James’ ruse seemed to have worked so far, the guards posted at the outer periphery of the estate waving them through after paying them only cursory attention. Having penetrated the outer defences without incident, James and his men continued on towards the main gate.
James wished dearly to seek out Blair again with his senses as they approached, or even to try to reach him through their deep link, but it was too dangerous to divide his attention at this critical time. They were surrounded by the enemy, who outnumbered their advance party three to one, and James’ vigilance and monitoring of the whereabouts of their opponents from moment to moment could very well make the difference in getting them safely inside.
Those guarding the gate presented no challenge at all. James had expected some token scrutiny, at the very least, and was surprised at the laxness of the guards when no one attempted to verify the identities of the men who rode with him. He could only assume that the same delusional overconfidence which had prompted Stephen to walk unarmed into his hall was at play here.
James had calmly maintained a deliberately proud bearing as they passed through into the yard, but his calm faltered when he saw who was waiting there to greet him. He was well aware of Simon’s matching, sharp intake of breath. “Brackett,” James ground out through gritted teeth as they came to a halt.
Brackett grinned up at him widely. “Why, James,” he said, not casting a glance at any of James’ escort, clearly not one iota suspicious, but instead radiating an insufferable smugness. “How nice to see you again.” He cast his eyes upwards, indicating the clear, blue sky. “A fine evening for a bonfire, don’t you think?”
Without further ado James cast off the fetters, and launched himself off the horse and bodily at Brackett, felling him easily with a vicious punch. Then he swung around to cleanly catch a sword out of the air, which had been tossed to him by Simon. That was enough of a signal to James’ guards, who immediately drew their own swords and, with a fierce roar, engaged with the dumbfounded men amongst Brackett’s retinue who had gathered around, smirking, to watch the baron be humiliated.
Surprise, as James had learned long ago, was a powerful weapon. He and his men might be outnumbered three to one, but it became absolutely clear, as the enemy fell so easily, before them, that they were taken completely unawares by this subterfuge.
The initial battle was brutal, but Brackett’s men rallied quickly from their stupefaction to attack James and his men fiercely, bolstered by those who had been on guard outside the walls rushing in to join the fray. But despite being fewer in number James’ men were skilled with the sword and had been trained to fight as a unit. The opposing side, on the other hand, were comprised from four different baronies, and were therefore not a terribly cohesive or well-coordinated force. That disparity stood James in good stead, and enabled him and his guardsmen to quickly gain the upper hand.
The tide had already turned in James’ favour by the time his back-up troops swept in. The newly arrived guardsmen moved swiftly to enforce surrender and take control of the estate. Relieved from the immediate crisis, James turned his attention immediately to his guide. Glancing across the yard to the roundhouse, he could see that the door was open, but he did not even need to approach to sense that, although Blair had been inside at some point earlier, he was not there now.
There was someone else missing as well. “Brackett,” James growled, looking at the spot he’d last seen him, and wishing to the gods of his ancestors that he’d thought to stick his knife between Brackett’s ribs at that moment.
James was aware of Simon standing at his elbow, a staunch source of support that he was desperately grateful for as he employed his senses. Closing his eyes he concentrated, seeking his guide, listening for the familiar sounds of his body, sniffing out his scent. At last, he found him, and there was no time to lose. “Blair’s up in the field!” he gasped out urgently to Simon. “Hurry, Brackett is with him!”
It had hurt, being hauled up on top of the pyre. The guards had not paid any heed to his pained cries as his broken wrist was painfully jolted, his other hurts paling in comparison to the sheer agony which had consumed him as his arms had been strapped tightly behind him around the pole.
Blair supposed that, at some point, he’d been hit on the head again, as he’d somehow lost a span of time, and when he came back to awareness blood was running down his face and blurring his vision. Squinting to the side he could see Alex slumped senseless nearby, atop a wooden platform and tied upright against a pole which was the twin of his own. A huge pile of branches could be seen under and around her feet, most of it covered in a black substance which he could not identify.
Blair was confused because he thought he could hear battle; the ring and clash of sword-upon-sword, and the raucous roar of men’s cries. “I’m dreaming,” he said out loud.
“I assure you this is no dream,” Brackett answered. Blair could see him now, standing below the place where Blair was elevated upon his own pile of wood, smiling nastily and holding a blazing torch in his hand. “Although I suppose you could say I am making your nightmare come true.”
Blair blinked, having some difficulty grasping what was happening. He watched as Brackett walked nonchalantly over to Alex’s pyre and touched the torch to the edge of it. The wood blazed up in an instant and Blair realised, after the fact, that the black stuff must have accelerated its inflammatory properties in some way. The fire quickly spread, the wood catching light and burning furiously.
As Blair watched, fire licked around Alex’s feet, black smoke pouring forth in billows, and suddenly he found his wits. “Stop!” he gasped, panicked. “Please, Stop! Put it out!” He struggled, the resulting pain almost robbing him of breath. “Alex, no!”
Brackett was back, the burning torch held threateningly close to the wood at Blair’s feet. “Bring her out of the fugue,” Brackett ordered him calmly, “Or I will set you alight.”
Blair could only look at him in horror. In the next moment a cloud of smoke from Alex’s pyre wafted right into his face, making his eyes water painfully and setting off a coughing spasm he could not control.
When he eventually managed to catch his breath, his eyes still streaming tears in the sporadic drifts of smoke, Brackett was looking at him with an expression of mock disappointment. “I don’t think you understand the seriousness of your situation, Blair. So I will give you one last chance,” he said. “I will count to three. If you have not begun to use your guide voice to bring her back by the time I reach three, you will burn.” He grinned. “One,” he said.
Sorrowfully, Blair looked over at Alex. She was barely visible, wreathed in thick, black smoke, and her skirt was already ablaze. Even Blair was struggling to breathe when the smoke from her pyre drifted in this direction, but she was right in the thick of it. If she wasn’t already dead from the smoke alone, she soon would be.
She was the lucky one, Blair considered. Better to die insensible, than awake and screaming.
To his surprise, Blair found that he was crying, robbed of all semblance of dignity in the face of the horror he was about to suffer. “This is all a game to you, isn’t it?” Blair gasped out, certain now that Brackett’s threat to burn James had been an empty jest, because his sentinel was nowhere to be seen. Blair shook his head in despair. “I won’t wake her,” he reiterated, resigned to his fate. “And it doesn’t matter, anyway. You’ll burn me no matter what I do.”
Brackett sighed, as if in disappointment. “Maybe you’re not so stupid after all.” And, reaching out, he touched the torch to the pile of wood at Blair’s feet. “Three,” he said.
You’ll burn me no matter what I do.
Blair’s distraught voice filled James’ ears as he rounded the back of the barn and sprinted over the stile and into to the field. At the top edge, close to the edge of the woodland which bordered this side of the estate, a huge fire blazed, and the stink of cooking flesh which came from that direction made James gag. As he watched, a second blaze sprang up, and he heard Blair scream out in terror. And a moment later, the indistinct figure of a man, who James perceived to be Brackett, sprinted towards the trees.
James was dimly aware of Simon keeping pace at his back. Others followed; those of his men who, as the two of them ran through the yard, Simon had called upon to come to Blair’s urgent aid.
James had eyes for only one person as they approached. Vengeance could wait, because for now he had a far more pressing mission, but he would not countenance Brackett’s escape, nevertheless. “Brackett has fled into the wood,” he shouted urgently at the men who followed him, indicating with a flailing arm the direction the rogue guide had gone. “Three of you, get him! The rest, with me!”
Not waiting to see who followed, James sprinted the remaining distance. Blair was almost invisible atop the second bonfire, already wreathed in smoke. Grabbing a hoe from the tools that Brackett’s men had left lying around he waded in, and furiously started to disperse and scatter the blazing wood at Blair’s feet. Others did likewise, wielding shovels, rakes and anything else they could find, pulling off their cloaks and stamping them down on the burning wood to extinguish the blaze. A cry went up down below, a desperate call for water, and the urgent squeak of the well pump could be heard down in the yard as water was drawn to be ferried up to the top of the field in buckets.
The fire, though it smelled strongly of pitch and had ignited and spread quickly, had only been lit for mere seconds, so to James’ relief the flames had not yet had a chance to take proper hold. Although it seemed to James to take hours before he could reach Blair, in reality it was less than a minute before the burning wood was sufficiently scattered that he was able to climb the platform upon which his guide was bound.
Blair was conscious, but clearly struggling to breathe. “Get Physician Wolf!” James ordered, before putting his hands on Blair carefully, anxious to ensure that his guide knew he was safe. “Be easy,” he murmured. “I’m here now, my love.”
To his astonishment, Blair looked at him in horror. “Nooooo!” he wheezed painfully, seemingly terrified, and utterly disoriented. “Not you, not you! Please, no!”
Desperate to reach him through his terror, James took hold of Blair’s face in his hands and blazed a path into his mind through their link. The image he got back – of himself writhing in the flames – told him all he needed to know about why Blair was so afraid. “Listen to me,” he said firmly, reinforcing the message through their link. “I am safe, and so are you. We’re both safe, Blair. The fire’s out, and it’s all over. Brackett can’t hurt you anymore, and I’m taking you home.”
Blair gasped and coughed, still struggling for breath in the drifts of foul-smelling smoke which kept blowing over from the second bonfire nearby, but James could sense that the particular fear which had caused Blair’s outcry – that James had been brought here to share his fate – had been allayed. Leaning in he placed a tender kiss beside Blair’s soot-stained mouth, before nodding his permission to the others who were standing around to come up and help. Then he leaned forward in utter relief, touching his forehead gently to Blair’s in silent acknowledgment that his guide still lived, the comfort of that simple touch immensely reassuring to him and, he hoped to Blair also.
The platform creaked and tipped as two of his men climbed atop it – Simon and Physician Wolf. Between them they cut Blair free, and all three of them carefully manhandled him down from the platform, others reaching out to lend a hand as they did so.
It was obvious from his pained cries as they moved him that Blair was sorely hurt. Therefore, while James’ men fashioned a hastily constructed stretcher on which to convey him back to the house (having considered that this would cause him less pain than simply carrying him) the baron sat on the ground and held his injured guide carefully in his arms. Blair was shivering convulsively, rivulets of tears trickling from his red, irritated eyes cutting dirty lines through the thick soot which stained his cheeks, and his breath wheezing in and out in pained gasps.
Shifting a little in James’ arms, wincing and flinching as he moved, Blair glanced at the other fire, which still blazed fiercely. “Alex?” he wheezed, coughing with the effort of speaking. “Is she dead?”
James did not immediately register who Alex was, except for the fact that she’d apparently been the unfortunate on the second pyre. He didn’t even need to utilise his senses to provide the answer. “Yes,” James confirmed. “She’s dead. I’m sorry.”
Blair wept heartbreakingly, at that, coughs continuing to punctuate his sobs. And, his own heart breaking for his guide’s pain, James could only do his best to provide comfort.
Word came to James later, as he and Physician Wolf tended to Blair, that Brackett had been apprehended and was now chained in the roundhouse. “No one is to go near him,” James directed Simon. “I will see to him myself, presently.”
With the exception of Brackett, the surviving captives had been herded into the barn where they remained under guard. Twenty one of them had been killed in the battle, and their bodies had been deposited behind the barn until morning, when they would be buried in a mass grave on the site of the two pyres. As regards their own, two of James’ men had been killed, and several had sustained injuries, though none of them life threatening. Except for the suffering of his guide, therefore, James would have considered their rout of the estate an unqualified success.
James was confident that his men, under Simon’s leadership, had matters under control, and therefore he felt able to remain at Blair’s side throughout the night. He insisted on being the one to set Blair’s broken wrist, his sure touch enabling him to ensure the bones were realigned as perfectly as possible before a splint was applied. James was immensely grateful that Wolf had dosed Blair first with poppy juice, having absolutely no desire to cause him any additional pain.
The wrist, James was relived to discover, was the worst of it. Blair had clearly been beaten, and was battered and bloodied, but despite being undoubtedly painful, none of his other wounds were unduly serious. His fear that Blair had been horribly burned, soot-covered and bloodstained as he’d been when they reached him, proved unfounded. Apart from a few ruddy scorch marks on his legs where flying sparks had burned through his breeches, the fire had not had a chance to properly reach him.
The ugly wound they discovered on Blair’s shoulder disturbed James. It was a vicious bite, the deep imprint of human tooth marks clearly visible even to Wolf’s unenhanced sight. It would have been intensely painful for Blair to have been on the receiving end of such a thing, and James could not fathom how he might have got it. James cleaned it carefully with alcohol before applying a bandage, then gently laid the palm of his hand over the linen for a moment, a protective, tender gesture. A night terror bite had nearly killed Blair once before, and in the aftermath of that James had helped to tend him in this very room. This fresh bite was too close a reminder of that dreadful time for comfort.
Physician Wolf declared himself most concerned about the rattling wheeze in Blair’s chest, and the deep, hacking cough which, even under the influence of poppy juice, he could not seem to stop. To help alleviate this they propped him upright against cushions, and Physician Wolf burned an infusion of aromatic oils in a small pot, which to James’ relief seemed to aid his breathing somewhat. “The effect of smoke inhalation can be a terrible thing,” Wolf told James. “It can cause untold damage to the lungs. But see, he is breathing easier already. I think we got him out in time.”
Sending down an order that he be kept supplied with fresh, warm water, James spent a considerable time, after Blair’s wounds had been tended, gently washing him clean of the soot and fear-sweat and other unsavoury odours which enveloped him. Recovering gradually from the sedative effects of the poppy juice, Blair periodically opened his eyes for short intervals to gaze calmly at James, apparently aware enough to understand that it was his sentinel’s hands which were touching him so soothingly. And at such moments James talked softly to him, that Blair might understand he was safe and treasured. For his own part, Blair said not a word, but eventually succumbed, as the night progressed, to a deep, healing sleep, disturbed only by periodic bouts of coughing.
A little before dawn, James left Blair in Physician Wolf’s care, and made his way into the circular cell.
Bound and chained up against the wall, Brackett glared at James balefully. As well as the restraints which confined him James had ordered him gagged, because he had absolutely no desire to hear that silky, smug voice ever again.
James was here for one reason, and one reason only.
“You have perpetrated an act of war against this barony,” James told the prisoner. “And you have committed grievous harm on my guide, the appointed Lord Warden of this barony. The sentence for your crimes is death.”
Brackett looked, to James’ keen eye, like he very much wished to speak. James suspected that, if he had been permitted to do so, he would have utilised all the verbal skills a Master Guide possessed to attempt to win free. But James had no intention of allowing him that opportunity.
Instead, without ceremony, he drew the knife from his belt and approached.
Stepping outside a few moments later, wiping his hands clean on a ruddy cloth, he curtly directed Simon, “Have him buried with the others.”
Blair woke to the unaccustomed sound of voices outside his window; men shouting, a raucous, unfamiliar laugh cut short, the spark of hobnails on cobbles. Panicked, he jerked upright, only to fall immediately into a coughing fit which entirely robbed him of breath.
“Easy,” James’ familiar, beloved voice comforted, and Blair found himself pulled forward into the other man’s embrace, his back patted and rubbed as he fought to breathe. “That’s it, just relax. Steady, now.” Eyes screwed shut against the wrenching spasms, Blair finally found a clean edge of air and dragged it in desperately, the agonising cough gradually diminishing until all that was left was a deep ache behind his breastbone, the scratchy agony of his abraded throat, and the reawakened aches and pains of broken bones and ill-used flesh.
Blair felt himself being guided back against heaped pillows, his throbbing, splinted wrist supported on something soft, and a moment later the rim of a cup touched his lips. Fumbling with his good hand, squinting blindly through the tears which had accompanied his coughing fit, Blair curved his fingers around the cup on top of James’, the baron’s fingers under his reassuringly warm and steady. “Careful, just a few sips to begin with,” James told him, and Blair obeyed without question, the cold water an inexpressible comfort as he swallowed it down. As the cup was withdrawn his vision cleared sufficiently for him to see James sitting on the edge of the bed watching him, brows crooked with worry.
“Better?” James asked him softly.
Blair nodded. But a graphic memory of the fire, and Alex, and Brackett’s threats towards James, immediately rose in his mind.
“It’s all right,” James told him, easily perceiving his distress. “I’m here. You’re safe now.”
But Blair was very much afraid that neither of them would ever be safe again. He was a known heretic in a world gone mad, and he was inextricably tied to his sentinel, who was forever tainted by association. “Brackett,” Blair tried desperately to convey the danger, his voice hoarse from the effects of smoke, “was sent here by the barons. He said you were under suspicion. James...” Blair paused to cough, struggling for coherency, “Please, you have to be careful-”
But James shushed him. “Brackett,” he said firmly, “is dead. He can’t harm either of us. Not anymore.”
The news of Brackett’s death, although welcome, was only a slight reassurance, because the bigger threat had not gone away. Blair reached out desperately to James, and felt his hand caught and held. “You have to protect yourself,” he pleaded. “You can’t... you need to....” He knew he should urge James to cut all ties with him, but he was so weak-willed, and felt so frightened right now, that the words just wouldn’t come. “I’m sorry,” he said instead, helplessly, not even coming close to communicating what he needed to say to keep his sentinel safe.
“Shhh,” James told him soothingly. “All is well.”
“But it’s not,” Blair protested, forcing himself to do what was necessary no matter how painful it was. “James, it’s not! The barons, they’ll kill you unless you rid yourself of me.”
James shook his head. “Blair, listen. The threat from the barons has always been there. But things are different now - we don’t have to deal with this alone.” Still clasping Blair’s hand in one of his own, James reached out with his other and Blair felt his hair stirred tenderly, before James laid his palm splayed open over Blair’s heart, the reassurance in that simple gesture stilling his panic. “You haven’t asked,” James said pointedly, “about the night terrors. About the potion.”
The noise from outside had continued unabated, the sounds of James’ men calling to each other, occasionally laughing, with Simon’s distinctive booming voice in their midst, curtly shouting orders. James had kept this location a close secret, even when afflicted with his false memories, so to bring his guardsmen here was an unprecedented breach of that secrecy. Blair’s eyes widened as he made the connection. “It worked?” he whispered.
James nodded. “Apart from a few diehards, the town is completely recovered. When we received word of what was happening here, I was preparing to embark on a tour of the barony to see for myself how things are progressing in the rural areas; although every report I’ve received indicates that, even in the most remote places, almost everyone is already cured. I was planning to complete my tour, then call in here on the way back to bring you home.” He shifted his hand again, now cupping the back of Blair’s neck and gazing meaningfully into his eyes. “It’s time for you to come home, Blair.”
Blair couldn’t answer. Having lived in perilous isolation for so long, only to discover that their plan had come to fruition, was almost more than he could take in. He and James had wished desperately for this outcome, of course; had counted on it. But, despite the success at Martcrag, Blair had never permitted himself to truly believe that the entire Barony might be saved, because if they had failed he would otherwise never have been able to bear the disappointment.
Feeling overwhelmed both by his recent tribulations and by the incredible news James had delivered, Blair jammed his uninjured hand hard against his mouth to try to contain an involuntary sob. Mere hours ago, he’d expected to lose his life and everything he cared about, and had found himself entirely without hope. But suddenly James was here, and he had been granted a surfeit of it.
Taking what seemed to be extraordinary care not to jostle or bump Blair’s hurts, James shifted himself, without fuss, onto the bed right beside him, and Blair felt himself manoeuvred into position against James’ chest, and held tight.
Secure in such a wondrous sanctuary, Blair allowed himself to weep silently for a time, knowing absolutely - in the way that only true pairing-mates could - that James would not think any less of him for it. When Blair finally mastered himself he stayed where he was, basking shamelessly in the continued comfort of James’ embrace, until with a jerk and a sharp intake of breath he caught himself drifting on the edge of slumber. “I’m tired,” he confessed.
“Then rest,” James directed him patiently, apparently not intending to go anywhere. Blair felt the other man’s lips brush against his temple, and the arms around him tightened briefly, before letting go only long enough to hoist the quilt more securely around him. “That’s all you have to do, now,” James murmured, securing his hold once more. “Everything is going to be all right.”
Having found such a rich store of peace and safety, Blair decided that it would be churlish to do otherwise.
Once Blair was sleeping soundly, James left him briefly to take counsel with Simon. There he discovered, to his shock and dismay, the identity of the unfortunate woman on the second pyre – she had been no other than Baron Bannister’s daughter and Blair’s former sentinel, Alicia.
Simon indicated, with a tilt of his head, the direction of the barn, where the surviving soldiers who had accompanied Brackett were being held. “They all believe Alicia to have been a witch,” he informed James. “Guilty of heresy, and that she deserved to burn. There is not a man amongst them – not even those in the service of Baron Bannister – who believe she did not deserve her fate.” And Simon had more bad news to deliver. “From what I have ascertained, Alicia was not the first to die in such a terrible way. According to what these men have said, Brackett has been travelling the villages, burning heretics as he went. Some of those killed were no more than children. These men were all complicit in those acts.”
The faes’ influence was insidious indeed, as James well knew, but that it justified, in the eyes of those thus afflicted, the brutal murder of innocents turned his stomach and drove home exactly how dangerous was the enemy they faced, and how perilous it was to be the single, isolated barony no longer under the night terrors’ thrall.“It is absolutely imperative,” he told Simon, “that none of them must win free to convey the news of what has occurred here. Not one single man, woman or child in this barony would be safe, were that to happen.”
Simon bowed his head, his eyes rife with understanding. “Aye, my lord,” he concurred.
James glanced towards the barn. The surest way to ensure the safety of his barony – yet the most ruthless – was to kill all of their prisoners right now, to ensure that there was absolutely no chance that James and his people might be betrayed. And yet, despite the horrors Brackett’s men had helped perpetrate, James refused to lower himself to such despotic depths, not while the offenders were still deep in thrall to the fae. “Make certain they are all securely restrained, and that there is no chance of even one of them escaping,” he ordered. “We’ll take them back to the castle, and imprison them until they come to their senses. I’ll decide what is to be done with them after that.”
When Blair woke again, he found himself able to face the world with his usual equanimity. Clearer-headed at last and no longer so fearful, he told James his version of what had occurred – of Brackett’s baronial-sanctioned mission to brutally stamp out heresy, despite his own lack of belief in the fae. Blair’s distress at Brackett’s cruelty was clear, especially where it intersected with his own sense of protectiveness towards sentinels. “He was a guide. I will never, ever understand how he could behave that way towards Alex, let alone anyone else.”
James had already formed his own conclusions, which had some foundation with the ease that he had cold bloodedly dispatched a guide – something equally at odds with the nature of his own protective instincts as a sentinel. “I think, perhaps, there was something wrong with him. Something that made him less than a true guide. Something, in fact, which set him apart from other men.”
Blair was frowning, but in thoughtfulness rather than rejection, as though something of what James said made sense to him. “What do you mean?” he asked.
James tried to explain. “Brackett always seemed to be remarkably good at keeping his emotions behind a mask, as all Masters are; but I never met a guide before who used that skill to so effortlessly conceal lies in the deliberate way that he did.”
Blair nodded, at that. “It’s only supposed to be used to enable us to work better with sentinels. So that we don’t get in the way of your senses by smelling of fear, or showing impatience, or being generally distracting. It’s not meant for deceit – just to help.”
James, of course, far preferred Blair’s more natural lack of ability on that score. He had always distrusted Brackett, from the very first time they’d met, and he was certain now that Brackett’s Mastery had been used purely to the man’s own advantage. “I wonder if the fact that he was so good at it,” James went on, “was because he truly did not feel things in the way you and I feel. It’s like he entirely lacked compassion and empathy – that these were not simply things he kept hidden, but that they were entirely absent from his character. Otherwise, I do not know how he could do the things he did in such a cold, callous way.” He reached out to touch Blair. “The many ways he hurt you, for instance. Those were never the acts of a jaded mentor, or even a rival. They were simply cruel.”
Blair ducked his head. “He hated me; he hardly bothered to hide that fact after he took me away from the Academy. He hated Alex too, but... the things he did to her, James. I am certain he... he molested her. And to pretend devotion to the fae, and actually murder people for heresy when he knew the truth all along...” Blair paused, the thought clearly deeply upsetting to him. “I think you’re right,” he said presently. “That he was lacking some essential qualities, and particularly any kind of conscience. Otherwise I cannot fathom how he could do such terrible things.”
They spoke some more, Blair telling James of Alex’s awful death, and of how desperately he’d tried to prevent her from suffering at Brackett’s hands. Blair’s face twisted with sorrow at that part of the tale, his instinctual protectiveness towards sentinels – even towards Alex who had done him so much wrong – making the recounting extremely difficult. “But I didn’t harm her,” he confessed. “I lied to Brackett - I would never have knowingly driven her catastrophic, not if there was the slightest chance, no matter how hopeless, that she might survive. I needed to be sure she could be woken safely, if the need arose.”
“And he believed you,” James comforted. “You did well, both to save her from such terrible suffering, and for convincing Brackett that you had led her so deep she would not wake again.”
“I don’t think he was convinced at all,” Blair disagreed. “I think that’s why he didn’t have me muted, like he’d threatened. He wanted me to wake her up in the fire, to hurt her in an attempt to save myself.” His voice broke. “But it was all just some horrible game he was playing. He’d have burned me anyway, no matter what I did. I knew that; I knew it. And no matter what he did to me, I had absolutely no intention of hurting Alex.”
“And so you didn’t, despite his threats to you. Despite your fear and certainty that you would die, you saved Alex from experiencing something terrible, that you knew you could not save yourself from.” James caught Blair’s gaze, and held it earnestly. “You are a brave man, Blair Sandburg. The bravest man I have ever known. I am privileged and proud to be your sentinel.”
Blair reached out, at that, to take James’ hand in his, their mutual love and admiration for each other resonating through their link.
Despite his broken wrist and the many marks of rough treatment he bore, Blair professed himself well enough the next morning to ride home at James’ side. The baron, Blair understood, had many pressing matters of business to attend to, and if they did not ride out together immediately Blair would be forced to remain behind until he was well enough to follow, and that he could not abide.
So no matter how much he hurt all over, Blair stoically endured the discomfort of his horse’s rolling gait, wincing at the pull on his aching ribs and the throbbing of his bound wrist with every hoof-fall. And he warned off James’ over-solicitousness with a pointed glance, determined to maintain his pride and dignity in front of the guardsmen regardless of how sore he was.
As he and James rode at the head of the column – the centre of which was formed by the captured men, marching chained together – Blair was struck by the deference he was shown by the men who had ridden with James to his rescue. They addressed him respectfully as ‘Lord Warden’ whenever they had occasion to speak to him, and were also conspicuously protective, not permitting any of the captured men to speak angry and fearful words in his hearing on pain of being cuffed curtly to silence.
Blair found himself lifting an eyebrow at James in wordless query, on one such occasion. James simply shrugged. “But for you, these men would still be worshipping the creatures that butchered their families and friends. Your persistence in seeking a cure has saved us all, Blair. I have not been shy to tell anyone the truth of that.”
Both awed and mildly discomforted by James’ assessment of him, and the fact that others apparently shared it, Blair could do naught but bow his head. Accustomed to relative solitude as he’d become, the attentive regard of James’ entire troupe of guards, especially at a time when he was feeling so far from his best, was almost more than he could handle.
Their trek across the moorland took several hours, as they were forced to travel at the pace of the pedestrian captives. As the day wore on, and the journey began to hang more heavily on Blair, James called for regular breaks to allow him to rest. Respecting Blair’s express wish not to be coddled, however, he used the time to move amongst his men rather than hover overmuch at his guide’s side, and Blair was grateful for that sop to his dignity, just as he appreciated James’ necessary aid when dismounting and mounting.
Eventually, by the time the sun was low on the western horizon, they reached the outskirts of the town. Word had apparently gone ahead of their impending return, as the townsfolk were out in force to meet them on the road. The focus of their attention, to Blair’s chagrin, was him. Increasingly struggling against the pain of his wounds, as well as exhausted beyond measure by the long, uncomfortable ride, he was shocked to hear the sound of his name on dozens of lips, and the raucous cheers which followed. James and Simon moved up to flank him, thus blocking the many hands which reached out towards him, and Blair heard James’ firm – but kindly – order: “Please, let Blair be. He’s been sorely hurt, and right now he simply needs peace, and rest.”
The rest of the ride up to the castle went by, for Blair, in a kind of pain-filled haze he could afterwards only liken to what he imagined a fugue, for a sentinel, might be like. He came to himself somewhat in the courtyard, as he was more-or-less manhandled from his horse by the combined effort of James and Simon. Hustled inside between the two of them he was steered through the hall and up a winding flight of stairs, and was helped finally onto the blessed softness of a bed. He felt his boots tugged off, and a cup was placed at his lips. Drinking it down obediently, he recognised the familiar taste of the poppy juice that Physician Wolf favoured, though well-diluted with water; not strong enough to force him into insensibility, but certain to ease some of his discomfort.
All bustling movement in the room – the murmur of voices, the creak of leather – had finally ceased. Opening his eyes Blair found himself in James’ familiar bedchamber, lying on the soft mattress they’d consummated their pairing upon almost two and a half years ago.
James was lying on the bed beside him, gazing at him fondly, an eternity of emotion in his face. “Welcome home, Blair,” he murmured.
Blair had despaired for so long of ever seeing this place again; of ever sharing this bed once more with his sentinel, and yet here he was. Overwhelmed, he reached out to James with his good hand. Then, with a huge sigh, his relief profound, he closed his eyes, cradling James’ hand against his heart, and slept.
The world at the castle that Blair woke to was very different from the one he’d so precipitously left. Where fae-worship had previously defined everything, now revilement of the night terrors and a fervent desire to wipe them entirely from the face of the earth prevailed. Blair could absolutely identify with that sentiment, but he felt weighed down, nevertheless, by the knowledge that the other four baronies – and probably the rest of the world - were just as mired in delusion as ever. And no matter how he considered it, he could not imagine how they might successfully manage to bring about a wider recovery.
For James, now he’d brought Blair to safety, duty called. It was imperative that he not put off any longer the tour of the barony that he’d abandoned to ride to his guide’s rescue. He needed to visit the outlying areas personally, both to confirm that all was well, and also to speak directly to those of his people who lived in isolated hamlets at a distance from the town. It was clear to both of them, however, that Blair was not well enough to go along, plagued as he was by a persistent cough and the ache of healing injuries, all of which had been exacerbated by the long ride of the previous day.
They took their parting in the courtyard, therefore, the afternoon after they had arrived back at the castle, both of them dreading to separate so soon, but understanding the importance of James’ trip, nevertheless. James embraced Blair carefully, mindful of his broken wrist and other hurts, though utterly unabashed at doing so in front of all those who were to accompany him on his ride. “I expect to be gone for perhaps a fortnight,” he murmured. “Rest as much as you can, and try not to worry. I am fully expecting that all will be well.”
“Be careful,” Blair urged him, hugging James tightly with his one good hand. “All it would take is one devout fae worshipper with a knife, determined to end the spread of heresy, to get through your guard and do you harm. Keep alert.”
“I will have Simon to watch my back,” James reassured him. “Have no fear, I understand the danger.”
Blair smiled, a little wistfully, pulling back a little to gaze into James’ face. “Come back safe?” he pleaded.
In answer, James kissed him full on the mouth.
Blair stayed behind at the castle after James had gone, keeping mostly to the room they shared, feeling battered and vulnerable and utterly exhausted. While he was striving hard to put recent events behind him, he found it difficult to stem an almost constant feeling of anxiety, as though at any moment he might once more find himself alone amongst people deluded by the fae. And when he took his rest fire danced behind his eyelids, the horror of Alex’s passing and his own near death hurtling him time and time again away from the brink of sleep, coughing and gasping for air. At those moments he longed for James with all his heart.
Simon had accompanied James on his tour, leaving Joel behind to act as seneschal in his stead. And so it was Joel who brought the news to Blair, two days after James’ departure, that Stephen Ellison had recovered his wits, and was asking to speak to the baron as a matter of great urgency.
Dismayed to hear that James’ noble brother was imprisoned with his men in a cell, Blair asked Joel’s advice. “Can’t he be put somewhere else? He’s kin to James. Keeping him locked up in a cell, now that he’s remembered, does not sit right with me.”
“I do not believe he would be a threat, if we were to make him more comfortable,” Joel confided. “Although I would caution that the guardsmen he is confined with should remain exactly where they are. Because of the atrocities they were party to, the baron has indicated he will judge each of them individually before they are to be allowed their liberty.”
Thus it was that Stephen was installed in a guestroom, and accorded the comforts of his station. Blair ordered that a bath be drawn for him, and food, clean clothing and other personal items provided. Then, after allowing Stephen sufficient time to settle in, Blair went to meet him.
The man who greeted Blair in the chamber, tousled hair still damp from the bath, looked a lot like James, Blair could see. Younger, however, and softer round the edges; just as handsome, but in a less austere way. Stephen was just as tall as James, and clearly as proud in his demeanour, as Blair could not mistake when Stephen stood to greet him. “You are my brother’s guide?” he questioned, a little imperiously.
The question had not been rudely put, but Blair could easily detect a slight edge to it, centred on the word ‘brother’. “Yes, I am,” he confirmed.
“And he has granted you the title of Lord Warden, so I am told,” Stephen went on. “You know, if things had gone differently, that should have been my title.”
“I’m sorry,” Blair said, unsure of his footing with this man, who James never spoken of without a frown, and who had every reason to resent Blair’s place in his brother’s life. “I know you and James have long been estranged. But I want you to know that I bear you no ill will, and that you are welcome here.”
Stephen sighed. “For what it’s worth, I bear you no ill will either,” he said. “I do not know you, in any case. And it appears that everything I heard about you before I came here was a lie.” His expression turned haunted then. “So many lies. And I believed them all.” He looked at Blair, then. “You have always been free of this taint, haven’t you? You remembered the night terrors, and the death they brought, right from the start? That is why you were branded a heretic.”
Blair nodded. “It seems that some rare individuals who have the Sight, like myself, as well as those with a deficiency of hearing, remained entirely unaffected.”
“And my brother?” Stephen questioned. “He had you locked up. I hear you almost died because of it. What of him?”
The familiar – though mostly buried – pain of that unknowing betrayal stabbed through Blair afresh. “He was initially affected by the fae,” Blair said. He looked pointedly at Stephen, protectiveness for his sentinel replacing bitterness as it always did. “He is in his right mind now, though. As are you, and many others.” Blair’s manner softened, sympathy for James’ continued feelings of guilt about his actions spilling over towards Stephen. “I know that remembering the truth is not an easy thing to accustom yourself to, especially if you’ve said or done things you now regret. But you must remember, the fae are powerful. You are not to blame for anything they made you do, including the matter which brought you here.”
Stephen’s face twisted with a flash of pain, but he quickly composed his features once more. “The men guarding us down in the dungeon made very certain to inform us what had caused our affliction,” he said. “They also told us that our miraculous recovery was brought about by you. You seem to have developed rather a following.” He smiled. “You are a powerful man, my Lord Warden, to have impressed the people of this barony to such loyalty. Powerful and clever – a dangerous combination. No wonder James considered you a threat when he was in the midst of delusion.”
“But truly, I have only ever been dangerous to the fae,” Blair pointed out. He wryly indicated the sling which supported his splinted wrist. “I can’t seem to very easily prevent danger to myself, in any case.”
“Yes, I know,” Stephen offered sympathetically. “And although you seem to think it is not necessary, I am truly sorry about what happened to you, because I feel at least partly responsible for it.” He paused, then added, “You’ve been sorely hurt more than once during the course of this fight. Most commonly in the defence of others, including my brother, so I hear. The guards made very sure to inform me of the many tales of your bravery. How you saved James from a fully grown night terror for example, at great risk to yourself.”
Blair knew that the prevailing stories of his exploits were frequently exaggerated, and never more so now that people remembered the night terrors, with James so determined that Blair should be credited for it. “Don’t believe everything they say,” Blair insisted. “I’m no one special.”
“You do yourself a disservice,” Stephen insisted. “For what it’s worth, I believe you have sowed the seed which will save us all. And for that,” he said, apparently without mockery, “you have my admiration.”
Blair had no idea how to respond, but was saved from the embarrassment of doing so by a sudden coughing fit which doubled him over and brought tears to his eyes. He found himself unexpectedly steered to a chair, a goblet of cold water appearing at his lips when he managed to catch his breath. “Easy, now,” Stephen urged him. “Drink this, when you are able.”As Blair grasped the goblet Stephen said, “You are ill. I am sorry to drag you from your rest like this.”
“I’m fine,” Blair protested hoarsely. “It’s just... the after-effects of the smoke. It will ease, in time.”
Stephen’s face was creased with mortification. “Yes, I understand,” he said. “And I deeply regret that you were put through such a terrible ordeal.”
“I’m fine,” Blair said again. “Really.” Though truly, he felt far from his best. He looked up at Stephen through smarting eyes, determined to do his duty in James’ absence, nevertheless. “What is it that you wished to talk about? James is not here, but I will help if I can.”
But Stephen would hear none of it. “It’s nothing that can’t wait. Why don’t we both retire, and talk again in the morning, if you are well enough? I for one cannot remember when I last had a good night’s sleep.”
Sharing a cell with men at various stages of recovery from fae-induced illusion could not have been easy, Blair was forced to concede. He therefore readily agreed to Stephen’s suggestion, and left him alone for the night.
Blair’s dreams, yet again, were less than restful, and it appeared there was no sleeping position which did not cause him discomfort, so it was only during the hours immediately after dawn that he managed to find any slumber at all. It was late morning, therefore, before he ventured from his room to seek out Stephen in the chamber he had been assigned.
Once there, Blair was treated to Stephen’s immediate solicitousness. “Lord Warden, I appreciate it that you are here to attend to me. But please, if you are not well, this can wait until you are better, or perhaps until James returns.”
“I am fine,” Blair protested, knowing what a sorry sight he presented – his face still bruised from the beating he had taken, and his complexion sallow thanks to the lack of sleep. “I look worse than I feel, truly. And please,” he urged, “call me Blair. You are my sentinel’s brother – we are practically kin.”
“I’m only his half brother,” Stephen responded. “But if that is what you wish, I have no objection.”
It having been agreed that they deal with the matter at hand, Blair asked, “What is it that you wanted to discuss with James?”
“Now I know the truth of the matter, it’s actually you I wish to talk to,” Stephen said. At Blair’s questioning look, he clarified, “I wish to ask for your aid. I want you to help me save my people, as you have saved yours.” His voice betrayed fear, then. “I have a son, Robert, and a younger child, a daughter, Sally. My wife is Beatrice, the second daughter of the coastal baron. I love her, and my children, dearly. But all of them worship the fae, as I once did. My family, and the entire coastal barony, are awash with delusion, and I beg you help me set them free.”
No sooner had Stephen concluded his speech, before Blair had set his mind to considering the problem. Stephen was highly ranked, and therefore had both the connections and the influence to set in train the process of recovery. The lack of such a highly placed instigator in other places had been the single element missing from Blair’s consideration of how they might silence the creatures elsewhere. Their own barony had been saved primarily because the baron himself had led the charge – maybe Stephen could do the same in the Coastal Barony?
But of course, Stephen needed to know what he was getting himself into. “It will be dangerous. People do not recover at the same rate, and those who continue to cling to their faith will murder even their own loved ones if they show signs of heresy. You have to understand that there will be a period of huge unrest before everyone is recovered. People will most likely die, either at their own hands or the hands of others. James was able to mitigate the worst of it here, but you will not be able to count on your own baron to do the same until he is recovered as well. You may even,” he added, needing Stephen to fully understand the precarious position he would be in, “be identified as a heretic, and executed.”
“I understand the dangers,” Stephen said flatly. “And no matter what terrible events might occur, I have to try. Because while there is breath in my body, I cannot conceive of a future for my children’s children in which they are nothing but fodder for the beasts.”
There was no response Blair could make to such an impassioned plea, bar one. “Then of course, I’ll help you do whatever needs to be done.”
After that decision was made, Blair threw himself headlong into making plans, spending hours at a time over the next few days considering the matter, as well as discussing with Stephen the best way to distribute the silencing potion, and to get people to feed it to the beasts. The more he thought about it, the more Blair was certain that presenting it as part of a religious rite, like the Ritual of Offering he and James had concocted, was what they needed to do.
“The ritual buys into everything the delusion is about,” Blair asserted, sure that he had hit upon the crux of the matter. “It is about feeding the fae, nurturing them, worshipping them. It simply pushes people who are already in that mindset further along the path. Of course they are not going to question it, or even doubt it. Instead they are going to embrace it and celebrate it. It makes them feel good; makes them feel they are doing exactly what they should be doing. It makes them happy. Who is going to resist that?”
“No one except for those few who know the truth,” Stephen put in.
“And they won’t resist, because they are too frightened of being identified as heretics and killed,” Blair answered. The he frowned. “You will have to put on a convincing act, though. To lead the ritual, you will have to set yourself up as a dedicated fae worshipper, and make them believe you are unwavering in your devotion.”
Stephen looked intensely uncomfortable. “I believe that past actions I have engaged in will make people unlikely to question.” He looked at Blair miserably. “I was not chosen to come here, to depose my heretic brother, because of a lack of piety. I have done terrible things in the name of the fae. Things which make me deeply ashamed, and which I will have to live with forever.”
Wishing to reassure, Blair protested, “Stephen, you can’t think like that. The fae warped your mind. You are not responsible.”
But Stephen would have none of it. His voice dropped to a horrified whisper. “You don’t know what I have done,” he said. “Heretics, when unmasked are, by order of Baron Delacroix, cast into the ocean to drown, weighted down with rocks. I have presided over this penalty myself, more than once. And for this last while, I travelled with Brackett. I witnessed the burning of innocents, with absolutely no pity in my heart.” His expression haunted, clearly dismayed by the lengths he and others had been driven to by the creatures, Stephen added, “So you see, as a priest of the fae I already have somewhat of a pedigree. May the gods of my ancestors forgive me, for I never will.” And with that, Stephen placed his head in his hands, and wept.
As he sat beside the distraught man, trying his best to give comfort, Blair had to wonder how many others would find themselves similarly damaged, once they recovered; carrying ugly scars of remorse and guilt deep with them for the rest of their lives, because of their unwitting actions under the influence of the night terrors. And he was struck by the knowledge that, no matter how many people became free, the scars from this time in their history were destined to run deep through the entire generation whose minds had been enslaved by the beasts.
But at least future generations would survive, unmarred and uneaten. To work towards that was the single, shining beacon which drove Blair ever onwards.
As the days went on, with Blair and Stephen working closely together to devise a foolproof plan, Blair found himself warming considerably towards the baron’s taciturn brother. No matter what he might have so misguidedly done in the name of the fae, Blair was convinced that Stephen was essentially a good man, with good intentions. And Blair found it an inexpressible comfort, in the absence of his sentinel, to have someone so like and yet unlike James to spend his time with - a welcome distraction from the lingering pain of his healing injuries, and the distressing memory and visceral dread of fire which plagued him during every quiet moment.
And with that assessment came increasing puzzlement as to why there was such bad blood between the brothers. Stephen could not, it seemed, refer to James without a sneer; whilst Blair knew full well that James hardly spoke of Stephen at all, and then only with a sense of great sadness. Yet neither of them seemed disposed to talk about whatever it was that had set them so at odds.
Being of a naturally inquisitive nature, Blair broached the matter eventually, wishing nothing more than to see the rift between them healed. Stephen expressed puzzlement at Blair’s query. “He never told you?”
Blair shook his head. “He hardly speaks of you at all. And yet, I know that your separation is painful to him.” At Stephen’s disbelieving look, Blair added, “We are a true pairing. At certain moments I can sense James’ emotions, especially when they are particularly strong. He cares for you greatly, even though he may not show it. And he feels nothing but sadness at the fact you are estranged.”
Stephen took a breath, and Blair fully expected Stephen to put an immediate stop to this line of questioning, but to his surprise the other man did not. “Our father was not the paragon of virtue James always purported him to be,” Stephen said. “He effectively banished me on my eighteenth birthday, by pledging me into the service of the coastal baron, with the expectation that I should be handfasted to Beatrice, Baron Delacroix’s daughter. I was ordered never to return here.” His face twisted with unmistakeable pain. “But that was not all,” he added bitterly. “Notice of my exile was personally delivered to me by my father, who also made the shocking revelation that I am a bastard, gotten by him on a serving girl, who gave me up at birth to be raised by him and the woman I had believed, up until then, to be my mother.”
That all sounded unnecessarily harsh, and at odds with the picture of his father as an honourable and fair man that James had painted. “But why?” Blair asked. “What reason did he have to send you away, or to tell you about your parentage in such a cruel and callous fashion?”
Stephen smiled humourlessly. “I had the temerity to fall in love with my half-sister,” he said. “Of course, at the time, I did not know we were related, otherwise it would never have happened. She was working, at the time, in the castle kitchens. I had dreams of marrying her, of delivering her from a life of drudgery. I revealed this desire to my father, not knowing that he had once had similar urges towards her mother.”
It was clear, from his self-deprecating tone, that Stephen felt something akin to shame at this revelation, along with the pain of rejection. “What happened to the girl?” Blair asked.
“She was innocent of our... connection. My father insisted this should remain the case – I presume because he did not wish his infidelity to become common knowledge. I was forbidden from speaking to her again, and I do not know what happened to her after I left. I must admit, I have dreaded to meet her by accident since my return. I wish her well, but it shames me that my feelings for her were less than brotherly, no matter that I did not know I was her brother at the time.” He looked at Blair. “Her name is Sarah. Her mother – our mother - was called Anna, although she is long since dead. I never knew her.”
“I can try to find out about Sarah for you, if you like. How she is, I mean, and what she is doing now. Her name is not familiar, and I know most of the people who work here, so I don’t think she is still at the castle. Maybe she moved to the town.” Blair turned grim. “I’m sorry to say she may have died, if that is the case. That last summer, before the night terrors went away north, so many people did.”
“Aye,” Stephen nodded his understanding. “I know. I would appreciate whatever news you could give me, but I beg you to be discreet. As I said, I wish her well. But I have no desire to see her again.”
Blair was determined to help Stephen however he could, but there was still a question that had not been answered. “I can understand why you are angry with your father. But why are you so upset with James?”
“James worshipped the ground our father walked on,” Stephen said, his voice turning hard. “Yet it is because of our ‘perfect’ father’s adultery that I find myself to be a bastard, and doomed to live forever in exile – although of course, I have a happy life there now, and no matter the circumstances of our forced marriage, my love for Beatrice is sincere. Despite all of that, it was extremely distressing at the time to be disowned in such a way. And the worst of it was that James took our father’s side. When I was sent away he never once spoke up for me, nor did he show me the slightest compassion. And in the years since, he has shown no inclination to make amends. I can only assume that he is ashamed of me, like our father was.”
That sounded so unlike the man Blair knew. James could be hard at times – as baron, he absolutely had to be. But he was a fair man, and Blair was sure he could not possibly hold Stephen at fault for either the accident of his birth, or his unwitting liaison with his half-sister. Suspecting that there was more to the story than Stephen knew, Blair let the matter lie. But he vowed to talk to James when he returned, and try to find a way to bridge their enmity.
The convoluted web of Stephen’s parentage led Blair to consider his own tangled warp and weft of family. Stephen was not the only one with secret relatives, and after hearing his story, Blair found himself inclined to get his own secrets out into the open.
He had ascertained that, since the events at the estate, Gwen and her sons were now living in Martcrag. It seemed that she and the carter, Paul, were to be handfasted at the winter solstice, having recently struck up a rapport. Thus it was that Blair rode out to the village, accompanied by Henri (as James had given orders that he not go anywhere outside the castle unguarded), to give his congratulations to the happy couple in person.
Gwen exclaimed with dismay upon seeing him, clearly appalled by the fading marks of ill-use that he still bore. “I’m fine,” Blair found himself saying, fending off her worry and the shocked faces of the three boys with as much reassurance as he could muster. He indicated his splinted wrist. “This still aches a little, but really, I’m all right.” Once they were all sufficiently reassured of his wellbeing Blair spent some time congenially enjoying their company, before asking Gwen to step aside that he might talk to her in confidence.
Despite the fact that he and Gwen had always got along well, Blair had been oddly nervous about broaching the topic of their kinship. He had so little experience with having family of his own, and the acrimony between Stephen and James had made him even more wary of making this revelation. But Gwen’s reaction was one of simple pleasure. “You know,” she said, cupping Blair’s cheek fondly, “we all love you, Blair. You were already family, as far as me and the boys are concerned.” Then she swore. “That silly, selfish, irritating old mare!” she said. “Why did she have to be all mysterious and dramatic like that, right up until the end? She had no reason not to just tell us all outright, without putting this burden on you!”
“That’d be too easy,” Blair noted wryly. “Why change the habit of a lifetime?”
“That annoying, cantankerous old sow!” Gwen said. Then her eyes filled. “I miss her, though,” she admitted. “So very much.”
Blair pulled his aunt into an embrace. “I know,” he murmured, his own grief mingling with understanding of Gwen’s very familiar frustration with Rowena. “Me too.”
They held each other for a moment longer, then moved apart to regard each other fondly. Blair tried, as he had ever since he’d discovered their kinship, to make out, in his aunt’s familiar features, the long-forgotten face of his mother. As if she had read his mind, Gwen said gently, “Mam used to say I look like her. Like your mam; my sister. But I don’t remember Naomi all that well myself, truth be told. I was only eight when she ran off. And, with her being so much older, we were never really close.”
Familiar sorrow gripped Blair – a deep sense of loss that, throughout his life, he’d become accustomed to, but which had never ceased to cause him pain. “I was ten when the Academy came for me,” he confided. “She came to see me there twice, I think. Then she just stopped coming. I heard, years afterwards, that she’d left town and gone back to the travelling folk. I never saw her again.”
Gwen took Blair’s hand in hers. “Mam tried to find out,” she said. “Where she was, whether she was still alive. We heard she went south, to the Southern Continent. Then, nothing, no word, not for years. The clans down there keep much to themselves, and rarely venture north to the baronies so news is hard to get.”
“Do you think she’s still there?” Blair wondered.
Gwen shrugged. “Well, she’s there or she’s dead,” she said. “Who knows, with the terrible times we’ve lived through? I hope the night terrors didn’t take her, I truly do. But you and I both know there’s a chance that they did.”
Blair nodded in understanding, the notion that his beautiful, freedom-loving mother might have met such a terrible fate making him unutterably sad. But it was a familiar sorrow, one he could live with, because he’d always had to accept the possibility that his mother might be dead. In some ways it had been easier, as he’d grown to manhood without her, to assume she’d died, rather than accept that she might simply want to forget he existed.
Naomi might be lost to him forever, but right here, right now, fate had brought him into the fold of a living family; kin he’d never known, until recently that he possessed. “At least we’ve got each other,” he noted to his aunt, his voice hoarse with emotion.
“Aye,” Gwen told him, pulling him back into a warm hug. “That we do, Blair. That we do, and I am very thankful for that.” Then Gwen pulled away, a twinkle in her eye. “Jem, Tomas, Fernie!” She shouted over her shoulder, wiping her eyes as she summoned her sons, smiling for all she was worth. “Come here. It’s time for you to meet your cousin!”
Weary after more than two weeks travelling around his demesne, James was surprised when he entered the hall to find Blair sitting close together at the long table with Stephen, both of them speaking to each other with a comfortable familiarity. Their apparent camaraderie made him ache inside, although he was unsure whether it was for want of his guide, who he’d missed terribly, or the old, familiar longing, usually kept buried, to mend affairs with a brother who hated him. But in the very next moment that odd, conflicted emotion was banished when Blair lifted his head, to look at him with an expression of clear joy. “James!” Blair exclaimed delightedly, standing to greet him. And in a thrice they had moved into each other’s arms, both of them holding on as if they’d never again let go.
After a few moments they broke their embrace, but they only backed away far enough so that they could regard each other. James was pleased to see that, although Blair’s arm was still bound and splinted, his bruises had largely faded, and the brightness in his eyes spoke of a man who had managed to banish some of his most recent demons. “You look well,” James said, almost weak with the pleasure of seeing him again.
“So do you!” Blair was studying him raptly, as if he was a visual feast. “How is everything?” he asked.
“All is going exactly as we hoped,” James confirmed. “The night terrors – what’s left of them now their habitats have been destroyed and the creatures butchered – are completely silent. There are one or two folk in the villages who are resistant to acknowledge the truth. But they are vastly in the minority, and are being monitored by their fellows and the guardsmen I left behind to ensure they do no harm.”
James turned then, perceiving his brother’s approach. He’d expected to be greeted coolly by Stephen, and therefore was unsurprised by his cautious politeness, although the apology was unexpected. “My lord baron,” Stephen said politely, bowing. “I am sorry for my behaviour in this hall when last we met. Back then, I was not in my right mind. I wish you to know that I am now fully conversant with reality.”
“I’m relieved to hear it,” James said. Stephen, he noted however, did not look at him directly, but simply nodded, lips pressed tightly together, in response.
Blair came to their rescue, diffusing the threat of an uncomfortable silence with a more pressing matter. “James,” he urged. “There’s something we need to tell you.” He glanced at Stephen, then back at James, determination bright in his eyes.
“Yes?” James prompted.
It was Stephen who answered. “We have a plan.”
James looked between them. “A plan for what?”
Blair looked at James earnestly. “James, we destroyed the night terrors here, and I believe we can do it in the Coastal Barony too. We can do this,” he reiterated. “Stephen and I are certain of it.”
They were both entirely serious, James could see. And knowing what they had already achieved here, having seen the results with his own eyes, James had no choice but to believe it too. “Then let us sit down and take our midday meal together, and you can tell me about it as we eat,” he said.
They retired to the long table and there, fortified with food and drink which servants scurried in to deliver, all of them eager to welcome their baron home, Blair and Stephen appraised James of the results of their deliberations. Of how Stephen would lead the Ritual of Offering, and oversee, as best he could, the ensuing recovery.
It was dangerous, no doubt of that. Most of all for Stephen, of course. “What if the baron doesn’t believe you?” James had to ask. “What if your antipathy towards the fae is discovered? You despise the creatures, now you know the truth. Can you act as if you worship them convincingly, for as long as it takes for everyone to be cured?”
“Don’t you think I’ve already considered those things?” Stephen said. “If Blair’s theory is correct, and the merest suggestion of it being a devotional act is enough to get people to comply with feeding poison to the fae, then it cannot go wrong. I have the baron’s ear; he’s already convinced of my piety, so I am sure I can persuade him to allow me to lead the ritual. And I can act the part of a priest of the fae every bit as well as you did, brother. You can be assured of that.”
There was irritation in Stephen’s declaration; a thorn in their brotherly bond which had not yet been extracted, for all that Stephen and Blair appeared to be unexpectedly in accord. “I have no doubt that you are capable of anything you set your mind to,” James conceded. He would have gone further, to add that he spoke only out of concern for Stephen’s welfare. But he sensed that such an admission of caring would not be welcome, and so left the matter there.
There were other matters to deal with, in any case, now that Stephen was no longer devoted to the fae, and it was time to address them before the plan to liberate the Coastal Barony went any further. “Stephen,” James said, getting his brother’s attention, “I must ask this.” He glanced at Blair, before continuing. “You and Brackett came here to judge both Blair and myself, and to report back to the barons. They will be expecting to hear from you. What are you going to tell them?”
Stephen nodded. “I have thought of that. I believe I can convince my lord baron of your innocence, and he will then send word of this to the others. In fact the plan Blair and I have concocted hinges upon his absolute belief in your piety.”
“Stephen will tell Baron Delacroix that I am dead, burned to death by your order,” Blair explained. “That Brackett was executed also, as well as... Alex.” Blair swallowed, his face clouding momentarily, the memory of her horrific death still clearly a cause of anguish. “He will say that you found us all guilty of heresy and sanctioned our deaths. And he will recite the miraculous tale of the survival of the Martcrag grain, and talk of how the Ritual of Offering, and our executions, have proved beyond doubt that you are a devout and pious man, and worthy of the blessing of the fae.”
“You will need to make a donation to the Coastal Barony,” Stephen pointed out. “Something with a ‘miraculous’ origin and tainted with the potion, like the grain you used here, which we can distribute.”
James frowned. “That’s impossible,” he said. “There is barely enough grain left in this barony to see us through to the next harvest, let alone for your barony as well, after doing the offering here. I am already hoping for a decent harvest to replenish our stocks, or we will be facing a lean winter indeed.”
“I have given that some thought,” Blair put in. “And I believe, this time, it can simply be the dry ingredients we distribute, combined in the right quantities beforehand – to be diluted in ale or wine, perhaps.” Blair shrugged. “We can change the story, make it fit better. How about this? Rare herbs and minerals have magically appeared in the fields at Martcrag, where the miracle first occurred. They are an indication of the bounty of the fae, which you wish to share with your fellow barons that the same might happen to them. Offering the mixture to the fae will ensure their bounty, and result in a good harvest for all, and no more harsh winters like the last one. Everyone will be instructed that the right amount– no more than a tiny pinch – will need to be stirred into a cup of liquid, then a few drops of the mixture combined with each handful of food used in the offering.”
“Such a concoction of dry ingredients will be easier to transport more widely,” Stephen pointed out, “because we cannot stop at the Coastal Barony. Once we have delivered my homeland from the clutches of the fae, we will have to work together to ensure that each of the other baronies is free from the taint of the vile creatures.”
It was an ambitious plan, to be sure. Rife with danger, and certain to result in panic and death on a grand scale before they were done. And yet, what was the alternative? Quite simply put, they had none, because if the fae continued to hold sway, humankind would be wiped out within two generations.
James looked at his guide and his brother, and he nodded his assent. “Let’s do it,” he said.
Preparations to deliver the Coastal Barony from the fae were immediately put into action, with James and his household staff ensuring that the necessary ingredients were sourced, Blair taking charge of the manufacture of the potion, and Stephen spending time devising a ritual which he could convincingly persuade Baron Delacroix and the whole barony to buy into.
Taking a break from overseeing the weighing and measuring of ingredients, which volunteers from the town had enthusiastically taken on at his behest, Blair broached with James the issue of Stephen’s antipathy towards him. “Stephen had no idea of his true parentage,” Blair told him, after relating Stephen’s tale, “or that the girl he loved was his sister. Forgive me, James,” Blair said, “for I know you honour your father’s memory. But in my opinion, telling Stephen the truth of his birth in the way he did, then banishing him from his sight, seems to me to have been unnecessarily cruel.”
James appeared thunderstruck. “I had no idea,” he said. “My father never told me any of this.” He shook his head in astonishment. “I had no idea,” he repeated. “We’re half brothers, then?”
“Yes,” Blair confirmed.
“That my father should act in such a way...” James was clearly shaken. “There was always talk that he bedded women other than my mother, but I never saw any evidence of it, and my mother stuck by him until the end of her days. And not only that - she loved Stephen. She never treated the two of us differently. I would never have guessed this to be the case.”
“It’s hard to fathom,” Blair said, “that a child should be nurtured so lovingly, then cast adrift like that.”
He had been worried that his criticism of the deceased baron might make James angry, but it seemed his anger was firmly directed elsewhere. “Damn the man,” James spat. “I knew he had a ruthless streak - I saw it in action on many an occasion. But my poor brother. He did not deserve such treatment.”
Glad that James was not so blinded by love of his father that he could not see the situation for what it was, Blair asked, “Why do you think he would act in such a cruel way towards Stephen?”
James sighed. “The barony, and its honour, was everything to my father,” he said. “When Stephen told him about his liaison with the girl, I imagine that he became afraid harmful gossip might spread. No matter how carefully the secret had been kept, someone – kin of the girl perhaps, or the midwife who delivered her – would have known the truth. I expect my father acted as he did to save face, and prevent a scandal. He probably thought that, by marrying Stephen highly elsewhere, he had discharged his duty to a bastard son who was not even entitled to that much. And with Stephen out of the way, he spent all his time afterwards doting on me.” James shook his head. “No wonder Stephen hates me.”
“I don’t think he truly hates you,” Blair protested. “He’s just... he’s very hurt.”
There was a pause. Then James asked, “And the girl – Stephen’s half-sister? What of her?”
The answer to that, as Blair had suspected, had not been good. “She’s dead. Long dead. There is a rumour that she died by her own hand, shortly after Stephen left.”
“She found out, then?” James posited.
Blair nodded. “I fear so.”
James sighed. “Does Stephen know?” he asked.
“He didn’t. But he does, now.” Imparting that information to Stephen had been difficult in the extreme. “He’s... quite upset about it, as you might expect. Although he took pains not to show it. In the matter of stoicism, my dear sentinel, he has you thoroughly beaten. But I could tell he was distressed.”
“So I imagine.” James shook his head. “Poor Stephen.”
It was heartening to Blair, that James felt true concern for his brother, despite the bad blood which had lain between them for so long. “When Stephen left,” he asked curiously, “what did your father tell you?”
“Only that they had quarrelled, and that Stephen had decided to live elsewhere. He never told me what it was about, although I got the impression it was to do with Stephen’s desire to make his own way in life rather than be obligated to the barony.” James sighed. “After my father’s death Stephen sent a message, saying that he had married Beatrice, and declaring that he was relinquishing his rights as Heir to this barony and pledging allegiance to Baron Delacroix instead. That simply seemed to me to confirm his desire to make his own way elsewhere. I must admit, I didn’t really blame him. It’s not an easy thing, this life of duty that we were born into. I was tutored from birth to become baron, and as Heir, Stephen’s education followed a similar path. I never considered any alternative, but Stephen frequently chafed under the expectations placed upon us.”
“I know it’s not been easy for you,” Blair said sympathetically. “To be faced with so much responsibility, even as a child – I’m not sure I could have coped with it. And I understand that you’re in a difficult position now, as baron. I only hope that I can make your burden easier for you, sometimes.”
James smiled at Blair tenderly in answer, before kissing him long and hard. Then, each of them mindful of the duty they bore, they went off to engage once more with their allotted tasks.
Later that night, lying spent from lovemaking in each others’ arms in their firelit chamber, Blair brought the topic up again. “You know,” he said, “you and Stephen need to talk. You need to tell him your side of the story. And he needs to know you don’t agree with what your father did, and that you are not ashamed of him. Most especially, he needs to know that you still love him.”
“You like him, don’t you?” James noted.
Blair nodded. “He’s a good man. But right now, he believes he isn’t, and he desperately needs someone to convince him otherwise.” Blair sat up, and turned to look at James. “Stephen’s problems run deeper than you know,” he said. “He’s grieving for Sarah, even if he’ll never admit it, because he still feels so much shame about what happened. But not only that; he’s deeply scarred by what the fae made him do. You understand, better than I ever will, what it’s like to be influenced by the fae; to be forced to do things you later regret. He really needs his brother right now, I think. I think you could help him a lot.”
James sat up and kissed him, his eyes adoring. “My wise and beautiful guide,” he said. “You speak with wisdom, as always. I will talk to him.”
And thus it was, the very next day, that James sought out Stephen. And a tiny bud of healing between the brothers sprang into full bloom, in readiness for the giant healing of the land which was to follow.
In the years afterwards, Blair likened what happened next to ripples in a pond, spreading outwards with their own Northern Barony at its epicentre. Although James, when pressed, conceptualised it more as an earthquake; the unpredictable nature of the return to sanity leaving many unscathed, yet devastating others standing right beside them in its path.
Most of the guardsmen who had aided and abetted Brackett in his scourge of heresy were judged by James, once their wits returned, to be worthy of freedom. Like Stephen (and James himself) they had participated in brutal, fae-inspired acts which they now felt deep and profound remorse for. By way of achieving redemption, they now swore their dedication, in front of James and the baronial court, to the cause of destroying the fae. If they had been fervent before in their love of the creatures, it seemed that now they were equally vehement in their hatred of them.
Of the few prisoners whose remorse was lacking, or recovery delayed, James felt no compunction about ordering their continued confinement.
After a fond farewell with James (with whom he had now fully reconciled) as well as Blair (for whom his fondness was clear) Stephen left, accompanied by a troop of the recovered guards, to head back to the Coastal Barony. With them were two carts full of sacks of the dried potion, mixed and ready for distribution amongst the populace. As they watched Stephen’s departure from the battlements, Blair and James stood hand-in-hand. And they shared the knowledge, through their close link, that the whole world was poised on a mighty precipice.
A tense few weeks followed, all of the barony on high alert in case Stephen’s ploy failed. If anything went wrong, resulting in Stephen being unmasked as a heretic, it was likely there would be serious repercussions for them all, since James’ demonstration of piety was the reasoning to be given for distribution of the ‘blessed’ herbs. Therefore when, almost two months later, a delegation was spotted heading towards the town, word reached James from his eagle-eyed watchers well before they were even visible from the castle watchtower. “They’re flying the colours of the Coastal Barony,” the breathless rider who had delivered the news imparted. “The baron himself is with them.”
James assembled a troupe of men and, without delay, went to meet them on the road. If there was to be a battle, he intended it to take place well away from the town. However, even before the opposing riders came within sight of anyone but him, with his sentinel vision, he relaxed his stance, pulling up his horse and calling a halt. Blair, who had been riding at his side, looked at him with concern. “What is it?” he asked worriedly.
James smiled widely, feeling joy and relief so profound he thought he would burst. Extending his vision once more along the road, he described what he saw. “Baron Delacroix is riding up ahead, with Stephen by his side. A flag bearer is with them. There is a dead fae impaled atop the standard.” He looked at Blair expectantly.
“It worked,” Blair whispered. Then in a shout, “It worked!”
The cry went up amongst their own troops, then. “It worked! They did it!”
Not waiting to hear more of the excited hue and cry, James kicked heels to his horse, Blair following a heartbeat behind as the two of them galloped ahead to meet their visitors. As they approached, James saw Stephen ride out to meet them. As they came close Stephen flung himself from his horse, even as James did the same. The two brothers came together in a hard embrace, crushing the wind from each other, James feeling ragged emotion tear at his throat, his joy that the plan had worked swamped momentarily by sheer relief that his brother had come through such great peril unscathed.
“Well done,” James said huskily into Stephen’s ear, holding him close. “I am proud of you, brother. So very, very proud.” And with that he kissed Stephen on the temple before letting him go, his tears of joy mirroring those of his brother, who clapped him on the shoulder in a manly way in turn, seemingly beyond words.
The coastal baron rode up, then, and after he dismounted he and James grasped each other’s forearms, in the manner of equals. “Baron Ellison,” Vincent Delacroix greeted. He looked much older than when they had last met, his formerly jet black hair swamped by grey. “There is much you and I need to discuss.”
“Indeed,” James agreed, gesturing expansively to all. “You are welcome to my hospitality. Please, all of you, come back with me now to my castle.” He fixed his gaze meaningfully on his fellow baron. “We will take counsel there.”
The two barons talked late into the night, the mood alternately festive and sombre. There was cause for celebration, of course; that so many more people had been freed from the influence of the night terrors was a wondrous thing. But that such a great degree of suffering had taken place whilst under their thrall, and that an unimaginably gigantic task lay before them, was the grim reality that could not be escaped.
But Vincent Delacroix had given this latter problem his consideration, and he related his plan to James. “It is clear to me that, for the entire land to be freed, the other barons and their high-ranking officials must be brought back to sanity first, that they might spread the Ritual of Offering to their own people. To this end, I have decided to convene a full Grand Council in my demesne. The others expect for us to meet, in any case, to discuss the results of Stephen’s investigation of your guide’s imprisonment. Once they arrive, I will have them all confined until they recover.”
That was an ambitious plan. “They won’t come alone,” James said. “You are talking about containing a whole host of captives – their wives and families, their advisors, servants, and men at arms. Do you have the resources for this? Enough secure accommodation, and staff to guard them?
Vincent smiled. “Not without help, I don’t. But if you can pledge me your aid, send me personnel and help me with preparation, I think it can be done.”
There was nothing for James to consider. “Absolutely, I will give you whatever aid you need. And gladly, too.”
So it was that the next stage of their plan was put into operation. To Blair’s chagrin, he was forced to remain behind once more, because they simply could not take the risk of him being recognised by the other barons and their retinues, especially now that word had been circulated of his death. Leaving Blair to act as Lord Warden once more in his absence, James took Simon and various guardsmen and other trusted folk with him for an extended sojourn at the Coastal Barony.
Once there, they worked side-by-side with Baron Delacroix’s own staff to make preparations for the imprisonment of the noble-born visitors and their retinues, who had been invited to attend the convocation. Rooms were made ready and locks reinforced, and James’ own people mingled in with those of Baron Delacroix to act as jailors. The aim was to confine the barons and those who had accompanied them until they recovered, but not to harm them, so every effort was made to make the accommodations of their imprisonment as palatable as possible, while still being secure enough to prevent escape.
The only setback was the outright refusal (brought by a messenger) of Baron Bannister to attend. “He is pleading ill-health,” Vincent told James. “But I think it more likely that, having heard that you will attend, he has decided to boycott the convocation, especially as he now believes you responsible for ordering his daughter’s execution.” He sighed. “At our last meeting, he made no attempt to hide his hatred of you, James, but particularly of your guide, who he sees as having wronged him. It was, in large part, at his urging that we took the action we did, by sending Brackett and Stephen to inspect Blair’s imprisonment, and assess whether you were tainted by heresy. Bannister is a persuasive man – he even convinced us that to give Brackett custody of Alicia was the right thing to do. He seemed to think the man could cure her if they were paired.”
Baron Bannister’s enmity was not entirely surprising news, to James, but it did leave them with a dilemma. “Will he partake of the Offering anyway, do you think, once news of it is brought to him?”
“I do not know.” Vincent pursed his lips doubtfully. “The fact that the offering originated in your barony might give him pause.”
That was a potentially worrying development, to be sure, and something that would require more consideration. But the first guests began to arrive soon after, and so the matter was, by necessity, shelved whilst they dealt with the immediate crisis.
And crisis it was. The first to arrive was Baron Elliot Gainsford of the Eastern Barony; the youngest of the barons, and the most well attended by men at arms. The Eastern Barony sat close to the pass which led to the eastern plains. It was effectively regarded as a training ground for soldiers from all Five Baronies; the combined forces which guarded the narrow pass through the mountains from hostile tribesfolk having provided many young men, including James himself, with experience of real combat. It was commonly understood that, due to years of necessity, the Eastern Barony produced the most skilled and dedicated soldiers. James had tried hard, in his own training ground, to emulate them.
James had expected there to be resistance when they attempted to contain Elliot and his men, and in this regard he was not to be disappointed. Their only saving grace was the fact that Elliot had not expected to encounter any hostilities in the home of his friend and mentor, Baron Delacroix, and therefore it was possible to take him and his soldiers largely by surprise. That did not prevent the battle to subdue them being long and hard, however.
To James’ dismay, the apprehension of Elliot and his retinue resulted in casualties on both sides, although in the end it was all for naught as Baron Gainsford was securely locked away, and his men stripped of their arms and locked in cells in the castle keep. Elliot, as baron, was accorded more comfortable accommodations than his soldiers, but no less secure for all of that. Due to his continued threats to fight his way out they were forced to keep him manacled hand and foot (even though he was granted the use of a comfortable chamber and a soft featherbed) and they were forced to watch both he and his men closely round the clock.
Gainsford had arrived attended only by his men at arms, but the Forest Baron, whose demesne was a little way south of the Coastal Barony, could not have brought a more different class of retinue. The Forest Barony and the Coastal Barony had close ties, Baron Elinor Egremont being in the habit of bringing her household for a regular summer sojourn to visit Baron Delacroix, that her family and close friends might enjoy the beaches which lay, golden hued, in inlets along the shore. Therefore she came accompanied by her consort, her sister, their children, their children’s children and a whole host of household servants, but a relatively small number of guards in attendance.
There was little resistance, therefore, only wounded puzzlement, when Baron Egremont was successfully – and peacefully - confined. “Why are you doing this, Vincent?” she pleaded, the betrayal clearly wounding her deeply, as she, her family and staff were led away to begin their seclusion.
“Trust me, my friend,” Baron Delacroix had answered. “This is for your own good. And one day – sooner rather than later, I hope - you will thank me for it.”
A difficult period followed, the distress of Elinor and her family contrasting harshly with the shouted imprecations and threats of violence from Elliot Gainsford and his men. James could tell that the imprisonment of his friends wore deeply on Vincent, as the coastal baron had long enjoyed cordial relationships with both of the incarcerated barons. But Vincent stood firm, nevertheless, and James stood stalwart at his side.
Gradually, as they knew it must, recovery washed over their captives as inexorably as waves upon the nearby shore. To their relief, Elliot recovered his wits first, and they were able to set him free, the marks of restraints that he’d fought so hard still deeply embedded into his limbs. Despair that he’d been so deceived by the fae transformed quickly into livid anger at the beasts, and clutching forearms in a pact with both James and Vincent, he swore to do whatever it would take to rid his barony, and the entire land, of delusion.
One by one, the rest of the captives gradually recovered. It grieved James that the true memories of some of them, previously masked by the delusion, were often so terrible – the dark time, when the fully-grown night terrors had gorged on humans, had been horrific and painful for them all. It was especially terrible for him to hear, thanks to his extraordinary hearing, the children who had travelled here with Elinor Egremont crying out fearfully in the dark of night, remembering in their dreams the terrible beasts which had so terrorised them all.
James understood that other children, spread right across the Five Baronies, were similarly destined to suffer the pain of recall. That men like himself and Stephen and Vincent Delacroix, who had hurt others in the name of the fae, would forever bear the guilt of their actions. Truth could be a painful thing, James knew only too well. Yet it was truth, and that was to be valued (so James considered) for its own sake.
As soon as they could, the four barons met in convocation. Discussion was brief and absent of disagreement, since all were in accord. The Ritual of Offering would commence forthwith in the Forest Barony and the Eastern Barony, and (by quorum vote) in the capital as well (the administration of which was shared by them all, although delegated to the Baronial Assessor). And as soon as it was practical they would send an emissary to the Southern Barony, along with sacks of the silencing potion, to persuade Baron Bannister to initiate the Ritual there.
As the convocation concluded, each of the four barons grasped forearms in turn to seal the agreement, their faces set with grim determination. To continue to live in thrall, fattening their children for the feast, was an option none of them would consider. It was likely to be a painful excision for many across the land when memories were cut free. And yet, like lancing a boil, the poison must be drained from their minds, because only afterwards could true healing take place.
When the convocation dissolved, James took his retinue and returned to his own barony. On the way he detoured to the capital, to visit the Sentinel School. It was time to bring his ward and her family home, that they too might recover their memories, and be sheltered from the unrest to come in the capital itself when the potion was distributed there.
Grace was clearly afflicted with love of the fae, as were Megan and her husband Rafe. Therefore James handled such topics on the journey, when they arose in conversation, with extreme caution. His determination to see them safe was bolstered when he learned, during the journey, that Megan was newly with child; the threat to future generations never more evident to him than in the vulnerable, slight swelling of her belly.
It was essential that they would need to be carefully monitored until their recovery was complete, so as soon as they arrived back at the castle he ordered that the three of them should be confined. Rafe was locked in a cell, his threats and imprecations easily audible to James, three floors above. And Megan and Grace were confined to their bedchamber, locked-in and under guard.
Blair, of course, insisted on seeing the young sentinel straight away. “Grace can hear everything that happens here, if she chooses to.” he told James. “The night terrors are talked about constantly, as well as the terrible things that they’ve done. It will be hugely distressing to her, so she must be given guidance.”
James accompanied him, of course. He had no intention of permitting Blair to be alone with any fae worshippers, no matter in what high regard they might hold his guide.
It had been more than two years since Blair had last seen Megan and Grace, and during that time the precocious child had turned into a tall, willowy young lady in the early throes of adolescence, her likeness to her mother having become all the more pronounced with her impending maturity.
After glaring her assessment of James at him when they entered her room (she’d been far angrier when first separated from Rafe, and now seemed set on frosty silence) Megan embraced Blair, nevertheless. “It’s good to see you,” she said sincerely. Then, with another angry glance at Jim, she stepped aside to allow Grace to approach.
Grace greeted Blair politely, all studious good manners and impeccable etiquette after spending two years in the capital. Then it was as if she had reverted, in the blink of an eye, back to the demonstrative child they knew so well, when she threw her arms around Blair and hugged him tight. “I’ve missed you, Blair. I’ve missed you so much.”
Blair caught James’ eye as he held her, clearly deeply touched by their reunion. James could see that Grace was trembling in his arms, which Blair clearly perceived as well, because he immediately employed his most soothing guide tones. “What’s wrong, little flower?”
Grace pulled back. “Is it true?” she asked despondently. “Blair, everyone is saying the fae are monsters. Is it true?”
Behind her, Megan swore under her breath, clearly incensed at the very suggestion.
But Blair nodded. “I’m afraid it is, Grace. I’m sorry.”
“Get out,” Megan ordered tightly, grabbing Grace by the arm to pull her away.
“Mama!” Grace protested.
But Megan was having none of it. “I thought, when James told us you were here, Blair, that you’d been cured. But clearly that is not the case.” She transferred her tirade to James. “How can you let him near Grace, saying such terrible things?”
But it was Grace who answered. “Mama, Blair is not lying. He’s telling the truth. I can tell!”
“Then he is ill,” Megan said. “And you should not listen to him.”
“Grace,” James interrupted the tense standoff between mother and daughter. “Do you still believe in the fae?”
Grace nodded. “Yes,” she said. “At least – I think I do.” She glanced warily at her mother. “Sometimes,” she said hesitantly, “I have bad dreams. Mama says to speak of them would be heresy.” She set her mouth in a firm line, then, stubbornly daring someone to disagree. “But I know Blair. I trust him. He’s not lying, Baron James. You can tell that, can’t you?”
James smiled. “Yes,” he said softly. “I can.”
The situation was clearly complicated – Megan was still mired in delusion, but Grace, it seemed, was showing every sign of a quick recovery. Perhaps it was a facet of being a sentinel - when given the correct guidance, James had once done the same. Therefore he made a decision – one that he hoped Megan would forgive him for, in due course. “Grace,” he directed kindly, “go with Blair. I need to speak to your mother alone.”
As Blair steered the young sentinel out of the room, James turned to Megan. “I will see that you are accorded every comfort,” he said. “But until you are cured, you will not see Grace again.”
Megan looked thunderstruck – having heard her daughter speak heresy, and seeing both James and Blair take her side, she clearly did not know which way to turn. “I don’t understand this,” she said bitterly. “Any of this. How can you do this to us?”
“I’m sorry,” James told her. “Truly, I am. But in time, you will understand.”
“And what about my husband? What about Rafe?” Megan challenged.
“Rafe is safe,” James assured her. “But for now, he will remain where he is.”
She shuddered. “It’s heresy, isn’t it? You’re a heretic, just like Blair. Just like Grace.” And turning her back on him, she made it clear that she wished to converse with him no longer.
Bowing his head in acceptance – there could be no reasoning with her while she was still under the influence of the fae - James left the room.
Time passed and, as they knew must happen, Megan and Rafe gradually recovered their memories, and both of them readily forgave James for the circumstances of their imprisonment when the truth was known. They were reunited with each other and with Grace, who had (as James had suspected), come back to her senses very quickly under Blair’s influence. Blair remarked wryly to James about that: “If I’d done the same thing with you at the start, instead of leaving it to Rowena to guide you to use your gift of Sight, a lot of our difficulties might have been avoided.”
And yet, despite the awful events they had lived through, there was one inescapable consequence, and Blair wasted no time in pointing it out when James’ guilt once more got the better of him. “If you hadn’t locked me in that cell,” he said, “we’d never have found the books, and therefore the cure would never have been set in train.” Blair had smiled, his mood darkly humorous at the irony. “I find it hard to regret any of it, knowing that.”
James, of course, had no such compunction. He would live with his regret at the harm he had caused this man, until the end of his days.
A period of tense waiting followed, James frequently wishing that his vision could extend as far as the Eastern and Forest Baronies, that he might know how matters progressed. His preoccupation with far-off events was shared by Blair who, likewise, was filled with a kind of apprehensive restlessness, which frequently disturbed his sleep to the extent that a recurring dream began to plague him.
In Blair’s dream, he and James sat at the centre of a vast web. Other webs could be seen adjoining it, five in total, their delicate, filigreed edges brushing each other in the breeze. Long, rope-like strands radiated out from each web in turn, extending outwards and fading out of sight into the unimaginably far distance in two directions - to the east, and the south.
As Blair watched, he could see the webs were slowly unravelling, one by one, from their centres, the filaments spontaneously igniting into blue flame and obliterating into ash as they came free, before blowing away in the wind. And looking into the distance, he noticed movement along the extended strands which connected the webs to the horizon, tiny, mite-like spiders moving away along them, their mandibles shredding the fibres and gradually obliterating them, even as they traversed their path into the far distance.
The lessons he’d learned from Rowena had taught Blair to never again doubt his gift of Sight. Therefore, upon determining that this was, indeed, a vision, he sought out James to tell him about it. “What do you think it means?” he asked.
James pursed his lips in thought. “The five webs represent the Five Baronies, I suspect.” He frowned. “Yet they are being unravelled. That does not bode well, I fear.”
But Blair, the more he considered it, felt that the untangling was a good thing, not something bad. “I think the webs represent something confining the baronies. The influence of the night terrors, perhaps? It feels to me like the unravelling is a positive thing; the gradual release of bonds.” He shook his head, still puzzling it through. “The long threads, though. I don’t understand that part.”
“If the webs represent the unravelling of our enslavement to the night terrors in the baronies,” James said, “Then maybe the long strands are joined to webs elsewhere, far away. Maybe they are showing us that the reach of the night terrors is a long one. It’s a warning,” James deduced. “The Five Baronies might be shedding their bondage, but the night terrors are still embedded elsewhere – in the southern continent, and the eastern plains.”
“But their webs are being destroyed, somehow. From the outside in, rather than the other way around.” Blair shook his head in puzzlement. “The tiny spiders, who are crawling along the strands, obliterating them? What are they?”
James shook his head. “I have no idea.”
News came, finally, in the form of a messenger flying Baron Delacroix’s colours. “The Eastern and Forest Baronies are free,” Gregory - one of Delacroix’s senior advisors - declared in the packed hall, which practically every member of James’ household had squeezed into to hear the news. “Baron Gainsford and Baron Egremont have worked hard to mitigate unrest during the recovery, and casualties have been fewer than feared. Certainly fewer than in our own barony.”
That was a matter that clearly caused Gregory pain, as well it might. James nodded to him sympathetically, before urging him to continue. “Please, go on,” he said. “What of the capital?”
“The Ritual went ahead in the capital, and has been successful. There were a few amongst the guides at the Academy who, it turned out, had resisted the influence of the fae all along. They were able, early in the recovery, to step in and guide their fellows back to sanity, after which the Academy provided succour to any who needed it.”
James glanced at Blair, noting his guide’s relief. Blair answered his unspoken query. “The Sight is a gift that classically trained guides do not use, but in many of us, it is at least latent. It does not surprise me that some of them remained free, and that others recovered quickly thereafter.” Blair addressed the messenger, then. “Do you know if Master Eli Stoddard is all right? And Master Edwards?”
Gregory nodded. “It was by Master Edwards’ order that the Academy’s doors were eventually opened to those who had recovered. I do not know Master Stoddard, but his was amongst the names mentioned in the report we received. He is alive and well, so far as I know.”
Blair’s sigh of relief was immense. “Thank you,” he answered gratefully.
James nodded at Blair, then motioned the man to continue. “And what of the Southern Barony?”
“Recovery in the Southern Barony was, unfortunately delayed, because Baron Bannister initially refused to conduct the Ritual.” Gregory’s face was grim as he addressed James. “My lord Baron Delacroix bids me tell you, he made a decision for which he will gladly face the judgement of his fellow barons. He travelled to the Southern Barony in person, and proclaimed Baron Bannister to be a heretic before his people, then ordered his removal. Since the charge was heresy, none of his people showed any inclination to prevent him from being usurped, and they accepted Baron Delacroix as temporary baron without question.”
The ease with which Baron Bannister had been deposed demonstrated to James exactly how precarious his own position had been – if he had been unmasked, not a one of his people, even those close to him, would have opposed his death for heresy. And the news disturbed him for another reason as well. A baron’s authority in his own land was, by longstanding tradition, sacrosanct, yet because of the night terrors his own affairs had been meddled with, and now another baron deposed by one of his fellows.
Try as he might, however, given the straits every single barony had been in, James could not blame Baron Delacroix for his unprecedented presumption. “I understand why your lord felt impelled to act in that way. I am sure my fellow barons will understand too,” he said. “But please, go on. What of the ritual?”
“The ritual was conducted not long after my lord took charge,” Gregory answered. “That was three weeks ago, and the first signs of recovery have already begun in the Southern Barony. My lord has remained there, along with a large contingent of our soldiers, to ensure matters are kept under control.”
An excited murmur went round the room, at that news. Effectively, that meant it was over. They’d won, and the night terrors were on the verge of obliteration right across the Five Baronies. That there still might be isolated pockets of unaffected fae in rural areas was, of course, likely; but with the bulk of the land free these could be rooted out, and the people living under their thrall brought back into the fold of sanity, hopefully with the minimum of difficulty.
“What of Baron Bannister?” James asked, once the murmuring died down. “Has he come back to his senses?”
“I bring sad news on that score, my lord,” Gregory answered. “Whilst in confinement, Baron Bannister succumbed to an ailment of the heart. Unfortunately he never recovered, and died three days after being deposed.”
That was sad news indeed, even though there had certainly been no fondness between Baron Bannister and James. And it left a question about the succession – Alex had been the baron’s only child. “Is there an Heir?”
“There is a nephew, Phillip; a boy not yet of age. He is currently fostered in the Eastern Barony, in the Baron Gainsford’s household, where he has been learning the arts of warfare and statecraft. It is said that, like yourself, he has the sentinel gifts. A Lord Warden has been appointed – Baron Bannister’s seneschal, Raoul – who will administrate the barony until Phillip is of age. Meanwhile, Baron Gainsford has agreed to continue with the boy’s education until he is ready to take up his responsibilities.”
That was something, at least. Baron Gainsford would be an exemplary mentor for the fledgling baron, James was certain.
The news delivered, James ordered that the messenger be offered hospitality. And leaving the hall abuzz with the excited chatter of his people, James motioned Blair to follow, and took his leave.
“So I will no longer be the only sentinel baron in the land,” James noted wryly to Blair later that night, as they lay together in their chamber. “Let’s hope Phillip Bannister’s gifts are sound, unlike those of his poor, dead cousin.”
“I think it was less Alex’s gifts that were the problem,” Blair noted, “than an ailment of the mind, which made it impossible for her to manage them.” He sighed. “And her upbringing didn’t help, of course. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have long been critical of her father’s handling of her. But I understand how overwhelming it must have been, to raise such a child – even I lacked patience, when living in close quarters with her. At least until he reaches his majority, Phillip is in good hands. But I can only hope his childhood has been less traumatic so far than Alex’s, and that he has access to a guide who can help him develop his gifts.”
Reminded thus of Blair’s former sentinel, James’ lips brushed across the fading scar Blair bore on his shoulder, where Alex had bitten him. “I hate it that she did this to you,” he admitted. Blair’s hand was caught, then, and James nuzzled into the palm, placing kisses along the length of the puckered flesh which marked the place a fae had once savaged him. “And this,” he said, sorrowfully. “So many scars you carry. This one, and the ones on your back, you got because of me.”
“We all carry scars,” Blair told him firmly. “Yours are less visible, but no less painful or significant, for all of that.” He shifted then, moving to straddle James, confining him with his body, his shoulder-length hair falling down around James’ face like a curtain. “I forgive you,” he said. “I’ll tell you that over and over, a million times if I have to, until the end of my days. I forgive you, James. Because it was never, ever your fault.” And he kissed James soundly, their bodies moving together in delicious, sensuous friction.
They’d achieved such ease with each other, now they had the opportunity to lie together like this every night. Their brief liaisons, when Blair had been at the estate, had always been marred with the imminent cloud of parting, as well as the stress which came with the awful predicament they’d found themselves in.
But now, safe and together in their home, living in a land that was free of the night terrors and with a future before them of boundless hope, Blair had found it in him to banish so many of the demons which had plagued him ever since he and James had first met. Thus it was, in the course of their loving, that he now gladly welcomed James into his body. Later he would return the favour, for he knew that James desired it. But for now, cherished in the arms of his truly paired sentinel, Blair surrendered to pleasure, safe and loved and utterly without fear.
It felt to Blair, by the time spring came, as though nothing bad could ever happen again. They’d lived through unimaginable darkness, the very minds of so many people transformed into unrecognisable, twisted parodies of their true selves. But they had prevailed, and they had recovered, and the night terrors were no more. Relief and pride that they had beaten the most insidious enemy anyone could ever imagine consumed the people of the Five Baronies.
The only real troubling matter for Blair was that his recurring dream continued to plague him intermittently, and no matter how he meditated upon it, he was no closer to interpreting the entire meaning of it. It seemed the creatures in his dream, who crawled along the strands obliterating them as they went, had something to do with delivering recovery to others outside the baronies. But Blair had no idea what or who they were supposed to represent, or how such a thing might be brought about.
That very dilemma was the only thing marring the barons’ satisfaction at their great victory. They met in convocation twice more, discussing for hours on end how the recovery might be delivered to the southern continent and the tribes in the far east, so that the fae could be expunged from the earth completely. But try as they might, none of them could fathom how it might realistically be achieved. The tribes, some of them outright hostile to the baronies, would not tolerate any meddling in their affairs by outsiders, whilst in recent times the northernmost province of the southern continent had come under the rule of a matriarch who was adamantly resistant to outside interference, and indeed unlikely to even grant them a hearing, since she’d severed all-but ties of trade with the baronies. As for the provinces even further south, many of them reputedly difficult to reach due to their mountainous and jungle terrain, no one from the Five Baronies had ventured there for generations, except perhaps an occasional caravan of travelling people.
It was on a bright, sunny day, several weeks later, when illumination of the dream, and the answer to the dilemma it represented, finally came.
As Blair crossed the courtyard one bright afternoon, he smiled fondly as he saw Megan and Rafe standing together, Rafe’s splayed palm resting on Megan’s rounded belly, a look of rapt wonder on the guardsman’s face as he perceived the fluttering movements of their child under his hand. To Blair’s delight, Megan and Rafe had decided not to return to the capital, but instead to remain here at the castle so that Grace might once more benefit from his tutelage. James, as Grace’s guardian, had given his blessing to this, and Blair was happier than he could say to have them all here together again.
Abruptly their domestic peace was broken, although in quite a delightful way, when Grace ran past squealing with laughter, her serious, ladylike manner utterly banished in favour of a resurgence of childish joy. She was followed on her heels by Jem, Tomas and Fernie (who had come to the castle with their mother the previous day to visit Blair), all of them giggling with glee, and clearly revelling in the fun to be had with their new playmate.
The warm homeliness of having all the people he loved here, all of them safe and thriving, filled Blair, in that moment, with utter joy.
Blair had a strange feeling, then. A sense that he’d seen all of this before. He knew that, if he turned, he’d see Gwen standing aside by the wall, watching him with a sad look on her face, grieving for her mother even in the midst of such happiness. That over by the doorway, if he glanced there, he’d spot James talking with Simon, and that the baron would lift his head, and smile at him, before striding over to embrace him.
Blair remembered, then. He’d dreamed this, months ago. It had been part of the dream where he’d sowed the seed of recovery, and watched it blossom. This was it, he now knew. The culmination of that dream, the happy future he’d been promised, after the night terrors were defeated.
Knowing that this had been foretold he was surprised, therefore, when he turned to look at Gwen and found her not alone and sad, as he’d envisioned, but chatting animatedly to a brightly dressed elderly man and woman, their attire and weatherworn skin marking them as travelling folk. His people, then; his and Gwen’s.
Gwen beckoned him over. “Blair,” she said. “These are some people passing through with a caravan. Come and meet them!” As Blair complied, she made the introductions. “Tiernan,” she indicated the man, who inclined his head respectfully, “and Brenna.” She smiled. “You’ll never believe this, Blair. The travelling folk have been free of the fae all along!”
Blair looked at the two visitors with surprise. “Is it because you have the Sight?” he asked.
Brenna laughed uproariously. “All of us, my lord? I think not!” She chuckled a little more, then added, “It’s because we’re always on the move, see. The wee beasties couldn’t get their claws into our minds, because we drove them off whenever they came near our camps. It’s only the people who stayed put in the towns and villages, living side by side every day with the fae, who got affected.”
“We had to pretend, of course,” Tiernan put in. “That we worshipped them just like everybody else. It wouldn’t do for static folks to think we was heretics. Take us and burn us, they would. Saw that happen, once.” He shuddered, and Blair felt a familiar frisson of remembered terror, which always cascaded through him whenever he was reminded of his own ordeal.
His hand was caught, then, in another’s warm fingers; the baron, who had no doubt sensed his momentary upset and, as Blair’s sentinel, had been unable to resist the urge to come over and comfort his guide. “I couldn’t help but overhear,” James interjected towards the visitors, keeping a reassuringly firm hold of Blair’s hand, his emotions – perceptible through their link – calming and loving. “And forgive me, but I must ask. I am wondering if there might be a chance, having met other of your folk upon the road, if you know how things fare in the southern continent, and through the pass?” It was widely known that the travelling folk did not confine their wanderings to the Five Baronies, and so any news they carried about faraway places could well prove invaluable.
And such was the case. “The eastern tribesfolk have fared well,” Tiernan said. “Leastways the ones who keep on the move, like us. There’s one or two settled areas there, though; places where the fae have moved in. But that’s why we’ve come to see you, my lord. We’d like to get our hands on some of that silencing potion you made. Get the recipe, at least. We want to take it back there, and give it to the tribesfolk so that they can clear the bits of their land where the fae have a foothold.”
A sense of the rope-like strands of web in his dream, and the scurrying mites nibbling away at it, rose in Blair’s mind, then. “And the southern continent?” he asked. “What of the people there?”
Tiernan shrugged. “Give us the recipe, and we’ll pass it on to our brethren to do the same down south. I’m guessing it contains powdered farrow – how could it not, considering what it does? That’s easier and cheaper to come by down there. And there’s lots of our folk in the southern continent – far more of us than here in the baronies, leastways. We can spread it around, along with the tale of luck it brings. We’ll give it out as religious charms and the like. It will likely take awhile, but we’ll get the vile little buggers sorted, if we all crack on.”
Blair and James looked at each other, their matching sense of wonder merging and amplifying through their link. This was it, they both understood: the meaning of Blair’s dream. Two dreams had collided, in fact; two prophesies, culminating at this precise moment in the likely obliteration, once and for all, of the night terrors.
James addressed the old couple once more, his eyes sparkling with the certainty of hope. “I will give you whatever you need,” he said. “And I can assure you that the other barons will do likewise.”
That agreement reached, Blair couldn’t help but broach a more personal matter. “I would be very grateful,” he addressed the two travellers, “if, when you speak to your brethren who are travelling to the southern continent, that you might ask them for news of a travelling woman, Naomi Sandburg?” He glanced at Gwen, who was watching him with deep understanding in her eyes, and was conscious of James as an unflinching source of strength by his side. “We heard that she travelled south many years ago. I...” he swallowed. “I would be most obliged if you would get word to her that her son was asking after her, and dearly wishes to know she is safe.” He smiled at Gwen. “Her sister also.”
Brenna looked thoughtful. “Naomi, of the Sandburg clan, you say?” She nodded. “I heard a while back that someone of that name was with a caravan which does a regular trade run through the high mountains far to the south. She’s a midwife, I believe. Gifted with the Sight, like her mother before her.”
Blair found himself unable to respond, unimaginable hope stilling his tongue. Thankfully, perceiving how overwhelmed he was by the news, Gwen took over. “That’d be her,” she said. “She always was prescient, just like our mam.” She smiled at Blair fondly. “Her lad takes after her in that respect, too.”
Blair’s eye was caught, then, by movement above his head. Something small and black, swooping and diving through the air before alighting on the battlements. He drew in a shocked breath, thinking for one, awful second that it was a fae, no matter the bright sunlight.
But Gwen’s happy voice stirred him from his momentary dread. “Would you listen to that!” she exclaimed. “I’ve not seen one of those in years!” And in the next moment, Blair heard it - the musical cadence of birdsong; a male blackbird, asserting his territory from the highest vantage point, his song a riot of life and hope and joy.
Holding James’ hand as they raptly listened, Blair felt as though the song might well be his own.
~ Thus ends Part the Third - The Winnowing ~
~ And so concludes the tale of The Night Terrors ~
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