fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2010-09-04 02:11 pm

[sticky entry] Sticky: Hello, and welcome to Fluterbev's Fanfiction!

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ANNOUNCEMENT:

I am no longer adding new stories to this site

Any new stories I post will instead be added to Archive Of Our Own (AO3).
You can find my AO3 author page here (with the most recently posted works at the top):

http://archiveofourown.org/users/Fluterbev/works

I will keep this Dreamwidth page up as an archive of my older works.

All stories in this journal have now been posted to AO3.
 
~

This is the main archive for my fanfiction stories. I write both gen and slash fiction, primarily for The Sentinel

If you are a Dreamwidth user you are welcome to add this journal to your circle to ensure that updates show up on your reading page. For ease of navigation this journal is best viewed in its original style.

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






General Stories - The Sentinel

Note: All of my general stories depict Jim and Blair as friends. Please note ratings/warnings on individual stories.


Long Stories:

Kith, or Kin?

Immersion




Shorter Stories:

Revolution

I Thought I Saw Sunlight

The Best Medicine

An Anchor in the Storm

Not Waving, But Drowning ~ Companion piece for An Anchor in the Storm

Not Going Anywhere

Anniversary & Reunion

Breaking Point




Missing Scenes & Epilogues:

I Can Be You Oo Oo - Cypher

Sanctuary (expanded version) - The Rig

Golden Confusion - Blind Man's Bluff

Glimmerman - Three Point Shot

Scrying - Mirror Image

The Taste of Death - Sentinel Too Part 2

Blind Spot - Dead End on Blank Street

Just a Sham - The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg

Wolf My Guide - Various episodes




The Dawn to Dark Series:

Part 1: On the Edge of Dawn

Part 2: Into the New Day

Part 3: Twilight of the Soul

Part 4: The Darkest Night

Part 5: The Darkness Will Flee from the Light




Snippets/Drabbles:

Fall

Vampire

Infusion ~ Missing scene for Immersion

The Anthropologist and the Goat

Waiting (Collaboration with Rhianne)

Guilty as Charged

The Rescue

Compassion in the Dark (extended version)




Seasonal Snippets/Drabbles:

Snowball Fight

Gathering, Fashioning

Snow Problem

Buddy Love




Slash Stories - The Sentinel

Note: Stories in this section range from the merest hint of slash, right up to some very explicit stuff. Please note ratings/warnings on individual stories, and do not read if you are offended by male/male relationships, or are underage.

(Also, Jim and Blair's relationship in all of my general stories (listed in the section above) may be interpreted - to quote Jim in the episode Killers - as friends, "With potential.")



Long Stories:

Conforming to Requirements

Lasting Imprint

Double Blind

Conjunction

Sentinel Justice

Immersion ~ This is an extended slash version of the gen story listed above.

Take Two New! 




The Night Terrors:

A novel-length, fantasy AU, published in three main parts: 

Part the First - The Reaping
~ Chapter 1  /  ~ Chapter 2

Part the Second - The Harrowing
~ Chapter 1  /  ~ Chapter 2

Part the Third - The Winnowing ~ New! 
~ Chapter 1  /  ~ Chapter 2  / ~ Chapter 3





Shorter Stories:

Survivor Guilt

Staying Present

Guilty Secret

Postscript (Collaboration with Rhyo)

Lesbian Chic

Mosaic

Fantasy

Walls Within Walls ~ Extended epilogue for Prisoner X

Nirvana

Torture




The Irish Saga (Index):

Three Spirals

Road Rage

The Book of Kells

The Pure Drop

Round the House and Mind the Dresser

The Frost is All Over




Fanfic Hospital Series (Index):

Satirical crack!fic collaborations. To read the rest of the stories in this series (by such brilliant writers as Mab, Elaine, Psychgirl, Jane Davitt, Jess Riley and others) go to the Fanfic Hospital Website

Fanfic Hospital (Collaboration with Panik and Fingers)

Fanfic Sex Therapist

Fanfic House (Collaboration with Luicat)

Fanfic Awards





Fathers' Day Series:

A series of snippets previously posted at Sentinel Thursday. Angst and unhappiness to the nth degree - if Jim/Blair are your OTP please read with caution.

Fathers' Day

Routine 

Late at Night on the Open Road, Speeding Like a Man on the Run

Nothing Left in Store





Snippets/Drabbles:

Moving

Birthday

Lick

Five Ways Blair Sandburg Didn't Have Sex With Jim Ellison in Canon

20 Things You Never Knew About Blair Sandburg (Collaboration with Rhianne)

So Married

Oubliette.




Seasonal Snippets/Drabbles:

Jingle Bells, Sandburg Smells

Gay Apparel





Stories in Other Fandoms

Note: All stories currently listed in this section are gen.


Darklight:

Loss of Faith





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fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2020-09-12 05:39 pm

Disclaimer

Unless stated otherwise, all stories in this journal are inspired by the Pet Fly/Paramount TV series The Sentinel. They are produced purely for the enjoyment of myself and other fans, not for profit. No copyright infringement is intended.

Please do not repost or archive these stories anywhere else, without first obtaining my express permission.



The artwork at the top of the Home Page and on my default icon is by [livejournal.com profile] rhianne - thanks so much to her!


fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2012-07-31 09:00 am

(no subject)

Whoops! Nothing to see here.

All stories can be found by following the links on my Home Page. To go back there click here.
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2012-07-31 08:00 am

(no subject)

Whoops! Still nothing to see here.

If you keep going back through this journal you will eventually find my stories, but it's far easier to access them from the index on the Home Page.

To go back there click here.
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2012-07-31 07:55 am

(no subject)

.
What's New?


The most recent updates to this journal are listed below, in reverse-date order

(Back to Home Page)



5th May 2011

Added final part of The Night Terrors (slash):

The Night Terrors: Part the Third - The Winnowing








9th February 2011

Added new long story (slash):

Take Two








16th September 2010

New slash snippet added in the Fathers' Day series:
Nothing Left in Store







4th September 2010

Closed down LJ fic journal and moved to Dreamwidth.

New slash snippet added in the Fathers' Day series:
Late at Night on the Open Road, Speeding Like a Man on the Run








6th August 2010

Added a new slash short story:

Survivor Guilt








13th April 2010

Added a new slash snippet:

Oubliette








27th December 2009

Added four new slash snippets/short stories:

Fathers' Day

Routine

Fanfic House

Fanfic Awards


Added LMFA 2009 Winner, Honorable Mention and nomination graphics to relevant pages.

Added Index Page for the Fanfic Hospital series.







7th February 2009

Added LMFA 2008 Winner and Honorable Mention graphics to relevant pages.

Updated FAQ.

Added link to the Fanfic Hospital Website.







28th December 2008

Added new slash short story in the Irish Saga: The Frost is All Over






14th November 2008

Added new slash satirical snippet: Fanfic Sex Therapist







23rd October 2008

Added new pre-slash TS snippet (collaboration with Panik ([livejournal.com profile] gillyp) and [livejournal.com profile] fingers: Fanfic Hospital






17th September 2008

Added new slash short story: Torture






6th September 2008

Added Index page for the Irish Saga.

Added LMFA Nomination graphics for 2008.

So that visitors to this journal do not have to see advertisements, I have bought 12 months paid time.






16th August 2008:

Added two new TS slash drabbles:

Birthday

Lick

Also added two new gen snippets:

Fall

Vampire






12th August 2008:

Added new TS slash snippet: Moving






3rd August 2008:

Updated the FAQ.






18th May 2008:

Added new slash TS story in the Three Spirals Universe:

Round the House and Mind the Dresser






31st March 2008:

Updated the FAQ.





23rd March 2008

Added 2007 LMFA winner and honorable mention graphics to relevant pages.





17th March 2008

Added new TS slash story in the Three Spirals universe:

The Pure Drop





1st March 2008

Added second part of a new slash TS novel-length story:

The Night Terrors - Part the Second





17th February 2008

Added first part of a new slash TS novel-length story:

The Night Terrors - Part 1





3rd January 2008

Added new gen TS short story: Breaking Point





2nd November 2007

Added new gen TS snippet: Infusion





27th October 2007

Added Art Index page

Added illustrations by Lorraine Brevig, Rhianne and Peter Neverland.





20th October 2007:

Added gen and slash versions of a new TS story: Immersion.

Gen Version

Slash Version





19th October 2007:

Added FAQ page.





16th October 2007:

Added What's New? page.

Reorganised story links by size-category on Home Page.





13th August 2007

New TS slash story added: Sentinel Justice.





31st July - 13th August 2007

51 stories added - TS slash, TS gen and Other Fandoms.

Author Awards page added.





31st July 2007

Journal created at LiveJournal.





Back to Home Page
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2012-07-31 07:50 am

(no subject)

.
Author Awards

(Back to Home Page)



A sincere thank you to everyone who has ever nominated/voted for me or my stories in The Burton Awards, The Light My Fire Awards and the [livejournal.com profile] rerunawards. It means a lot to me to know that there are people who have enjoyed my writing enough to do so.

These are the author nominations/awards I have received (most recent at the top). Story-specific awards are shown on the relevant stories.



Photobucket
Winner: Outstanding Author (Slash)




Photobucket
Nominee: Classic Author (Slash)




Photobucket
Winner: Outstanding Author (Gen)




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Nominee: Outstanding Author (Slash)




Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Honorable Mention: Outstanding Author (Slash)




Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Nominee: Outstanding Author (Slash)




Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Winner: Best New Author (Slash)




Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Nominee: Outstanding Author (Gen)




Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Winner: Best New Author (Gen)




Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Nominee:
Favourite Drama Writer
Favourite Angst Writer





Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Nominee: Outstanding New Author (Gen)




Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Winner: Outstanding New Writer




Back to Home Page
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2012-07-31 07:45 am

(no subject)

Frequently Asked Questions




(Back to Home Page)




Q. I want to read your stories but I don't have Dreamwidth, and the box at the top of the page is prompting me to log in. Does that mean I can't read them?

A. Anyone can read my stories here, whether they are a logged-in Dreamwidth user or not. All you have to do is go to the Home Page, and click on the story links you find there. Just treat it just like you would any other fanfiction website.




Q. Will you continue to archive your slash stories at 852 Prospect?

A. No. I generally, however, archive the vast majority of my stories at Artifact Storage Room 3.




Q. I'm looking for your latest WIP, but I can't find it here.

A. With the current exception of The Night Terrors and an ongoing series called Fathers' Day, I only post completed stories to this fic-journal. I do not have any other publicly accessible works in progress at this time.




Q. Why are some of your stories split into two parts?

A. Dreamwidth has a maximum length restriction for posts (approximately 50,000 words), which means that any story exceeding that limit has to be split into sections. Where that is the case, I have tried to make navigation between the parts as simple as possible. If you prefer to read long stories in a single file, then you'll find most of them in that format at Artifact Storage Room 3.




Q. I'd like to read/print out your story without all the annoying graphics and comments.

A. Feel free to copy and paste stories into MSWord or any other application you like for your own personal use.




Q. What do you mean when you say 'comments are welcome, but absolutely not necessary'? Do you want me to leave you a comment or not?

A. I appreciate very much the nice things that people have said over the years about my stories, and am very grateful to everyone who takes the time to write to me about them. However, I also like the idea that people can come along and read my stories and engage with them in whatever way they feel most comfortable, without feeling any obligation in return. As far as I am concerned my stories are freely given, and I require no acknowledgment from readers at all unless this is something you really wish to do.




Q. I want to leave a comment, but I'm not a Dreamwidth user.

A. That's fine. All story posts in this journal are set up to accept comments from people without Dreamwdth - you just have to select the 'Anonymous' option after you click on 'Post a new comment' (however if you do that I would ask that you please sign your name/internet pseudonym in the body of your message, otherwise I have no way of knowing who you are). If you have a LiveJournal you can comment using Open ID. Alternatively, you could email me at the address displayed on each story.




Q. What happened to your story, Blood Feud? Do you intend to post it here? Can you send me a copy?

A. Blood Feud is a story which has extremely painful connotations for me, for reasons rooted both in my personal life and in the circumstances under which it was written. Because of that I made the decision, some time ago, to take it offline permanently. I no longer retain a personal copy (so please don't ask me for it), and have no plans to post it online again. If you want to read it you could try asking at one of the ficfinder communities, as there may be readers who will be willing to share their saved copies. I'd prefer not to be contacted about it though, and please don't send me feedback for it.




Q. I'm going to repost your story in my journal/to an archive/on my website. It's just fanfic so I don't need your permission for that, do I?

A. I obviously can't stop you from doing whatever you want, and unfortunately it wouldn't be the first time. However, if you take my story and repost it publically without asking, either in its original format or by translating it into another language, making it into an e-book file or just plain pretending it is yours, then I reserve the right to point out your rudeness. And if you tell me after the fact that you couldn't get hold of me to ask, I will refer you to the very clear email address that is displayed on every story.




If you have any comments/questions, you can email me at fluterbev@gmail.com


Back to Home Page
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2012-07-31 07:30 am

(no subject)

.




I'm totally honoured and delighted that a number of fantastic artists have made pieces to illustrate my work. Click on the thumbnails below to see the full-sized illustrations. If you enjoy the pieces, please send feedback to the artists.








Back to Home Page
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2011-05-05 09:27 pm
Entry tags:

Final part of The Night Terrors is posted

 I've just posted the third and final part of The Night Terrors: Part the Third - The Winnowing

Links to all parts can be found on the home page of this fic journal - scroll down to the slash stories to find it. Warnings etc can be found in Part the First - The Reaping

:-)


fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2011-05-05 08:14 pm

The Night Terrors: Part the Third - The Winnowing (3/3 Slash)

Back to Chapter 2


Chapter 3

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.

“Two.”

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 ~


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



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fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2011-02-09 07:52 pm

Take Two (slash)

Summary: Several months ago, Jim rejected a guide called Blair Sandburg as a potential bond-mate. Now Blair is bonded to someone else, but all is not well in his world.

Author’s Note: I started to write this over a year ago, not with any intention of making it into a finished story, but simply for my own amusement because I like to play with AU bonding scenarios. Somewhere along the way it developed into something more, so I impulsively signed it up for the Sentinel Big Bang. Life was manic, though, so I never finished it - instead I shelved it permanently (or so I thought). Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was messing about with stuff saved on my laptop, and unexpectedly wrote myself out of a corner. Even more unexpectedly, I managed to get the story finished. At that point I gave it to Gerri, who was owed a story from Moonridge, and I am now posting it here in the hope that it might entertain others.

Category: Slash, bonding AU. NC17

Warnings: Roll mouse across to see warning: contains references to domestic violence.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to PJChang for being an awesome cheerleader and beta! She stuck with this story from the minute we hooked up during the Big Bang, and has not stopped waving her pompoms since. Dedicated with huge thanks to Gerri, who donated to Moonridge in respect of this story. Gerri has generously waived her 30 day right to exclusivity, thereby allowing me to share this with others immediately. Some ideas in this story are gleaned with thanks from the inimitable Susan Foster and her GDP universe, as well as the wealth of similarly-themed fanfic by others. Also, I need to add a shout-out to Mab, whose fantastic story The Children of Cascade influenced some elements. Thanks to all for the inspiration.
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fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2011-01-19 01:38 pm

The Night Terrors: Part the Third - The Winnowing (2/3 Slash)

Back to Chapter 1


Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened to him?” Blair asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” Blair said.

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

They needed to abduct a night terror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But-”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seems likely,” Rowena agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He reserved his own grieving for another time.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then?” James prompted. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unharmed?” Simon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

They had undoubtedly found it wanting.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see,” James quipped. “How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The tale concludes in Chapter 3


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2011-01-19 01:35 pm

The Night Terrors: Part the Third - The Winnowing (1/3 Slash)

 For summary, warnings etc, please go back to The Night Terrors: Part the First - The Reaping


Part the Third - The Winnowing is the final part of the tale of The Night Terrors.

It is posted in three chapters due to length.

Chapter 1 is on this page, and the other chapters are here: Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.






Chapter 1

 Blair woke to the creak of leather and muted rattle of buckles. Cracking open an eye he saw James, illuminated by the half-light of morning which filtered in through the crack in the shutters, already fully dressed and pulling on his boots.

“James?” Blair murmured, although even in his half-asleep state, he knew the answer to his query before he even properly asked it.

James finished tugging on his second boot, then bent over Blair. They kissed, a long, sorrowful caress of lips. “I have to go,” James murmured into Blair’s mouth, his breath sweet and hot.

“I know,” Blair conceded sadly. He reached up to cup the back of James’ neck, bringing the other man in for one more lingering kiss. Then, reluctance singing through the connection between them, they parted. With a last, eloquent exchange of looks, James moved away and out of the door that, in deference to the other, sleeping occupants of the house, he closed softly behind him.

Rising from the bed, Blair wrapped the coverlet around his nakedness and moved over to the window, the floor icy on his bare feet. He opened the shutters and sat in the window seat, watching. A few minutes later the baron led his horse out of the stable and into the yard, mounting effortlessly in a practised, graceful movement.

“I love you,” Blair murmured.

He was rewarded by a turn of the baron’s head, and a faint smile that softened James’ austere features to shining, masculine beauty. Then the baron raised a hand in farewell, and setting heels to his stallion he trotted out of the yard.

Sighing sadly in his wake, Blair went to get ready to start the day.

***

It was now midsummer, and more than six months since Blair and James had reconciled; yet, in all that time, the baron had only managed to visit three times.

James had told Blair, on that first fateful day just before the winter solstice when they’d so emotionally renewed their pairing, what it was that had delayed him from visiting sooner. “There is more going on than just simple protectiveness towards the fae,” he’d said as they had lain together in Blair’s bed, their limbs tangled together as if they were a single creature. “They’re being worshipped, as though they are gods.”

“Which is why,” Blair had mused, “the concept of heresy has made a reappearance. If the fae are being deified, then it is not surprising that unbelievers are being vilified and cast out.”

“And not just cast out,” James told him miserably. He hoisted one arm from beneath the blankets, to smooth his hand over his short-cropped hair in a gesture of unhappy frustration. “There has been a murder in the town – an elderly bachelor, half-blind and almost completely deaf, who refused to leave food out for the fae. It is said that he showed disrespect towards the creatures, and that he tried to prevent them from roosting in his property.”

That was far too close for comfort – Rowena had driven the fae out of her house in the town too, and done the same thing here at the estate. “Did you catch whoever did it?” Blair asked.

James had shaken his head. “I know who they are,” he said. “But no one will give evidence against them. If I were to press the matter, things being as they are, I risk public censure. The other barons already have me under surveillance – they sent an envoy, to reiterate that I’m must stick to the terms of the Grand Council’s order as regards your confinement. He went back a few days ago, but even though he’s gone I’m still walking a fine line right now, trying to maintain order and keep my own ‘heresy’ from being discovered. That is the reason it took me so long to come back and see you.”

It was that account, as much as anything, that had illustrated to Blair exactly how much pressure James had been under since he’d recovered his wits; he was a man in the public eye, responsible for law and order, his behaviour subject to particular scrutiny because he was a baron who had entered into a pairing with a confirmed heretic. “James,” Blair had pleaded, fear rushing through him. “Be careful.”

“Don’t worry,” James said. He tucked his arm back inside the bedclothes, before pulling Blair tight against him. “Peter and Maeve made an oath – swearing on the fae, no less – not to divulge your location to anyone. And the only other people who know your whereabouts are Simon and myself. Despite Simon being under the sway of the fae, I have absolutely no doubts as to his loyalty, and I trust him with my life. And though it would not be prudent for me to visit you as often as I would like, I take great pains every time I do to ensure that I am never followed.”

“It’s not me that I’m worried about,” Blair told him pointedly. “James, what will you do if someone comes up before you accused of heresy? You’re far too honourable a man to sentence an innocent to death to save your own skin. Yet if you show clemency to a heretic, you could get found out.”

“It’s not happened yet,” James had responded flatly, but it had been obvious it was a possibility which he’d considered, and was deeply troubled by. “When it does, I’ll think of something.”

Now, six months later, Blair was no more reassured than he’d been on that occasion. The strain was telling on James, as had been obvious during his latest, brief visit. And Blair was filled with a sense that the current arrangement could not continue – he couldn’t help but feel that it was only a matter of time before something would happen to spell the end for them all.

Blair had been consumed, for months now, with a desperate urge to act. To do something – anything – to break the grip that the fae had on humanity. He often watched Gwen’s three children playing in the yard and the fields around the house, swinging on ropes and whooping with joy, and he feared greatly for their future. By the time the boys grew into old men the night terrors themselves would be almost fully grown, and humankind would once again be sentenced to spend every night hiding indoors, tethering animals outside to save their own skin. And that was if they even made it that far – the fae existed now in such vast numbers that, once they had grown larger, the amount of livestock necessary to turn their ravenous appetites away from people would be immense, even decades before they reached their pre-spawning need to gorge.

But Blair was only one man, and James’ hands were tied, baron that he was. And Blair currently lived in impotent exile, responsible not only for his own safety but also that of the two women and three children who shared this abode. If they were to be attacked by those intent on doing them harm, he would fight to the death to protect those in his charge. But in the meantime he could not risk doing anything to put them – or his sentinel – in danger.

The sad fact was, since the fae had twisted everyone’s minds, that Blair and the others were currently far more at risk from their fellow humans than from the creatures themselves. For any of them to venture outside their sanctuary and move amongst their fellows, knowing what they did about the fae, would be perilous indeed. And going by James’ latest report - that the cult of fae worshipping had swept right through the baronies, its disciples gripped by religious fervour – any hint of suspicion in the nearby village that the baron’s notorious heretic guide was ensconced in the locality could easily result in their deaths at the hands of an angry mob.

Trapped, therefore, in this place, and wary of doing anything to disturb the uneasy status quo they had established, Blair chafed constantly with intense frustration.

He desperately needed to do something. But what?

***

“You have a headache again, my lord?” Simon’s solicitous voice intruded on James’ painful reverie, as he took a break from council in his private chamber.

“Is it that obvious?” James asked wryly, lifting his head from his hands. If he looked as bleary-eyed as he felt, then no doubt it was.

Simon’s face swam into view, his eyes soft and concerned. “I take it that the herbs the wise-woman gave you are losing their efficacy?” he asked.

James frowned. In the aftermath of his latest visit to see Blair he’d not used them, trusting the beneficial effect of a night spent in the company of his guide to last him for weeks or more until narcotic support became necessary again. But he now realised that the stress he’d been under since his return – which had turned out to be considerable – had meant that a single night in Blair’s company had not been anywhere near enough to keep him on an even keel. “Perhaps I need to increase the dosage,” he hedged, not comfortable confiding even that much in his trusted advisor. “I’m sure, after that, I’ll be fine.”

Simon, however, pursed his lips, obviously unimpressed. “May I speak frankly, my lord?” he asked.

“Of course.” James motioned him to take a seat. “What’s on your mind, Simon?”

“Isn’t it time,” Simon said bluntly, “for you to think about other options?”

“What do you mean?”

“Is Blair getting any better, my lord?” Simon asked.

Further discomforted by this line of questioning, James hedged, “His condition is not a matter I wish to discuss.”

“What I mean,” Simon went on, “is to ask how likely it is that he will ever return to operate once again as your guide?”

“Not very likely,” James admitted. Such an eventuality would involve Blair being tried publicly by the barons to establish if he was truly free of his heretical delusions. The barons would be sure to engage an impartial sentinel to gauge Blair’s truthfulness, and no matter how well Blair might be able to bend his words, there was truly no way he’d pass such a test. And even if he did, there was the matter of the fae he’d killed, for which Blair would, if ever deemed of sound mind, incur punishment – the barons’ envoy had stipulated quite emphatically that any possibility of redemption would come at a price. At the very least, he’d be condemned to a public flogging. At worst, if the barons insisted upon it, he might incur a sentence of death – and not an easy one, at that. In view of the circumstances, James could not conceive of a time when Blair would be safe anywhere but where he was now.

“Then might it not be kinder,” Simon asked softly, “to put him out of his misery?” The honest compassion in Simon’s voice belayed the shocking nature of what he was proposing. “Surely, confined as he is, he exists only to suffer, and I know that is not what you want for him. Why not help him on his way, doing so humanely - perhaps a draught, concocted by the woman who guards him? Then you would free to seek a new pairing with a guide worthy of your standing. You would no longer be plagued by such continuous discomfort, and Blair’s wretchedness would be at an end.”

If Simon had been in his right mind, James would have struck him down there and then for proposing such a terrible act. But James knew that it was the very fact that he was not in his right mind which led Simon to make such a suggestion – the good, fair man James had once fought back-to-back with would never have contemplated it, let alone uttered it. And as such, James felt his anger drain away, replaced by the lingering despair which constantly plagued him when dealing with those he cared for, but no longer truly recognised. “I will give your suggestion my consideration,” was all he said, the words bitter pills in his mouth.

“Thank you, my lord,” Simon said, taking his leave thereafter.

Losing himself in hopelessness once Simon had gone, James prayed fervently for the world to right itself, and for all to be as it was before the fae came. But of course, nothing was ever quite that simple; the ‘fae’, it turned out, had been here all the while. And what was more, the power of prayer could only be effective when there was something to pray to – and unlike almost everybody else, the infant night terrors were most definitely not James’ deity of choice.

Resigned to the need to fix his mask back firmly back into place, James mixed a measure of the herbs Rowena had given him into a goblet of water and swallowed it down. Then, with leaden feet and a heavy heart, he went back down to the hall to resume council.

***

Life at the country estate where Blair spent his time in exile was peaceful enough, if one discounted the constant dread of discovery which plagued them all.

Blair found himself consumed more and more, however, with a sense of restlessness at the even, tedious cadence of their existence. A desperate desire to look outside the safety of their retreat, and to do more than simply accept the doom to which humankind was destined. So in an effort to do something, Blair began to make a written account of all that he knew about the night terrors, hoping that by consolidating his understanding of the creatures a way might be found to fight them.

He began with the obvious things. Their lifespan, it seemed, was very long indeed – far exceeding that of humans. The time between spawn to adult spanned perhaps a hundred and fifty years or more, evident by the fact that the last batch had still been infants when Rowena’s grandmother was but a small child, yet the adults they’d eventually become had only recently reached the end of their natural lives.

They increased in size over time from tiny creatures, no more than four inches tall, to huge, fearsome beasts, far stronger than humans. And their appetites increased as they grew, so that while as infants they were content to take small animals from the wild and lap up milk and slops left out for them, gradually they progressed to devouring larger livestock and, ultimately, humans. And at the end of their lives, ravenous due to the multiple offspring they carried within, they went on a gorging frenzy, eating anything – and anyone – they could find, before flying off to spawn in the far north.

Based on what James had related following the expedition he’d led to their nest, the infants – the fae, as people called them – emerged live from the dying bodies of their parents, which they then feasted upon, gorging until they were strong enough to fly to live amongst humankind. They were tiny and vulnerable, their single defence the powerful mind-twisting influence their proximity had on humans. That manifested, in those affected, as feelings of intense protectiveness and adoration towards the fae, as well as a complete loss of memory about their true nature. The effect, so it seemed, wore off as the creatures grew, but by then the people who now revered the fae would be dead, with only their children and grandchildren left to face the horror to come.

Having never been thus afflicted himself, Blair was eager to find out more about what it felt like to be influenced by the fae. So he interviewed Gwen, who’d managed – with her mother’s help – to shake off the delusion.

“The only thing I can compare with how I felt about them is the love I have for my children,” Gwen admitted. “I thought them so beautiful, so precious; and it seemed such a wondrous thing that they deigned to live amongst us, bestowing their protection and luck upon us. I felt utterly compelled to protect and nurture them in turn.” She sighed unhappily. “When Mam drove them out of our loft, I didn’t speak to her for days – I was that angry.” Gwen looked ashamed, then. “I even considered doing her harm, until my delusions began to wear off. May the gods of my ancestors forgive me.”

Blair was well aware, through his own bitter experience, that the fae were more than powerful enough to turn people against their own loved-ones. If they could even disrupt the natural protectiveness a sentinel felt for his guide, then folk who lived without such profound bonds would have little chance of resistance. “And your memories of the night terrors,” he prompted, turning Gwen away from her guilty reflection on that unhappy topic. “Did the fact that so many people had died not strike you as odd?”

“To be truthful, no,” Gwen said. “There was always an answer, it seemed, for everything. Everyone said there’d been a plague which had taken our neighbours and friends. And I just accepted it without question.”

“But you didn’t actually remember it?” Blair pushed.

“It’s hard to explain,” Gwen clarified. “I didn’t remember specific instances, but I just believed it. I had no urge to question it. If ever I did try to think back – and I did, once Mam made me do it – overwhelming thoughts of the fae would distract me. I’d feel a rush of love for them so profound, I couldn’t think of anything else.”

So, as Blair had suspected, it seemed that the fae did not so much supplant people’s actual memories; rather they deflected their thoughts elsewhere whenever recollections of the adult night terrors and their deeds tried to intrude. That was in accord with what he’d observed of James – in the midst of his own delusion, the baron had remained vague about actual events and had constantly veered off topic, no matter how hard pressed.

 

The effect, it had become clear, was greater where the fae existed in abundance. Not long after Rowena had driven off the flock which had been nesting here at the estate, their hold over Gwen had been completely broken. And Gwen’s two older sons, Jem and Tomas, had also returned to normal after just a few weeks. Their memories of the dreadful summer when the adult night terrors had gorged had initially returned in the form of nightmares, before they flooded back in full.

Blair felt bad that the children were beginning to recollect the terrible things they’d seen. But he couldn’t help but be encouraged by the fact that, even for those not gifted with Sight, it seemed that recovery was possible.

Driving the fae away from human habitation or butchering them wholesale seemed, therefore, to be the only things that might eventually break their hold. Yet Blair could not think of any way to do either, without bringing down the wrath of the believers on those who knew the truth during the interval it took for them to recover their wits.

***

It was only three weeks since James’ last visit, so Blair was surprised when, without warning, he rode into the yard at mid-morning. Silently berating himself for not making sure one of the boys was acting as lookout, Blair straightened from his task to greet him. If it had been anyone other than James coming in… well, the repercussions for Blair being seen at liberty could have been dire indeed. From what he’d learned from James, it was common knowledge that the baron’s guide had been incarcerated away somewhere in the countryside. It wouldn’t take much for someone to become suspicious, or to recognise him and assume the worst, taken unawares as he’d been.

The significance of Blair’s surprise at seeing him had not escaped James either. His lips a thin, disapproving line as he dismounted and tethered his horse, he moved over after that to take Blair in his arms for a crushing hug, nevertheless.

Sensing James’ worry as if it was his own, Blair murmured, “I’m sorry. I’ll be more careful in future, I swear.”

“You can’t afford to get complacent, Blair,” James told him, still holding him tight. “None of us can. I will speak to Rowena about this.”

“It’s not her fault,” Blair protested, pulling back so he could look at James’ face. Then he frowned at the lines of pain he saw there, perceiving as he did so an echo of it through their link. “What’s wrong? Are you all right?”

“Just this damned headache,” James said tightly. “No matter what I do, I can’t seem to rid myself of it.”

Blair smiled. This was familiar territory – something he could deal with. Something he excelled at, even. “Come inside,” he said, automatically using the exact tone of voice, infused with guide-gift, that he knew James found most soothing. “We’ll ease your pain, then I’ll work with your senses awhile.”

But uncharacteristically, James resisted, his look of pain deepening. “I hate this,” he said miserably. “Coming to see you for my own purposes like this. I locked you up here, Blair. My own guide. I have no right to even ask for your help.”

Guilt suffused every word, and Blair ached for James’ pain. It found its echo of course, inside Blair himself – forgiveness for what James had done had been hard won, despite Blair’s fierce love for his sentinel. But he’d found a good measure of it, nevertheless, since he emphatically knew that James had not been in his right mind, especially after the single fae had met its death at Blair’s hands. The protectiveness Gwen had confessed to feeling for the creatures had been even more imperative for James, considering how seriously he took his baronial duty to serve and protect those he was responsible for. He’d been filled with a deep rage at seeing the tiny, broken body, far in excess of what Gwen had felt when her mother had merely driven them out of their house.

But, James being James, he still found it impossible, even in the midst of their shared peril, to forgive himself. So, for now, it was up to Blair to do it for him. But first of all, Blair would soothe his pain as best he could, since such matters were best addressed by a clear head. “Come on,” he urged, taking James by the hand, and leading him inside. “Come with me.”

And just as Blair intended, James was compelled to follow.

***

It had been a long time since Blair had properly worked with James in this way. The other brief visits the baron had made to the estate, since Blair had been liberated from his dark prison, they’d simply spent in each other’s presence; reconnecting and striving to move past the dark shadow of what had happened between them.

But now that James had come to him in need like this, Blair was determined to act as a true guide should, soothing and recalibrating his sentinel’s senses and helping him to achieve harmony between both mind and body – the true key to sensory control. It was no surprise, really, that James had come to this impasse. Considering the stress he’d been under, it was a wonder he’d managed without Blair’s help for so long.

Nodding to Rowena and Gwen as they passed the kitchen and went upstairs, Blair led James straight up to the room he had taken for his own. And once there he got straight down to business, ordering James to strip to the waist and sit in a straight backed chair. Then Blair moved to stand close behind him, his hands deftly manipulating pressure points on the overstressed sentinel’s head, neck and shoulders.

Blair spoke in a soft voice as he worked, his guide-tones an additional, soothing influence as he gave directions. “Breathe in slowly, and hold for a count of three. Now, exhale, and visualise the pain flowing out of your body, drifting away…”

It was gratifying in the extreme to be able to both feel and see the tension in James’ taut body gradually ease and dissipate under his hands. Blair prided himself on this skill – it was one area he’d particularly excelled at when he’d studied at the Academy. It was almost, he mused, as though he possessed a sentinel’s touch himself – although it only manifested when he was given the topography of a sentinel’s body to navigate. He could sense the pathways of stress, almost as if he was tracing roadways and rivers on a map, and he intuitively knew exactly where and how hard to apply pressure to ease and disperse them.

James sighed hugely, profoundly relaxing as Blair worked, the ridges of anxiety and pain which had marred his handsome features for so long easing away to a flawless boyishness which Blair suspected only he had ever been privileged to see. Eyes closed as Blair’s fingers kneaded and knuckled, hovering right on the edge of a fugue, James was the very picture of unconditional trust, ceding every bit of his power to Blair. And, perceiving his complete vulnerability, Blair was once again reminded of one of the most important strictures of the Academy – that a guide must never abuse the power this ability gave him over his sentinel. There was a seductiveness about having someone so defenceless at his disposal, which Blair would die rather than take advantage of – although he knew that there had been rogue guides in the past who had been unable to resist doing exactly that.

Naturally, there was a part of Blair which revelled in possessing the ability to reduce his sentinel to this state – he’d be lying to himself if he did not admit the lure of it. But mostly his heart ached with love, and a fervent compulsion to protect and cherish the strong, brave man who so readily put himself at Blair’s mercy, and who accepted with absolute trust whatever his guide chose to do while he was so unguarded.

At last, Blair deemed that the sentinel had had enough – although this was only the beginning of the guide-work he intended to perform before James rode home. Gentling his touch, smoothing his palms across James’ shoulders and upper arms in broad, steady strokes, he urged the almost-comatose man to open his eyes. “Deep breath, now, and come back to me. Come back to me, James.”

James stirred, then groaned, the sound resonant of extreme hedonism. “Ah, Blair.” He sighed, luxuriously stretching his neck this way and that. “Your hands perform such magic,” he said with deep satisfaction. “There is nothing to compare with what you can do.”

His hands still resting on James’ bare shoulders, Blair smiled, pleasure suffusing him at the praise, as well as the fact that his efforts had been successful and that James was no longer in discomfort. “I’m happy to be able to help,” he said.

Blair’s hand was caught, and James pulled it to his lips, kissing it. “I don’t deserve you,” he murmured, his lips moving against the flesh of Blair’s hand as he nuzzled it. The edge of pain was back in his voice.

Having had ample occasion to consider such matters, since there was little else to do at the estate, Blair had an answer ready that he hoped James would be able to hear. “You know, when I first came to you, I wanted to die for shame. My body had been used as a plaything, and… I never told you everything that happened, but I allowed it all to take place without resistance, willingly. When it was over, I hated myself for it.”

“Blair,” James whispered harshly, shifting in his seat, But Blair pulled his hand free and placed both palms flat on James’ shoulders, conveying with that steadying touch that James should remain where he was. “No,” he said. “Please listen. This is important, James.”

“Of course.” James subsided.

“That wasn’t the only reason I wanted to die,” Blair went on. “You know what happened with Alicia – I believed, at the time, that I’d caused her permanent harm. When I eventually reached the barony, and went outside the castle to offer myself to the night terrors, I thought it was exactly what I deserved.”

James flinched under Blair’s hands, but he remained silent.

Moving round to stand in front of James, Blair looked down into his sentinel’s eyes, which were so full of guilt and sorrow. Yet Blair smiled, feeling warmed right through by what this man had given him. “I was wrong, James. I know that now,” he said, meaning every word. “Everything that happened was outside my control. None of it was my fault.”

James made as if to reach for him, but Blair shook his head, stilling him with that gesture. This was not about him, despite James interpreting it that way; and he was determined to make James hear and understand. “I wasn’t given a choice,” he said softly, “when those men took me into the woods. I had the illusion of choice, but it was truly no choice at all - I could not allow Megan and Grace to be subjected to that.” He paused, breathing hard, and forced himself back on track. “They raped me,” he said bluntly. “They made me feel as though I was complicit in it, but truly I wasn’t, even when I did what they asked.”

Blair crouched down in front of James, holding the other man’s appalled gaze with his own. “How can you believe,” Blair asked softly, “that what the night terrors did to you was any different?”

James blinked and looked away, but Blair reached out a hand and turned James’ face back towards him. “They raped your mind,” he said, giving no quarter. “They gave you no choice.” He gripped the back of James’ neck and shook him a little. “It wasn’t your fault.”

James’ eyes watered, and he made a token protest. “Blair….” But Blair could see the light dawning in his face, nevertheless.

Whilst he had James where he needed him to be, Blair ploughed on, determined to deal with this once and for all. “When you first confined me here, it was for my own safety. Even influenced by the night terrors as you were, you protected me. And you fought with the other barons to keep me alive.”

“I renounced you,” James protested, his eyes brimming. “And I punished you cruelly for killing the fae. You almost died.”

“Yes, I know,” Blair agreed. “I won’t pretend to you that it wasn’t terrible to be locked up, James; and especially terrible to go through that week in the dark, injured and renounced. You know that it was. But the point remains – you were not yourself. You were enraged at the death of the fae because they made you feel that way. You wanted to kill me – you told me so at the time. But you locked me up instead. Can you remember why?”

“I felt conflicted,” James admitted. “I wanted to… to avenge its death. But I couldn’t kill you, no matter how much part of me wanted to.” He looked thoroughly miserable. “I remember telling you that it was for my own selfish reasons that I wanted you kept alive. But truly, the thought of killing you was more than I could bear.”

“That’s because it wasn’t you who wanted to kill me,” Blair insisted. “It was the part of your mind controlled by them. But you didn’t let them win. You fought it, and you defied their compulsion - because our pairing is stronger than them, James; far, far stronger. You kept me alive, then a week later you came to your senses and remembered everything. And the very moment you did, you came back here to put right the harm they had done.” He said it again, because it bore repeating. “It wasn’t your fault. Because the sentinel I know, when he is in his right mind, would never hurt me in that way.”

James lost his composure, at that. “How can you absolve me so easily? How can you forgive me?” he demanded as Blair pulled him close.

“Because there is nothing to forgive,” Blair said simply. “And as for absolution, I know exactly who – or what - is to blame – and it isn’t you.”

“I hate everything about this,” James admitted bitterly, his voice thick with misery. “I hate it that they took my control in that way. I hate it that I… that they made me hurt you so badly. But most of all, I hate them.”

Blair pulled back to look at him, at that. “So do I,” he said, “just like I hated the men who hurt me on the road.” Long-held rage and pain stirred deep within, finding its outlet in a fervent pledge. “You avenged me, James. You made sure the men who raped me were punished. And for what the night terrors have done, to both of us and to all our people, I swear to you that I’ll never cease to look for a way to destroy them, if it takes the rest of my life.”

They held each other tight, then. And soon afterwards they lay together, soothing and inflaming each other by turns, reconnecting and renewing their link in the most intimate of ways.

***

By the time James returned to the castle later that day, he felt clearer of head and lighter of spirit than he had in an eternity. He slept well that night, untroubled by the unsettling dreams he’d been having of late. And he arose refreshed the next morning, ready to start the day.

He had a busy morning ahead in council which, to his very great relief, was largely dominated by routine matters, the spectre of the night terrors entirely absent as he adjudicated various disputes and handed out advice.

His vastly improved condition did not go unnoticed. Simon took time to speak with him while they took a recess at midday, his concerned eyes fixed on James measuringly all the while. “You seem much better, my lord,” he said. “Startlingly so, in fact. I assume your trip yesterday has something to do with it?”

There was a lot that James could never share with Simon under the current circumstances, and this topic came firmly under that heading. “I received the help I needed, yes,” he said. “You can be assured that I am in good health, and likely to remain that way. Though,” he added, using the opportunity to make more frequent trips to spend time with Blair less suspicious, “I will need to visit the hedge-guide who guards Blair more regularly from now on. If my senses are to be kept in check, that is.”

“I am pleased you found some relief.” Simon said. He moderated his tone respectfully. “How does Blair fare?”

“He remains confined,” James told him, forced to maintain the fiction.

When no further information was forthcoming, Simon inclined his head. “I am happy that my lord appears to have come to an accommodation with the circumstances,” he said. “And especially that the woman has found a cure for your discomfort.” Simon took his leave after that, and James breathed a sigh of relief at the subject being dropped.

James’ good health lasted all of three weeks. Then, one morning, he woke with a throbbing headache, so dizzy that he could not even rise from his bed. Physician Wolf was obliged to attend him and, at James’ direction, mixed up a draught of the herbs that Rowena had supplied him with.

James was unaware, as he lay waiting for the potion to do its magic and stabilise his senses, of the grim look which passed between Wolf and Simon, or of his seneschal’s surreptitious exit shortly thereafter.

***

Once council convened in the afternoon, James was surprised to see Simon’s assistant, Joel, seated in Simon’s usual place, parchments and quills at the ready. When questioned about the seneschal’s whereabouts, Joel told him, “Simon received an urgent message from a member of his family, who lives in the Eastern Barony. It seems that a favoured uncle is dying, and has asked that his nephew attend him. Simon left an hour ago.”

James frowned. “He never mentioned this to me,” he said.

“My lord was indisposed when the message arrived,” Joel explained. “Simon did not wish to disturb you. He asked that I pass on his apologies, and deputise for him in his absence.”

Wondering how long he would be forced to manage without his right-hand-man, James nevertheless sympathised with Simon’s plight. Despite the distance he knew that Simon was close to his family, and kept in regular contact with them via correspondence. It would not be an easy trip for him to make, only to be faced with the death of a loved one at the end of it. “Then let’s get down to business,” he told Joel decisively, putting the matter to one side. “I have complete faith in your ability to fill the gap, no matter how long Simon is away.”

Consumed after that by the business of the day, James had no inclination to question that he’d heard anything but the truth.

***

The baron’s plight had filled Simon, for the past few months, with inexpressible sorrow. Simon cared deeply for James – had done so, in fact, ever since they’d fought together on the eastern border. The man was intelligent, courageous and principled, his leadership of the barony merited both by his family name and the qualities he possessed. Simon’s loyalty to him was profound.

But in the months since his guide had gone mad, Baron James had suffered greatly. While he had never yet shirked his duty to his people and, in fact, had done exactly the right thing by having Blair locked away out of sight, the personal repercussions for the baron himself had been devastating. He had formed a deep link with Blair before the guide had succumbed to insanity, and was therefore bound forever to a madman, the pain he suffered due to their separation magnifying day-by-day.

Physician Wolf had explained it to Simon. “If this continues,” he’d said, “the baron will die. And it will not be an easy death – his pain will increase daily, the palliatives from the hedge-guide gradually losing all their potency. Long before death takes him, he will likely go insane along with his guide.”

Yet even knowing this, the baron refused to take the decisive action which would free him to take a new guide; one who would remain steadfast at his side and ease his pain. While James had never been a man who had permitted sentiment to impede him from making tough decisions, the deep link he’d formed with Blair made it almost impossible for him to take the single, definitive step necessary to save his own life.

Blair, so Simon understood, had been sentenced to remain locked in a cell, and would remain there until he either died or came to his senses. In the midst of his madness the guide had killed a fae in cold blood, so what had started out as the necessary confinement of a lunatic had now become punishment of a felon.

Even then, the baron had shown compassion. He had not executed Blair for that terrible act, as he no doubt would have done in the case of any man who was not his guide. He’d engaged instead the very same hedge-guide who’d helped him with his sensory problems, to rehabilitate Blair even in the midst of his captivity.

Simon had approved of the baron’s actions at the time – if Blair could be cured of his delusions, then he would be able to stand trial for murder of the fae, and face the punishment for that brutal act which was his due. After that – assuming he was still alive – he might be able to resume his place at James’ side, suitably chastened and with the public’s need for revenge satisfied. And James would no longer suffer, if he were to have his guide back with him.

But in the meantime, James’ condition had worsened, and Physician Wolf had confided his belief to Simon that James might not have anywhere near long enough to wait for Blair to recover – even assuming he ever did. “Once it gets to this stage, the matter is critical,” Wolf had said. “To have any real hope of recovery, the baron needs to sever his pairing with Blair now, and take a new guide as fast as possible.”

Simon had already made discreet enquiries. In the event of Blair’s death, the Academy, it seemed, were in a position to offer James a choice of qualified guides almost immediately, should he seek such a thing.

Having given the matter all his consideration, Simon had come to an inescapable conclusion. James would die if matters continued like this. And Blair, from what he’d been told, was living nothing better than a half-life, chained raving in the darkness. It would be a mercy for both of them if the murderous madman’s suffering – and thus the baron’s – could be brought to an end. And Simon felt it incumbent upon him, as James’ most loyal servant and closest friend, to do the deed, no matter the likely repercussions for himself.

But now, watching from concealment, Simon felt cold rage suffuse him at what he’d discovered.

He’d arrived at the estate where Blair was being held at midday, after leaving the baron’s bedside and getting straight on the road. Following the directions to this secret place, that the baron had long ago entrusted him with, he’d found it without difficulty, despite its remote location. After tethering his horse a little way distant he’d crept closer on foot, and had taken pains to remain undetected so he could bide his time until nightfall, before moving in to carry out the grim duty he’d set himself.

To Simon’s horror, the baron’s heretic guide – who should have been confined in the dark prison Simon could see at the other side of the yard – was blatantly out in the open. He looked fit and tanned and was, so far as Simon could see, totally unsupervised.

Blair appeared to be mending something – a wooden chair, it looked like. He was wielding and surrounded by an array of tools – a hammer, saws, nails. Sharp and potentially dangerous weapons, that a madman and fae-killer should never be permitted access to.

As Simon watched, three young boys raced out of the house, circling Blair and levelling playful taunts at him. Laughing, Blair reached out and captured the smallest of them – the child was no more than six or seven, Simon thought – and commenced to tickle him unmercifully.

The children ran off a short while after that, disappearing around the back of the house. A few moments later Simon could see them in the field behind it, careering through the long grass. Turning his gaze back on Blair, he saw movement in the doorway of the house. The old woman – the same hedge-guide Simon had fetched from the town – stood there. She spoke – Simon couldn’t hear the words that she said, but he saw Blair’s head turn as he replied, a smile on his face. There was nothing about their interaction, Simon could clearly see, which bespoke ‘prisoner’ and ‘jailer’.

Appalled beyond measure, unsure whether the baron had wilfully misled him or whether the guide and the old woman had maliciously influenced him in some way, Simon felt intense rage stir that a man who had made his lord’s life a misery, and who had slaughtered one of the blessed fae in cold blood, was living what appeared to be a life free of care.

He resolved that the travesty would end this day.

***

As the day progressed, an amorphous sense of something amiss began to needle James. He dismissed it at first as the aftermath of the sensory difficulties he’d suffered that morning, or perhaps a side-effect of the herbal concoction which had brought his senses back within manageable bounds. But as the afternoon progressed he began to suspect otherwise; the odd, ticklish sensation he’d experienced when Rowena had reawakened his memories making an unforeseen reappearance.

When council ended in the afternoon, James hastened to his chamber to be alone. He needed peace and quiet - as well as privacy - to explore the odd sensation further.

Settling down in the comfortable armchair which flanked one side of the fireplace in his private apartment, James closed his eyes, trying to focus inwards just as he had before. He frowned, his head hurting with effort, trying to remember what Rowena had told him to do. To look inward, to find his inner eye, to open it…

Instead of Rowena’s voice, it was Blair’s that he heard in his head. “Why are you here?” his guide was asking. He sounded afraid.

A flash of metal - sunlight reflecting off the blade of a sword - shocked James back to himself, heart pounding in sudden dread.

A face had appeared in his mind’s eye – a face he knew well, beloved and trusted, but twisted by blind hatred.

Simon.

Not sure if what he’d seen was happening right now or was a premonition of the future, James leapt to his feet, and moved to the door of his chamber to give an urgent order to the guardsman standing just outside. “Get my horse saddled immediately,” he said without preamble, fear and urgency tussling like live things in his gut. “Move!”

He remained only long enough to don riding boots and a warm cloak, then hastened out as fast as if the night terrors were on his heels.

***

After the evening meal, which they took together as usual in the kitchen, Blair went outside to do his usual rounds of clearing up, as well as making sure the livestock were settled in the barn before they were locked in for the night. As he crossed the courtyard he could hear Gwen’s voice through the open windows of the house, rounding up the boys to get them washed before bed. Her good-natured chivvying made Blair smile at its cosy domesticity.

Preoccupied by the task to be done, Blair had one hand on the latch of the barn before he realised he was not alone. The point of something sharp - a sword, he immediately understood - touched his neck and he froze, heart pounding in sudden dread, as a deep, male voice ordered, “Step away from the door and turn round.”

Doing as he was bid, the sword point moving away barely enough to allow him to turn without being cut, Blair’s eyes widened when he saw who it was. “Simon!” he exclaimed. Then, dread rushing through him sufficient to drive any thoughts of his own peril away, he gasped, “Is it James? What has happened? Please, tell me he’s not dead!” Surely he’d have felt it, wouldn’t he, if that was the case?

“The baron,” Simon told him coldly, “is alive.” The sword’s point came back to touch his throat, and Blair froze. “No thanks to you.”

“Is he hurt?” Despite the sharp-edged threat, Blair’s concern was all for his sentinel. “Is he ill?”

Simon sneered a little. “His guide supposedly went mad, and he’s been left without succour ever since. What do you think is wrong with him?”

In an instant, Blair reassessed what was happening. “Why are you here?” he asked tensely, lifting his hands, palm outwards, in a gesture of submission.

Simon’s gaze was direct and chilling, as were his words. “I’ve come to rid my lord baron of the blight on his life.”

“Simon, please.” His mouth dry, Blair did not look away from the face of his nemesis. “If you kill me, the baron-”

“The baron,” Simon said coldly, “will be free to take a new guide.”

“What of you?” Blair demanded. “If you do this, he’ll have you executed.”

“If that’s the price I must pay,” Simon stated, holding the sword as steady as a rock, “then so be it. Though I believe that, once the baron is free of your influence, he will understand this is for the best – both for him, and for the barony. If he were not so blinded by your witchcraft,” Blair flinched as the sword point pricked the skin of his neck, “I am certain that he’d have already killed you himself.”

This was absolutely going to happen, Blair realised with dread, as he stared into the merciless eyes of the seneschal. He was going to die, and at the hands of James’ closest and most loyal friend. Simon was a trained swordsman, and was of such towering height and broadness of torso that Blair felt like a dwarf pinned before a giant. Not only that, Blair was unarmed.

“Please,” Blair begged, as the expression in Simon’s eye turned to one of imminent intent, “don’t do it here. Let’s go out into the fields, out of sight of the house. There are children watching us. They don’t need to see this.” Out of the corner of his eye Blair could already see movement in the doorway – the occupants drawn outside by the sound of unexpected voices in the yard.

“The children will be taken care of,” Simon insisted. “Though after what I’ve seen here today the women will be tried as witches, and after that they will likely share your fate.”

Blair’s desperation reached its peak at that – while he still had breath in his body, he could not allow harm to come to Rowena, Gwen or the boys. Hoping against hope that he might find a way to turn the tables on his opponent if they moved away from the barn – for here, with his back to the door, he had nowhere to move -  Blair reiterated his plea. “Please, Simon. Let’s take this away from the house.” A child’s wail rent the air then; little Fernie, crying out in distress at the sight of Blair with a sword held to his throat.

Somewhere underneath the delusions engendered by the fae there was an honourable man – the same man Blair had once greatly respected, who was fair and compassionate, and wholly unlikely to slaughter someone in cold blood where children might see it. Holding Simon’s eyes with his own, the sobbing of the boy and the intermittent birdsong of twilight the only sounds which broke the tense silence, Blair silently begged for that man to rear his head.

He was not disappointed. The sword was withdrawn, and Simon curtly ordered, “Move.”

Nodding his thanks, and casting frequent, nervous glances back at Simon all the while, Blair did what he was told.

***

If James could have forced his steed to go any faster, he would. Uncaring of the poor animal’s plight he’d set his heels to its flanks as soon as he’d hit the open road, forcing it into a gallop that was maintained for miles.

He was forced to slow at last, his horse’s sides heaving with exertion, but by then he’d already turned off the road and onto the unmarked track which led over several miles of moorland to the estate. He kept a measured pace after that. The ground up here was uneven and full of potholes, and he could not afford to have the animal lose a shoe or go lame – not now.

But even as the miles laboriously passed he wished, like the night terrors, for wings to fly, dread filling his heart the entire distance.

***

As they rounded the back of the barn Simon motioned Blair to walk ahead of him. Blair hated to turn his back on the man, his shoulders twitching in dread at the sharp-pointed threat behind him, but he had no choice. The flat of the sword touched his shoulders at intervals, steering him this way and that, and Blair went where Simon urged him, heading for the gate into the field which extended out from the back of the barn.

They were almost there when fortune struck. Blair heard Simon swear as he tripped over something – a stripped tree branch that one of the boys had collected from the woods and carelessly left lying around. And in that second of flailing inattention, Blair darted to one side and ran.

He didn’t go far – he did not want to chance Simon going back to the house and using one of the others as bait to lure him out, so escape was not his object. Instead he rounded the end of the barn and stopped, looking frantically around as he did so for a weapon. His eye fell upon something – a hard ball of compacted leather which the boys used in their games of rounders, despite their mother’s frequent protestations that they should something lighter and therefore less dangerous. Without a moment to lose – he could hear Simon swearing as he picked himself up and began to lumber after him – Blair bent down to grasp it. And the second Simon appeared at the corner of the barn he pulled back his arm and threw with all his might.

The ball hit the big man’s forehead with deadly accuracy. Simon’s eyes rolled up in his head and he dropped like a sack of grain to the ground, robbed completely of sense by the impact.

In the silence which followed Blair leaned against the wall of the barn, breathing hard and looking down at the big, unmoving body. And he fervently thanked the gods of his ancestors for the messy habits of young boys.

***

On the upward slope which delineated the final mile or so before the estate, James found himself setting his heels to his horse once again, potholes be damned. Simon’s horse was tethered just off the side of the track, grazing on the meadow grasses which grew wildly out here. There was no sign of its rider.

When he turned into the gates of the estate a short while later, he was met by pandemonium. The women were standing with horrified expressions in the doorway of the house, the children clutching at their skirts. The two youngest boys were crying, while the eldest, Jem, was white faced and dry-eyed, watching the baron’s approach with unmistakeable rage in his eyes – a little soldier, that one. There was no sign of Blair or Simon.

James swiftly dismounted but, before he could move towards the gathering in the doorway, Rowena diverted him. “He took Blair round there, my lord,” she said, pointing towards the barn.

Not sparing any time to give reassurance, James drew his sword and sprinted around the back of the barn, hoping desperately that he was not too late, and that the dreadful vision he’d experienced had not yet come to pass. But the moment he rounded the building and looked along its length, he was astonished to see Simon’s unmoving body lying on the ground at Blair’s feet.

Sheathing his sword, James moved swiftly over. He knelt down by Simon’s side, able to see right away that the man was unconscious, a ruddy bruise marring his forehead and darkening his already dark skin. Simon’s sword was lying on the ground beside him, just beside his outstretched hand.

James glanced up at Blair. “What happened?” he asked, relieved that Blair appeared to be unhurt, and that, although out cold, Simon seemed to be breathing evenly and otherwise unharmed.

Whatever had occurred here, it seemed in the aftermath that Blair was more than a little rattled. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice shaking. “He… he was going to kill me. He said he’d take the boys away, and have Rowena and Gwen proclaimed as witches. I had to stop him.” His appalled gaze moved from James to the unconscious man. “He’s not dead, is he?”

“No, he’s not,” James said. “He’s going to be fine. Are you all right?”

Blair nodded. “I’m not hurt,” he said.

That was good enough for now – James could already sense Simon’s breathing beginning to quicken as he struggled back towards consciousness. James needed to act immediately to prevent further violence, because even though he loved Simon dearly, he would not tolerate any continued threat to his guide or the others in his care.

Shifting to take the big man under the shoulders, he ordered Blair, “Take his feet.” When Blair complied James stood, bringing Simon’s unconscious form with him. And, between the two of them, they hauled Simon up and carried him laboriously round the building and back into the courtyard.

“Rowena, Gwen!” James called urgently as they crossed the yard. “The roundhouse – unlock the door. Quick as you can.” They disappeared back inside, and James could hear them scrabbling around inside the house to find the key. Then Gwen ran past them to do his bidding.

As James backed with his heavy burden into the now-open doorway of the prison, Blair blanched and faltered right on the threshold – a reaction that was not wholly unexpected given his memories of this place, but there was no time for either of them to indulge such things right now. “Come on, Blair!” James ordered sharply. “I can’t carry him alone.” And to his relief and pride, Blair swallowed down his reluctance and continued in through the doorway, helping James to bring Simon inside.

They laid him on the bed which, although not currently made up, was at least warmer and more comfortable than the floor. And without preamble James fetched the chain and manacle, which was lying discarded by the wall. Carrying the length of it across the room he affixed it to Simon’s right ankle, ignoring the look of horror on Blair’s face as the lock snicked shut.

Simon was beginning to stir when, a moment later, Rowena bustled inside carrying a jug of water and some clean cloths. “Thought you might need these, since he’s hurt,” she said mildly.

“Did you read my mind?” James quipped, taking a cloth from her and soaking it in the water, before laying it on the bruise on Simon’s head, forcing a groan out of the semi-conscious man. “I don’t suppose you brought candles and a tinder box too?”

“I must be having an off-day, my lord,” she said. Then she looked at Blair, who was standing, white-faced and silent, looking down at Simon. “Hey Blair,” she said. “Go ask Gwen to bring candles, will you? And I think it would be a good thing if you were to spend some time with the boys right now, to reassure them that you’re all in one piece.”

Swallowing visibly, Blair glanced at James as if for permission, then nodded tightly and moved out. As soon as he was out of earshot, James murmured, “Thank you.”

The old woman shrugged. “Makes sense the boy wouldn’t be comfortable in here.” She nodded towards Simon. “Is he all right?”

“He will be.” James could not feel any injury on Simon’s head apart from swelling – there was no fracture, and the big man was already beginning to come round, blinking owlishly in the half-light of the hut.

In short order Gwen arrived with candles and the means to light them, and the two women set about flooding the dim chamber with flickering light. As soon as that was done, James motioned them both out of the chamber. With a last look at Simon, who was holding the wet cloth to his head and struggling dazedly to sit up on the bed, James followed them out, locking the door behind him.

James listened to Blair’s voice as he crossed the yard, sending his sense of hearing ahead to seek him out. He heard Blair telling the children that yes, he was fine, and no he had not killed anyone. And it was wrong to say he was a hero because fighting, in most circumstances, was very wrong. “And I do not think it would be a good idea,” James heard him add, as he and the two women entered the house, “that you three should take it upon yourselves to duel with each other – especially with anything sharp - just to prove what great swordsmen you are.”

Blair’s patient lecture made James smile – he’d often watched, enthralled, as Blair tutored Grace in the very same way. The man had a gift with children.

To his relief, since what needed to be said would be better without the youngsters present, Rowena and Gwen took it upon themselves to shoo the boys out of the room and up to bed, leaving James and Blair alone together in the kitchen.

James pulled out a chair, and sat down in it facing Blair, their knees touching. Leaning forward he pulled Blair into an embrace.

“I can’t stop shaking,” Blair admitted, holding him back tightly.

“That’s natural,” James assured him. “It will pass.”

They held each other for a moment longer, then shifted apart, James understanding that Blair needed to find his equilibrium without being coddled. He was pleased to see that Blair had regained some of the colour in his cheeks.

They sat for a few moments in silence, Blair gradually looking more and more like himself as he breathed deeply, striving for control. Eventually, the guide asked, “Is Simon all right?”

James nodded. “I am certain he will recover quickly, though I expect he will have a headache for a while.” He looked at Blair quizzically. “What did you hit him with?”

Blair’s mouth twitched in a bashful smile. “A rounders ball,” he confessed.

James couldn’t help it – he laughed. “You have quite the aim! You should learn to fire a bow. Such precision should be nurtured.”

Blair shrugged. “I wouldn’t like to actually, you know, kill somebody.”

“I’d rather you did that,” James pointed out, “than have someone kill you.” Anger suffused him then, and a trembling awareness of what might have occurred if Blair had not been a whit so resourceful. “If Simon had harmed you, Blair… I don’t know what I’d have done to him.”

Blair glanced towards the kitchen window – a fleeting look, but it was clear by the darkness in his eyes where his thoughts lay. “Simon’s not in his right mind,” he asserted. He stared earnestly at James. “I didn’t want to hurt him, and nor should you - you know what it’s like, to be so misled by the fae. And not only that,” he added. “He’s your friend, James.” Blair swallowed. “I don’t like it that I had to cause him pain.”

“You acted in self-defence,” James pointed out. “And the matter is moot. The force you used was not lethal by any means. Simon took far worse knocks than that during our time together in the army – he will most definitely live. And, just as importantly, so will you. You did the right thing, Blair. I’m proud of you.”

At last Blair nodded, flushed with pleasure at the praise. “Thanks,” he murmured. Then he glanced aside again, his thoughts clearly back in the dark prison where they had confined the seneschal. “What do we do now?” he asked, clearly worried.

James put out a hand and squeezed Blair’s knee reassuringly. “Leave that,” he insisted, “to me.”

James intended to leave Simon to stew for a while, which would also give him a chance to achieve a calmer frame of mind before going to see him. The fact that his trusted friend had evidently come here to kill his guide had not made James feel exactly well-disposed towards him, delusions or no, and such a confrontation would require a clear head. So he accepted Rowena’s offer of tea when she came back into the kitchen a short while later, and as he drank it he soaked up the presence of his guide, their link tingling between them as they sat close together round the big pine table.

Periodically James extended his hearing outside, drawing on Blair’s proximity for ease of focus. Simon, it seemed, was now fully awake, and was pacing around the cell trying frantically to find a way out of the predicament in which he found himself. Just like Blair before him, he was finding himself frustrated at every turn. The manacle was so well-made that it could not be prised apart, even if Simon had the tools to do so – which he did not. And the door was shut tight and out of his reach.

Eventually James determined that Simon had become fully resigned to the fact that there was to be no easy escape. Therefore it was time, he decided, to pay him a visit.

“Stay here,” he urged Blair. “I’ll be back soon.” And leaving his guide sitting unhappy and tight-lipped in the company of the two women, James made his way outside and across the yard to the circular building.

***

Once he’d recovered his wits, Simon found himself in no doubt as to his location - this was the same prison cell that the baron’s treacherous guide had once been confined in. Somehow, by means of witchcraft, he guessed, Blair had managed to overpower him and lock him in here. What else could explain the fact that an unarmed man, so much shorter than Simon and untrained as a fighter to boot, had managed to achieve the upper hand? If Simon had entertained any doubts before about Blair’s evil powers, they were banished now.

Determined to alert the baron to the situation here – assuming, of course, that the baron was not himself bewitched and had instead been duped – Simon spent some time on the business of bringing about an escape, but he found himself thwarted at every turn. The manacle secured to his ankle was locked tight, the high, single window was boarded up, and the door was just far enough out of his reach that there was no chance of breaking it down – even if such a thing was possible, since it appeared to be of hefty construction, and was no doubt locked. It seemed that, for the time being, Simon was well and truly stuck here.

Frustrated beyond measure, his head pounding painfully from the blow he’d taken, Simon eventually sat down on the bed which stood in the chamber. It seemed there was to be no easy escape. The only recourse left was to find some way of overpowering the guide should he come in here, or perhaps one of the women to use as a bargaining tool – their life for his freedom. Simon supposed that if this coven of witches had wanted him dead they would have killed him already, so assuming they planned to visit him at some point, he might yet get such a chance.

His musings were interrupted in the next moment by a sound behind him. Then the chain attached to Simon’s leg, the end of which disappeared into a hole in the stonework, began to shorten, the links pulled one by one through the wall. “What the...” Simon exclaimed as he found himself forced to follow. “Hey!” he yelled, hopping across the floor after the chain. “What do you think you’re doing?”

There was no response and, as it continued, Simon found himself pulled close to the wall, the chain taut. A moment after the movement ceased the door opened. Expecting to see the guide come in, he was astonished to find that his visitor was the baron himself. “My lord!” Simon exclaimed. “What is going on, here?”

Baron James closed the door behind him, and came to stand in front of Simon, just out of reach. “You tell me,” he demanded, the words soft but his face hard and unfriendly. “If the circumstances were any different, you would be hanging from a gibbet, our friendship be damned.” Anger flared. “You came here to kill my guide, Simon. It makes me wonder whether that impulse was in you all along, even before this madness hit. I have never assumed you to be anything but loyal; a man I could trust with my life and the lives of those I love. Now I wonder if I ever truly knew you at all.”

Simon had expected, even as he had made plans to bring about the guide’s death, that the baron would respond in such a way. He’d been fully prepared for censure, as well as the likelihood of his own execution for murder. But now that it had come to the crux of the matter, he found that the baron’s disapproval stung far more than he had anticipated. “It was for loyalty that I acted, my lord!” Simon insisted. “Every day since your guide went mad, those of us who love you have watched you suffer. I have observed a man I respect more than any other – a man to whom I owe my life several times over – fighting daily with the agony of being paired with a guide who is insane. I wanted you to be free to take a new guide, and thereby ease your pain and prevent your premature death. And may the gods of my ancestors forgive me, but I thought it would be a mercy for Blair as well. Because I believed you when you told me he was a raving madman, who would most likely be confined in this dismal place for the rest of his life. So tell me this, my lord,” Simon demanded. “How much of what you told me is the truth? Or is it, as I suspect, that the witchery of that man has corrupted you as well?”

The baron was staring at Simon as though he was a stranger. “I do not believe,” he said, “that you are in any way ready to hear the truth. I can only pray that, one day, you will be ready.”

“And until then?” Simon challenged.

Baron James shrugged. “You will remain here. There is no other option, apart from your death. If things were different, you would most certainly die at my hand for seeking to harm Blair. As it is, however, I am painfully aware of the lengths to which those of us affected by the night terrors can be driven, and that alone inclines me to lenience.”

Simon felt shock course through him at Baron James’ heinous invocation of the night terrors. “My lord!” he gasped. “You are speaking heresy!”

“So you say,” James said. “Though to me, and to those whose eyes have similarly been opened, it is nothing more than the truth. I can only hope that one day you will also regain your memories, and see the world as it truly is.”

Horrified that his worst suspicions had come to pass – and that the baron, like his guide, was a heretic – Simon could only watch, open mouthed, as James turned to leave, locking the door behind him.

A moment later the chain poured back through the wall, the links falling in a rattling cascade to the floor beside him.

***

After being admonished in no uncertain terms before James left about the dangers inherent in holding Simon prisoner, Blair took it upon himself to see to the man’s care. He certainly did not think that such a hazardous duty should be something the two women contend with, especially considering the murderous instinct which had brought Simon here in the first place.

Consequently, taking full account of James’ opinion of Simon as a resourceful and devious man as well as a trained and skilful fighter, Blair decided to take no chances right from the beginning. Though it turned his stomach to do so, he winched the chain tight the next morning before going in to deliver the breakfast that Gwen had prepared, before spending time ensuring that Simon’s other needs were met.

Blair was aware of Simon glaring at him balefully all the while he was in the cell, both the strength of that regard and the painful memories that this place brought making Blair feel desperately uncomfortable. Still, he managed his tasks without faltering; renewing the fire, emptying the chamber pot, ensuring that the place was clean. And at the end of it, patently ignoring James’ admonition to not converse – since he remembered very well what being confined in silence was like – he came to stand before Simon, just out of reach. “I’m sorry I had to hit you,” he said, looking at the other man earnestly. “Are you feeling any discomfort this morning? Do you need anything for the pain and swelling?”

Simon was watching him with disgust. “If you think,” he said coldly, “that I would take any potions from you, fiend, then you are gravely mistaken.”

Blair had to admire the man’s spirit. Chained against the wall as he was, Simon was still every inch the proud, dignified seneschal. Nodding his assent, Blair promised, “I’ll be back later to ensure you are comfortable. There should be enough wood for the fire, and I’ll make sure you get more candles. And perhaps you would like to read? I will bring you some books – the ones that James brought here for me are still in the house.”

Simon made no reply, his unblinking glare an unmistakeable threat.

Nodding again, this time in resignation, since it seemed that Simon’s stay here would likely be not an easy one for any of them, Blair turned to leave.

The rest of that day and the days that followed fell into a rhythm of sorts. Having taken responsibility for the entire burden of Simon’s care, Blair spent much of his time chopping wood to ensure that the fire always had a fresh supply, and seeing that the man was given every comfort which could be safely supplied to alleviate the dark tedium of the cell. And he visited him often, despite the frequent threats and curses which fell from Simon’s mouth and the attempts he made to intimidate Blair into letting him go.

As the days wore on Blair watched sympathetically as Simon’s belligerence began to evaporate, to be replaced by a sort of hopeless impotence. No one knew that he was here – the seneschal had not confided his intentions to anyone, lest he be prevented from carrying out the dark duty he’d set himself. James had indicated that his household staff believed that Simon was taking an indefinite sabbatical, having left to visit relatives in the eastern barony, so his prolonged absence would not be questioned even by his closest confidants. As the reality of his situation set in, therefore, and Simon became fully aware that his confinement was not going to end either quickly or easily, he became outwardly more and more despondent.

Understanding that feeling of frustrated desperation very well indeed, Blair did everything he could to keep Simon entertained, hoping to stave off his melancholy. He brought the promised books from the house, and even spent time sitting and reading them aloud to Simon when the other man seemed ill-inclined to peruse them himself. Simon’s insults toward him made no impact, Blair dismissing them without rancour. If anyone understood what confinement like this was like, he did. There was no way, no matter Simon’s ill-intentions and hatred towards him, that Blair would make his imprisonment the torture it had been for him when he’d been in the same situation.

It was on one such occasion, two weeks into Simon’s captivity, that James returned to visit once again. Blair was sitting in one of the comfortable chairs in Simon’s cell reading aloud from a book, the door open wide to let in fresh air and daylight. Simon was sitting on the floor by the wall, his head drooping and his expression long-suffering – he’d finally realised, it seemed, that Blair was unfazed by his tactics, and had resorted to obstinate silence instead.

The book was a treatise on one of the far-eastern tribes – a topic Blair had an endless fascination for, as well as a long-held desire to see for himself one day. “The warriors cover themselves with tattoos to indicate experience,” Blair was reciting. “The elders having the most elaborate and widespread markings, while the untried boys are as yet a blank canvas still to be illustrated by a record of deeds done throughout their lives.” He paused. “Simon,” he asked, “when you fought on the border, did you ever see such a thing? Were the warriors you fought marked in that way?”

Simon made no response, but a voice from the doorway made Blair jump with its unexpectedness. “The tribe you’re reading about is found much further east than the ones we fought.”

Sound from outside was muffled by the thick walls of this place, even when the door was open wide, so Blair had not heard the baron arrive. However he’d been dimly aware of the boys, who had diligently acted as lookouts ever since Simon had arrived so expectedly, calling out to Gwen and Rowena, so he assumed that they’d spotted the rider on the road, but not felt it necessary to warn him since it had proven to be the baron.

Blair’s heart settled back into a regular rhythm when James walked in, and a gentle hand brushed over his head as James walked past, although the baron was looking at the man chained beside the wall and not at Blair as he continued speaking. “I travelled there once, out of curiosity, and Simon went with me. Didn’t you, Simon?” When the baron got no response other than a glare, he added, turning to gaze at Blair, “We hitched a ride with a caravan of travelling folk – unique amongst the people of the baronies, they mingle with the tribes at will, sharing a kinship, I always assumed, with the eastern tribes because they, too, are nomadic. That particular tribe you are reading about live a peaceful lifestyle, fighting only when they themselves are attacked. They made us very welcome; their hospitality was second to none.”

Blair felt the familiar rush of longing which had always dogged his heels with regard to such things. “I’d love to see them one day,” he admitted wistfully.

James looked at him fondly, his hand still touching Blair’s hair. “One day, when this is all over, I’ll take you there,” he vowed. Their eyes met, profound love echoing back and forth between them, and they shared a silent moment of sorrowful acknowledgment that such a trip would never be likely to occur, given the current circumstances.

Simon’s voice interrupted their reverie. “My lord, if you are not planning to let me go from this confounded place, please be so good to tell your pet witch to cease his eternal lectures. My head is killing me!”

James looked over at Simon and frowned. “Is your injury still troubling you?” he asked.

“My injury is healed,” Simon insisted. He waved an irritated hand towards Blair. “It’s his confounded voice which is the problem!”

James looked down at Blair, his eyebrows raised, and Blair shrugged; nonchalant about Simon’s hostility, having heard far worse from him during the past week. “I thought it would be better for him than silence and boredom,” he said.

James’ hand slid down to Blair’s shoulder and gripped it reassuringly as he spoke to Simon once more. “Blair is no witch, Simon. And he is under no obligation to treat you with courtesy. Given the fact that you came here to kill him, that he is making time to entertain you in this way is something you should be very grateful for. Do not malign him thus again within my hearing.”

“If he is no witch,” Simon insisted angrily, “then explain to me why he and his accomplices are sending visions and nightmares to torment me! Night after night, ever since you left me with these people, demons have visited me in my sleep. My lord, I beg you, get me out of here, and between us you and I can break the influence Blair and the others hold over us both!”

That was news to Blair – Simon had not exactly been forthcoming about his health or lack thereof whenever Blair had been in this cell with him. But if the man was being plagued by nightmares it certainly explained the ragged look of exhaustion he bore, which Blair had assumed to be simply an understandable effect of his captivity.

But James was less inured to the insults than Blair had become. “I tell you again, Seneschal,” he said coldly. “Do not insult my guide. Your life is hanging by a thread already.”

“No, it’s all right,” Blair insisted, putting a calming hand over the baron’s where it rested on his shoulder. Then he looked at Simon. “I can ask Rowena to prepare a sleeping draught for you, if you like,” he said. “I used to have nightmares in this place too.” James’ grip on Blair’s shoulder tightened, a flicker of grief and guilt transmitting through their link, but Blair carried on, understanding what Simon was going through even as James, who felt such intense remorse, could not. “I swear to you, Simon. I’m not responsible for your dreams, and neither are the others. And I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

“You liar,” Simon accused, reckless with exhaustion and stress, despite the baron’s threatening presence. “You think you can destroy my resistance with a combination of terror at night and obsequious kindness during the day. But I tell you this,” he growled. “I will not let them break me. I will not!”

“You’ll not let who break you?” Blair asked, puzzled by Simon’s vehemence.

“You know very well who,” Simon insisted. “The winged demons you continually invoke – I will not even say their despicable name. The ones you send into my mind every night to torment me. Huge, ugly beasts, with teeth dripping blood and claws which rend flesh. An obscene parody of our blessed fae, huge and twisted and foul. I will not give in to them or to you, I tell you! I will not!”

Shocked, Blair looked up at James, to see the exact same realization on his sentinel’s face.

It seemed that Simon was beginning to remember.

***

Back in Blair’s bedchamber in the house, to which he and James retired to discuss the matter, Blair could clearly see that all was not well with his sentinel. James bore an expression of pained tension, and Blair was sure that not all of it related to the situation they found themselves in with Simon. Consequently, Blair insisted they deal with the business of making James more comfortable before discussing the matter at hand.

As he manipulated pressure points, Blair asked, “The herbs that Rowena gave you – aren’t they working?”

James winced as Blair’s fingers discovered a particularly stubborn knot. “I find myself relying on them more and more,” he said. “It seems that their potency is becoming reduced, as though I am becoming immune to their effects.”

Blair frowned. “Are you using your senses at all?”

James shook his head, then sighed, leaning back gratefully into the firm pressure of Blair’s hands. “Not really,” he admitted. “My use of the herbal remedy renders them inactive for much of the time.”

Blair paused in his ministrations. “How often do you take the potion?” Each dose, so Rowena had explained, should alleviate the worst of James’ sensory difficulties for several days at a time, with the initial dampening of James’ senses dispersing a mere few hours after taking them.

“As often as necessary,” James said. “Which, in the past little while, has been once or twice a day.”

Blair lifted his hands away from James immediately, and moved around in front of him. “James, that’s far too high a dosage,” he admonished seriously. “Long-term use in such a quantity can be harmful.”

“What else would you have me do?” James’ despair was clearly heartfelt. “If I could see you daily, I would. But in your absence, without the herbs, I have no control over anything – I find it hard to eat because my senses of taste and smell are all over the place. I suffer each day from excruciating headaches. On the worst days I can barely get out of bed if I don’t take the concoction, let alone perform my baronial duties.”

Something their captive had said came back to Blair then. “Simon’s reason for trying to kill me was that he believed you to be ill,” he said. “That Physician Wolf told him you needed to make a new pairing with a guide who could give you what you need. It’s true, isn’t it?” Blair was distraught. “I thought he was making assumptions based on the belief that, as a heretic, I am a bad influence on you, but you’re going through a catastrophic sensory breakdown, aren’t you?” Blair closed his eyes, the heels of his hands pressing against them in despair. “Why didn’t I see it before? I thought that the time we spend together, little though it is, was sufficient to nurture you through our link. I thought the herbs would help as a stopgap measure during the times we are apart, yet all the time you’ve been suffering like this. Deteriorating.” Abruptly Blair hit himself on the forehead in frustration. “I am so stupid.”

“Blair, I am not ill.” James rose and moved towards him, and placed his hands on Blair’s shoulders. “The rest of the time, when I am with you and when I’ve taken the herbs, I am fine.”

But, lost in self-recrimination as he was, Blair wasn’t listening; though he looked at James earnestly. “You’ll have to travel to the capital,” he said. “There are Masters at the Sentinel Infirmary who specialise in treating catastrophic states.” Grief rushed though him, but for James’ sake he forced his own reaction as deep undercover as he could manage. “You’ll need to find a new guide,” he said as calmly as he could. “Someone who can give you the control you need. Our link will have to be dissolved.”

The baron’s face hardened, his hands tightening on Blair’s shoulders painfully. “Don’t ever say that to me again,” he growled. “It is not for a surfeit of you that I am like this, but for lack of you. Right now, in your presence?” He shook Blair hard. “My senses are singing. This is what I need. You are what I need.”

But Blair held firm. “It’s not working,” he said. “If it was, then our link would sustain you, even at a distance. The beneficial effects of the times we meet should last for weeks at a time, not wear off as soon as we are parted. James, if this carries on you could die. That’s how serious a catastrophic state is. I can’t…” Blair swallowed, despair strangling the words despite all the Academy training he’d had, “I can’t allow that to happen. I won’t.”

“Then I will die as your sentinel,” James said flatly. “I have already hurt you more than I can bear, Blair. I will never forsake you. You are my guide, the only guide I ever want, and I will not take another. I will simply find a way to be with you more frequently - it is the only option.” And with that, James pulled Blair close, kissing him demandingly, effortlessly igniting the passion they felt for each other but which they were forced to subdue apart from during these all-too-rare liaisons.

With James’ fervent need for Blair cutting a path through his Academy-trained emotional control like a hot knife through butter, Blair’s resistance faltered. How could something which felt so completely right be so devastatingly wrong? And yet Blair could not deny that it was wrong. Their link had failed, and James was on the path to a slow, painful death. Blair must step aside as James’ guide, for he had proved to be inadequate to the task. He had no other choice, no matter James’ protestations and the longing of his own heart.

As they came together, their bodies and emotions tangled so that it was hard to tell where he ended and James began, a hard knot of guilt and sorrow festered deep within Blair, acknowledged but placed to one side for the moment.

Later, Blair promised it. Just let me have this one, last day with him first; that’s all I ask.

***

James was aware, in the immediate aftermath, of his guide’s eyes constantly upon him. Of the edge of disquiet which soured Blair’s expression, and the over-solicitous touch of his hand. He endured it patiently for a time, understanding that Blair was concerned for him, but gradually he found himself getting more and more irritated.

If James was honest, he was worried about his own sensory problems – though not to the extent that Blair obviously was. Right here, right now, as they lay together in Blair’s bed, he felt in the bloom of health, as he always did when Blair was with him. He certainly did not feel like a man on the verge of death. Yet it seemed that Blair already had him dead and buried, and was in the throes of mourning his loss.

As they got dressed, James told Blair of his plans for the next two days. “I will be staying here tonight and tomorrow night as well. I wish to spend some time with our prisoner, especially now that Simon seems to be coming back to his senses. And, of course,” he reached out to stroke Blair’s cheek, “I want to enjoy more of your company.”

Blair swallowed and turned his head away. If James had been expecting joy at the news they would have more than a single, snatched night together for the first time since Blair had been brought here, then it seemed he was to be disappointed. Clearly aggrieved at the response, James snapped, “Are you so ready to be rid of me, Blair?”

Blair’s shocked gaze snapped back to him. “Of course not,” he said, his eyes wide and filled with hurt. “How can you even think that?”

Peevishly, James ploughed on. “Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps because the moment you found out that I’ve been having trouble with my senses, you told me to find another guide. What am I supposed to think?”

Hurt feelings radiated from Blair in waves. “If I am the cause of your problems, then what else would you have me say?” Blair shook his head in despair. “I failed to achieve Mastery for a reason, James. Yet I made a pairing with you anyway, for my own selfish motives – the same motives which have made me blind to the fact that my guidance is damaging you beyond repair.”

James had heard enough. “I’m sick of your constant self-deprecation. If you can’t see past your own feelings of inadequacy to the fact that the time I spend with you is like balm on a wound, then I can’t help you. Wallow in it all you like. In the meantime, I will go talk to Simon.” And with that, James spun on his heel and left his guide standing there open mouthed in his wake.

***

Being closeted with their captive in the aftermath of his disagreement with Blair was cold comfort for James. “My lord, you must see sense!” Simon raved, as James paced the cell well out of his reach, since the seneschal was still chained close to the wall. “That fiend you’ve joined with has bewitched you. You must cast him aside!”

“Not you, too,” James remarked dryly, sighing deeply. “The last thing I need right now is for you to tell me the exact same thing that Blair did.” James threw himself down on Simon’s bed, and stretched out comfortably. “Would that you were in your right mind, Simon,” he lamented. “Your advice at a time like this is exactly what I need to hear.”

“Then listen to me, my lord,” Simon urged softly. “Let me go, and together we will root out this nest of vipers!”

James ignored Simon’s plea, instead choosing to think out loud about his dilemma. “I feel in the peak of health. Ever since I walked in and heard his voice, my malaise has completely disappeared. Yet every time I leave him and go back to the castle, my headache returns, and my senses disintegrate. Why is that?”

“It’s Blair, my lord! He is killing you! You must escape from him. You must!”

“Well, of course you would say that,” James mused. “So, incidentally, does he. But you know what, Simon?” James leaned up on one elbow to regard the other man. “It makes no sense. If I feel better when I am with him, how can he be the cause of my problems?”

Simon just glared at him balefully, as though he could not believe James needed to ask that question when the answer, to him, was so patently obvious.

And, of course, so patently wrong.

Time to change tack. Even though James missed Simon’s cool-headed counsel desperately, this visit was not, after all, about him. “Tell me about the dreams you’ve been having,” he said. “Forget for the moment your surety that Blair is responsible for them, and tell me of their content.”

Simon looked away, his eyes shadowed by horror. “I hardly dare think of them, lest they gain a foothold,” he admitted. James could see sweat on his brow, despite the coolness of the interior of the chamber.

“Simon.” James’ quiet, imperative voice turned Simon’s gaze back towards him. “You used to trust me,” James said. “I ask you to trust me now, and talk to me of this. I will not order you to do so – I ask as one who still regards you as a friend.”

Simon indicated the manacle around his ankle. “Let me free, James, and perhaps then we can converse as friends.”

James shook his head sadly. “You know I cannot. Until I can be certain you mean no harm to my guide, I cannot let you go.”

“Then, my lord, I respectfully decline.”

Simon’s stubbornness and bravado, James knew, concealed a frightened man. To his sentinel senses, that was more than obvious. The scent of terror hung about him, and signs of masked fear were writ large in other ways; in the sweat on his brow and his quickened breaths. Softly, James said, “Then perhaps I shall tell you about your dreams, for I have seen them as well.”

Simon’s eyes widened at that. “You are similarly tormented?”

James shook his head, a grim smile on his lips. “It is memories, not dreams, which torment me. The night terrors,” he said, rising and going to sit in the chair recently vacated by Blair, and leaning forward to look Simon in the eye, “are very, very real. You have seen them too, Simon. Your memories are re-emerging, manifesting right now as frightening visions. Huge, terrifying beasts, with fearsome claws and a voracious appetite. You and I saw the remains of people, half-eaten by them, right there in our own town. We hid inside night after night, hearing them scrabbling to get in. Am I right?”

Simon looked horrified. “I’m being driven insane,” he insisted, his voice hoarse with fear. “My lord, please help me!”

James smiled. “I mean to help you, Simon. That’s why I am here.”

“Make them stop,” Simon pleaded. “They are doing this to me – to you, as well. Your guide and the women!”

“No, they are not,” James insisted. “And the sooner you stop blaming them - the sooner you stop fighting this and recognise the memories for what they are - the sooner this will all be over.”

Simon’s despair was plain. “The world has gone mad.”

James nodded in agreement. “Indeed it has, Simon. Indeed it has.”

***

“He has some guide-gift, you know.”

“What?” Startled out of his reverie, sitting morosely at the kitchen table while Rowena deftly skinned a brace of coneys in readiness for the pot, Blair had no idea who the old woman was talking about.

“Him,” Rowena said, wielding her knife with deadly accuracy. “The seneschal.”

“Simon?” Blair blinked, surprised by the declaration. “How can you tell?”

Rowena shrugged. “It’s obvious isn’t it? He’s recovering his wits quickly – quicker than Gwen did, at any rate, and she’s only got the slightest touch of guide talent. And the baron obviously finds great comfort in his company.”

A pang of jealousy coursed through Blair at the old woman’s words, surprising in its potency. “Simon’s not a guide,” he refuted, perhaps a little more caustically than he intended.

Rowena fixed him with her beady eye. “Hmph,” she said dismissively.

Annoyed at how she often managed to make him feel like a petulant twelve-year-old boy, Blair looked away. But despite his irritability, his mind was already moulding itself around the question that Rowena’s words had posed. If Simon possessed guide gifts, no matter how slight, and both he and Simon were forced to remain away from James, then could the sentinel’s worsened symptoms be caused by the absence of any guide in his vicinity?

Blair shook his head. That made no sense. James had already been suffering, even before Simon’s absence, as indicated by the drastic action the seneschal had felt driven to. The matter had to be due to his own failure to sustain his sentinel over a distance through the link they shared – there could be no other logical explanation.

So what should he do about it? Just the thought of separating from James filled Blair with agony so immense he feared he would die from it if they truly parted ways. But what else could he do? A guide had a responsibility to his sentinel. He was obligated to do the right thing, for James’ sake. If they dissolved their link now, then James would be able to find succour elsewhere, and thereby be spared the terrible death which awaited him as a result of a catastrophic state.

Discouraged and dismayed by the impasse they had been brought to, Blair sat and brooded as he waited for James to emerge from Simon’s cell. And he tried to find the words which would convince his sentinel to leave him forever, and the courage to say them.

***

James had only intended to spend an hour or two in Simon’s company, but as sunset approached James could see that Simon was becoming more and more fearful, despite hiding it manfully. Consequently James called out to one of the boys playing outside in the yard, asking him to summon Blair.

Blair arrived a short while afterward, his manner subdued and unhappy. But James did not have time right now to console him – the light was failing, and it would soon be time to lock down the estate for the night. After the attack on Blair by the juvenile night terrors such precautions had become routine here, despite the fact that the beasts no longer nested in the vicinity. After briefly telling Blair of his concern for Simon’s state of mind, James got right to the point. “I will spend the night in here, with Simon,” he said. He softened his tone. “I understand the bad associations this place has for you, but you can join me, if you wish.”

A fleet of emotions tumbled across the stormy seas of Blair’s face. But all that emerged was a quiet: “Do what you think is best for Simon. I will sleep in the house.” Yet the emotions radiating from Blair were anything but quiet. Chief amongst them, so it seemed, was not fear at the thought of being confined in this place, as James had half-expected, but rather lingering hurt and dismay directed at James himself.

Exasperated, having hoped that their earlier disagreement would have been forgotten by now, James protested, “Blair, please. I fully understand you not wishing to join me, but can’t we at least put the other matter behind us? I hate for us to separate for the night on bad terms.”

Blair smiled sadly, finally meeting James’ eyes, the hurt morphing swiftly into something closer to resigned sorrow. “Go, comfort Simon as best you can,” he said. “We’ll talk tomorrow, all right?”

James found himself nodding, wishing desperately to pull Blair into his arms. But sensing his guide’s turbulent emotions, he was sure that Blair would not welcome that right now. He settled instead for cupping Blair’s bristled cheek gently, pouring all his love for this man into the touch before they parted.

Supper was delivered shortly thereafter and, with one last unfathomable glance, Blair locked them in for the night. After they ate – James hungrily and Simon barely picking at the food - James busied himself building up the fire in the dim chamber and lighting candles against the gloom. Afterwards he crossed over to Simon, who was still chained up by the wall. Despite the seneschal’s gradual return to sense, they still had a-ways to go, and James did not want to take the chance, by releasing the chain, that Simon might try to overpower him during the night hours. Instead, therefore, he threw a bundle of blankets and sheets towards him. “Here,” James said. “Make yourself comfortable.”

“My lord is gracious,” Simon noted sarcastically.

James grinned. Despite all that was amiss, Simon’s caustic wit was a familiar thing, at least.

Simon’s surly demeanour made it perfectly clear to James that conversation would not be welcome so, ensconced once more in the armchair near to where the Seneschal sat on the floor, James occupied himself by leafing through the texts which Blair had left in the chamber for Simon to read. They were all books he himself had approved for Blair, back when his guide was a prisoner here. The recollection brought with it a familiar flash of guilt – James still found it hard to reconcile what he’d done to Blair with the intense love and deep sense of protectiveness he felt for his guide. The corrupting influence of the night terrors, so it seemed, was powerful indeed.

Time passed, candle flames bathing pockets of the gloomy chamber with flickering light. There was little to hear but for the breathing of the two occupants, the quiet rustle of pages turning, the guttering hiss and spit of the candles and the settling sounds of the fire in the grate. The thick walls of this place totally masked the night-noises from outside so that, sentinel though he was, even James had to strain to hear them. That utter deadness of external sound gave the chamber itself an unnatural stifling feeling; like being buried alive.

Long ago, so the story went, his ancestor’s insane brother had lived out his life and died here, never again permitted to set foot outside the walls. It was why this prison had been built, and the reason its location had never become public knowledge. The very history of this place gave it a sinister air, and the gloom within it seemed somehow malevolent, as though the raving of that long-ago occupant had infected the place with madness and despair.

Guilt reared its head once again as James reflected on the fate of that first, unlucky inmate, as well as those who had occupied this prison since. He hated it that he’d unjustly sentenced Blair to endure this stone coffin for so many months, and had now been forced to confer upon Simon the same fate. For his own part, he was finding it barely tolerable to be locked in here for even one night. He vowed that, if ever this madness ended, he would tear every stone of this awful place down for good.

A barely-audible moan disturbed James’ reverie. Looking up from the book he’d been absentmindedly perusing, James saw that Simon had stretched out on the floor, having made himself a bed out of the blankets James had given him some time ago. He was dozing, seemingly; his breathing slow and even, although his face was creased with a frown. As James watched, he shifted restlessly, his lips shaping barely intelligible words, though one in particular repeated word – “No!” – was more than clear.

In a thrice, James was off the chair and kneeling by Simon’s side. The movement must have registered in the sleeping man’s brain, because he snapped immediately to wakefulness, his eyes wide and terrified as he recoiled.

Unconcerned for his own safety, James reached out and, old habits of trust and loyalty clicking into place, Simon grasped his arm in turn, the fierceness of grip illustrating his panicked desperation. “The monsters,” he gasped. “Please, my lord. Help me!”

“Simon, look at me,” James ordered. “Look only at me, and know this – you are safe.”

“Make it stop!” Simon’s dignity was lost. “I beg you… I cannot stand it… ahhhh!” As he uttered that last cry, Simon let go of James and covered his face with his hands, shaking with fear and the effort to block out the scenarios playing through his mind’s eye.

“Don’t fight it,” James told him firmly. “Let yourself see what must be seen.”

“I cannot… I cannot… if I let them into my mind, they will win!”

James gripped Simon firmly by the upper arms and shook him. “See them for what they are!” he insisted.

“I’m afraid,” Simon admitted, coming out from behind his hands, and James knew that admission would cost him dearly in personal pride once his wits returned, as would the helpless tears which filled his eyes. “I’m going mad, my lord. Please… help me! I don’t know what to do.”

“Simon,” James said, “if all the years we’ve known each other, all the years we’ve been friends, mean anything to you at all, then listen to me now. Trust me. You must face this, Simon. You must allow yourself to remember.”

Something was dawning on Simon’s face; something which gave James hope that the crisis was nearing its peak and might, therefore, soon be past. “They are memories,” he said querulously. “You keep telling me this. But how can you be sure? To me, they are demons, attempting to gain a foothold in my mind.”

James held Simon’s eyes with his own, pouring all the sincerity at his disposal into his words. “I know,” he said, “because I remember everything, just as you must remember. Have courage, Simon. Trust me. Stop fighting, and accept it.”

Perhaps Simon had simply reached the end of his endurance, after days of nightmares endured alone in this forsaken place; or maybe it was simply that he needed to believe James so badly. Whatever the case he nodded, closing his eyes. He cried out in terror as the memories hit, and James pulled him close, as he would any loved one who needed succour. “Easy,” he murmured into Simon’s close-cropped hair. “I’ve got you. You’re safe.”

It was over surprisingly quickly, once Simon ceased to fight the monsters he’d believed were attacking him, and whom he’d managed, by sheer force of his indomitable will, to hold off for so long. James held the big man’s tense body close as the memories rushed back in, calming his bone-deep shudders and soothing his fear.

At last it was done. Simon opened bloodshot eyes, deep shame dulling their lustre, to look miserably at James. “I remember,” he said hoarsely. “May the gods of my ancestors forgive me, I remember it all.” And with that, racking sobs shook his frame.

James simply held on tight, his relief profound.

He had gained back his seneschal.

***

Blair unlocked and opened the door to the cell the next morning at dawn, since the anxiety which had filled his mostly sleepless night would not allow him to stay away for one moment longer.

To his relief, all seemed well inside. In the interior gloom he could barely make out the figure of someone on the bed, and another dark shape lying closer to the wall, both of them apparently asleep. Reassured that naught was amiss – well, at least no more amiss than it had been yesterday evening, at any rate – he left to organise breakfast.

He was on his way back across the courtyard a short while later with a tray in his hands when two figures unexpectedly emerged from the open door of the cell.

Worried that Simon had somehow managed to gain his freedom by coercing James in some way, Blair halted and put the tray down. But the baron’s open hands and reassuring smile as he approached forestalled Blair’s next move to find a weapon. “It’s all right,” the baron called out as the two men neared. “He remembers everything.”

Simon, coming up close beside the baron, looked awful. His eyes were red, as though he’d hardly slept or been crying, and his expression was full of remorse and sorrow. Without a word he crossed right over to Blair, and sank to his knees on the cobbles in front of him, his head bowed. “Lord Warden,” he said hoarsely, his eyes fixed on the ground before Blair’s feet. “I have done you a terrible wrong. My punishment is in your hands.”

Appalled, Blair looked up at James over Simon’s head, to find no help from that quarter, except perhaps a plea in James’ eyes to somehow make this right.

Looking back down at Simon, Blair could see the tremors that ran through the kneeling man’s frame, and almost feel the misery which seeped from his pores. Pity overwhelmed Blair at the sight – if there was one thing that he understood, it was what it felt like to carry a burden of undeserved guilt so great that to be punished for it seemed to be the only way out of the nightmare.

Without a second thought Blair sank to his knees, too, and grasped Simon’s hands. “I don’t blame you,” he said, forcing eye contact and willing Simon to hear him. “You have suffered, just as much as I, or James, or any of us. I’m more glad than I can say,” he added, “that you have come back to us. Because we need you, Simon. Most especially, James needs you.”

“I told my lord baron that you were a heretic,” Simon protested miserably. “I urged him to have you killed. I came myself, when he showed no inclination to be rid of you, to kill you his stead. I do not expect or deserve your forgiveness.”

“You have it, nevertheless,” Blair insisted. He glanced once more at James, who was watching them intently, his mouth set in a grim line; then looked back at Simon. “I forgave James for hurting me,” he said, “because it was not him, but the night terrors who brought all of this about. For the same reason, I can forgive you too - I know that the night terrors warped your thoughts, and made you do those things. It wasn’t you, Simon.”

At last, James stepped in. He stepped up close behind the kneeling seneschal, and his hand fell heavily on Simon’s shoulder. “Get up,” he ordered. “Neither Blair nor I bear you any ill will. Right now, my only wish is for you to recover from your ordeal. Afterwards, when you are sufficiently rested, we will talk further. But there will be an end to any mention of punishment. Are we clear?”

Ever obedient to James’ wishes – when in his right mind, at any rate – Simon nodded. He rose, his movements sluggish and clumsy as though exhaustion made even getting up from his knees a trial almost beyond bearing. Both James and Blair steadied him as he came upright, and they kept their hands upon him as they crossed to the house, supporting him right over the threshold of sanctuary.

***

The night had been a long one, with neither James nor Simon getting any real sleep apart from a brief doze just after dawn, and now that daylight had come James would have preferred it if Simon had shown an inclination to rest so that he could do the same. But he understood his seneschal’s imperative need to reconnect with the world around him, and to integrate his memories of the past few months with the memories he had so recently reclaimed.

Simon, Blair and James, therefore, took counsel in the kitchen, which had long-since become the heart of the house, since the inhabitants tended to assemble there as a matter of course, the kettle constantly on the boil. Simon grasped a steaming cup between hands that were finally beginning to lose their palsied tremble, desperately seeking reassurance. “How do I know,” he asked, “that my memories will not be lost once more when I return to the castle?”

“The moment I knew the truth,” James told him, “my eyes were opened and they have remained thus. I do not think you have anything to fear.”

“Forgive me, my lord, for pointing out the obvious,” Simon answered, “but you are a sentinel. What is true for you might not be true for other men.”

James exchanged a concerned look with Blair, and his guide took up the thread. “There’s no way to be completely sure,” Blair admitted. “Gwen and the boys have all regained their proper memories now, but we have no way of knowing if their continued recall is due to the fact that we keep the night terrors away from this estate, or because memories, once regained, cannot be lost again. Once you are back in the castle where, so James tells me, the night terrors are roosting in proliferation, I do not know for certain what will happen. I wish I could tell you otherwise.”

“The alternative,” James pointed out, “is for you to remain here with Blair and the others. That way you can be sure to remain free from their influence.”

Simon shook his head, clearly dismayed. “I can do nothing here,” he said. “I need to be at your side, my lord. I will not remain behind, while you walk back into peril!”

“Then you risk the chance,” James concluded, unable to miss the unhappy flinch that Simon’s words caused Blair (who, as a publicly acknowledged heretic, did not have any choice in the matter), “however slight, of becoming re-infected by the beasts.”

“If that happens, my lord, I beg you to kill me,” Simon said firmly. “Because I will not risk becoming a danger once again to you and those you hold dear.”

Of course, James would promise to do no such thing, especially as Simon was one of those he held most dear. “I give you my word,” he said instead, “that should such a thing happen, I will bring you back here if I have to bind you hand and foot and sling you over my saddle to do so. You were cured once; you can be cured again.”

Simon did not look terribly reassured; but, perhaps recognising that James intended to stand firm on that issue, he made no protest, instead simply nodding his assent, his mouth set in a grim, unhappy line.

***

To Blair’s chagrin, the matter of dissolving their pairing did not get raised again. The rest of the day was spent instead in continuing to help Simon to come to terms with his recovered memories, and the realisation that he lived in a world gone insane. Not only that; the fact that he had been manipulated into betrayal had wounded him deeply, and both James and Blair were at pains to reassure him, at great length, that he still bore their trust.

It was late before James and Blair retired to bed, both of them exhausted after the intense emotional bloodletting of the day. Lying in the darkness beside his sentinel, who had fallen asleep almost as soon as he’d lain down, Blair felt the crushing weight of despair once more as he heard the comforting sound of James’ breathing, and felt the warmth of his proximity. How could he give this up? How could he? James was everything to him.

Yet, if James were to survive hale and healthy, he must subdue such selfish thoughts and set his sentinel free, to allow him to move on to another. What else could he do?

Sleep pulled him under soon after, followed by exhausted, dreamless oblivion. Before he knew it he was woken by the sound of James dressing, as the baron prepared to leave once more – he and Simon had agreed to ride out at dawn.

Despite this being the longest period they’d spent in each other’s company in months, Blair lamented that he and James had hardly spent any time alone together, and most of that had been engaged either in sleep or bitter argument. Wishing he could hold back sunrise with both his hands, Blair opened his eyes.

James had already sensed he was awake, of course, and he was watching Blair sadly, one boot on, one boot off. “Don’t cast me off,” James pleaded, holding Blair’s eyes with his own as he deftly pulled on his boot. “I mean it, Blair. I will take no other guide but you, so long as I live. And if my life is to be a short one, as you believe, then I will live it with you and no other.”

Despair, merely banked for the night, flared into bright flame once more. “James,” Blair began, then his voice broke, his composure lost. “Please…”

Hands – caring, strong, decisive – framed Blair’s face. “No more,” James ordered. “I will not forsake you, even if it means my death.” His eyes, gentle and piercing in equal measure, bored his sincerity into Blair unrelentingly. “Remember,” he continued, his voice soft as his face blurred through Blair’s helpless tears, “we are a true pairing. Our connection cannot be broken, Blair. Only by death. And if you seek that path alone, thinking to free me by it,” James’ voice grew hard, “and knowing you as I do, I know you will consider it, I swear to you that I will follow you into oblivion. For I would rather die at my own hand than take another guide.”

Thus James uncovered Blair’s darkest and most secret plan, and brought it out into the light. Knowing that he’d lost the fight, Blair wept. James’ hands caught him, and held him, and gave him once more the promise of eternity – or at least the remaining time left to them - before the tide of duty swept him away once more.

***

For James, once again ensconced back in the castle and consumed with the administration of a barony whose people had gone insane, having his seneschal in his right mind and back at his side was an almost immeasurable relief. An even greater relief was that Simon’s memories, now regained, showed no sign of reverting.

James still despaired, however, almost every moment of every day, of the intolerable situation they found themselves in. He battled constantly to mitigate the hysteria of a populace who were daily becoming more entrenched under the spell of the night terrors; who day-by-day were increasingly demanding mob justice against those who failed to revere the creatures sufficiently. But Simon’s steadying influence, his wise words of counsel and shared knowledge of the truth bolstered James’ sometimes flagging courage and resolve to deal with such difficult and hazardous matters as nothing else could.

Well, nothing else, that was, apart from having his guide back where he belonged. But such wishes were mere fantasies which, if things went on like this, would never come to pass.

James took to spending each evening, after the long days dealing with baronial business, with Simon, the two of them cloistered together in James’ private apartment in a conspiracy they could permit no one else to be privy to. In those private moments they found themselves unceasingly discussing the madness that had overtaken the world, and how entrenched each of them had become within it before seeing the light.

“It was as if my eye skipped over every reference to the night terrors,” Simon told James, as the two of them nursed goblets of spiced wine by the fire – James’ drink liberally dosed with Rowena’s potion. “In missives from the other baronies, and even written in the record books in my own hand, the dreadful story of last summer was there right in front of me the whole time. Yet I saw none of it. I was that blind to the truth.”

“Their influence is insidious,” James agreed. “And I fear that if we cannot find a way to break that influence, then we are doomed. Any attempt to open the eyes of the people would likely result in accusations of heresy and blood being spilled. You saw the mood today in the hall – paranoia is rife among the people of the town. None of us are safe, Simon. None of us.”

“Aye,” Simon sighed in agreement. “That is so.” He took a sip of wine, and fixed James with a dour eye. “As for the letter that arrived today, I urge extreme caution, my lord. If the worst comes to the worst, then Blair must be re-confined for a time, just to satisfy appearances. There may be no other way to keep him, or you, from being renounced.”

Despair filled James once more. The Convocation of Barons, it seemed, had recently met again, having conveniently omitted to extend an invitation to James. At that meeting it had been decided, according to the missive received, that the circumstances of Blair’s imprisonment would be inspected personally by a representative of the convocation. It was an extraordinary – and unprecedented - challenge to James’ authority as a baron of the realm.

Unprecedented or not, however, it was a very real threat, and one which brought home to James exactly how precarious his authority had become. “How can I ask that of him?” he begged Simon bleakly. “To chain him once more in that hole, even as a temporary measure.” He put his head in his hands. “I nearly killed him,” he admitted, despair overwhelming him. “I left him in there to die, sick with fever from an infected bite, chained on the cold floor. I can’t ask him to go back in there again, even to perpetuate a deception.”

“My lord,” Simon told him quietly, his calm voice and measured words a lifeline for the beleaguered baron, “if that is what it will take to save his life – and all our lives – then Blair will understand. And I will tell you this.” James looked up at the certainty in his seneschal’s tone, to find Simon’s earnest gaze upon him. “Blair is perhaps the most courageous man I have ever known. To have survived so much, yet to have so much determination and goodness in his heart, is a rare trait. Do not underestimate the lengths to which he will go to protect you, and to protect us all.”

There was truth in Simon’s words, of course. Yet James’ urge to protect his guide, and to spare him further pain, was strong. “I don’t want him hurt any more,” James admitted. “May the gods of my ancestors forgive me, Simon. But I cannot bear to be the cause of it.”

“Then put the blame squarely where it is due,” Simon said bluntly, “as Blair has bid both of us to do. The cursed creatures brought this about – not you, not I, not even the barons. Let us play along, for all our sakes, yet make the ruse as palatable for Blair as we can. And comfort yourself with the knowledge that, this time, it will be a mere act, and will end when the inspection is over. I am sure Blair will find comfort in that knowledge too.”

James sighed again, and leaned back in his chair. He took a long draught of wine, and swirled what was left of the rosy liquid around in his goblet. “At least,” he allowed presently, “you have remained in your right mind, Simon. The proximity of the creatures has not caused you to relapse. I cannot tell you how relieved I am.”

“You and I both, my lord,” Simon agreed. “But you still suffer, away from your guide, and that is my greatest concern.”

James nodded resignedly. Rowena’s potion was still a daily, and sometimes twice-daily – necessity. “I will ride back out to visit Blair tomorrow,” he said. “Just for a few hours. In any case, I need to tell him of the threat from the barons.” The anticipation of seeing his beloved guide, and of the sensory boost it would give him, was vastly muted by the news he must deliver.

They sat in silence a time, the crackling of logs in the fire a backdrop to their thoughts Presently, Simon spoke up. “I almost forgot, my lord, given today’s events. I found something in the library today; a reference which intrigued me.”

“Go on,” James prompted, reaching for the warm pot over the fire.

Simon held out his cup to be refilled with the steaming liquid. “As you know,” he said, “I’ve been searching the records since I regained my wits, looking for anything, any knowledge of our forebears, which might help us to fight the creatures. I find it hard to believe that those who went before us, who were similarly faced with the night terrors, did not keep some account of them.”

“Blair did the same thing,” James remembered. “Nothing came to light.”

Simon nodded. “And I think I may have discovered why,” he said. “I found a reference, in a journal written by the seneschal of one of your forebears, about the removal of certain texts from the library.”

“Certain texts?” James asked curiously.

“The actual word that was used,” Simon elaborated, “was ‘heretical’. And there’s more. It was noted that rather than have the texts destroyed, the baron instead had them sealed away in a hidden place.”

Excitement filled James. “You mean there are writings, perhaps accounts which could aid us, concealed somewhere in the castle?”

Simon nodded. “I believe so,” he said. “Of course, they may not have anything to do with the night terrors at all. They may be the lusty ramblings and explicit drawings of some ancient ancestor, deemed not fit for civilised eyes. Yet I find the usage of the word ‘heretical’ curious. It is a term with a very specific meaning, especially in these dark times.”

“As do I.” James felt hope suffuse him. “Where is this hidden room to be found?”

Simon gave him a withering look. “If I knew that, my lord,” he said, “it would not be hidden.”

James chuckled. “Of course.” He took a sip of wine, grimacing at the over-sweetness of honey which had sunk to the dregs at the bottom of the pot, which they had now emptied between them. “Perhaps, Simon,” he posited, rising, “if you are not too tired, you and I could engage in a little exploration before retiring to our beds.”

Simon drained his goblet in one draught, and stood also. “An excellent suggestion, my lord,” he said. And as one, they headed out the door to begin the hunt.

***

For Blair, the time he was forced to spend away from James had always been a torment. But now, cursed with the knowledge that his sentinel might not have much longer to live, their separation was even more unendurable.

In his darker moments, Blair inevitably blamed himself. If only he were not flawed as a guide; if he’d only been strong enough in his abilities to sustain James at a distance. If only… if only…

And yet there were other, less self-indulgent times he was forced to question whether it was truly his fault. In large part, that morsel of doubt was due to James’ belief in him. The emphatic nature of the sentinel’s faith in his guide had made itself graphically known through their link at their last parting. James, it seemed, was considerably less concerned about his impending demise than Blair; the only thing that truly seemed to bother him was the fact that he suffered discomfort during the intervals when they were not together, which impeded his duties as baron. He saw Blair as balm for his senses, the sustenance that enabled him to thrive. The problem, according to him, was not the fact that they were paired, but merely the fact that they were forced to stay apart.

It made a certain amount of sense, Blair had to concede during those times he did not feel consumed with grief and guilt. And if he was prepared to entertain the notion that James might be right, then perhaps there was something else, something he had not considered, which was causing James to suffer. Something based not in their pairing after all, but back at the castle itself.

He broached his speculation to Rowena one night as he and the two women sat relaxing by the fire in the kitchen. She smiled at Blair in that maddeningly superior way she had. “About time you started making sense, boy,” she told him. “Now you’re thinking like a guide! Your sentinel suffers when he’s back there, not when he’s here with you. What is he coming into contact with there, which is not bothering him here?”

If Blair had access to James’ environment, of course, he would have attempted to answer that very question. Unfortunately, however, under the circumstances, that was not an option. “I don’t know,” he answered.

Rowena snorted. “Then find out!” she said dismissively. “You’re his guide. It’s your responsibility!”

Bristling, as he often did when Rowena acted as though difficult matters were simple and Blair merely too naïve or lazy to come up with the right answers, he nevertheless had to concede that she had a point.

Blair’s worry about James and his wellbeing never went away over the next little while, resulting in sleepless nights and thoughts that were constantly distracted. Blair was overjoyed and relieved in equal measure, therefore, when James rode into the yard three weeks after their last emotional parting.

Once James had settled his horse and come into the kitchen, Blair wasted no time on bland niceties. “Come on,” he ordered, seeing immediately the pinched lines of pain on the other man’s face, and feeling the echo of his discomfort through their link. “Come with me.” And taking James by the hand he led him, unresisting, upstairs.

It had now become a familiar ritual each time James visited: the imperative need of sentinel for succour and guide to give it.

As Blair worked, manipulating pressure points and revelling in the involuntary sighs of relief emitted by James as his pain drained away, he was shocked when he glanced at the sentinel’s face to realise that James had tears in his eyes. Reaching out to him through their link, Blair was appalled at the guilt and despair he found there. Halting his ministrations, Blair came round and knelt before him. “What’s wrong?” he whispered harshly, fear choking him. “What’s happened?”

James shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he answered, his eyes brimming though he stubbornly refused to let his tears fall. “I don’t know how to tell you.”

A million possibilities ran through Blair’s mind, before landing on his deepest fear – after losing James, of course. “Is it Grace?” he asked, terror filling him at the thought. “Did something happen to her?”

That seemed to snap James out of whatever it was that ailed him. “Oh no, Blair,” he said huskily, and Blair was gathered into strong arms and held close. “No, so far as I know, all is well with Grace. This isn’t about her.”

“Then what?” Blair felt, somehow, that the tables had been turned upon him suddenly – he’d been easing James’ pain, yet now, given the soothing protectiveness of the embrace Blair had been pulled into, it seemed that James was, for some reason, comforting him.

Pushing out of that secure hold, Blair demanded answers. “Tell me what’s going on.” He refused to be treated with kid gloves, and if James was about to cast him aside after all his protestations, then Blair was at long last resolved to fight to stay by his side.

James seemed to have trouble meeting Blair’s eyes, his unquiet emotions masked behind a suddenly impenetrable façade. “My authority as baron has been challenged,” he said. “I… I very much fear that I must ask you to do something you will not wish to do. Something which may make you hate me.”

That made absolutely no sense to Blair – how, after all they’d been through, could he ever hate James? “Tell me,” he demanded. “James, look at me!”

James did so, his reluctance clear. “The barons,” he confessed, “wish to inspect the circumstances of your imprisonment. They are sending an envoy for this purpose. I am to bring him here, and show him that you are securely confined.”

Blair blinked. “When?” he asked.

James shook his head miserably. “I don’t know. I believe they mean to surprise us, to ensure that I’m speaking the truth.”

The implications of that were clear. Much as he loathed the thought of it, there was only one thing to do. “Then I must go back into my prison. Until the inspection is over at any rate.”

James didn’t answer right away, but when he did his voice was hushed with wonder, “Simon told me,” he said, admiration naked upon his face, “that you would say exactly that.” 

Blair shrugged. “Truly, the prospect does not fill me with delight, but what else can I do? If they find me unconfined, then I don’t believe they would allow you to remain in place as baron. Not to mention what they would be likely to do to all of us. Even Simon, while still under the influence of the night terrors, wished to see Gwen, Rowena and I burned at the stake, and he’s our friend.”

James was watching Blair with frank admiration, but there was remorse there too. “Blair,” he said. “I’m so sorry it’s come to this. If I thought there was any other way…”

But Blair, truthfully, saw it as the lesser of evils – he’d largely banished his fear of that dark hole during the time he’d tended to Simon there, and the alternative did not bear thinking about. The barons were clearly using Blair’s so-called heresy as an excuse to challenge James’ position. And if James were removed as baron, then there would be no hope for any of them. “Well, at least this time, I’ve got you on my side. Haven’t I?” Blair pointed out.

“Oh, Blair.” Blair found himself pulled once more into a hard embrace. “Now and forever, my guide. Now and forever.”

***

To Blair’s relief, they had a whole night and morning together before James planned to leave. There was much for them to discuss in that time. First and foremost, in terms of Blair’s priority, was to ensure James’ well-being, and to make a start on trying to establish what was causing his difficulties.

When faced with Blair’s latest theory – that it was perhaps something in his environment back at the castle and not a catastrophic failure of their pairing which was causing him such discomfort – James did not, to Blair’s chagrin, seem surprised. “I told you,” he insisted. “When I’m here, with you, I feel in the best of health. I think, in this, you are absolutely right.”

Blair felt more than a bit of a fool, at that. It was a difficult thing to come to terms with – that his preoccupation with his own sense of inadequacy might have prolonged James’ ill-health and, but for James’ firm opposition to the idea, could have ultimately culminated in their separation. Vowing staunchly to put all of that to one side, Blair got straight down to the business of trying to determine what was affecting James so badly. Was he eating different food, wearing different clothes? Had his mattress been lately re-stuffed, his furniture polished with different beeswax, his wine spiced with some exotic delicacy, newly imported?

The only difference Blair managed to discover was that James had not felt quite as unwell as usual during the past week, and that was probably due to the fact that he had spent every evening alone in Simon’s company.

Blair was ashamed of the flash of intense jealousy he felt at that revelation.

Swallowing it down quickly lest James perceive it, Blair noted, “Rowena believes that Simon has some slight guide-gift. It could be that whatever is bothering you affects you less when he spends time with you. You should perhaps stay close to him from now on, for that reason.”

James, however, was an extremely perceptive man. He cupped the back of Blair’s neck and forced eye contact. “I will do as you suggest, because I believe there is merit in what you say; and in any case, Simon is pleasant company, especially now that he knows the truth. But know this, Blair. You are my guide and my love. Simon is my seneschal and my friend. Never mistake that distinction.” And he followed this up with a hard, decisive kiss, leaving no room for doubt.

There was little sleep for either of them that night as Blair and James lay together in each other’s arms, losing themselves in desperate love of each other. Their coupling was made all the more poignant and bittersweet at the knowledge that, once the new day arrived, they would be forced to part once more, their peril growing daily more acute.

Before James left, he and Blair set about making Blair’s necessary re-confinement as palatable as they could. The cell was swept and aired, a ready supply of candles and firewood made ready. This second period of imprisonment would be nothing more than a ruse, but to fool the envoy of the barons it would have appear real.

Whilst in the cell, James outlined to Blair, by means of the instructions he gave, exactly how precarious their position was. “You must not, under any circumstances, appear cured. If they believe you have recovered from your ‘delusions’ you will be subjected to a public trial, and inevitably punished. I can’t save you if that happens.”

Blair shuddered. “Don’t worry,” he said, affecting confidence he didn’t feel. “Since I am nowhere near ‘cured’, that should not be so hard to do.”

“There’s something else.” James touched Blair’s face gently a moment. “When I bring the envoy here, I will be forced to treat you with indifference. I may even say things that will hurt you. Please understand, Blair. It will be an act; nothing more. But to keep you safe I must be convincing.”

Blair fully understood. “Its all right,” he soothed. “I know.”

James nodded, clearly deeply troubled by this whole situation, but Blair was greatly bolstered by James’ clear belief in him.

A little while later Blair swallowed nervously, his heart pounding with remembered helplessness, as he hefted the chain and manacle which must be reattached to his leg. James embraced him from behind as he turned it over in his hands, and murmured in his ear. “So long as you make sure to set watch upon the road when you are out and about, to ensure you get adequate warning, you will not need to remain in here the entire time.” James reached around Blair to cup his hand, where it encircled the manacle. “You do not need to wear this until it becomes necessary.”

“I know.” The thought of wearing it, even for a brief time, filled Blair with dread out of all proportion to the circumstances because this time, at least, he would be in control. Forcing those cowardly thoughts to the back of his mind, Blair asked, “Do you have the key?”

“Yes.” James reached into his pocket and pressed the shiny object into Blair’s palm. Then he pulled away from Blair and moved around the cell, peering at the stone walls, obviously seeking something.

“What are you doing?” Blair asked.

James had narrowed his focus on one part of the wall: a single, oblong stone a hands-breadth wide and twice again as long, set flush with the floor. He traced with his sensitive fingers, then glanced at Blair. “I need a chisel. A hammer, too.”

Blair hastened to fetch the tools James asked for. Then, upon his return to the cell, he crouched at the other man’s side as James began to chip the mortar way from around the stone, which came away far more easily than Blair would have expected.

“I’ve noticed,” James said, his words punctuated by taps of the hammer, “that the mortar around this stone is a different colour, and seems thinly applied.”

Blair peered at it, marvelling as he often did at the wonder of sentinel sight. The bit of stone that James was currently demolishing looked just the same as the rest of the dismal walls, to his eyes.

James seemed to be making short work of the job. A brief moment of tapping later, he set his fingertips to the crack produced and began to prise the stone loose. “Aha!” James said triumphantly, as it slid free easily into his hands. “Just as I thought.” He turned to look at Blair. “You can conceal the key in here, in the recess behind the stone. That way, you will have complete control of your own freedom from the manacle, and the envoy, when he comes, will not be able to tell. It’s dark enough in this part of the cell, even with the fire lit, that as long as you press the stone in all the way so it is flush with the wall it will not be immediately apparent that it is loose.”

Blair extended his hand, and felt around inside the hole. To his surprise, given the thickness of the walls, there was not another layer of stone behind, as he’d expected, but a wide, hollow space. “There’s something in here,” he said, as his fingers encountered an object inside.

“Let me see,” James asked, and as Blair pulled his hand free, the sentinel bent low to the floor and focused his sight inside the dark hole. After a brief moment of scrutiny he reached in, and pulled out a bundle wrapped loosely in dusty cloth. Unwrapping it carefully he uncovered a book, the golden lettering on the leather cover of a style not commonly used for a century or more.

Blair brought over a lit candle – the light from the open door was not sufficient for him to see it clearly. As the light glinted off the words, Blair read aloud over James’ shoulder. “Tales of the Fae,” he said.

James met his eyes briefly, his expression unfathomable as he handed Blair the book before peering back into the dark recess. “There are more in here.” He sounded astonished. “The space behind the stone goes back a couple of feet, and I can see… I can see piles of wrapped bundles, just like this one. Books.” He reached in and pulled out another one – this, when unwrapped, proved to be an account of battle, a stylised illustration of an unmistakeable night terror on the cover.

Holding this second volume in his hands, James laughed shortly. “You know, Simon told me he’d found a reference to a collection of heretical works which had been sealed away in a secret place. We searched the castle several nights ago hoping to find it, but came up with nothing.” He looked back at Blair incredulously. “It seems that it was here, all the time.”

They spent the next few minutes pulling the hidden texts out of their hiding place and unwrapping them. Blair’s heart pounded with excitement as he perused the titles – there were histories and folk-tales, guides to everything from warfare to cookery, and even several hand-written journals, the ancient, cursive script within faded and indistinct. It was not immediately apparent how every volume had been considered ‘heretical’, some of them seemed so innocuous. And yet given the many titles that included the words ‘fae’ and ‘monsters’, it seemed almost certain that they were, indeed, the very texts that Simon had told James about.

Blair felt as though the world had played a jest on him. “All that time,” he said, “when I was locked in here, these were in here with me. I was desperate to read something, anything; especially something that would help me make sense of what was happening.” He chuckled weakly. “If I’d only known!”

James put a hand on Blair’s shoulder, the usual flicker of guilt fluttering across their link as it did whenever he was reminded of what Blair had suffered in this place. “I’m just glad,” he confessed, “that I didn’t think to investigate why the mortar was different around this stone back then. I saw it, of course, the very first time I came in here, but decided to leave well alone, not having any notion of what was concealed behind it. If I’d discovered this treasure trove then, I’d probably have burned them.”

That was a sobering thought, to be sure – if James had done that, then the opportunity for them to learn something from these ancient texts would have been lost forever. Taking a calming breath, Blair opened one of the books at random – a journal, the pages yellow and faded with age – and, squinting at the faint handwriting, recited what he saw there. “My grandfather told me that the creatures were once tiny, no bigger than the width of a hand. Yet now they are big enough to consume a full-grown man, and we fear for our lives.” Blair focused on the date which headed the entry. “James,” he said. “This was written over a hundred and fifty years ago! The man who wrote this journal, his people, they lived through the very same thing we did.”

James looked as awestruck as Blair felt. “Maybe there’s something in here that can help us. Some answer, which might give us insight.”

Blair’s excitement was profound. “I’ll go through them; all of them. If here’s anything we can use, I’ll find it.” He grinned, no longer fearing his forthcoming enforced captivity. “It’ll give me something to do while I’m locked in here!”

James put a hand on Blair’s shoulder, his expression serious. “Blair, you must be careful with these. Keep them hidden, here in this hole, and only take them out one at a time. You must not be discovered, when the envoy comes, with any of these openly in your possession.”

Blair sobered. He nodded. “I know. Don’t worry, James. I’ll be careful.”

***

They parted soon after, and Blair’s faux captivity began the following morning, after one final night spent alone, tossing and turning sleeplessly in his comfortable bed in the house. He and James had agreed that they had at least that much grace – even if James returned to the castle to find the barons themselves waiting for him, he would be sure to be able to stall for at least one day before returning to the estate.

The first day things were not so different from normal, despite a heightened sense of peril which troubled them all. The boys kept an eye on the road, to alert Blair and the women if visitors were sighted. Both Grace and Rowena had been cautioned at length about the answers they were to give, should they be questioned about their ‘prisoner’, and both seemed equally as subdued as Blair by the dangerous subterfuge they must engage in.

In the meantime Blair did his usual chores around their small farmstead in the morning, and spent the afternoon sitting in the open doorway of the cell poring over the latest volume he’d purloined from its hiding place. The manacle lay ready to be put on at a moment’s notice, the loose stone lying ready to be pushed back into place to conceal its dangerous contents – the seditious books and the key to the manacle - from prying eyes.

The hardest part was being locked in at night, reliant upon Grace or Rowena to open the cell door again once morning arrived, with the manacle locked around his ankle lest the inspection take them by surprise during the dark hours. Blair often lay awake in the silent cell for hours after that, unwilling to blow out the single candle that kept him company and thereby throw his prison into darkness, the chain clinking every time he moved.

The days after that fell into an almost unendurable, tense monotony. None of them could afford to relax their vigilance, even for a moment. To risk being caught off-guard with Blair free out and in the open, the dangerous texts he was studying in his hands and those who were supposed to be his jailors living side-by-side with him in domestic harmony, could mean the death of them all. Consequently, even though they had no idea when the inspection would take place, they could not afford to take any chances.

Blair stopped shaving, and took pains to cultivate an unkempt appearance. A man chained in a cell for so long, he reasoned, would not have easy access to a razor, bathwater or a comb – as indeed, when he’d been in that position, had largely been the case. To appear well-groomed and over-clean would give entirely the wrong impression.

He began to spend increasing amounts of time, as the days went on, in his cell. It was unfair, Blair decided, to put so much pressure on the boys – all of them just mere children - to act as constant lookouts when so much was at stake. He took to wearing the manacle more often than not, comforted only by the fact that the key was concealed in his possession and he could, if he chose, be free in a matter of seconds. And to distract himself he spent hour after hour reading; making notes as he went, and trying to pull out of the ancient texts even the smallest glimmer of wisdom which might help them find a way out of the untenable situation they were in. The rest of the time he put his mind to James’ sensory difficulties, trying desperately to work out what could be making his sentinel suffer so.

Night after night, Blair endured the decisive banging shut of the cell door, when it was locked tight until morning. And at those times, only thoughts of James’ tenderness and care for him kept his darker thoughts and nightmares at bay.

***

As the days went on, something began to intrigue Blair. He discovered an account of a long-ago sentinel who had suffered from extreme sensory discomfort, his symptoms almost identical to those that plagued James. The story was ostensibly about something else entirely – it was a memoir of a certain battle which took place in the decades before peace came to the border, and the sentinel’s story was merely a sideline to the main act.  But the brief reference was interesting, nevertheless, particularly as the fae in their smallest incarnation were in force at the time.

That, of course, led Blair to speculate about a link between the fae and James’ symptoms. He’d been trying, but failing, to establish what could be making James so ill back at the castle, but not affect him here. Could it be, perhaps, that the fae themselves were responsible for his symptoms, since they were apparently nesting in great numbers in the castle’s nooks and crannies, yet they’d been banished entirely from this estate?

It was an intriguing thought and, once he put his mind to it, Blair found himself seeking further enlightenment from the books at his disposal. And a treasure trove, as James had correctly termed them, they were. A number of other, seemingly unconnected references convinced Blair that he was on the right track.

All he needed to do now was to test his theory.

Two weeks into Blair’s ‘captivity’, the boys ran into the yard one misty, autumn morning yelling that they’d seen a rider on the road. Having engaged in a number of drills to rehearse for this moment, Blair’s hands shook, nevertheless, as he ensured the manacle was locked tight around his ankle, and hid the latest book he’d been perusing with the key in the hole in the wall.

The cell was lit only by the flickering light of a single candle, daylight having been extinguished when the door was locked tight by Gwen as soon as they’d received the news. After blowing out that single flame Blair navigated his way by bitter, vivid memory across the pitch-black cell to stand by the wall, where the other end of the chain was threaded through the stonework – James would be sure to winch it tight before he and the barons’ envoy entered, and if Blair must suffer that indignity once more, he had no intention of being dragged across the floor.

Numerous fears and doubts plagued Blair as he stood there waiting, nervous sweat cooling on his skin and his stomach in knots. What if he couldn’t maintain his act? What if one of the children inadvertently gave the game away; or Gwen and Rowena were not believed? What if James, protective in the extreme of his guide now that he had recovered his wits, found himself unable to bear the distaste and hatred that Blair would inevitably attract?

Sound from outside did not carry well into this cell, so Blair started in surprise when the door was flung open without warning, a silhouetted figure filling the doorway. He had a brief moment to realise that the winch had not been tightened before James crossed the cell to take Blair into his arms. “It’s just me,” the baron confirmed softly. “It’s all right. I’m alone.”

Blair’s pounding heartbeat took its time to slow down back to normal and, while it did, he luxuriated in the comfort to be found in James’ proximity. Then, just as soon as his nervousness evaporated, priority asserted itself. Pushing away slightly from James, he reached up and palmed the baron’s shadowed face in his hand. “Are you all right?” he asked urgently. “Any headaches or sickness this last while?”

James pulled him close again, huffing a little laugh as though it amused him that Blair had got straight down to business, although there was unmistakeable pain in the sound. “I’ve been no worse than usual,” he asserted. “And now that I’m here with you, all is well. I miss you, Blair,” he confessed, holding tight, his vivid emotions filling Blair’s mind with their sincerity. “I miss you so very much.”

After a few more moments of simply holding each other, James retrieved the key for Blair from behind the stone. Blair wasted no time in unlocking the manacle from around his ankle, freeing himself rather than allowing James to kneel at his feet and do it for him, because it was important to them both that he understand himself to be in control of his own freedom. Then, hand in hand, they went straight into the house together to reconnect in their usual way.

As Blair worked on the sentinel’s over stressed senses up in his old bedroom, he told James what he’d learned from the books in his possession, feeling a sense of urgency to convey the information, since as usual their time together was destined to be short. “This illness you have, these symptoms. I’m sure the night terrors are behind it. It’s the only logical solution, if you discount that you may be suffering the beginnings of a catastrophic breakdown, at any rate.”

“I already told you it wasn’t catastrophia,” James chided gently. “And it is certainly not you, was never you, who was responsible for my difficulties. But,” James caught Blair’s busy hand in his for a moment and kissed it, before releasing it to continue its work. “Go on, Blair. I am keen to know what you’ve discovered.”

Pressing deeply into James’ overstressed muscles – and Blair could feel how much pressure the man must have been under, since they were rock-hard – Blair continued. “I’ve been reading a journal written by a man who had a heightened sense of hearing – one of your ancestors, I think. He believed that the infant night terrors made a sound beyond the range of normal hearing. He heard it himself, apparently, though no one believed him. But James, think of it.” Blair ceased his ministrations and came round to stand in front of him. “What if he’s right? What if they are making a noise that you are not consciously aware of, that people like me and everybody else can’t hear, but you can? What if it is that which is irritating your senses?”

James pursed his lips. “I’ve heard nothing,” he said. “Surely, if that were so, I’d have noticed it.”

Blair shook his head. “Think about it,” he said. “There have been other times – you know there have – where in order to perceive something outside your conscious range, you’ve needed me there to anchor you. Remember that sense of threat, from the north? You didn’t know anything was wrong until we worked together, freeing your senses to soar out as far as they could go, to allow you to discover the sleeping night terrors without fear of becoming lost. How is this any different?”

“So,” James said. “What do we do? I can’t take you back with me, exactly, to find out if what you say is true. And since Rowena put down her poison, there are no night terrors within miles of this estate.”

“No, but there are night terrors within reach,” Blair countered. “If you and I were to ride out this afternoon toward the village, you could range your senses out to see if this hypothesis is true. Considering that the carter talks incessantly to Rowena and Gwen during his visits about the blessed fae, I am certain that they gather in great numbers near there.”

***

Thus it was that, in the late afternoon, James sat out under the late autumn sky, his back against a rock, the soft tones of his guide preparing him to send his senses forth. “Breathe deep, James,” Blair told him. “Deep and slow.” Blair’s hand on James’ arm was immensely reassuring; a tether to the here and now. James trusted Blair implicitly not to allow him to come adrift.

The night terrors tended to congregate near a ready source of food which, considering their grooming of their future herd-beasts, meant they could be expected to be found in close proximity to any human habitation. The remote village which James had charged with the responsibility of a weekly delivery to the estate (although the villagers had no idea they were actually delivering supplies to a notorious heretic) was almost ten miles away. Apart from their own little community of exiles it was the only human settlement for miles around, and therefore no doubt a magnet to the ravenous beasts in the context of the wide, empty countryside surrounding it.

James and Blair had chosen a spot halfway between the estate and the village, because James was worried about the risk being seen and identified if they came any closer. “In any case,” he’d told Blair, “with you guiding me this should be more than near enough. I managed to sense the sleeping adults over a distance of many miles, remember?”

Blair had agreed, and so here they were. Blair’s words hovered on the edge of James’ consciousness as his awareness soared across the land like a bird in flight. Breathe, James, that beloved, trusted voice told him. And listen. Listen for something that should not be there. What do you hear?

There were many sounds to sift through, all of them familiar and not one bit out of place. Blair’s voice continued to direct him. Sift them out, one by one. The wind in the trees, the sheep in the fields, the voices of the villagers, and the sounds of them going about their daily business. Explore the village with your senses, and look in the roofs, in the rafters. Dismiss the noises you would expect to find. What is left?

As James had suspected, the simple design of the country houses did not accord adequate cover for the beasts. Blair’s voice therefore directed him in a different direction: Turn your hearing away from the people and the houses, and look outside the village boundaries. Use your sense of smell to help you find them. Maybe they are deep in the earth, underground. Listen; concentrate. What can you sense? James’ other senses came into play at Blair’s bidding. The smells of loam and wet peat gave way to something acrid, something hidden; the faint scrabbling of tiny claws and leathery rustle of wings heralding something other than a mere nest of moles, sheltering from the late afternoon sun in their burrow.

James homed in on that place, examining it closely with the security distance leant him. He frowned, not liking it at all. There was something foreign, something altogether alien about the creatures as they lay sleeping underground in the darkness. “They are not from this world,” he asserted out loud, his attention partially returned to his body and to man who watched over him, his certainty profound. “They don’t belong here.”

There was approval of James’ insight in Blair’s voice, as his guide murmured, “Listen to them, now. Try to hear beyond what your hearing tells you. Something extra that only you can perceive; something beyond that which other humans can hear.”

James concentrated, and suddenly there it was. A high-pitched screech, a never-ending warble which made him wish suddenly to claw his ears from his head. Images rushed through his mind – the grotesque night terrors transformed into wondrous, shining beings, and a compulsion to protect, nurture, love…

Appalled, James recoiled, coming fully back to his body. “They’re trying to twist my mind, Blair. I can’t do this. I can’t listen to them! I won’t let them do this to us again!”

Blair was pale, his eyes large with concern, but doggedly determined nevertheless. “You have to,” he said firmly. “James, if you’re ever going to be free of them, you have got to learn the range of sound that they make, and then push it away from your conscious hearing. There is no other way to be rid of your malady, unless we kill every last one of them. And that’s not an option, is it?”

“It will be if I ever get my way,” James said fervently. “Blair, what if by doing this, by listening to them, they take my reason again? I can’t risk that!” If he forgot the truth once more, who know how much danger Blair would be in from him? The thought of losing control of his mind once more to the foul creatures, and once more hurting the man that he loved, filled him with shuddering revulsion.

Blair, however, was watching him intently, radiating sincere belief. “You can do this,” he said confidently. “You’re stronger than they are, James. You’ve proved that already.”

In the face of such faith, it was hard for James to refuse. It was even harder to admit that he was scared.

But Blair, of course, knew that, anyway. His expression softened, and he reached out to stroke James’ face tenderly, the touch resonant of safety and protection. “I’ll be with you,” he said. “I won’t let them turn your mind. And I know that you’ll never hurt me again. I trust you, James.”

It was impossible not to comply after that, no matter how terrified James was.

Extending his senses again, James easily focused in on the source of the maddening sound. Guided once more by Blair’s softly spoken words he explored the limits of it, seeking its edges, learning its cadences. The images it engendered – that of benevolent, beautiful beings – did not touch Jim where he feared to be touched, deep in his heart; for that place was already occupied by another. And throughout his sensory wanderings Blair’s soft voice soothed and directed him, not allowing the danger to find purchase, keeping James safe.

Soon, James had the sound’s measure and, just as easily as that, he dismissed it from his hearing. Opening eyes to sky livid with sunset – he’d been working at this just that long – he found Blair looking at him questioningly. “It worked,” he confirmed. “I know how to block them out, now.”

The sigh of relief that Blair emitted, before enveloping James in his arms, spoke for them both.



The tale continues in Chapter 2

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fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2010-09-16 10:14 pm
Entry tags:

Nothing Left in Store (slash)

Summary: Blair's out of options, and only has one place to go.

Author's Note: Written for the 'Store' challenge at [livejournal.com profile] sentinel_thurs. This story follows on from Fathers' Day, Routine, and Late at Night on the Open Road, Speeding Like a Man on the Run.

Rating: PG

Warning: Like the earlier stories in this series this is seriously, SERIOUSLY angsty, so please read with caution. Nothing Left in Store )
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2010-09-12 07:55 pm
Entry tags:

Fluterbev's Fanfiction is open for business!

After moving from LiveJournal last weekend, I am hereby re-opening this fic journal at Dreamwidth. Yay!

Multi-part stories are now consolidated so that anything under 50,000 words is in just one post, and the few stories that are over 50,000 words long are spread across two posts, with nifty links between the parts to help you navigate back and forth. Hopefully this will make it more user friendly for readers, and it certainly will be less time-consuming for me to add new stories!

I have been going through links throughout this journal and updating them, so that all story links from the home page are now working. However there may be some dead links throughout the journal which still need to be updated (such as links to artwork etc). I will amend these gradually when I can find the time.

So, here are my stories, in their new home. Hope you enjoy them :-)
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2010-09-12 07:17 pm
Entry tags:

Late at Night on the Open Road, Speeding Like a Man on the Run (slash)

Summary: Blair's stopped punishing himself, but he's still running.

Author's Note: Written for the 'Late' challenge at [livejournal.com profile] sentinel_thurs. This story follows on from Fathers' Day and Routine.

Rating: PG

Warning: Like the earlier stories in this series this is seriously, seriously angsty, so please read with caution.

Acknowledgment: Title from a song by Chris de Burgh.

Late at Night on the Open Road, Speeding Like a Man on the Run )
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2010-09-04 04:20 pm
Entry tags:

This journal is currently a work in progress

I am in the process of moving all my fanfiction here from Livejournal. This may take a while because I need to do some consolidation of entries (eg to combine multi-part fics into single posts), and also I need to update all the links on the home page and throughout the entire journal. Your patience is therefore appreciated :-).

In the meantime most of my stories can be found at Artifact Storage Room 3.
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2010-08-06 07:44 pm
Entry tags:

Survivor Guilt (Slash)

Summary: With Jim's support, Blair works through the aftermath of a horrific kidnapping and murder.

Author's Note: Written for the Moonridge auction 2010 - many thanks to everyone who donated for this story. Huge thanks to my beta, [livejournal.com profile] snycock AKA Psychgirl.

Category: Explicit slash, angst, H/C

Warnings: Violence.

Survivor Guilt )
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2010-04-13 01:48 pm

Oubliette (slash)

Summary: It was truly a miracle the man lived at all, his emaciated body testimony to his extended suffering. In his extremity he raved and begged for mercy, lost in some dark place within his mind, as though he was still naked in the hole lying amidst the dead, and not in a bed in the infirmary, his broken bones splinted and his immediate discomforts attended to.

Author's Note: Watching a paranormal investigation of an oubliette, followed by spending a long weekend visiting historical sites in Edinburgh, results in a story about a sentinel and guide in times gone by (who may or may not be our sentinel and guide). For me this is a logical progression!

Oubliette: Pronunciation \ˌü-blē-ˈet\
Etymology: French, from Middle French, from oublier 'to forget', from Old French oblier, from Vulgar Latin oblitare, frequentative of Latin oblivisci 'to forget'.
Definition: A dungeon with an opening only at the top, into which prisoners were deposited and left to die. A 'forgetting place'.

Rating: No rating

Warning: Eventual character death.

Oubliette )
fluterbev_fic: (Default)
2009-12-28 11:41 am
Entry tags:

New stories

I tried to post this notice yesterday, but LJ was messing me about, grrrr. Anyway, I just wanted to let those of you who've got this journal friended know that I posted four slash stories yesterday. All of them have previously been posted at [livejournal.com profile] sentinel_thurs, so they are not entirely new, but I've not managed to find time to post them here until now.

If you want to read them, you can find them via the main page of this journal. Look for the stories with a red New! beside them. Please heed the warnings where appropriate.

If you're waiting to read the final part of The Night Terrors, it is nearly finished and should be posted here within the next few weeks, other commitments allowing. I have a couple of other new, long stories on the go as well (one of which is a collaboration with Panik), which I hope to post here by Spring 2010.

Hope everyone has had a nice holiday season, and happy new year to you all :-)