareth.” He let go and stepped toward the door. “Wait for half a minute, no longer, then make your way out. The servants’ entrance, which you can access through the kitchen, is unguarded; and there will be no one on duty at the main gate for another ten minutes. May luck go with you.”

James went back to his chamber, and listened as Gareth slunk out of his cell and found his way furtively out of the castle. He kept listening, tracking the sound of his footsteps across the frozen ground, feeling inexpressible relief when he eventually heard the horse softly nicker at the man’s approach. And he smiled in tired relief when he heard Gareth mount up, and the hooves of the animal thud away into the distance.

Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, James acknowledged gratefully that his plan had gone without a hitch. All was left now was to face the repercussions.

He was under no illusions, however, that it would be possible to do such a thing a second time.

***

Morning came, and with it a heavy snowfall which obliterated all trace of Gareth’s passing, When the snow continued throughout the day, blown into a bizzard by strong winds, it also (to James’ profound relief) eliminated the opportunity for pursuit.

Pandemonium ensued when it was discovered that the heretic, who people had so thirsted to see punished, had disappeared into thin air. The circumstances of his disappearance – in the middle of the night from a locked cell, and with their sentinel baron declaring he had sensed nothing amiss – brought with it dark mutterings about witchcraft.

The snow continued unabated for a week, then another, then another, and the temperature dropped to an unprecedented low, freezing each snowfall into a solid sheet of ice before the next one covered it. Situated close to the mountains as it was the barony was no stranger to the phenomenon, but all agreed, as the drifts deepened and even the road down into the town became virtually impassable, that this was no ordinary snow.

Some began to whisper nervously, then, about divine punishment, declaring that they’d angered the fae by failing to destroy the heretic in their midst. It was increasingly asserted that if more heresy was discovered, then justice would need to be swift, merciless and immediate – wasting time trying such dangerous individuals in the court of the baron was obviously an offense to the fae, and should not be tolerated . And now, since they’d obviously got it so wrong, the blessed creatures needed proof of people’s devotion, lest they withdraw their mercy for good.

Practically overnight altars were erected to the fae, in dwellings and places of public gathering. There were two at the castle itself that James knew of – the largest and most well attended being in the old chapel which once had been consecrated to the gods of their ancestors. Offerings left on the altar there included precious foodstuffs from the winter stores, freshly killed chickens and even, most disturbingly, a cloth soaked in what James deduced unmistakeably to be human blood, which he guessed the donor had drawn from their own body to give to the fae.

At that sickening discovery, James couldn’t help but wonder just how far his people were prepared to go to demonstrate their devotion.

Feeling control of the situation beginning to run thorough his fingers like powdered snow held too long in the hand, James fretted in silence. He was both relieved at every day that passed without further unmasking of heretics, and dismayed by the same thing – because his isolation and Simon’s was never more evident, with fae-worship now practiced openly, and those who failed to revere them sufficiently coming under increasing scrutiny. It was becoming increasingly hazardous for the two of them to remain aloof from it.

In the meantime, there were more mundane worries to deal with. The great freeze meant that they had a crisis on their hands. The store of winter fodder, put aside to supplement the diet of herd beasts during the cold weather, was diminishing far more quickly than anticipated now that there was no grazing to be had in the snow-covered fields. And not only that - there were those amongst the elderly and infirm who were suffering greatly from the cold.  Many had lost able-bodied family members during the summer they’d been decimated by the night terrors, and were now living alone in dire conditions, unable to fend for themselves. Consequently James had his hands full coordinating a community effort to supply fuel for those who needed it, and organising a cull of the proportion of sheep and cattle they did not have enough fodder to feed, followed by distribution of the resulting fresh meat amongst the hungry.

As the weeks of snowbound isolation lengthened, James longed each day to saddle up and ride to Blair, but that was impossible. He no longer suffered any great malaise at their separation, thanks to his ability to block out the sound of the fae, but he missed Blair dreadfully. And most of all, he worried constantly about him and the others, exiled to a remote estate on the moorland in the midst of the worst winter within living memory, at a time when the paranoia and delusion of everyone around them seemed to be growing to unprecedented levels.

It was more than two months before the thaw came, hard-packed ice at long last giving way to slush. The land quickly became waterlogged with snow-melt, pouring down in streams from the mountains to pool in the valley, swelling rivers and tributaries near to bursting their banks. Conditions were treacherous for a while, especially when torrential rain added to the misery.

Word came at last that the road which led to the outlying villages to the north-west was once more passable with care. The notification came in the shape of a lone rider, who came straight up to the castle to beg an audience with the baron on what he professed to be a matter of great urgency.

When word was brought to James that a visitor had arrived, he was busy discussing with Simon the need to drain certain fields so that they could be propagated once more as grazing land. The two of them exchanged a worried look once the guardsman left after delivering his message, and Simon spoke what was utmost on James’ mind. “It is a little early in the year for someone to have travelled from the capital, my lord. I sincerely doubt this is to do with an inspection of Blair’s circumstances.”

“I hope you’re right,” James said. After being apart from Blair for so long he had no idea how his guide fared (other than an inner conviction, borne from their deep link, that he lived), or whether he had continued to keep up the ruse of being a prisoner over the winter months. Despite that, James glanced at Simon worriedly; for someone to risk travelling in the current treacherous conditions, the news was unlikely to be good. “I would be indebted if you would attend me in the hall when I meet our visitor,” he said, shamelessly seeking support. “If this is something serious I would value your counsel right from the start.”

Simon clapped him on the shoulder, their close fellowship even more profound now due to the secret they shared. “I will be glad to, my lord,” he agreed. “Whatever this is about, you can count on me.”

The man who was waiting for them in the hall, which had begun to fill with interested onlookers alerted by the arrival of a stranger in their midst, was no baron’s emissary, that was for sure. Wrapped in the homespun cloak of a simple villager, the man was casting wary glances around the room and fidgeting uncomfortably.  “I would beg your indulgence, my lord,” he pleaded, as soon as James entered the hall to sit before him. He glanced around once more at the burgeoning crowd nervously, then back at James. “I would have you hear this matter in private.”

“That is not the way we usually do business,” James told him, after Simon called loudly and authoritatively for order from the gathering throng. “Matters of counsel are usually heard here in this hall, unless the issue is of an unusually sensitive nature.”

The man did not back down. “I assure you, my lord, this is extremely sensitive.”

Simon stepped forward then. “First, give us your name and tell us from whence you came,” he ordered. “And if the baron is to devote any time to hearing you in private, you must at the very least tell us in brief what your business is about.”

“My name is Donal,” the visitor complied. “I have travelled here from my village, Martcrag, which is high up on the moors. And the audience I request is in connection to heresy, my lord.” At those words the background muttering and shuffling of feet of all present in the hall fell silent.

James and Simon glanced at each other then, bleak understanding passing between them. Martcrag was the village nearest the estate; the place which supplied Blair and the others with food, and from whence they had abducted the hapless fae which had died on Blair’s kitchen table.

His mouth set in a grim line, his heart in his mouth in dread of what this could be about, James acceded. “I will hear you in private, as you ask.”

***

The winter was a long and arduous one for Blair and the others at the estate. Their existence was lonely and tedious at the best of times, with no one but each other for company, their isolation punctuated only by the weekly visits of the carter from the nearby village and the occasional presence of the baron. But the snows, when they came, cut them off even from that.

From the moment their regular weekly delivery from the village ceased completely, they were forced to exist solely on their own stores. Luckily for them they’d made preparations aplenty throughout the year, not having had much else to do in this lonely location other than practice good husbandry. That meant they had accrued decent-sized stores of flour, oats, barley, root vegetables and apples, and their small (though steadily dwindling) herd of livestock kept them supplied with milk, eggs and fresh meat. Fodder for the beasts had come from the haymaking Blair and the boys had done in late summer, and the woodland behind the estate provided a ready store of firewood, the gathering, chopping and stacking of which was a taxing, daily chore that Blair took it upon himself to perform.

It was the little things, the things they could not so easily provide for themselves, which they most missed as winter progressed. The long, dark nights seemed longer and darker when they were forced to ration their dwindling store of candles, and they craved the smaller luxuries which they’d become accustomed to purchasing from the carter: imported spices, aromatic teas, confections and other assorted fripperies. Such modest delights had not only tempted the palate, but given them something different each week to look forward to in the midst of their monotonous and stressful isolation.

Above all, Blair missed his sentinel more than he could say, fretting constantly as winter held them in its grip about how James fared, simultaneously knowing that, in these dire conditions, the baron would wisely refrain from attempting the journey until it was safe to do so. That knowledge did not make his extended separation from James any easier, however. And in large part that was because Blair profoundly feared that he may have doomed them all by certain, irrevocable actions he’d taken at the start of winter.

It had happened in the aftermath of their failed experiment with the potion, when Blair’s miserable pessimism had been alleviated by Rowena’s determination to find out all she could about the single fae they had in their grasp. She had taken the dead creature apart with the minute precision of a watchmaker, painstakingly paring down bone and sinews and dispassionately analysing what was within. And ultimately she had not found any real evidence that the potion had killed it. “Poison usually leaves some sign of its passing behind,” she assured Blair, who watched the operation curiously, though with mild distaste, “but this beast looks healthy through and through.”

They’d discussed after that the reasons why it might have died. In the end Rowena had shrugged. “It might not have been anything to do with the potion at all,” she said. “It could have been something altogether simple. Perhaps the mutton did not agree with it. Or maybe it died of the cold, all alone here in this glass jar.”

Those last few words were like an epiphany for Blair. “It would have been freezing in here last night once the fire died down,” he said. Frowning, Blair remembered the fae little Grace had once captured, which she had placed in a jar like this. It seemed even the child had possessed sense enough to keep her ‘pet’ warm, having thoughtfully provided it with straw for bedding. “Rowena,” Blair continued the thought, “the fae are pack animals. They huddle together for warmth!” He slapped his own forehead in irritation. “How could I be so stupid? At the very least they need insulation against the cold, and in ideal circumstances they need to absorb the body heat of other fae.”

“Seems likely,” Rowena agreed.

In the aftermath of that revelation, Blair became absolutely determined to try it again.

Later that same day, therefore, he found himself back at the burrow – this time alone. Armed with thick, leather riding gloves (a gift to him from the baron early in his captivity, when they had taken to riding out together on the moors) he swallowed down his dread and reached into the burrow to retrieve a baby night terror. But he didn’t stop at one this time – he pulled out three before their fellows inside the burrow began to stir, then galloped back to the estate, with his squirming, shrieking booty in a sack, as if demons from the old legends were on his tail.

Which, he thought to himself wryly as he closed and bolted the door behind him against the rest of the flock, wasn’t all that far from the truth.

With all of them taking refuge once again in the kitchen against the onslaught of tiny, scrabbling claws at the shutters, doors and roof, he and Rowena wasted no time in dosing their three captives with meat infused with the potion. After a short while the scratching noises at the windows and doors ceased. Blair dearly hoped that meant the potion had worked, in that the cries of the bottled fae were no longer audible to the others outside, and that this had caused them to lose interest and fly away.

Straw was procured and deposited into the jar after that, which the creatures immediately burrowed into, causing Bair and Rowena to exchange a triumphant look. Then the jar was placed on the bottom shelf of the pantry – a place free from cold draughts and not prone to dampness, and also away from daylight, which the animals seemed to hate.

The fae survived the night, even during the first truly heavy snowfall of the year, and they survived the next night too. The problem, of course, was that there was no way of knowing whether their voices remained silent (as Robert, in his journal, had theorised, would be the case with just one dose of the potion). Without James there to verify it with his sentinel hearing the creatures were effectively no more than hideous pets, eating up their precious stores and scratching furiously at the glass every time Blair so much as looked at them.

The night after that, Blair dreamed that he was standing on top of a high hill, the whole barony ranged out before him in the valley below. He was clutching something in his hand, so he looked down to find out what it was, opening his fingers to discover a gnarled seed lying in his palm. Knowing somehow that the seed was vitally important, Blair knelt down and dug a hole with his fingers in the mossy ground. Then he planted it, and stood back.

A cloud briefly covered the sun after that, and Blair ducked fearfully when the sound of approaching wings could be heard high above his head. At first, he thought it was the fae but, when he dared to look, he saw that it was actually a huge flock of birds, singing and chirruping tunefully, many of them unfamiliar breeds not seen or heard in the baronies since long before the night terrors obliterated so many, and scared the rest away.

He looked back to where he’d planted his seed then, to see that it had grown into a huge, trailing plant, laden with beautiful, perfumed flowers. It was still growing as he watched, creeping along the ground and down the mountainside, and looking down into the valley he could see it spreading, putting out tendrils like tributaries which blossomed and bloomed as they went.

He heard a beloved voice call his name then, and turned. James was striding towards him through the flowers, with such a look of love and devotion on his face that Blair felt near to tears. “Blair,” James said again as he approached, his voice soft and kind. He reached out to take Blair’s hand in his. “Come on,” he urged. “We’re all waiting for you. Come home, Blair.” Blair could see then that they were in the courtyard of the castle, and that Megan and Rafe were there; Simon too. Gwen’s boys were running around, playing happily in the courtyard with Grace, and Gwen stood to one side, looking a little sad, despite the fond smile she directed at Blair.

There was such a sense of homecoming, of love, safety, and family, that Blair wanted to cry with the joy of it. And perhaps James sensed how overwhelmed Blair was, because the next moment Blair was pulled into his arms and cradled there.

The sensation of strong, loving arms around him was still there when Blair opened his eyes to the frigid, hopeless morning. Then they gradually faded, leaving him alone and bereft in his lonely bed, forced to face yet another day in exile away from his sentinel.

At the magnitude of that loss, Blair wept in truth.

The dream, and the sense memory of phantom arms around him, stayed with Blair all morning, ambushing him at quiet moments as he toiled out in the frigid air. It seemed significant, somehow. As though it was more than a dream; as though it was somehow more like prescience.

He vividly remembered how wonderful it had felt to have James’ hold him so tenderly, and how he’d longed to go home to the castle, where all the people he loved were waiting for him. But, no matter how moved he was by that image, there was one aspect of the dream which lingered even more powerfully: Blair simply could not get the seed itself out of his mind. How it had felt in his palm, the smell of the earth as he buried it, the scent of the flowers which sprang forth as a result. If he closed his hand in a fist, it was as if he could still feel the seed there; as if it was still his to plant.

Something drew him, in the late afternoon, to look once again at the three fae they kept in the stoppered jar. This third day all of the beasts still lived, their tiny chests rising and falling as they slept curled up together in the straw. When night fell they would wake, and Blair would drop in pieces of precious meat for them, seeing in their devouring of it a glimpse of the future; a time when the tasty morsels they gnawed upon would no longer be hand-fed scraps of mutton, but the children of those he loved.

Suddenly it all made sense; the dream, what it meant, and what Blair needed to do.

***

In a private room, with Simon standing guard outside, James heard Donal’s petition.

“If this means my death,” Donal said, clearly very much afraid but standing his ground nevertheless, “I must try to make you see the truth, my lord, for the sake of us all. Please hear me out, and do not pass judgement until I have finished. After that, if you decide to punish me for what I am about to say, at least I can be sure that you’ve given me a fair hearing.”

Both intrigued and consumed with dread, James told him, “Proceed.”

Donal took a deep breath, then asserted boldly, “The world as you know it is a lie. The fae are not benevolent, magical creatures, with the good of us all in mind. They have twisted everyone’s minds to make us believe that to be so.”

Shocked, as this was not what he had expected to hear, James prompted, “And how did you come to this realisation?”

Donal’s hands were shaking, but his voice was firm. “It is enough to know that, despite my initial confusion, my eyes have been opened and I now see the truth. My lord, I beg you to search your memories, and try to remember. The summer before last, there were many deaths. People say it was a plague, but that is not the case. Please, try to remember, my lord. There were creatures, fearsome beasts, which nearly killed us all. I came here to this castle as a refugee, as did many others. And along with everybody else I stood here with you on the battlements, ready to fight them.”

James had monitored the man as he spoke, seeking evidence that this was a trap. He found no such thing – despite clearly being terrified of what James might do to him for his admission, Donal was telling the truth. A brave man and a foolish one, to risk his life so recklessly by marching straight up to the baron to confess his heresy.

It was time to put him at ease. “You speak of the night terrors,” James said. “I know the truth, Donal. Like you, I remember.”

“Please, do not toy with me, my lord,” Donal begged. “I hoped that the madness had lifted not just from me, but from others as well. But I heard many people bless themselves in the name of the fae as I made my way through the town. How can it be that you alone here have been spared?”

“I assure you,” James told him sincerely, “I mean every word. The fae are the offspring of the full-grown beasts, and they have warped everybody’s minds to make them forget and to force people to nurture them. I… I learned this some time ago, after being initially deceived, like yourself. I’ve known the truth for some time now.”

“Then why have you not acted?” Donal implored. “The people trust you! They will listen to you! You, my lord, are our only hope – your sense of fairness is legendary, which is why I came here to see you, hoping that if you believed me you would speak reason so that people will listen.”

James smiled sadly. “When you still believed the lie, would you have listened? Or is it not more likely that you would have declared me heretic, and clamoured for my death?”

Donal shook his head miserably. “May the old gods forgive me, I would have condemned you. And yet somehow we recovered, as did you. The same must be possible for others. We cannot be the only oasis of sanity in the world, I refuse to believe it.”

“What do you mean by ‘we’?” James queried.

Donal glanced sidelong at the baron then, as if judging whether he could truly trust him. Then he apparently decided he could, because he answered, “Everyone in my village, my lord. Well, almost everyone – there are still two staunch fae worshippers who refuse to believe the evidence of their own eyes. But the vast majority of us, at any rate, have reclaimed our memories and our wits. Some people have since confessed they knew the truth all along, but were afraid to speak out.”

This was momentous news. “Your entire village has come to its senses? When did this happen, and how?”

Donal shook his head. “It happened gradually over the winter. I do not know what caused it. I just thank the gods of our ancestors that we are under their sway no longer.”

“Maybe the same will happen here,” James speculated. “Maybe their influence is beginning to wear off.” But he had to admit that recent events suggested otherwise; fae worship had reached an almost fever-pitch both in the castle and in the town, making his position and Simon’s daily more hazardous.

Something niggled at James’ memory, then; the failed experiment they had conducted with an abducted fae, dosed with a potion to try to take away its voice. What if Blair had found a way to make it work, and had taken steps to silence the local burrow? The more James dwelled on that, the more he suspected that it was no coincidence that Martcrag was the nearest village to the estate.

“I will ride out with you to your village,” James declared after a moment’s thought. “My seneschal, who I trust with my life – for like you and I, he is free of the affliction – will ride with us. And I swear to you, Donal,” James assured the man, “your bravery in coming here to speak to me like this will find its own reward, because something tells me that what happened at your village will pave the way toward sanity for all.”

***

Grief hung like mist over the estate by the time the thaw eventually came. A loss too great to be borne, yet they had no choice but to bear it as pragmatically as they had borne everything else.

The morning after Rowena’s passing Blair went out to dig her grave, his hands blistered and sore ere it was even begun, the ground still partially frozen yet mercifully giving way under the spade with a partial willingness which would have been completely lacking before the snows melted. Gwen, coming out at mid-morning to see how Blair was getting on, remarked, “Considerate of Mam to leave it until now. Timing was never her strong point in the past – funny how she finally got it right in the end.”

“How can you joke about it?” Blair asked, his eyes shadowed with pain.

Gwen shrugged, but her eyes, red from sorrow and lack of sleep, softened all the same. “Mam would’ve joked about it, for sure,” she said. “You know what she was like; always ready with a sarcastic comment.” She put out an arm from under her cloak to draw Blair close. “She cared very much for you, you know,” she said. “She wouldn’t want to make this harder for you than it already is.”

“Why not?” Blair murmured against Gwen’s hair. “That never stopped her before.” His breath hitched a little as he spoke.

Gwen patted him on the back gently. “There you go, Blair. Now you’re getting it,” she said. “Mam would be proud.”

Left alone to finish the job, Blair took out his frustrations on the hard-packed earth, every shovelful siphoning off just a little of his bewildered rage. He’d been at Rowena’s bedside when she passed and, in her own inimitable way, she had found a way to needle him one last time. “You old shrew,” Blair grumbled out loud, standing hip-deep in the grave. “Gwen’s wrong – your timing is awful. Leaving it until you were on your deathbed to tell me you were my grandmother, for example.” He jabbed at the earth violently, then leaned his whole weight on the spade to cut into the clay. “What were you thinking?” he demanded of the air.

Rowena had weakened fast once the illness took her, right in the midst of winter, yet she’d permitted neither Blair nor Gwen to give her any aid beyond seeing to her comfort, declaring herself the expert in such matters. “This is not something that can be cured,” she’d insisted. “And don’t even think of trying to send word to the baron in these conditions. Not even his fancy barber-surgeon has the skills to perform miracles, so all your efforts would come to naught.” They’d been forced to watch, therefore, as she steadily deteriorated, impotent to do anything but weather her cranky rebuttals and try as best they could to make her comfortable and ease her pain.

Then, in her final hours, she’d confessed something which Blair still found it hard to take in, for all that it had the bright ring of truth.

“It’s like I knew,” Blair muttered now, his breath turning to fog in the frigid air. “Like I always knew.” He gave the earth a particularly forceful jab. “Now I completely understand why my mother ran away, Rowena,” he gritted out through clenched teeth, his hands smarting afresh. “If you were even half so infuriating back then, I’d have done the same!”

Last night, as Blair had sat vigil in the dark hours to give Gwen time to get some rest, Rowena’s dull, pain-filled eyes had filled with sudden light. “You’ve got the Sight, Blair, like me,” she’d said. “Now the Sight has shown me that all will be well. The winter is passing, and it’s time for spring - the new year is begun, and the world will be free of the darkness forever.” Her voice took on a conspiratorial edge, a half-whisper. “It’s time to tell you my secret, while I still can.”

Thinking that she was merely rambling a little in her infirmity, Blair attempted to soothe. “Be at ease,” he murmured. “Hush, now.”

“I will not hush!” Rowena’s characteristic fire made a swift reappearance. “I might be dying, child, but my mind is still intact. Try listening for once with something other than your big, deaf lugs!”

Chastened and not a little put-out, Blair looked over, to find her direct – and entirely cogent - gaze fixed upon him. “I’m sorry,” he said, grieved afresh by the sight of her hollow cheeks and terrifying frailty. “What is it that you want to tell me?”

Rowena sighed tiredly. “You’re not the only one who’s sorry, Blair,” she replied. And then she’d dropped the bombshell he’d never expected, which had nevertheless failed to surprise him at all. And, shortly afterwards, seemingly at peace and somehow free of pain now she’d let go of her burden, she’d breathed her last.

“Old harridan,” Blair muttered now bitterly, shovelling the last bit of dirt out of the grave. “Always needing to have the last word!”

A short while after that he tenderly carried her out, her body sewn neatly by Gwen into a sheet, her dead weight as light as a feather. They buried her together, he Gwen and the boys. And later that night, when the children slept, he held Gwen while she wept for her mother, not yet having found the courage to let his aunt in on his grandmother’s secret.

He reserved his own grieving for another time.

***

Having spent the night in the village of Martcrag, James and Simon rode early the next morning to the estate, arriving a little after dawn.

Smoke from the chimneys indicated that the residents were awake and had lit the kitchen fire, yet the shutters remained closed. Vigilance was apparently still in force, however, even this early in the morning, because in short order the front door opened, revealing Gwen wrapped in a thick shawl against the cold, looking a little anxious at who might have disturbed their early morning peace.

As soon as she saw who it was, her face broke out into a wide grin. “Jem, run up and tell Blair it’s all right!” she called over her shoulder to her oldest son. “It’s the baron! And my lord seneschal, as well!”

Invited by Gwen’s beckoning gesture, James and Simon made their way inside. James watched longingly as Blair, who had apparently concealed himself upstairs after hearing their horses clatter into the yard, made his way down to meet them in the hall, his eyes fixed on James all the while. He’d shaved off the beard he’d accumulated before winter set in, and looked, to James’ hungry eyes, utterly wonderful.

With an audible breath of profound relief Blair stepped right into James’ waiting arms. They held each other tight, the sentinel filling his lungs with the delicious scent of his guide. “I missed you so much,” James murmured.

“I missed you, too.” Blair was clinging to him as though he’d never let go.

Abruptly, James became aware that Blair was battling to subdue some strong emotion. “What’s wrong?” he murmured.

But Blair shook his head in negation, seemingly mastering himself by a great effort of will. “I can’t talk about it now,” he said softly, pulling out of James’ embrace. He smiled, a congenial mask slipping into place but not quite hiding the sorrow behind his eyes. “I’m so pleased you’re here,” he said, nodding a welcome at Simon also. “It’s really good to see you both. Come on, let’s sit down. There’s water on the boil for tea. We’re close to running out but we still have enough leaves for a morning cup or two.” And so saying, he led the way into the kitchen.

There, upon learning of the tragedy which had so recently befallen them, James offered his sympathies to Gwen and the boys wholeheartedly. He did not miss the sad, distant look in Blair’s eyes as he did so, and wondered if the old hedge-guide might have at last broken her silence about the truth of Blair’s lineage. However none of them spoke of it and so James held his peace, resolving to wait until they were alone to find out what troubled Blair so deeply, and to offer what comfort he could.

The day having dawned dry, the children hared off shortly after that to play outside, and Gwen gave a rueful grin as they clattered out of the door. “Excited though we all are to see you, they’ve been cooped up in here too long over the winter. Like caged wild animals, they’ve been.”

Blair was very quiet as he brewed and poured tea for them all, his obvious delight at seeing James after so long a separation tempered by the darker emotions which so clearly plagued him. Gwen was noticeably grieving too, although her naturally optimistic disposition shone through as she pottered around serving them a breakfast of warm bread fresh from the oven, and bowls of plain porridge.

At last, the initial pleasantries over and the modest repast mostly depleted, James caught Blair’s attention across the table. “Simon and I have just been to the village of Martcrag,” he informed him. “We were summoned there by one of the villagers.”

Blair paled. “What has happened?” he asked, his dread plain to see.

His reaction answered part of James’ question, at least. “Blair, what did you do?”

Blair briefly covered his face with one hand, as if in dismay, then looked back at James. “Rowena and I… we discovered shortly after you left that the fae you and I captured had died of the cold, not from the potion. I rode out again that day and took more fae; three of them, so they could keep each other warm. We bedded them down in straw, dosed them, and they survived.” 

“And then?” James prompted. 

“And then I took it upon myself to travel to the burrow, just after the snows came, to dose the rest of them,” Blair confessed.

The conditions then would have been unspeakable, and such a journey hazardous in the extreme. “You did this in the midst of the snowfall? You alone?” James couldn’t help but ask, incredulously.

Misreading the question – which was more to do with how he had managed such a thing and survived it than any statement of censure – Blair fell immediately into defensive apology. “I know I should not have acted as I did without first consulting you and obtaining your agreement,” he said, avoiding James’ eyes. “I know it was a presumptuous risk. But you were not here, and there was no way to speak to you until the thaw. So yes, I took it upon myself. The responsibility for how I acted is mine, and mine alone.” Blair looked at James then, clearly very worried. “If I’ve doomed us all by my actions, I will never forgive myself, and I will ask no forgiveness of you.”

James shook his head, refuting the apology. “Forgiveness is unnecessary, although I admit I am not at all happy that you put yourself in such a hazardous position, and I will have words with you later about that.” James reached one hand across the table to take Blair’s in his, stilling the nervous fidgeting of his guide’s fingers. “Blair, listen to me,” he said. “It worked!”

“It… worked,” Blair repeated dully, as though the words meant nothing to him. Then he went very still. “What do you mean?” he whispered.

James squeezed Blair’s hand tight, compelling his attention. “The village is clear of the influence of the night terrors,” he said. “You did it, Blair! You silenced the beasts, and now the villagers have regained their memories.”

Blair appeared stunned. Then he blinked, a glint of hope, akin to that which had consumed James ever since Donal had brought the news, banishing the lingering sadness in his eyes. “It worked,” Blair echoed once more, a smile lighting up his face. Then grinning from ear to ear he leapt to his feet and rounded upon Gwen, who was standing beside the stove, watching them in stunned silence. “It worked!” Blair repeated again, grabbing her around the waist and twirling her around and around. “We did it! We did it, Gwen!”

James grinned at Simon, who was seated at the other side of the table, looking equally as delighted by Blair’s reaction as he himself.

A real sense of hope for the future, the like of which he’d thought he would never feel again, took root inside James at that moment.

***

James, Blair and Simon rode out toward the village after breakfast, all of them eager for Blair to see the results of his handiwork. Along the way, Blair started to relate the tale of his extraordinary act to James and Simon, which they listened to, mouths agape in wonder.

Blair would never have believed, several years ago when he was an Academy guide, that he would one day embark upon a hazardous journey in the midst of a harsh winter to do something which might damn them all because of a dream. But two months previous, with snow lying deep upon the frozen ground and more already falling, he had found himself compelled to do exactly that.

 

The need to act immediately had been, in the immediate aftermath of his strange dream, so imperative that Blair had put aside all consideration of danger, except where such thoughts would ensure his survival. He had been forced to make the trip on foot because the snow was too deep for a horse to traverse. This meant, of course, that it was also too deep for him – therefore he had been obliged to manufacture a way to make navigating it possible.

Putting the woodworking skills he had developed during his long sojourn into good use, Blair fashioned footwear for himself; wide, flat, boat-shaped pieces of wood which he secured to a pair of old, oversized boots, lined with fur. They would distribute his weight across the surface of the snow, he’d reasoned, thus preventing him from sinking in the deep drifts. And he found, additionally, when trying them out in the yard, that their polished surface had a further benefit. If he pushed himself along with a pair of stout walking sticks (which were themselves fitted with a modification on their base to prevent them from poking through the surface) his odd footwear glided across the snow, propelling him swiftly onwards.

It was only when he and Rowena had prepared the potion-tainted meat to be deposited at the burrow that Blair began to feel any doubt. “What if I’m wrong?” he worried out loud. “We’re taking a huge chance, here.”

Rowena, as always before they’d been so sadly deprived of her wisdom, had been the voice of reason – although the reason she posited would, in his former life in the capital, have seemed like madness to Blair. “You have the Sight,” Rowena told him. “And it has shown you the way. Why doubt yourself now?”

“You have the Sight too,” Blair pointed out. “Do you think this will work?”

Rowena had taken his face between her gnarled hands, at that. “I saw long ago,” she told him earnestly, in a startlingly tender voice, “that you had a part to play in ending the darkness.” She let go of him, and went back to her task. “I’ve never been wrong before,” she said gruffly. “I’m not about to start now!”

So it was, the following day, that Blair had set out, towing the supplies he would need behind him on a makeshift sledge. He’d left at first light, shortly after the most recent snow shower eased, but he progressed headlong into another heavy snowfall before he was long on the road.

In the end it was more by luck than design that Blair found his way. Familiar landmarks had all-but been obliterated, and the continuing snowfall made it difficult to maintain a sense of direction. The gods of his ancestors must have been with him, however when, sweat-soaked, exhausted and aching in every muscle, he eventually found himself in the proximity of the burrow close to sundown. It had taken the whole day to get there, the atrocious weather making it a laborious journey, when in fair conditions it was normally no more than an hour away on horseback.

The flock would shortly be taking flight so, accordingly, Blair was forced to go to ground until morning. Afraid that a fire would alert the beasts (or a curious villager) to his presence, Blair huddled under the bare-limbed shelter of a nearby copse of trees, shivering with cold now the warmth of exertion had departed, wrapped in the multiple furs and blankets he had brought with him. He spent the long, desperately frigid night wide awake and vigilant, cringing at the proximity of the night terrors, dreading at any moment that they might come upon him en-masse. He knew he would have little defence against them if they did.

Luckily for him, morning dawned without incident. He waited until the wintry sun was well established in the sky, a white, ethereal globe shining through the freezing fog for a little while before black clouds all-but obliterated it altogether. Then, his breath condensing in the freezing air, Blair set about the business of coaxing cramped limbs to mobility and completing his task.

Nothing stirred at the burrow when Blair arrived there, the creatures presumably sleeping soundly after another night of gorging on the generous bounty of the villagers. Blair unwrapped the packages of food he and Rowena had prepared, the lumps of meat, gristle and bone half-frozen in the frigid air. These he set about pushing deep inside the burrow to ensure that the fae would discover the repast first, and not some passing, hungry fox or other carnivorous creature. There was a generous amount of it, which had eaten dangerously into their winter provisions, because Blair did not want to take the chance that there would be insufficient amounts of potion for each and every fae that lived here.

Then, his mission complete, he had set off on the laborious journey home.

“The snow kept off for the first hour of the trip,” Blair told James and Simon as the three of them rode the path he had taken in his tale together, “although it started up again not long after that.” He pointed over to a copse of trees. “Over there, that’s where I left my sledge. I knew without it I’d be able to go faster.” 

James squinted in the direction Blair was pointing. “I can see it,” he said. “You concealed it under fallen branches?”

Blair nodded. “It was a risk,” he admitted. “I knew, after I did that, that I had to get home. All the extra furs and blankets I’d brought with me were left behind with the sledge, so I wouldn’t have survived another night in the open.” He shuddered. “One was bad enough.”

James reached over and took Blair’s hand in his. James’ hand felt soft against Blair’s work-worn calluses, his touch gentle. “You are a remarkable man, my guide,” he said, admiration in his voice.

Embarrassed but pleased all the same, Blair shrugged. “No more remarkable than you, my sentinel!”  

Simon’s indulgent, deep throated chuckle at their affectionate antics reminded them that they were not alone, so with meaningful smiles, promising that more would be said later, they let their joined hands separate. But they rode knee-to-knee thereafter.

A short while later they rode up to the burrow. Dismounting, Blair regarded the blackened mound of earth with wonder. “What happened to it?” he asked.

James came to stand beside him. “The villagers came out here a month ago, determined to get rid of the beasts once and for all. It seems the fae had continued to visit the village every night, but since people recovered their wits and stopped putting food out for them they became increasingly vicious and unpredictable, even trying to get into houses.” He stirred the charred earth with the toe of his boot. “They filled the burrow with wood and set it alight, then blocked the entrance apart from a small vent to keep the fire going. Any fae that tried to squeeze out through it were beaten to death.”

Blair could well understand the pent-up rage which had led to such an act of savagery, but the destruction of the burrow and the fae who lived there was a dangerous thing to do, nevertheless. “If anyone saw what they’d done here…” he began.

There was no need for him to continue, because James and Simon understood full-well. “We’ll just have to make sure that never happens,” James said grimly.

They rode on after that to the village itself. Blair felt nervous and jittery as they approached, his long-established exile making the thought of meeting anyone other than his close circle strange and uncomfortable, his gut clenching with the certainty of ambush.

And ambush was what he met, though not of the kind he’d feared. The moment the three of them rode into the village a clarion-call went up. “It’s the baron! And his guide!” And Blair found himself suddenly at the centre of a crowd who clearly regarded him as some kind of hero.

James did not help allay that perception when he addressed them all, telling them what Blair had done in the most flattering terms. Blair would have wanted to hide from the attention that resulted, were it not for his sincere pleasure at the relief so many of his well-wishers obviously felt. Some of them had lost loved ones to the night terrors, and were aghast at how the creatures had twisted their minds despite that loss. And many, like Blair himself, were horrified at how far the madness had spread, and fearful of their precarious position in a world which would regard them as dangerous heretics, if anyone but knew what had occurred here.

Eventually, as the day wore on, James took Blair aside and pulled him into his arms. “I have to go,” he said. “When Donal announced to the hall he had come to speak to me about heresy, the tongues started to wag immediately. I am afraid if I stay away longer the townsfolk will march out to Martcrag en-masse to root out whatever evil has detained me.”

Blair had desperately hoped James would stay with him for at least one night – instead of riding back with James he would now need to turn in the opposite direction to that of his sentinel and go back to the estate alone. “I had wished to work with you on your senses,” he said. “It’s been so long since I’ve done so, and you must be sorely in need.”

James smoothed a hand lovingly over Blair’s hair and kissed him gently. “Just being with you has already set me right,” he said. “I feel better now than I have all winter.”

Understanding their time was brief, Blair swallowed down the many things he wished to say to James in private, and got down to the matter at hand. “So what will we do now? The village is free, but what of the town?”

James shook his head in frustration. “There is no single place where the fae gather - no one, main burrow we can dose. I cannot see how we can make all of them take the potion, when the fae are in the eaves of every building, and fae-worship is at an all-time high.” James had appraised Blair earlier of how actively people now revered the fae, and about the situation he’d found himself in with Gareth. “I’ve already had one heretic brought before me. I have no doubt it will happen again, and that the next time I will be expected to act swiftly and brutally. The danger to those of us whose eyes are open has never been greater.”

A germ of an idea planted itself in Blair’s mind at James’ words, rather like the miraculous seed of his dream. “James, what if a directive to feed the potion to the fae was put to the people as an act of worship?” The idea sprang into full-bloom. “You said that it was a lean winter, and that the townsfolk have barely enough food in store to feed themselves. What if, as their devout baron, you were to distribute special food specifically for the fae, and thus release the burden upon them to provide for the creatures?”

“Food tainted with the potion, made as an offering to entice the bounty of the fae back to us?” James mused. “Thus demonstrating my own faith publicly, and giving the true fae worshippers a chance to do the same.” He paused, thoughtful. “It could work, as long as everyone complies with it.”

“You could make it illegal not to,” Blair told him. “Anyone who doesn’t make the prescribed offering to the fae will be charged with heresy.”

James’ expression was thoughtful. “I never thought to style myself a priest of the fae. If such a thing proved to be instrumental in their downfall, what delicious irony!” Then he frowned. “The only problem is, where will we get sufficient meat for this offering? We’ve been stripped bare of excess this winter.”

“Pardon me, my lord.” A voice intruded – Donal, who had been standing nearby conversing with Simon. “I apologise for interrupting, but I think we can help with that.” As Blair and James turned to look at him, he went on, “We had a lean winter here too, and even when we were still blinded by the vile things, we were forced to conserve what livestock we had left. They prefer meat, but we found that they’ll take anything – grain, barley, you name it, they’ll eat it. We have plenty of grain left, thanks to the good harvest we had, and I’m sure your lordship has stores in the granary up at the castle. Between us we might be able to come up with enough to dose them all.”

“And if we are doing it as an offering, something different, something we can call ‘blessed, magical grain’, that makes it more meaningful, doesn’t it?” Blair said, excited by the prospect. “A handful apiece for each citizen, as part of a religious rite, offered up to the fae on the same day.”

“Thus ensuring that they all get dosed at once.” James looked once more at Blair. “If this works, if we can rid our own barony of the fae, what then?”

“Then,” Blair said, not entirely without irony, “we save the world! But let’s take it one step at a time, shall we?” Then he sobered a little, looking around at the faces of the villagers; all of them clearly haunted by their experience, yet relieved beyond bearing to be free. “I only wish Rowena was here to see this,” he said regretfully. “None of it could have happened without her.”

James pulled Blair close. “Maybe, given her gift of Sight, she already did see it,” he said simply.

“Perhaps,” Blair allowed. And once again he thought of his dream, and of the seed he’d sown, and for the first time felt true hope that they might prevail.

***

Thus it was that James returned to the town, where he made a proclamation that very day in the town square. “The blessed fae must be appeased,” he told the gathering. “The harsh winter was a sign of their displeasure, and so to regain their favour we must prove ourselves worthy of their bounty.”

It was clear that he’d hit the right note, as there was much nodding of heads at that, the crowd murmuring their approval. Encouraged, James continued. “I have just returned from visiting the village of Martcrag, which has suffered severe flooding this winter. Yet despite their hardship a miracle has occurred, and I witnessed the result. Their common store of food was ruined by the floods, yet their grain alone was spared.

“The villagers of Martcrag are amongst the most devout I have ever encountered,” he went on. “They believe the fae spared their grain because they have worked assiduously to stamp out all heresy in their midst. This grain, I believe, is itself sacred. It is evidence that the blessing of the fae can be redeemed, a reward for true devotion. And it is time, my people, for us to follow in the example of the villagers of Martcrag, and prove ourselves worthy too.”

All faces were turned to James, the light of religious fervour in their eyes. James could see that they were hanging on his every word, so he got to the crux of the matter. “As a mark of their further devotion, the villagers of Martcrag wish to make a sacrifice of their precious grain. Several days hence, the villagers will deliver a cartload to us, so that we may make an offering of it and thereby prove beyond a doubt our own love of and devotion to the fae. This grain will likewise be distributed amongst the other outlying villages and isolated farmsteads, along with the proclamation I am about to make.”

“May the fae bless you for this, my lord,” someone shouted from the crowd, “and the village of Martcrag, too!” Others echoed the call, their excitement palpable, though they hushed quickly enough when James held up a hand for peace, clearly eager to hear more.

The silence which followed was profound and pregnant with anticipation. “Every citizen,” James declared into that rapt hush, “every single man, woman and child, will be issued a handful of the blessed grain. And everyone is hereby commanded to serve this up as an offering to the fae that very night. Every single fae must be made an offering of the grain, by each one of you, without exception.”

James paused for dramatic effect, before he intoned in a voice laden with doom, “Anyone who fails to make this observance risks incurring the displeasure of the fae. Furthermore, the grain you are given is to be consumed by the fae alone, on pain of instant retribution. Anyone who fails to heed these commands will be declared heretic, and justice will be swift and decisive.”

The raucous cheers and chants of “Kill the heretics!” which resounded, from the mouths of adults and children alike, chilled James to the bone. In that moment it became clear to him exactly how assiduously those who worshipped the fae hungered for the blood of non-believers.

***

The road between the town and the moorland now being passable again, steps were taken to gather the ingredients which were needed to make more of the potion.

It was necessary to buy in considerable bulk. Simon took it upon himself to source the expensive powdered farrow they required, because whilst the merchant in town who stocked it might be somewhat curious about why he needed so much, the fact that it was being purchased by the baron’s seneschal and not someone of lesser means would be likely to attract fewer questions. In the meantime some of the Martcrag villagers themselves travelled into town in twos and threes to purchase other necessities – all bought with the baron’s coin, of course. These items were all transported to Blair at the estate, where he and Gwen got on with the business of manufacturing enough potion to silence every single night terror in the barony.

For Blair and the others, who had been living in isolation for so long, suddenly having the villagers dipping in and out of their lives was rather like coming out of a different kind of long, dark winter. Blair had not consciously acknowledged how much he’d despaired of his isolation until he suddenly found himself in the company of other people whose memories were likewise untainted by the poison of the night terrors. It was an extraordinarily wondrous thing, he found, to be no longer so alone in the world.

Once the potion had been manufactured, all that was left was for the grain to be soaked in it. Utilising the help of a cart from the ever-amenable villagers, Blair, Gwen and the boys delivered the jars they’d concocted to the village. There the liquid was thoroughly mixed in with the grain, which was packed in sacks and piled on several carts to take to the town. When all was ready Blair watched the carts leave, wishing with all his heart he could go too.

Despite the excited anticipation that abounded after the tainted grain was on its way, there was a considerable amount to worry about as well. The transition from madness to sanity in the village had not gone easy. People had recovered their memories at different rates, and the realisation that they had been living a lie was still nigh-on impossible for some to come to terms with. Three people had committed suicide over the winter, and another two had effectively gone mad, still professing to revere the fae despite being faced with the incontrovertible truth.

Among the bulk of the villagers there was a palpable undercurrent of distress and fear, which Blair well understood. He’d had a considerable time to come to terms with living in a world where he was one of a very small minority of people who saw things as they truly were. The villagers, on the other hand, had only recently found themselves in that position, and the knowledge that they would now be regarded as dangerous heretics if their secret got out was not an easy thing for them to bear. They were clearly frightened for themselves and for their families; terrified that they would be unmasked by some outside force and condemned.

If the plans they had set in motion came to fruition, the same thing would happen in the town and surrounding areas as well, and the probability of mass hysteria and panic, as the effects of the night terrors began to wear off, was very real. The village of Martcrag had weathered the ordeal as well as it had because it was a close-knit, small community, which had been isolated from the outside world in the midst of a fierce winter as it recovered. The same thing would not be true of the rest of the barony.

Watching Gwen’s boys now in the aftermath of the carts’ departure, as they played enthusiastically with several boys of a similar age in the village, Blair smiled indulgently. It warmed Blair’s heart to see their isolation coming to an end. But, despite his joy at such a thing, Blair knew that the peace of this small hamlet was entirely transitory.

At that very moment they all stood in the eye of the storm.

 ***

The storm, when it hit, was a devastating one indeed.

Handfuls of the tainted grain were apportioned out to the townsfolk and, with the help of devout volunteers, distributed throughout the wider barony. On the designated night at sunset the grain was put out in dishes for the fae to feast upon, the solemnity with which it was offered indicative of the deeply-held delusions of the populace. That there might be some rare, secretive few amongst them who were unbelievers made no difference; the threat of censure for heresy had long-since proved to be a powerful motivator towards conformity – hence the reason people like them had remained alive for so long.

James had been concerned that, with local granaries depleted after the long winter, some folk might furtively consume the grain themselves, and thereby suffer ill-effects from the potion. But dedication to the Ritual of Offering, as it became known for ever after, seemed to have firmly gripped the hearts and minds of the people, such that (as far as James could tell) every single citizen of the town went out of their way to prove their devotion to the fae by doing exactly what he had ordered. He could only hope that the same assiduousness held sway in the outlying areas.

Acting the part of the diligent priestly leader, James gave a performance better than any solstice mummer on the night of the offering, all the better to surreptitiously lead his people along the path to sanity. Simon, as ever, stood steadfast by his side, both of them relieved past bearing that James was able to confirm, in very short order, that the potion had immediately started to work. Certainly, by the following morning, all creatures he could perceive in the vicinity of the town and the castle had fallen silent.

Over the next few days James and Simon traversed the wider barony, and established that the silencing had taken hold everywhere, and that it continued to hold. And after that they waited tensely, watching for the signs of returning sanity.

The first clear indications came after mere days, evident in furtive, fearful faces and whispered conversations, and also in a manic resurgence of religious fervour amongst those who tried desperately to cling to their illusions.

Tasked to be vigilant with regard to those who lived and worked at the castle, Simon brought one, then two, then, over the next few days, a dozen guardsmen and other trustworthy folk before James; men and women who had quickly regained their memories, and who James now urgently pressed into service. This period of transition was a dangerous time indeed, and James needed those he could trust to watch for others to bring back into the fold, as well as to work to keep order and allay panic.

That need to establish strong control of law and order was never more evident as time progressed. James’ darkest fears were recognised during the very first week, when a woman was stabbed to death by her own, still affected husband. When the murderer was subsequently brought up before the baron he confessed outright, professing pride at ridding the world of a heretic.  James had no recourse but to imprison him until he came to his senses.

That tragedy, and the potential for others, forced the baron to take immediate, decisive action. Still playing the part of devout leader, he demanded that every single unmasked heretic should be brought before him for punishment, on pain of death if vigilante justice was brought to bear instead. And when such heretics were brought to his notice, he gave each and every one of them sanctuary in the guise of imprisonment.

Three days after he’d issued that order, the man who had killed his wife was found dead in his cell, his throat raggedly torn open by a self-inflicted wound, with the words ‘forgive me’ scrawled in his own blood on the floor beside him. It seemed his memory had finally returned – albeit too late to save either his wife or the man himself, who had perished at his own hand, unable to live with his grief and remorse.

As he looked at the bloodied body of the man, twisted in the anguish of death, James painfully recalled his own ill-treatment of Blair, at a time when he’d been similarly deceived by the creatures. Pity and sorrow filled him, and he fervently hoped that the poor wretch would find peace and a measure of forgiveness in the arms of the gods of his ancestors.

As days extended to weeks, James longed to have his guide by his side with all his heart, but he did not dare summon him home just yet, understanding that, until matters settled, he was far safer at the estate. Likewise, he did not feel able to take the time just yet to pay Blair a visit, afraid of what might happen in his absence while the situation was still so volatile.

To oversee the recovery of the outlying areas, James had posted guardsmen and other trusted emissaries who had shaken off the faes’ influence out throughout the barony, and according to their regular reports the story was the same there as in the town. Recovery was patchy, and maintaining order and allaying panic was a challenging task indeed, especially when those who clung to their delusions were willing and intent upon violence, even against their own loved ones. It was a measure of how tirelessly they all worked to keep matters contained, that the inevitable tragedies which took place were not more plentiful. Despite that there were several more murders, and suicide became an almost daily occurrence. It was a dark and fearful time, and sometimes James despaired of seeing an end to it.

But gradually and inexorably the tide began to turn, with people talking more openly now - albeit still a little guardedly - about the night terrors and what they remembered. The balance of James’ response shifted along with the pace of recovery, so that people imprisoned for ‘heresy’ began to be set free, and those whose recovery was less swift or denial exceptionally strong, and who were intent upon brutally enforcing their beliefs, confined in their place.

It was at that time that James stood on a cart in the market square to address the townsfolk directly, his guardsmen standing by to intercept any die-hard fae-worshipper who might take it into their head to attack the baron as he spoke. He ensured as he did so that the people understood the sacrifice his own guide had made. “At the height of my madness, I almost caused his death in the most awful of ways. Yet even though he has suffered, he has worked tirelessly ever since to find a way to make the night terrors release their grip on us. He has succeeded, and this is why you have your memories back.”

A cheer went up from the crowd – those who had regained their faculties well-remembered the bravery of the baron’s guide. He’d been popular with James’ people before the madness came, and the fact that he had now freed them from the grip of the night terrors elevated him to the clear status of hero.

Yet a minority amongst them cast their eyes furtively about the assembled, muttering darkly under their breath about heresy, and how the guide was a witch. James, with his exceptional hearing, clearly detected them, and at a nod, guardsmen moved in. Twelve people were arrested, the recovered townsfolk actively helping to point them out, and they were taken away to be detained at the castle until they came to their senses.

Now that James had informed the townsfolk of the source of their madness, vigilante justice turned immediately against the creatures themselves. As soon as James’ speech concluded, the fury and resentment of the duped townsfolk came to the fore. The tiny fae would not be permitted to live in their homes and workplaces for even one second longer. Consequently the animals were torn from their hiding places in the eaves of houses and other buildings, and mercilessly butchered in the streets.

Immediately upon arriving back at the castle, James ordered that the same thing be done there. And for the baby creatures, torn out into the light to be slaughtered, he felt not a shred of pity.

Inevitably James’ thoughts turned, immediately afterwards, to his guide. The time had almost come to summon Blair home, but James had one final duty to perform first. He needed to visit those of his people who had been struggling with recovery at a distance from the town, to address them all as he had the townsfolk, and to let them know the cause of the nightmare they had lived through.

James made plans, therefore, to tour the barony, and to call at the estate on the way back to fetch Blair home. With the barony completely free of the faes’ influence, and with Blair back at his side, perhaps they could begin to consider if there might be a way to spread the tainted grain more widely, and thus bring sanity back to the rest of the land as well. It was an ambitious idea, and one which James had no idea how to accomplish. But he was confident that Blair would help him find a way.

But the day before James’ departure, his plans were abruptly thwarted by the solitary rider who clattered into the castle yard, the horse’s sides heaving with exertion, to inform the baron that he’d left it too late.

***

“A villager from Martcrag is here, my lord,” Simon announced, as James sat at table for the midday meal. The grim set to his face set James’ heart to pounding in concern.

The man, a villager called Michael who James recognised, came forward. “My lord,” he greeted, his eyes wide with worry. He looked around nervously, as if unsure how freely he could speak in front of the other people who occupied the bustling hall – guardsmen, servants and other household staff.

James urged him on. “There is no one in this hall who does not now know the night terrors for what they are,” he reassured. “You are safe to speak freely here. Please, tell me what is wrong.”

Michael nodded, letting go his breath with clear relief. “Your estate on the moors, my lord,” he answered, getting straight to the point without preamble. “There are armed men there. This morning they turned Paul – that’s the carter who does the regular delivery - back on the road. They told him... they told him there was a heretic being kept there. That he should spread the word and tell the rest of us to steer clear.”

“My guide?” James’ mouth was dry. “Gwen, and the boys?”

“Gwen and the lads are safe,” the man told him. “They stayed over in the village last night, and Paul had given them a ride back in his cart early this morning so they didn’t have to walk all the way home. When the soldiers stopped them he turned the cart around and brought them straight back to Martcrag. As soon as we heard the news I came right here to tell you.”

James fervently thanked the gods of his ancestors that Gwen and the boys were unharmed, but he still felt sick with worry. “And Blair?” James prompted, already certain of the answer.

“He was at the estate alone,” Michael confirmed.

Simon interjected, then. “The armed men – what livery did they wear?” he asked. “Did Paul describe them? How many of them were there?”

“I’m sorry,” Michael admitted, looking shamefaced. “I never thought to ask him about any of those things. I just rode here as fast as I could to tell his lordship.”

“You did the right thing,” James reassured him. He took a deep breath consciously accessing the link which bound him to Blair. Then he looked across at Simon. “Blair is alive,” he said, with certainty.

“Unharmed?” Simon asked.

“I can’t tell.” James remembered to his shame that, even on the occasion that Blair had been close to death from the fae bite, he’d been unable to detect it through their link at such a distance, despite the true nature of their pairing. Right now the most he could be certain of, due to his constant awareness of their connection, was that Blair was not dead.

Yet James recalled that he’d had a vision once, a flash of deep insight which had spurred him on to ride to Blair’s rescue, on the occasion that Simon had meant to do harm. He suspected, in retrospect, that he’d somehow accessed his latent gift of Sight to do so. “There may be a way to find out how he fares,” he told Simon, a sense of extreme urgency suffusing him, “but I would need to sit and meditate on it. I fear that time may be short, however, so I do not have the leisure to do such a thing. We must ride there immediately.”

Simon nodded grimly. “I understand. I will get the guards ready. Have no fear,” he added. “We will save him my lord.” James blessed the fact that, even before Simon started to bark orders at them, those amongst his guardsmen who had witnessed Michael deliver his news were already getting ready to ride out to Blair’s defence.

Any further deliberation on the action to be taken was disturbed, however, in the next moment. One of the household guards burst into the hall. “There’s an armed delegation approaching from the north road,” he announced grimly. “Two dozen men, flying mixed baronial colours.”

That explained it, then. With other critical matters to the fore James had stupidly put the threat the back of his mind, and he had no doubt that his guide had done the same. It seemed that the barons had done exactly what, many months ago, they had warned they would do, and had finally sent a delegation to inspect the circumstances of Blair’s incarceration.

They had undoubtedly found it wanting.

***

In the circular cell at the estate, chained by the ankle close to the wall and with his hands bound tightly behind him, Blair regarded his captor balefully through a swelling eye. “How did you get free?” he gasped, his voice betraying the pain of the injuries he’d sustained. The guards who had discovered him, at liberty right out in the open, had been anything-but gentle during his capture.

Lee Brackett, former Master of the Academy, smiled. “I could ask the same of you. We were told that your sentinel cast you off and locked you up here to rot. Yet instead you’re living a life of isolated freedom, like James’ secret catamite.” Brackett shook his head. “You’ll be executed, of course – the terms of your imprisonment have clearly not been adhered to, and it is past time you paid for your heresy and fae-murder. You’ll die tonight, when it is full dark, to enable the fae to come and watch your demise should they wish. The question is, will James die too? Because he’s obviously sanctioned this. How far does his heresy go, I wonder?”

Blair said nothing, the threat to his sentinel filling him with impotent terror.

But Brackett, it seemed, had plenty of words to fill the void. “There’s only you and me here right now, and I’m going to have you muted before you die so I know this won’t go any further. Therefore I will tell you this. Out there,” Brackett indicated the locked door, “I am held in high esteem as a devout fae-worshipper. But I know the truth about the fae, of course, just as you do. The thing is, the story of my ‘guilt’ was dependent upon my accusers having a working memory of the night terrors. After people forgot all about them, it was easy to rationalise my way out of prison and back into favour with Baron Bannister.”

Despite his dread at the threat of muting and death, Blair couldn’t help pointing out, “You were supposed to be muted as part of your punishment. You were supposed to be hanged. How is it you were not?”

Brackett shrugged. “What can I say? Mercy is a virtue highly prized by the Masters who sentenced me. Unluckily for you, it’s a quality I don’t possess.”

“So,” Blair had to ask, “are you still acting entirely on your own behalf? Or on behalf of Baron Bannister?”

“I’m acting on behalf of all the barons. Well, except for one, of course.” Brackett grinned. “After the last baronial convocation – one that your dear sentinel was not invited to - I was accorded the title of Lord Protector of the Fae. I have been tasked to travel the countryside, and seek out and destroy heretics. It is an additional benefit that my work has brought me to you – and James, of course – and so here I am.”

Brackett moved over to the door, and banged on it three times. “But don’t look so worried. You won’t be alone in your suffering as you face the flames,” he said. “One other will share your fate.”

“James,” Blair gasped, terrified that Brackett had captured his sentinel as well.

“No, you imbecile,” Brackett snapped, as the door opened. “Your precious sentinel will be taken to the capital to be judged before the convocation of barons. Unlike you, he’ll be granted a dignified death on the scaffold, being an aristocrat and all.” As he finished speaking a wriggling female bundle, cocooned in sackcloth to her knees, was manhandled inside by a guard. Brackett took charge, manoeuvring the slight-looking captive into the bed as the door closed again. “Easy now, precious,” he crooned, as he took hold of the sackcloth and started to pull it free. “There’s someone here you really want to see.”

Dreading that the woman was Gwen, Blair gasped in surprise as Alicia Bannister was revealed. She was gagged, her eyes wide and her complexion sallow, her hands bound in front of her. She lay passively on the bed, her eyes fixed raptly on Brackett’s face, as he produced a knife and cut her bonds. Then he slipped the gag free and leaned in to kiss her passionately, that lascivious action and her seemingly enthusiastic response so full of wrongness that Blair closed his eyes, sickened.

He snapped them open again when he heard Brackett speak to Alex. “I promised you, sweetheart,” he said. “I promised I’d give you a present, and here he is.”

Alex sat up on the bed and turned her head to regard Blair, before looking back at Brackett. “You found my guide!”

“I promised,” Brackett said again, his finger tracing a tender line down Alex’s cheek. “And after tonight, you’ll be together forever, just like I said. But, until then, you will need to be very firm with him to ensure he understands his place.”

Alex smiled. “The fire will purify us and bind us together,” she said dreamily. Then, her movements graceful and feline despite her painfully angular frame, she slid off the bed and stalked towards Blair.

***

It was important that James’ rank be emphasised and acknowledged in the face of such an unprecedented attack on his autonomy, so he sat imperiously upon the raised dais in his hall to greet the delegation, with his seneschal standing staunchly at his right hand. Around the hall his guardsmen stood sentry, their faces grimly registering disapproval of the extraordinary nature of this threat towards their baron.

James had half expected at least one of the other barons to come in person. But it seemed that, despite the challenge to his authority they had set in train, not one of them had been actually bold enough to come and challenge him face to face. The emissary they had sent in their stead, accompanied into the hall by two guards wearing the livery of the Coastal Barony, was someone James had not expected to see again, and certainly not in these circumstances. But it certainly explained why the baronial inspectors had travelled straight to the estate, which few people outside his family knew the location of, rather than coming here first. “Baron Ellison,” the man greeted formally as he came to stand before him, his face as familiar to James as his own.

“Stephen,” James acknowledged. Then he added sincerely, no matter the circumstances, “It’s good to see you, brother.”

The age-lines on Stephen’s face – greater in number since they had last laid eyes upon each other - deepened in irritation at the familiar honorific. It was clear, given his tight-lipped disapproval, that despite their blood relationship Stephen was absolutely not intending to be an advocate for James. “I am here purely to represent the interests of the convocation of barons,” he affirmed coldly. And not you, was the unspoken coda that James clearly heard.

Burying his familiar sorrow at their enmity, born out of a quarrel between Stephen and their father which James never knew the detail of, but which had apparently turned Stephen against him as well, James smiled tightly. “The barons’ interests are my interests, Stephen. Although it disappoints me that they apparently felt it necessary to exclude me from their recent deliberations, and have chosen to question my authority in such a way.”

“Under the circumstances,” Stephen riposted, “I think that is entirely understandable. Your devotion to the fae is, after all, in question.”

“I see,” James quipped. “How so?”

Stephen’s face was hard. “You really wish me to elaborate in public, brother? You wish that these people, these devout followers of the true religion, the people of your barony, should hear about your guilt?”

James leaned back in his chair, relaxing his posture visibly, but around the room he was reassuringly aware of his guardsmen moving surreptitiously into position. “I have nothing to hide from my people,” he declared.

“Really.” Stephen turned to address the room. “This man, your baron, a sentinel, has a guide, does he not? A heretic guide. A guide who murdered one of the blessed fae in cold blood. A guide who your baron claimed to have imprisoned in punishment for his crimes.”

Stephen pointed an accusing finger at James. “His guide,” he said, still addressing the room, “a convicted heretic, is supposedly being confined, by order of the convocation of barons, at a private country estate my family own. I have just come from there, and I can assure you that while the guide is most definitely there, your baron is absolutely not punishing him, as he claims. Instead the heretic has been living at liberty and in comfort, with your lord’s express knowledge and approval.”

Faces around the room betrayed shock and dismay – but not for the reasons Stephen undoubtedly assumed. To be faced with a man still dripping with fae-induced madness from every pore, at a time when they themselves had so recently recovered, drove home to the watchers the true nature of the nightmare they had endured. James sensed them shifting uncomfortably, their muted whispers betraying their distaste at the evidence of Stephen’s insanity, and nothing but concern for the man – Blair - who had freed them from the same fate.

Unaware of their true reaction, Stephen turned to look right at James. “I can think of only one reason you would elevate a fae murderer above the blessed fae, my lord baron,” he accused. “And that is because you are a heretic too.”

Absolute silence greeted this pronouncement. Then Stephen turned to the assembled again. “Baron James of the House of Ellison stands accused of heresy. He will be taken from here to our family estate where, at full-dark, he will witness the execution of the heretic, Blair Sandburg, who will be burned to death in the sight of the blessed fae. Thereafter Baron James will be removed to the capital to stand trial. From this moment on, and with the blessing of the convocation of barons, I will act as baron in his stead.”

Silence greeted him once more. After a few moments, Stephen prompted James, “Well? Have you nothing to say?” When James did not respond, Stephen motioned to James’ own guards. “Seize him,” he ordered.

The reason for James’ lack of response was that his attention had been mostly directed elsewhere. He had extended his hearing, listening to what was happening outside in the yard. Exactly as he had ordered, the rest of the armed delegation who had accompanied Stephen here had been relieved of their weapons and taken into custody, the whole matter having been dealt with smoothly and with the minimum of fuss. Relived that their capture had been achieved without bloodshed, James looked Stephen in the eye. “I’m truly sorry it has come to this, brother,” he said, nodding to the guardsmen who approached.

It wasn’t until it was too late that Stephen realised what was going on. Both of Stephen’s guards were swiftly disarmed and restrained, their swords confiscated. As for Stephen, James determined that he would deal with his brother himself. He stepped off the dais and approached, noticing, with a sense of mild incredulity, that Stephen had been so deluded about his safety in walking, outnumbered, into a hall to denounce a heretic in front of the heretic’s own people, that he had not even come armed.

“What treachery is this?” Stephen’s eyes were wild. He had clearly expected unconditional support from fellow believers, and James understood that, if the madness had not passed, he would have received it without question. Mere weeks ago, the loyalty James’ people felt for him as baron would have been obliterated in an instant, had they suspected him for even one second of heresy.

But the madness had passed – at least here. And Stephen was not, as he’d clearly believed would be the case, among friends. “If my guide has been harmed, brother,” James told him coldly, “then the fact that you are currently insane will not save you. Nor will the fact that we are kin.”

James watched as fear replaced shock – the bone-deep terror of a man suffering from fae-induced delusion, helpless in the hands of unbelievers. James nodded at Simon. “Lock him up with his men.”

***

Alex looked thin and gaunt, Blair could see. Frail, like she’d never been when he’d tried to guide her, in what seemed like another lifetime, so long ago. But the mad rage he’d known so well still burned in her beautiful eyes. “You left me,” she scolded him now, as she stalked towards him across the cell. “You are bad, bad, bad. You’re supposed to guide me.”

“Alex,” Blair protested, as she knelt in front of him, “I’m not your guide.” He glanced towards Brackett, who was watching them both, grinning in unmistakeable satisfaction, then winced as Alex reached for him, his sense of wrongness, at being touched by a sentinel who was not his own, profound. He wanted to protest but any further words were thwarted as she moved in close, her lips almost brushing his.

At first, he’d thought that Alex was going to kiss him, but he was wrong. She veered off before making contact, mouthing wetly across his cheek instead, and nuzzling beneath his ear. Blair shivered, uncomfortably reminded of the last time someone unwelcome had put their mouth on him. Alex was sucking on his flesh, her mouth moving down, down, the sucking becoming more intense, before she buried her face in the juncture where his neck met his shoulder and bit down, hard. 

Blair shrieked in pain and horror as her teeth cut deep into his flesh, her mouth latching on every bit as tightly as the fae that had once bitten his hand to the bone in this very chamber. Writhing in agony he tried desperately to move away, but was thwarted by the chain restraining him. He bucked frantically, trying to dislodge her, but made no progress at all, hampered by the fact that his hands were bound and trapped painfully behind him against the wall. Not only that, he had been sorely hurt and was suffering from the pain of several wounds, whilst Alex still wielded, despite appearances to the contrary, a deceptive strength. He cried out again when the bright, obscene agony intensified as Alex deepened the bite, his vision blurring with helpless tears of pain. Then, shocked to the core, he struggled to catch his breath when Alex abruptly let go.

Alex lifted her head, and Blair cringed at the sight. Her mouth and chin were bathed in blood - his blood. Alex smiled dreadfully at him, gore trapped between her teeth. “I think I’ll eat you,” she said gleefully, “just like the night terrors should have eaten you. Because you’ve been bad, bad, bad.”

Blair was only dimly aware of Brackett exiting the chamber, the door closing with a bang behind him, leaving the two of them alone.

***

Stephen had indicated that Blair would die that night, burned to death as a heretic. James would entertain no possible outcome other than the fact they would get there in time to prevent it, his certainty that they would arrive beforehand fed by Stephen’s proclamation that he would be expected to witness Blair’s death. But James was terribly afraid of what might happen to Blair in the meantime, given the extremes that devout fae worshippers were liable to go to when faced with ‘heresy’. Therefore there was no time to lose in riding to the estate. 

A full-on assault was too risky, as James feared that Blair would be killed long before they could overwhelm the estate. Therefore it was decided that some of James’ men would disguise themselves in livery confiscated from Stephen’s guards, and arrive with James in fetters, thus giving them a chance of getting right inside and taking Blair’s captors by surprise. Additional guards would follow on behind, in readiness to move in once the battle had begun. Physician Wolf would be amongst them, for James was terribly afraid of what condition Blair might be in once they got there, haunted as he was by what had occurred on the last, terrible occasion he’d ridden to his guide’s rescue.

They mustered as quickly as they possibly could, the baron’s fear for his guide spurring them on. James and his guardsmen road hard out of the town, only slowing to a more measured pace an hour later when they turned off onto the barren moors. James chafed greatly at that point, his anxiety for Blair choking him. He wished desperately to urge them faster, or even for wings with which to fly, cursing every remaining mile which stretched out the distance between him and his guide.

***

Blair flinched when Alex shifted abruptly, fully expecting her to bite him again, but instead she pushed herself away and went to stand by the door, clearly listening to whatever she could hear outside. “Alex-” Blair gasped.

But she shushed him impatiently. “Be quiet, idiot guide.” She listened a while longer, then jerked into movement, hugging herself, pacing the chamber to and fro like a trapped animal. “I hate him, hate him, hate him,” she ground out through gritted teeth. She turned to look at Blair. “He’s going to burn us,” she said, in a voice full of dread. “He’s going to burn us both.”

Confused by her swift change in tack, Blair shrank back against the wall as she came close again, but she glared at him. “Fool. You think he’d have left me free if I didn’t convince him I was going to play with you? I’m not really going to eat you, you idiot.” She spat to one side, pink saliva splattering onto the cold stone floor, her mouth twisting into a grimace. “Ugh, you taste foul. Anyone can tell that you’re not mine.” Then she grabbed Blair bodily and pulled him away from the wall. “Keep still,” she ordered, her hands at work on his bonds. Blair winced as the rope momentarily tightened, jarring one painful, swollen wrist which he was sure was broken.

Once Blair’s hands were free, he found his voice. “Alex, what’s going on? What are you doing here?”

He brought me here,” she said. She seemed to be in an unusually cooperative frame of mind – volunteering information in response to questions had never been one of her strong points. “Him,” she elaborated. “Brackett.” She spat out his name like a curse. “Gods, I hate him!”

Given the kiss he’d witnessed between them, Blair was uncomfortably suspicious about the reason why Alex disliked Brackett so much. For a guide to molest a sentinel in his care, especially one as unstable as Alex, Blair considered to be a profound breach of trust and the antithesis of all that a guide should be. “Has he hurt you?” Blair asked, suspecting nevertheless that the true intent of his question, a sensitive query delicately put, might be lost on Alex.

“He’s a fool,” Alex snapped, the non-answer characteristic of her usual unwillingness to discuss anything she didn’t like. That, to her, was apparently the end of the matter. She reached down and Blair’s ankle between her hands, the one bearing the manacle. “Hm,” she said, turning it this way and that, apparently employing her sentinel-sight to focus on the lock. “No way to open this without the key.” She grinned ferally. “I’ll just have to bite your foot off!” Blair must have looked as horrified as he felt, because she dropped his leg back to the floor and laughed uproariously. “Oh, you’re too easy,” she gasped. “I swear, you’re as stupid as him.”

“Alex, why are you helping me?” Blair asked. At his throat the bite she had given him throbbed, blood soaking into his tunic as if belying his words. “If you hate me so much, why do you want to free me?”

Alex’s chuckles died away, and an incongruous seriousness took its place. “I don’t hate you,” she said. “I quite like you, actually. You’re the only guide who’s ever given me what I need.”

That was news – Blair regarded his time as Alex’s guide as an unmitigated failure. “What is it that you need?” Blair prompted.

Alex smiled wistfully. Despite the blood which still stained her lips and teeth, her expression was strangely lucid at that moment. “Peace and quiet,” she said simply. “The dark place where it all went away – the noise, the light, the smells, everything. The place where it didn’t hurt anymore. You gave that to me. You’re the only one who ever did. And I want it back.”

She was talking about the fugue he’d induced, Blair realised; the one which Brackett had subsequently prolonged for months, and which ultimately had nearly killed her. “Alex,” he said, “I can’t do that to you again.”

“You have to. You have to!” Alex hit his leg hard with her closed fist, tears of sheer frustration in her eyes. “I can hear him talking; I can hear them all. We’re going to burn, burn, burn, just like he burned the others. He thinks I don’t know I’m going to die. He thinks I’m too stupid to understand, but he’s the stupid one. And so are you, if you don’t help me!”

Appalled, Blair asked, “What others? Alex, who are you talking about?”

“Why aren’t you listening to me?” Alex tried to hit him again, this time in the face.

But Blair used his good hand to deflect her. “Stop it,” he demanded, grabbing one of her wrists in his own and holding tight as her other fist continued to flail at him, although the blows were increasingly half-hearted. “Alex, Come on. Calm down. Tell me what you mean.”

She eventually subsided, but her hand trembled in his even as she switched from frustration to utter tranquillity, in that sudden way Blair was so familiar with. “My father gave Brackett to me,” she calmly said after a moment. “He was supposed to be my guide, but he doesn’t want me, and I hate him, so that’s all right. But now he’s going to tell my father that he can’t fix me. He’s going to tell him I’m evil, because I remember the night terrors but everyone else has forgotten. He’s going to kill me, and not even my father will care because he thinks I’m evil too.”

Alex had always had problems blocking out sounds; she was practically unable, in fact, to control her senses in any way, as Blair well remembered. It was easy to see how Brackett, with his tendency to overconfidence, might talk openly about what he planned to do to rid himself of Alex, and for her to overhear it. Blair didn’t doubt the truth of what she said for a moment, especially after the remark Brackett had made about them facing the flames together. “Alex,” he asked carefully. “What else did you hear him say?”

“I already told you!” she hissed. “Why are you so stupid?” Just as easily, her frustration was back. “He’s going to burn me like the others; like the girl in the last village, like the man and the woman and the boy before that. He’s going to burn you, too.” She pulled her hand free and hugged herself. “I can’t shut it out. I can’t not hear, not see, not smell….” She put both hands over her ears and began to rock. “I was in the fire with them, I watched their flesh burn, heard the fat popping and hissing in the flames. I tasted it on the air, choked on the smoke, felt their hearts stop... I don’t want that, I don’t want that, I don’t want it!”

Blair was horrified. “Alex, did Brackett make you watch them die?”

In response her face convulsed briefly as though she would weep, before her eyes lost all focus, as though she was back in the memory.

Blair was utterly appalled. Alex was a sentinel; worse, she was a sentinel with no control. I was in the fire with them, she’d said. Blair knew that she lacked empathy, so he doubted that her upset was caused by pity for those who had burned, but if she’d focussed her deep vision on such a terrible thing, had experienced it up-close in such an intimate way, then no wonder she was so distraught at the idea of sharing the same fate. 

The thought of dying, and in such a barbaric way, filled Blair with dread such that he wanted to be sick, but right now he could not indulge his own fears. Here was a sentinel, and she was in pain. No matter her torture of the poor servant girl Blair had fought so hard to save, no matter the petty cruelties poor, mad Alex had subjected him to, he could no more turn away from her need at this moment than he’d have been able to turn away from James.

Yet what could he do? Blair looked around the cell in despair. He’d spent many months locked up in here, and he knew full well there was no way they could win free. The lock on the manacle which confined his ankle was shut tight, and not even Alex’s sentinel vision had seen a way to unfasten it. And the solid, wooden door was as impenetrable as ever. Beyond it were armed men, inspired to extreme cruelty by fae-induced delusions, intent on the murder of heretics. Quite simply, there was no way out.

“Alex, what’s Brackett doing now?” Blair asked, forcefully subduing his own terror with a vast effort of will, and using every ounce of guide-tone he possessed to try to keep her calm.

“He’s just told them he’s coming for us soon,” Alex said bleakly. “He said so. He’s lit a small fire beside the place... the place where.... he’ll use it to light the other one, the one he’ll burn us on.” Her face crumpled, all her usual veneer of fury scrubbed away. “Blair, please!” she begged. “I want to go back to the safe place, the place where I can just be peaceful. Please, Blair. Please!” And uncharacteristically, as though at the end of her endurance, she buried her face in her hands and wept.

It was the first time Alex had ever called him by name, instead of addressing him simply as ‘Guide’ combined with any and all manner of insult. That was a measure, perhaps, of her desperation and, guide that he was, Blair was utterly unable to ignore her need.

For himself, he had no hope of a reprieve. Since the distribution of the potion, Blair had foolishly relaxed his vigilance to such an extent that this situation had taken him completely unawares, so he had no one to blame but himself for this predicament. In the meantime James was many miles away at the castle, and Blair could only beg the gods of his ancestors that his sentinel would prevail when challenged by the might of the barons.

There was only one thing left for Blair to do, for he would not permit Alex to suffer such agonies. For a man with normal senses, like him, being burned to death would be terrible in the extreme. But for a sentinel like Alex, with her extraordinary gifts... even the thought of it was too much to bear. Blair was a guide, first and foremost, and had dedicated his life to the protection and care of sentinels. He would not turn his back on this particular sentinel’s need, not when he had the ability to grant her wish and deliver her from the horror to come.

With a vast effort of will, Blair buried his own dread down deep. “Alex,” he said once he had achieved control, his voice gentle. “Come, lay your head in my lap.”

Alex peered out from under her hands, her downcast eyes still full of tears, and looked blankly at him for a moment, as if trying to gauge his veracity. Then suddenly she smiled, a smile of such sweet happiness it took his breath away. As she eagerly complied with his request, laying down with her head across his thighs and looking up at him so trustingly, he saw for one fleeting second the beautiful young woman under the surface, the woman who, if circumstances had been otherwise, she might have become.

“There,” he said softly, his throat aching with emotion, as he placed his hand tenderly on her brow. “Close your eyes, Alex. Breathe deep, and listen to my voice, only to my voice...”

***

It was late afternoon by the time James and his men neared the estate. While still two miles distant, the company divided. Those disguised in livery confiscated from the guards who had accompanied Stephen would ride out first, with James in their midst. The rest would follow on some way behind, ready to provide backup as soon as James and his men had infiltrated the estate.

James bared his head so that, as they approached, he would be recognised as the prisoner the enemy were expecting, riding un-armoured in amongst the helmed guardsmen. His hands were loosely bound in unlocked fetters, and resting in plain sight on the pommel before him. The solid, reassuring bulk of Simon, riding close by his side and guiding James’ mare by a lead rein, was a huge comfort, especially considering the fact that James was swordless and riding into the lair of the enemy. But he was not entirely unarmed, just not conspicuously so. The pommel of the knife he carried tucked into his belt, concealed under his cloak and pressing bruisingly against his ribs as he rode, was a discomfort he would not have given up for anything, as were the other knives he kept concealed in his boots.

James extended his senses out towards their target as they drew ever closer, trusting Simon to steer him true as he lost focus on the immediate vicinity. He sought Blair’s familiar essence like a bloodhound, and unerringly found his guide even amidst the multitude of others who populated the estate. His relief was profound – Blair lived, and appeared to be conscious. James could sense, however, that he was not alone. Someone else was close by, apparently asleep. Blair appeared calm, however, his respirations measured, so James thankfully judged that he was not in immediate peril.

Reluctantly James tore his attention away from Blair, to do a more general examination of where they were headed. He relayed to Simon the pertinent information they needed as they rode. “Apart from Blair, there are twenty-three people within the estate walls. Another twelve are patrolling outside, and a further ten are forming an outer defensive ring between here and there.” His eyes snapped open. “There are six more the field behind the barn. I can hear wood being chopped; can smell smoke. They’re talking about bringing out the heretics to burn them.” He looked at Simon in horror. “Stephen meant it, when he said that Blair would be executed in that way!”

Simon placed a reassuring hand on James’ arm. “But Blair is within the estate walls still, you said. We’re in time, my lord.”

James nodded, but his mouth was dry with dread and horror. That his beloved guide, his beautiful, courageous Blair, should even be threatened with such a barbaric fate was almost more than he could bear.

***

Blair didn’t bother to look up when the cell door opened, although his heart pounded with sudden dread. Instead he kept his eyes on Alex’s face, and continued to stroke her long, blonde hair tenderly back from her still, peaceful face.

“What have you done?” Brackett’s shocked, incredulous voice intruded.

Blair had to admit that it was gratifying to have shaken Brackett’s impeccable trained composure, although under the circumstances he understood that the satisfaction he’d derived from that would prove, soon enough, to be cold comfort. He looked up calmly into his furious captor’s eyes. “I’ve given succour to a sentinel in need,” he said. “Isn’t that exactly what you taught me to do at the Academy, Master Brackett?”

Brackett was clearly incensed. Glaring, he stalked over, and hastily dragged Alex out of Blair’s grasp, making no attempt whatsoever to be gentle. His actions raised Blair’s protective hackles, but there was naught he could do to prevent it, chained and injured as he was.

After a cursory check of the comatose sentinel, during which Alex remained completely unresponsive, Brackett strode towards Blair. Without warning he backhanded Blair across the face. Blair’s vision blurred as his head bounced off the wall, and it was a moment before the ringing in his ears subsided enough for him to hear the words of Brackett’s verbal tirade. “... bring her out of it right now, or I swear, I’ll burn your precious James as well, baronial trial be damned. Do you hear me, Sandburg? Do you?”

“I can’t,” Blair told him. He’d bitten his tongue when Brackett had hit him, and the words came out thick and unwieldy, the coppery taste of blood filling his mouth. “She’s in a catastrophic fugue.”

“You liar,” Brackett accused. “You’re too damned honourable to do that. You’ve simply taken her deep, and you can bring her out again. She’ll respond to you.”

Blair understood what Brackett was demanding. It was usual, on the very rare occasions that a fugue was induced by consent (as sometimes happened when a sentinel needed surgery), that the guide who induced it would be able to effortlessly reverse the effects simply by using a particular tone of voice. In such cases, the sentinel would have attuned their hearing to that specific tone. It was also possible, of course, for a different guide to reverse such a deep fugue, but to do so was less straightforward and involved gradual and controlled stimulation of all of the sentinel’s senses, not just hearing. Such a process was laborious, and could take hours.

Blair smiled, confident that Brackett possessed neither the time nor the patience to attempt such a thing himself. “You’re wrong,” he said. “I didn’t want her waking up on the pyre, so I pushed her so far under that no one can reach her, not even me.” Catastrophic fugues, as both of them knew, were another thing entirely. By definition, sentinels did not wake from them – ever.

The look Brackett gave him was full of unadulterated hatred. “You hypocrite,” he snarled. “Perfect Blair Sandburg, the darling of the Academy, paired with a baron even though you failed at Masterhood. You always considered yourself better than me, didn’t you? Yet here you sit, openly claiming to have perpetrated the worst act on a sentinel that a guide can commit. Not even I have ever stooped so low, and believe me, I’ve been tempted.”

Brackett walked back over to where Alex lay sprawled on the floor, and without preamble aimed a vicious kick at her ribs. As his boot thudded into her unresponsive body Blair flinched, and Brackett looked at him sharply. “You’re lying,” he declared. “I can see it in your face. You never could hide your emotions.” He indicated the unconscious woman. “Bring her out of it,” he ordered, “or I’ll keep on hurting her until you do.”

“I already told you, I can’t,” Blair protested. He forced himself not to react, not to protest, when, in response, Brackett lifted Alex’s limp hand in his own and, without any hesitation, broke two of her fingers, one after the other. But he tasted bile, and his head buzzed as though he would faint.

As Blair sat there fighting nausea, a voice intruded in the doorway. “Riders on the road, sir,” the guardsmen said. “It’s our lads, the ones who went to get the baron.”

“And have they returned with Baron James in their custody?” Brackett asked, his question sending a shock of dismay through Blair.

“Looks like it, sir,” the guard confirmed.

“Good.” Brackett nodded towards Alex. “Take her out and tie her to the stake,” he ordered. He indicated Blair. “Give me a minute alone, then send someone to come get him too.”

The guard threw Blair a look of extreme hatred, before addressing Brackett. “Shall I send in the surgeon as well?” he asked.

Brackett shook his head. “No,” he said. “He can keep his tongue, for now. I may yet find a use for it.”

As the guardsmen and one of his fellows complied with Brackett’s orders, hauling Alex out through the door and out of the cell, Brackett sat back on his haunches in front of Blair and regarded him thoughtfully. “It seems your sentinel has been brought here to watch your execution, as planned,” he said, his tone reasonable and measured. “But see, here’s the thing. I don’t believe for one minute that Alex’s fugue is catastrophic. Either you wake her up before the fire is lit, so she can experience it in all its glory, or instead of sending dear James on his merry way to the capital to be tried by the barons, I’ll tie him up and burn him too.” He grinned. “Your choice.”

Blair could hardly speak, his fear both for James and himself was so profound. But he was not going to give Brackett the slightest satisfaction, no matter what. “May the night terrors eat me in my sleep,” he whispered, invoking an old, common saying, “before I do what you wish.”

Brackett regarded him coldly. “A heretic’s curse, from a heretic’s lips. How fitting. But not your final words, I am certain. I believe you’ll have more to say when I light your beloved James’ pyre.” And with that, Brackett went to the door and motioned the waiting guards inside.


The tale concludes in Chapter 3


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