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
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.
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