Thanks to JR for all the help
Simon picked up the manuscript and started to read, then paused and started again. It appeared that Jim and Blair had started from the beginning of the story of their life together all those centuries ago. He had often wondered how Jim—sorry, Jeme--had come to the Panther Clan. Now it appeared that he was going to find out. As he read, he was taken back through the mists of time.
It was summer, and the Panther Clan were busy at their summer campsite by the White River. It was early morning, and a soft mist rose off the water. The children played on the bank, among them Darryl, son of the clan leader, Saemund. He was congratulating himself on getting out of his mother's way before she assigned him one of his many chores. The boys were talking about the latest stories of battle, their heroes holding back hordes of raiders, when they heard the splashing and snorting of a horse coming through the water, its bridle chinking. The horseman appeared like a spectre come up from the underworld.
The children scrambled to their feet and started to back away from the big man on the large, black horse. His gaze raked over them, ice cold. Darryl, the chief's son, felt a ball of fear in his stomach. With a gasp, he gave his friends a shove and they snapped out of their almost trancelike state of fear and started to run back to the camp to raise the alarm. A feayr clan, they had no sentinels to call the alarm, so everyone had to play their part in protecting the camp.
"Rider coming! Rider coming!” The children hollered. The adults soon took up the call.
Clan men dived back into their tents to collect weapons. The intruder might be only one man now, but how many more were hiding in the woods? It was the month of the Raiders' Moon, and the travelling traders talked of camps sacked. All had to be on guard.
The newcomer paused at the edge of the camp and watched with a calculating gaze as it was roused from its early morning routine by his arrival. Two young men with the look of warriors pulled their swords and moved toward him, escorting him into the camp. Only then did he kick his horse and start it forward. He seemed to barely register the sight of children being pulled out of his way by fretful mothers.
Saemund emerged from his tent and stood before it, waiting for the newcomer to come to him. Critically he examined the man--a mercenary, of that he was certain. This was no simple trader, for all he had was his sword and his horse. His clothes were black and heavily travel-stained. He had short brown hair and a good growth of beard. His face was set in a grim, emotionless mask. Saemund suppressed a shudder. There was the air of a dangerous predator about him. A moment later, he saw the coloured band around the mercenary's arm that marked him as one of the enhanced.
"Sentinel, what do you want?” He kept his voice level, neither encouraging nor hostile.
The man stayed on his horse, as custom dictated he remains until invited to dismount, and only if the clan leader were interested in engaging his services.
"I was told that the Panther Clan was looking for a sentinel. I am here to offer my sword.” The voice was toneless and cold. Saemund met the blue eyes and held them, feeling a chill despite the bright sunshine. Though the man was in the prime of youth, strong and fit, he seemed to be dead inside.
“We may have need of a sword. Sit a spell, sentinel, and we will talk.” Saemund's wife, Caro, appeared with a wine skin and poured the drink into two cups. Saemund handed one to the sentinel and then made a show of drinking it first, ignoring the fact that the sentinel cautiously inhaled, as if checking for drugs, before tasting the wine.
“You are not bonded, sentinel,” the clan leader began. He knew un-bonded sentinels could be temperamental, and introducing one to a feayr clan could create a volatile situation.
The man met his eyes levelly. "I am un-bonded.” He made the words almost a challenge. “Is that a problem?”
“That remains to be seen. But you should know that this clan is feayr. There is no guide for you here. But it is possible we could pay in gold for what you need, should it become an issue.”
The sentinel just nodded and put his cup out for a refill. “You may save your gold; I have no wish for a guide, nor do I need one.” Saemund raised his eyebrows. He had never heard of a sentinel, let alone a mercenary, who could survive long without the steadying influence of a guide.
Wulfstein the healer edged closer. He had seen the man's arrival, and was sure that this was the sentinel he had seen in the runes, a man of darkness with the potential to serve the light. With him, he would bring change and prosperity for the clan.
The members of the Panther Clan kept watch from a distance, the presence of a sentinel making them nervous. Everyone knew the rules: it was taboo for a sentinel or guide, separately or together, to come into a feayr camp unless they were offering their services to the clan. During that time, they would limit their contact to their masters, and not contaminate the clan with their unnatural ways. For that reason, they would wear the coloured band to mark them. Once their job was completed, they would leave the camp willingly or be driven out by force. The feayr clans had made the rules to protect themselves from sentinels and guides joining the Clans in stealth. The seed of the sentinels would not pollute the gene pool of the feayr clans. The rules had been handed down by many generations. Those clans that had violated the rules had been exiled from the Council, their deeds no longer recorded by the bards. Some had disbanded, and their people had scattered through the country. Others had journeyed over the mountains and become Outlanders, the same people that now preyed on the Clans each spring when the raiders returned to pillage and loot
Saemund waited for the sentinel to drink the second cup of wine. Negations always took time, and it was something that was never rushed. The introduction of a sentinel into a feayr clan was risky at best, and as clan leader, he had to know the metal of the man he was going to employ. There were only two reasons that a sentinel would be working as a mercenary. The most usual was that he was earning money to pay for a guide; it was common practice that a sentinel clan would not let a sentinel simply claim one of their guides; there had to be a payment to the clan. This way the guides and sentinels moved through the sentinel clans, and prevented too much interbreeding between the families. But the price was usually high, depending on the pedigree of the guide. The more generations of guides it had, the greater the guide's strength was likely to be. No money meant no guide, and without a guide a sentinel lived under the sword of death. One day he would fall into a void from which he would not return.
The more disturbing reason was that the sentinel had been expelled from his own clan. For that to happen, he must have committed some heinous crime.
Saemund tried to keep himself from jumping to any conclusions. Something told him that this man was unique and that his reasons would transcend the ordinary. In any case, the need for a sentinel was pressing, The Raider's Moon would soon rise, and a clan without a sentinel would quickly fall prey to the hordes that swept across the mountains and down into the valleys, looting and pillaging on their way. But the sentinel had to be the right person. Other sentinels had come to the camp, but always, Wulfstein the Healer had cast the runes and shaken his head, pronouncing that this was not the one.
"Tell me something about yourself, sentinel.” Saemund prompted, since the stranger had fallen into an uncomfortable silence
The man took a deep pull on the wine sack and asked sarcastically, "What do you want to know?”
"A great many things, but first, why you have left your clan?” Saemund saw the man grow tense at the question.
"None of your business,” he snarled. The man's hand brushed his sword.
Hender and Bryn, Saemund's bodyguards, had been hovering in the background, watching for any trouble from the strange sentinel. Hender started forward. “Pull your sword and you're a dead man, sentinel.”
Saemund saw a knife drop down the mercenary's sleeve into his hand, ready to snap back. He raised his hand warningly. “Stay there, Hender.”
“Saemund, don't trust—“
“Go on, do it,” the sentinel growled, steel in his voice. Saemund spread out his hands in a calming gesture. He knew Hender was a good warrior, but the man in front of him could kill him without breaking a sweat. Hender and Bryn were young and still had dreams of honour in battle. This man looked as if he had been to the underworld of the dead and come back from it.
Hender gradually lowered his sword. He planted the tip in the ground and crossed his hands over the pommel, a few feet behind Saemund, ready to spring into action if needed.
Saemund turned back to the sentinel and said calmly, “As you see, my men are quick to defend me. I can do no less for them. So you must tell me why you left your clan.” Still the man hesitated, glancing down at the ground as if reliving a painful memory. Saemund waited a few moments more, and then relented. "On your word of honour, sentinel, is it anything that would cause this clan grief?”
"My word of honour?” the sentinel scoffed. “A contradiction in terms, isn't that what the feayr say?” Saemund heard such bitterness in his voice that he was surprised that the man could live with himself.
"Your word of honour is good enough for me and this clan.” He met the sentinel's gaze and held it. The man seemed to look down to his very soul.
"Then you have it.”
“Very well.” He nodded curtly to let the man know that ended the matter. "Which clans have you worked for?”
"The Eagle Clan, the Green Leaf Clan, and this past summer for Lord Weiland, whose lands border the—“
Saemund waved him silent. “Enough. Clearly, you are a man of experience. For such experience, you will expect to be paid well. We are not a rich clan, but we will do our best to meet your terms.”
The sentinel allowed nothing to show on his face, but he bargained hard, wanting a fair wage for his work. He seemed to expect Saemund to try and cheat him, and was surprised when he agreed to the amount with only a small amount of haggling.
The Clan Leader rose and put his hand out. The sentinel hesitated before accepting it. It was a courtesy he evidently hadn't expected from a feayr clan leader.
The sentinel gathered up the reins of his horse, looking uncertainly toward the camp. Saemund knew that most clans stationed sentinels on the edge of the camp, so they could face the enemy first and keep a good distance between themselves and the young maidens' quarters. Saemund pointed toward the paddock. “Your horse will be safe in there—no one else will dare to ride it. And you will need somewhere to live. I can only offer you a traveling tent, but it is large enough for one person, and it will be placed near my own.” Seeing his surprise, Saemund added, "While you are here you are under my personal protection. Take your time to settle in, and then we will talk.”
"As you wish, master.” The sentinel accorded him the title as a gesture of respect. He was to be the feayr leader's servant until the time they parted. If he failed him in battle, he could be ordered to take his own life by throwing himself onto his sword, just as any other servant of the leader.
With a half-amused look on his face, Saemund watched the sentinel unsaddle his horse and tend it before going over to inspect the tent, circling around it and whistling silently, evidently impressed that it was both fairly new and seemingly water-tight. Just then, a young woman—no doubt dispatched by Caro—arrived with a pile of extra blankets, as well as a cup, salver and other household items.
Wulfstein crossed to Saemund and pulled him to one side. “You have done well, Saemund. I believe this one to be a Dark Sentinel, the elite of their kind. The gods certainly blessed us when they guided this tortured soul to us.”
"Tortured?" Saemund was puzzled; the man was certainly dour, but seemed hard as iron in both mind and body.
"I can see the pain in the man. It is a pain of the soul and the mind, not the body. In time he will learn trust, and will come to serve this clan well.” Wulfstein smiled as if he himself had conjured up the wandering sentinel.
"You sound as if he is here to stay. He is only here while we need him--you know the rules of the Clans.”
"Then break the rules, Saemund. At one time, you believed sentinel and feayr could live together, could achieve more together than apart. I am telling you that I have seen such a thing in our future. This sentinel is the one. You will lead, but he will be the weapon in your hand.”
Saemund sighed. “I might have believed so when I was younger. But I have learned much about sentinels. They have little regard for our kind, and feayr dread their power and do not trust them. The sentinels will take our gold, but they will never respect our ways. Why should I think this one is different? If we had a guide, perhaps, but without one—when he has earned enough, he will go.”
“Have you become like all the rest, Saemund?” Wulfstein asked sharply. “I remember what the people said when old Todd picked a slave as his bodyguard and groomed him to be our leader. You got where you did by following your heart. Now I am telling you that what you have imagined, I have seen. The runes are never wrong. The man will stay, as will the dark shadow that will follow him.”
“What other should be as important to him? Mark my words—the future is like a ball: once it is in motion, it will find its way. You may embrace this destiny, or you may fight it, but it cannot be changed.” Wulfstein patted his arm, then rose to make his way slowly back to his tent.
Saemund's gaze drifted from the healer to the sentinel's tent. Though Wulfstein spoke with the authority of a holy man, Saemund was not always sure that his “visions” weren't simply a way of bringing Saemund around to his own way of thinking. Yet there was no doubt the old healer had seen something unusual in this sentinel. Now Saemund asked himself whether he had the courage to revive the dream of his youth—to build a clan where sentinel and feayr would work together to build a mighty clan. If it had a hope of succeeding, it would have to start now, with this man
Jeme pointedly ignored the warriors who took a seat near his tent, guards until the time that Saemund could trust him. At least they had allowed him to keep his weapons. All too clearly he remembered the Broken Sun Clan that had taken his horse and weapons from him, keeping him a virtual prisoner until he lead them on raids and proved himself. The Panther Clan were perhaps not quite as soft as he had thought, although they were treating him with surprising courtesy.
To pass the time, he began sharpening his weapons. Without looking up, he could sense the clan members as they moved around him, giving him a wide berth but showing their curiosity nonetheless. He could clearly hear the children as they inched closer to him. They had heard stories of sentinels, and it seemed they expected him to have horns and be a demon from the underworld. It annoyed him, but at the same time, he understood it. As a child, before he discovered what he was, demon sentinels had inhabited his nightmares.
He lifted his head as he heard a woman's light footsteps coming toward him. Her long, fair hair was twisted up and plaited behind her head. Her clothes were well made, and her cloak was fastened with a brooch of gold. She smiled as she put a plate down, rich stew with fresh bread, and it assaulted his sense of smell and made his mouth water. She set a wine sack next to it. Usually the food he got was leftovers from the common pot. Either the clan was far richer than it appeared, or the lady herself had cooked this, and it was the same fare served to the clan leader.
She smiled at him and spoke quietly. “You will like being here, sentinel. These are good people, brave and trustworthy.”
“And that is why you are doing this?”
“Doing what? Bringing your food?” She was puzzled.
His look went straight through her. “Is that really all you want?”
“What else, sentinel?”
"You all want something.” He leaned forward closing the distance between them, his mouth twisting into a bitter smile. "Maybe it's a seed to fill your belly, a chance at a better life.”
She pulled back from him and saw the look of victory on his face. "Who hurt you so badly, sentinel, that you strike out first without thought or care?” He ignored her and went back to working on his weapons.
"The Panther Clan will change you, sentinel.” With that parting comment, she walked away. Jeme's head snapped back up, and he watched her go.
Caro sat with the other women of the clan as they prepared the bridal pieces for the soon- to-be-married Helena. As she pushed her hair back from her face with the back of her hand, she saw the sentinel sitting by his tent, as still as if carved from stone. She dropped her needle and rushed towards him.
Saemund, coming back from attending to his horses, saw her run and hurried over. The sentinel was looking at something that only he could see. She waved a hand in front of his face, confirming what she feared: he had fallen into the void. His eyes didn't blink, and his breathing was shallow. In a few minutes, she knew, it might stop altogether. In desperation, she did the first thing that came into her head, and lashed out hard. Her hand connected with the mercenary's face, dealing a stinging blow, her fingers leaving red marks on the pale skin. His eyes blinked slowly and then flew open again as reality crashed back down on him.
He dived sideways, catching up his sword, then rolled onto his knees ready to fight, his breathing coming in heavy pants. The point of his sword rested on Caro's breast. She stayed perfectly still, ignoring everyone accept the mercenary, her soft brown eyes meeting his cold blue ones.
He took a long, deep breath and exhaled slowly, then got to his feet, treating the clan's warriors and their weapons as if they didn't exist. He put a hand out. Caro, her eyes still on his, reached up and accepted it, and he drew her to her feet. He refused to meet her eyes in what Caro could only guess was embarrassment as he released her hand, as if it was red hot. “I suppose I should thank you for that,” he said, his voice gruff and unsure.
She swallowed. “I hope I didn't hurt you? I didn't know what else to do.”
“No harm done, although in the future it would be best to wait until I lose consciousness. Otherwise I may turn violent and strike out at anyone who touches me.” He allowed a small smile to come to his lips. “Though perhaps I would have been the one in danger. Tell me, do Saemund's warriors fight as well as his wife?”
Caro laughed in her turn. “My husband always tells me he values my strength.” Emboldened, she met the sentinel's eyes. “The food will be ready soon. Won't you join us around the fire?”
“Perhaps.” He seemed to be considering. “I do not know your name, lady.”
“It is Caro.” She smiled at him. “Sentinel, what is yours?”
“You know the rules,” he said stiffly. Everyone knew the rules: a sentinel didn't give his name, for he was no more than a tool for his master, the clan leader. A name would make him a person; without one, it was easier to keep a distance from the clan. Once the job was finished, he would be on his way. Until then, he would be “the sentinel,” nothing more.
She didn't flinch, as he looked her up and down.
"Your name, sentinel.” He recognised his master's voice.
“You, at least, must know the rules.”
“Rules can be broken, sentinel. Now tell us your name, if you would gift us with it.”
The sentinel paused, reluctant to break the rules that were the only surety he had in the hostile world of the Clans. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. A huge black cat had appeared in the clearing and was now regarding him with its large, pale eyes, its tail flicking... It unnerved him, but for a reason that made no sense to him, he felt he should answer them. “Jeme.” One word, and the rules tumbled.
Saemund smiled. “May your time with the clan be profitable and rewarding for all of us, Jeme.”
“It's time to eat,” Caro said brightly. “You are invited to our fire.” She slid her arm through her husband's. They walked off, leaving one puzzled sentinel staring at their backs. When Jeme turned back, the great cat was gone.
After dinner, Hender and Bryn watched as the sentinel worked out with his sword. He was going through his training pattern, each blow delivered and followed with a parry. The two young warriors took their job as Saemund's bodyguards very seriously, and they needed to get the measure of the sentinel. Hender moved closer and the sentinel turned on him, his sword ready for defence.
Bryn held his hand up. "Easy, sentinel, we were just watching you. You're good with a blade. Mind if we join you?”
"If you wish.” He stepped back to make room in the small clearing.
Bryn pulled his sword and tossed the sheath to Hender. His blade crashed against that of the mercenary. Although he was tall and strongly built, the man was fast and agile, turning quickly, reading the younger man's body movement, always one move ahead.
He rolled his blade around in one quick action. The sword flew out of the younger warrior's hand and hit the ground, and Bryn found himself looking along the blade of the mercenary's sword, the point rested against his heart.
"First blood to you, sentinel,” he laughed, though it sounded slightly false to his own ears. “It's well that we are only practicing.”
"Only practicing?” the sentinel intoned, lowering the blade. "You need to watch yourself, boy, or your life will be short. Tell your friend to put his sword away. I do not mean to kill you.” He watched dispassionately while Hender helped Bryn clamber back to his feet. "So, did you get the answer you sought?”
"What?” Bryn was still struggling to get back his breath.
"You were looking for something--a weakness perhaps. I shall save you the effort: there is none.”
Hender caught Bryn's arm and they slowly made their way back to the camp the mercenary didn't turn away until the young warriors had gone. Then he settled back to work on his weapons.
The Raiders' Moon marked the start of the hordes' rampage. The Eastern tribes swept down the mountain passes, destroying all that was in their way. In the month that followed, the Panther Clan met them in a string of battles. The sentinel fought like a demon, his senses helping the clan to set traps for the raiders, winning back more gold and horses than they lost. The fights were short and sharp, and only one side walked away. The mercenary fought near his master, protecting him and his standard, the carved Black Panther head, for to lose it would be to lose the heart and soul of the clan.
The battle was close, each side almost equal in number. Only the skill of the sentinel had allowed the Panther Clan to spring their ambush on the Raiders. Time and time again the raiders made a run on the standard. The warrior taking it would be honoured, his glory song sung for the ages, and immortality would be his. But each time they were beaten back.
Hender saw one raider, whose bear skin around his shoulders marked him as a warrior of merit, come in to attack their weaker side. But the horses' shoulder thudded into him, knocking him to his knees. With a roar of triumph the warrior stood up in the saddle and swung down with a mighty slash. Jeme's sword blocked the killing blow, and with a snarl he caught the warrior's arm and pulled him off the horse. Overstretched, the man could not cling onto the prancing horse. The sentinel drove his blade through the man's heart. Bending, he grabbed Hender, still dazed from his collision with the horse, and dragged the man to safety away from the standard.
Jeme pushed him toward Bryn and turned back to the battle. The raiders' horns sang across the battlefield, and they pulled back to regroup. The sentinel sent out his senses, trying to hear their parlay so he could report back to his master what they had planned. Hender sat on a tree stump, one hand to his head. His eyes still looked dazed as he watched the sentinel return. “My thanks, sentinel, for my life.”
The thanks took him by surprise. He had been doing his job, keeping his Clan alive; it was nothing personal. Jeme's hand moved to his head as his hearing suddenly went out. He saw his companions' mouths moving but his couldn't hear. He was losing control of his senses. It had happened to him a handful of times before, most often when he was exhausted by battle, but always afterward, when he had retreated to a place of safety. Not now, he pleaded silently. Not now, while the clan is still in danger. Bryn's face took on a look of pure horror, looking back past the sentinel. Jeme spun around, fighting his narrowing vision to see horses running full tilt across the killing field, taking no care for the dead and dying in their masters' lust to kill the Panther Clan.
A knot headed for the standard. The wooden stakes angled up at them caused them to swerve as they saw them at the last moment. One saw a gap and went for it. Jeme planted himself directly in front of the standard. He saw a shield on the ground and dived down to grab it, using it to protect himself as he ploughed into the horse's feet. Horse and rider windmilled over him onto the wooden stakes. Hender dispatched the horse with a quick slash to the throat. The warrior was impaled through the leg, and he quickly fell to the swords of the standard guard.
But the rolling dive had taken the sentinel outside of the protective wooden stakes. His hearing cut in again in time to hear Hender's screamed warning. Twisting and ducking, he avoided a killing blow but took a across the shoulder. The warrior spun his horse round, intending to charge again and finish him off.
Jeme's hand lashed around the hilt of the sword, hitting the horse's mouth. It reared up, and the raider was tossed off its back. Another warrior had fallen to the Panther Clan. But others were now pressing against the standard guards' defence. The sentinel looked for his master, only to see that Saemund was being pressed hard.
The raiders had flanked them, and the clan leader had been forced back from the standard. His bodyguard was fighting to get to him, but Jeme knew they could never reach him in time. The stabbed his sword into the ground, then swept up the standard in his hand and tested its weight and balance. He threw it with all his strength. With a scream of agony, the raider fell with its point through his back.
There was no time to congratulate himself. He caught his sword up again to face more of the attackers. He could see the rest of the clan coming to their aid, but the raiders had a death wish. They would die or take the standard. They sang their death song as they threw themselves at the standard guard. Jeme's sword was deflected by one of the raiders. The blade sliced through a leather bag bound at his side. Powder flew up in the air. Jeme did not recognize the pungent spice, exotic and overpowering. Suddenly the light became too bright, and the stench of blood flooded him. He tried to pull in a breath, but the air seemed too heavy. The raider saw this opponent stop, the sword falling from lifeless fingers, and with a cry of triumph swung down to take the man's head off.
Hender threw himself forward, his body crashing into the stupefied sentinel, knocking him to the ground. The young man used his own body to shield the fallen mercenary. The raider snarled with rage and began a downward strike. Suddenly he jolted and looked down at the point of the sword that stuck through his chest. He was pulled backwards as Saemund jerked his sword free. Stepping to the side, Saemund let the body fall and then struck again, separating the head from the body. Only then did he stand over Hender and Jeme.
The young man was trying to bring Jeme around with a slap to the face, remembering that had worked last time. But now he seemed lost, and Hender began to panic. Then he saw the blood seeping through the slash to the leather tunic. He pulled it open and his face fell. The tunic had hidden a serious wound; the undershirt was soaked with blood. The sentinel might die. Tearing his own shirt, Hender began to work on the wound. He yelled for Wulfstein, who had remained with the boys and spare horses in a wood near the battlefield. While Hender pressed on the wound, Saemund supported his back and head. Despite his fear, he could not help but ask, “How did he fight like this? Is he a berserk?”
“He is a sentinel, Hender. Duty takes the place of everything, and to protect the clan is their creed.” Bending down, the clan leader's hand touched the mercenary's face. “, I have not finished with you yet Jeme, you will not die”. “You have a destiny to fore fill”.
The raiders pulled back to form a line at the rear of the field. Lifting their swords, they yelled their battle song, and then as one they turned and left the battlefield. Any that could face three of their attacks would live. The raiders could not risk all-out defeat, and they would never attack a fourth time. The cost of loss of men and horses as not acceptable they would live to fight another day.
While Hender and Bryn made a litter to carry Jeme home, Saemund tried to staunch the wound with a few strips of cloth torn from his cloak. He was gravely concerned; Jeme's face was pale as death, there was no way of knowing if it was blood loss and pain that were keeping him unconscious or if he was still in the dark void. Only a guide would know that. All they could do was their best for him.
Rulf, the clan's elder, met them on the edge of the camp. The old man was tall and thin. He looked almost like a heron with his jerking head movements, his robe wrapped round him, his hand pulling back the blankets to see whom it was. He shook his head when he saw the sentinel's massive wound. "We will see him to the underworld in honour. He has fought well.”
Saemund knelt by him. "Rulf, he's still alive. He might yet live.”
"He's a sentinel. No one will take him into his tent. Sentinels are not of this clan, and like this, without help, he will quickly die. Let him go to the gods.”
Saemund looked down at the sentinel. “We owe him at least the chance of life.”
"Saemund,” Rulf warned, “there is no need to be reckless. When you brought a sentinel in our midst, we understood, and your decision has served us well in the raids. But to treat him like a kinsman—“
"He saved my life today, and almost lost his own. Would a kinsman have done as much? He will go to my tent.” The clan leader's tone indicated he would not brook any argument.
At Saemund's direction, his men carried Jeme to the family tent. Caro stood at her husband's side, looking down at the sentinel.
“I could not leave him to die.” He met his wife's eyes and knew that they were of one thought.
Caro's voice was firm. "Hender, Bryn bring him into our tent.” Wulfstein had gone to his tent to get more supplies and was already was already hurrying up with them. She held back the tent flap to let him in. Somehow, she knew the sentinel would live. He was a cold and distant man, and had kept to himself, trying to cut himself off from the business of the clan. But she had seen that he yearned to be part of something again. She had seen the window of his soul, and that had been enough.
Caro shooed her son from the tent. This was not for his eyes. The sentinel's head rolled, his eyelids only half open. Wulfstein splashed water into a small pot and ground the bark to powder. Supporting the sentinel's head, he poured the bitter drink down, making him swallow it. Together they fought to keep the man alive.
During the night, fever built in the sentinel's body. The blankets and furs were soaked with sweat. Caro brushed the tears from her face as she listened to his faltering voice. In his fever, the man spoke to his father, who, it seemed, had rejected him and sent him away. He also spoke as to a woman he remembered, whom he had loved but had been forced to leave.
When she went out to collect fresh water, the other women came up to her, whispering that the sentinel would die. They had seen it often enough in the warriors: the wound would go rotten, and that would be that. Already they feared what would become of the clan without the sentinel's protection. She swept past them, refusing to reply. It was not in her to admit defeat.
Returning to the tent, she pulled the blankets off the sentinel, leaving him naked. Then with damp cloths she moved over his chest and shoulders and down his flanks, across the belly and thighs, leaving a cold path that all too quickly heated up again. Wulfstein watched, his expression grim. If his fever did not break soon, the sentinel would not have the energy to fight the sickness. In the early hours of the morning, when the river water was ice cold, before the sun climbed into the heavens, they carried the sentinel to the riverbank and lowered him into the water. Saemund and Hender shivered violently as they kept the fevered man in the icy stream. The shock would either kill or cure him. Now it was in the laps of the gods.
With great care, they brought him back to the bank. Wulfstein pulled back the wrapping on the wound and, taking maggots from a small jug, laid them in the wound and bound them in. They would eat the rotten flesh, leaving the new skin to grow healthy. Now dry, the sentinel was wrapped into a clean blanket, and then carried back to the tent.
The sun was beating warmly on the tent when Jeme woke, struggling out of a dream. He had been fighting, only this time it was not to defend the clan's possessions from the raiders. Instead, he was storming a fortress, competing with hundreds of other warriors, all strong and proud, to scale the walls first and claim a great prize. He was clambering over the parapets when his eyes opened, too soon to see what it was he had won.
He focused on the person who sat dozing by his side: Caro, Saemund's wife, the rag she had used to bathe him still in her hand. His throat was dry. He reached for the water and gave a groan of pain. Her eyes flew open, then softened, and she said softly, "Welcome back, Jeme.” She scooped up the cup and leaned over him, supporting his head, so that he could drink. The cooling water trickled down his parched throat.
"Thank you.” His voice was weak.
“You are most welcome.” She smiled at him.
“I can't pay you, you know. For the herbs, I mean.” Jeme knew he would not be paid until the end of his contract with the clan, and now he was injured how could he finish it?
She put a hand out and gently brushed his hair back as she might have done for her own son. "Not everything has a price, sentinel. Now rest.” Jeme closed his eyes at her command.
A short while later, Saemund came to see the evidence of his wife's success. Jeme will live; now what? He thought. He stared down at the most vital part of his plan, peacefully sleeping wrapped in blankets.
Wulfstein appeared in the doorway of his tent, “Saemund, the time is now right for you to complete the spirit walk that started with your vision.”
“He is resting easily, Saemund. The gods will not be denied. Come.”
Wulfstein took him back to his tent. He seated him near his fire and then took herbs and powders and mixed them into a smooth paste as he repeated the incantations, then added water to it, passing it through above the fire. Then he took a deep sip of the drug and handed it to Saemund. “Together we walk the plane together.”
The world seemed to shimmer and then it faded, to be replaced by a thick forest. By his side was Wulfstein. Together they walked a path. At a clearing, it broke into two. The smooth surface of one side was marked with the footprints of one person, the other with the footprint of two people. “Choose, Saemund: do we go forward together or alone”.
But before they could go further a giant cat came out of the forest, its eyes burning yellow and its coat as black as night. It walked without fear towards the two men. Saemund reached a hand out; it was the spirit guardian of their clan, a creature he had never seen in the flesh. But the panther roared and pulled back, showing its teeth, ears plastered back to its head. Turning its back, it ran down the path of the single footfall.
“Our Panther Spirit had rejected me. It must mean that the idea is wrong, that I am wrong.”
“Saemund—“ Whatever the healer was about to say was lost in a roar of pain.
With no thought for his own safety, the clan leader rushed down the path the panther had taken to find it laying on its side, a large wound on its flanks, blood pooling as it lay in the dirt. The animal was dying.
“Wulfstein, you must help it. If it weakens and dies, so must the clan.”
“Only you can help it, Saemund. Place you hands on the wound, and if you believe you can help it, you will.”
Saemund hesitated, not wanting to cause the animal more pain, but he could see the light dying in its eyes. His hands covered the wound. A gold light swirled up around the wound, and he saw the flaps of skin close, leaving no mark. The panther go to its feet, sitting on its haunches. It dipped its big head and looked at the place where the wound had been. Then, lifting its head, it licked the clan leader's wrist and lowered its head into his hands.
Looking toward the now smiling healer, Saemund said, “It's Jeme isn't it? I don't understand, but this is Jeme's spirit. This means he's going to live. Why did not you tell me Jeme and our guardian spirit were one?”
“The spirit world only gives up its secrets one at a time.”
Saemund was suddenly hit in the back by a heavy weight that drove him to the ground. Twisting, he managed to catch the throat and muzzle of a large wolf as it attacked him. It thrashed its paws, slashing his clothes as he fought to stop it taking his throat out.
The panther collided solidly with the wolf, sending it crashing to the ground. The panther moved so that it was blocking its target, Saemund. The large cat growled loudly at wolf, which tested it by lunging toward the man. Finally, it pounced and trapped the wolf under its large body, pinning it with its paws. The wolf struggled, then it stilled, unable to escape. Both men expected the panther to tear its throat out, but it did not. It merely lowered its massive head and began to lick the wolf's face, muzzle, and throat. The smaller animal began to calm down. Then and only then, the panther got to its feet and allowed the wolf back up again. It then escorted it to Saemund. The wolf growled and would have lunged forward, but the panther blocked it again, growled low, and licked the wolf's face again, quieting it.
“Wulfstein,” Saemund whispered, afraid of agitating the wolf, “If the panther is Jeme, then who is the wolf?”
“His dark shadow: his guide.”
Looking ahead, Saemund saw the paths again. This time he and Wulfstein took the fork with the two footprints, which soon became many.
The dream faded away, leaving only the two men in the tent.
Later, as he lay in bed waiting for sleep, Saemund though how the gods had guided Wulfstein and Caro's hands. This was meant to be. The Panther Clan would break all the rules. It would take both feayr and sentinels as equals, and this sentinel would be the first. Once Jeme was out of danger, he would call a council of the elders and would tell them of the spirit quest.
Two days later, Wulfstein grudgingly permitted Jeme to leave his bed, though only as far as the fire circle to eat with Saemund's family. To Saemund's pleasure, more than a few of the clan members approached him to congratulate him on his recovery.
Finally, Saemund knew that he had to speak to the clan. Jeme was going to stay with them. The sentinel had been shocked when Saemund had told him. But from what he knew of the man, Jeme seemed willing to believe that he had truly found a clan, and for a sentinel that was the sweetest thing of all. A clan to protect and serve was all they asked.
Not everyone shared his enthusiasm for the new order. At the council meeting, Rulf, sitting at the head of the circle of elders, raised a bony finger and pointed it at Saemund.
"Have you forgotten the rules? feayr is feayr, sentinel is sentinel, and the two worlds cannot mix without causing harm to one, and dishonour to the other.”
“And who, I ask you, made these rules? Is it not possible that they were born of fear?”
“Aye, and why not?” Rulf nodded. “Should a wise leader not fear that which brings destruction to his people? And is it not a foolish one who thinks he knows better than many generations of wise men?”
“And is it our fate, then, to do no more than our ancestors—to stay poor and frightened forever, victims to any stronger foe who wishes to attack us? Tell me why, Rulf, why are the sentinels to be left alone, when they can bring so much to this clan? With sentinels, this clan would be able to protect itself, be able to hunt no matter what the season.” He turned to all of them, appealing for their support. "We all know this clan would be stronger for their admittance.”
"This is a feayr clan,” Rulf intoned, as if he had found the downfall of Saemund's idea.
"And it would stay a feayr clan. We would not become the servants of the sentinels. We would instead become partners with them, neither treating each other as less than an equal.”
"They would bring guides.” At this, some of the men grumbled.
"So? They are men like all others. The only difference is that they feel things more keenly.”
"And the women would flock around them,” Jess, the leather maker, put in.
"They are concerned with their sentinels, that is all. The women will have to check their desires.”
"They are know to take lovers among themselves,” Jess said sternly.
Saemund laughed. "You're like an old woman, Jess. You can't have it both ways; either they will take your wives or make love with each other.” There was a chuckle around the clan. Jess threw his hands up.
The argument went back and forward, Saemund was surprised to see that it was not now only he who was arguing for the mixing of the Clan.
Todd the blacksmith sat silent, his large hands twisting, “I worked for a sentinel clan. They were arrogant about their powers, but no more than any warrior of their skills. They certainly did not make slaves from us; they shared equally with us the fruits of their victories. You spoke of guides, Jess--I never feared my wife with one of them. A clan with equal power, and you would remain the leader Saemund?”
“Then I would vote yes for the mixing. Our future would be made richer for their coming.”
Frank the pot maker shook his head. “I hear they engage in unnatural practices with their guides.”
Todd laughed a deep belly laugh. “You have cloth in your ears Frank. Jess has already asked that, but to answer you, while I was at the camp of the sentinels, I saw nothing that sent me screaming into the night. They are normal men, nothing more.”
“One swallow doesn't make a summer, Saemund.” Todd said. “Just as one sentinel doesn't make a clan. How will we get more of them?”
Wulfstein answered. “Jeme is a Dark Sentinel. We are blessed that he is the elite of their kind, and a warlord would pay much gold to employ him, more than our clan is worth. When we go to the council meetings, and the sentinels see he is with us, they will know what he is, they will come.” He turned to Saemund. “Allow Jeme to select them. I believe that he will pick well for us.”
As the sun rose, the votes were cast. Each member of the clan had a stone, which he placed in a pile. At the end, the pile for the admittance of sentinels to the clan was the larger. Now there was no way back; they would become a mixed clan
By the new moon, Jeme was strong enough to lift his sword again. He could be seen by day outside his tent, working slowly through his practice movements.
The tent that was now his home was larger and more comfortable. He ate his meals with Saemund and his family, and the clan accepted him into their midst. Saemund formally adopted Jeme. He was now Panther Clan. The children no longer shied away from the grim-faced man, for they knew that he would not harm them. The sentinel's natural, instinctive territorial imperative to protect his clan came forward, and his loyalty now belonged entirely to the people who had saved not only his life, but also his honour.
“Sentinel in the camp!”
The cry rang out, bringing Jeme from the river where he had been bathing, as the healer Wulfstein had ordered him to, still fussing over the wound. He collected his sword, ready to fight for his new clan if the sentinel proved hostile.
The new sentinel was blond; his long hair pulled back, and rode a fine grey charger. He had a younger, smaller man cradled in his arms before him, holding him as tenderly as a parent would a child.
The clan watched all came out to watch the newcomer. As Saemund moved to meet him, he realized that he was looking at a bonded pair, and that there was something seriously wrong with them. “Sentinel what do you want?”
The sentinel tensed. "I don't want any trouble. My guide is hurt. I need a healer and supplies.” He spoke as if challenging them to refuse, but underneath Saemund detected a note of desperation.
"Dismount, sentinel. Our healer will look at your guide.”
"What do you want from us in return?” the man asked suspiciously. "I have no gold to pay for him. All I can offer is my sword.”
"Nothing is needed, sentinel. The offer is made with an open hand.” Saemund kept perfectly still and maintained eye contact, knowing the sentinel was reading him. The new sentinel suddenly looked past the clan leader, pulling his guide even closer. He kept his eyes locked on Jeme as he approached, and bowed his head slightly before speaking.
"We seek help from your clan, Sentinel Prime. My guide is ill, and we need food and water. If you give leave for your people to provide it, we will be on our way quickly.”
Saemund looked from one sentinel to the other, feeling a bit aggrieved that this stranger had just demoted him.
Jeme came forward. “Sentinel, your guide is safe in this clan. Even though they are feayr, they have welcomed me as a brother.”
The sentinel looked startled by this news. "You have sworn loyalty to them?"
"Yes.” He gestured toward Saemund. “This is the clan leader. He hired me first as a mercenary, but he has since welcomed me into his family. Dismount, and we will do what we can for your guide.”
The sentinel pulled his guide closer to him, clearly not wanting to pass his guide to a feayr. Then he met Jeme's eyes levelly. Some question and answer seemed to be exchanged, for the strange sentinel nodded slightly and said, “Sentinel Prime, I trust you with my guide.”
The sentinel then leaned down his lips almost against his guide's ear, “This sentinel will help you,” he said softly, “and then you will be returned to me.”
Jeme moved closer, reaching up to take the wounded guide. Holding him close, he dipped his head and inhaled the scent of the guide. Saemund watched him nervously, not knowing if Jeme had ever been in physical contact with a guide, and if not, what affect it might have on him. But after a moment, he raised his head, not even tensing as the strange sentinel slid off his horse and reclaimed his guide.
“Wulfstein, our healer, will do right for him. Come, my tent is over here.” Jeme pulled his sleeping furs into place to make a warm, soft nest for the strange guide. He drew the other sentinel back to one side so that Wulfstein could tend the sick man. But the strange sentinel kept one hand on his guide, giving him comfort. Only when Wulfstein had finished, and an herb drink had been coaxed into the young man, did the sentinel relax.
"Sentinel, what happened to your guide?”
The sentinel looked Saemund up and down, as if deciding how much of the truth he could be trusted with. "Sentinel Prime, this is your clan leader?" he repeated. He knew from his guide that he was facing a Dark Sentinel; he seemed puzzled, clearly expecting that Jeme would be the unquestioned leader.
"This is Saemund, *my* leader and my friend,” Jeme said firmly. “I owe him my life.”
The sentinel's head turned slightly to one side, as if weighing what he was hearing.
Saemund could not help but note the Sentinel Prime title that this other sentinel had given Jeme. He had heard it before at the council of the clans. It was the term for the most senior sentinel in each clan. If this strange sentinel acknowledged Jeme as Sentinel Prime, then perhaps his plan was working. Maybe this sentinel would stay.
"And your name, sentinel?" Jeme asked levelly.
The sentinel looked from the Sentinel Prime to the feayr clan leader. Evidently something unusual was happening in the Panther Clan. "My name is Alfric, and--" he paused, looking hard at Jeme. “My guide is Alistair,” he finished with a gulp.
Saemund took a seat. "I am honoured that you give me that.” In the course of their long talks on sentinel ways, Jeme had explained that sentinels did not like to give up the names of their guides, jealous of any sort of control the feayr—or another sentinel—might have over them. “We shall not betray your trust. You are welcome to stay as long as it takes your guide to heal.” Longer, if I can persuade you, Saemund thought to himself. “Tell us how this happened. Were you caught in a raid, and separated from your clan?”
Alfric gave a snort of disgust. “Separated. Yes, you could say that. I come from the mountains, to the west of the Snake River. I was born to a poor feayr couple, so when I came of age I went to earn my living as a mercenary. That was how I came to the Blue Sky Clan. Alistair had no clan; his family had a small farm near one of the towns on the northern slopes. He had been given to the Clan Leader by his uncle instead of the crops the leader claimed as tribute to him. He is young, and fair of features, and he could feel their emotions as all guides could, but he was not known as a guide. Because he, too, had lived his life among feayr, he had no words to explain what he had become. If they had known his true worth, they would have sold him for much gold. As it was, the brother of the leader of the clan made Alistair his personal body slave.
“This brother wanted more from his body slaves than simply attending to his needs. He expected them to mate for his entertainment and that of his friends, male with male, female with male. The clan leader allowed him his so-called entertainment as a way of keeping him in line. He agreed to an arranged marriage that lasted only for the time it took for his wife to get pregnant. Then she left him for her own tent, and Franklin--that was his name-- returned to his amusements. He celebrated by inviting his friends to witness Alistair's `initiation'.” But Alistair was brave as well as honourable, and refused to perform for him.” Alfric heard his guide start to whimper in his sleep, and for the first time in front of a feayr he reached for his guide and pulled him close, cradling him in his arm, murmuring, "Sshh, it's all right.” Alistair's eyes opened, and fear clouded them, “Join with me, now. That's better. Now try to sleep. Dreams cannot hurt you.” For long minutes, Alfric slowly rocked his guide like a mother with a fretful child. Finally, he relaxed as his guide went to sleep trustingly in his arms.
Only then did Alfric continue "In protecting himself, Alistair embarrassed Franklin in front of his friends, and he complained to Herolf, the clan leader, his brother. So Herolf made Alistair the common property of the camp. He thought it would train him to his duties.”
Saemund's face grew grim; that would have made Alistair nothing more than a common slave that any of the clan—no matter how lowly—could use and abuse whenever they wanted, the worst type of slavery.
"It was at that time that I joined the Blue Sky Clan. I had heard that they wanted a sentinel. I lived on the fringe of the camp, of course, so I heard little of Franklin, and nothing at all of Alistair. I had detected a guide in the camp, but could do nothing to find him. If I pushed out to far, I risked falling into the void. After one of our victories, the leader sent Alistair to me as a gift along with gold.”
For a moment, Alfric's mind drifted back. "As it was, he was ignorant of our ways. He believed that I could train Alistair, to make him more..." he trailed off as he saw the look on the men's faces he didn't have to continue that line of thought. "The moment he was in my tent, I could sense his need to bond. I smelled the sweetness of his scent. It was like nectar to me.” Saemund was aware that at that moment, Alfric only had Jeme in mind as he spoke openly about what, for most sentinels, was the most private of moments—the moment when they choose their guides.
“That night, when we shared our souls for the first time, he told me of the abuse he had suffered. I knew then that Franklin had to die. He deserved it for his crimes alone, but with the force of the bonding in me, I only saw him as a threat to Alistair. The next day I challenged him, and killed him, along with three of his henchmen. I would gladly have faced the entire clan, but I feared to leave Alistair unprotected if I should fall. So we fled. Herolf chased us into this range.” He met their gaze levelly. "Finally, we ran out of food, and Alistair entered a feayr camp to buy some. He was worried that if we went in together, they would react against us. I should not have let him, Sentinel Prime. Somehow, they recognised him as a guide, and he was beaten and stoned to drive him from the camp. He was hurt badly. I stopped at the first camp I found, which was yours.”
Saemund put a hand out and laid it on Alfric's, ignoring his flinch. "You did the right thing, sentinel. You are both under the protection of the Panther Clan now”.
Before the day was out, the rumour had spread around the camp that Saemund had invited the strange sentinel to remain with the clan. Rulf soon confronted Saemund.
“We now have two sentinels and one guide in our clan,” he said testily. “How many more will you allow to stay, Saemund? You know the rules: a sentinel is only allowed to join the clan while he works. Once his work is over, he is dismissed from the clan. When will those two be dismissed?” The old man was still trying to stick to the old ways.
"Never, unless they want to leave,” Saemund said calmly. “Jeme has already joined the clan, as you know, and the invitation has been extended to Alfric and his guide. This clan is now a mixed clan. We all are equals and work to the common good.”
"No, Rulf, the future. Accept it, this was voted on at the meeting and the matter—“ he made a slashing motion with his hand-- “is now over.” He turned on his heels and left.
The next few days saw a certain amount of tension in the camp. Jeme was their sentinel, or so the thinking of the camp went. Now there was a new sentinel, one whom they had seen little of, with a guide no less. What the people did not know, they feared.
Once Alistair was feeling stronger, Caro encouraged him to come out so that the other members of the clan could see him. He was scared, but nestled in the arms of his sentinel, and near the Sentinel Prime, he felt safe. Caro came to him, knelt down, and offered him the bowl of stew, gently patting him on the arm, and was greeted by a shy smile. She slowly peeled back his blanket and checked the injury. His side and stomach were black with bruising, old on new.
Alfric watched her with gratitude, sensing at the same time something more than simple kindness in the way she gently tended the injured young man. "You have the mark of the guide on you, lady,” he said tentatively, unsure of how the feayr woman would take the comment.
Caro nodded, smiling ruefully. "My father's brother was a guide, a grey, but even so his ability was watered down. He bonded with a sentinel of limited ability, and they found happiness with each other. I have a little of the talent, but my son Daryl has none. I had hoped that he would be a guide, but...” She shrugged. Then, raising her hand, she placed it against the young guide's face. “You are both welcome into our clan. We will have to arrange your bonding.”
"We are bonded," Alfric said, puzzled. “Is that not obvious?”
"My uncle spoke of a public bonding ceremony. It meant a great deal to him, to have his commitment witnessed by all who cared about him. I think it is important that the clan see that you are one with your guide. Saemund will sponsor your bonding. This will mark your reception into the clan.”
"Jeme will allow it?”
"Jeme will welcome it, as all of us will.” Alistair watched her go with frank amazement. It was surprising enough to be welcomed into what was essentially a feayr clan. But here was a feayr woman of status lamenting that her son was not a guide, and planning a bonding ceremony as calmly as if it were a wedding feast!
Alistair was slowly making a recovery, and with help could walk. After speaking with Jeme, Alfric had decided it would be best if they began to get to know their fellow clansmen. He eased Alistair to his feet, supporting him. As they went for a short walk, feayr members of the clan stepped out of their way, averting their eyes but watching them curiously after they passed.
A large man suddenly blocked their way. His height made even Alfric look up at him. The sentinel tensed. The big man scratched his beard and slowly circled the guide and sentinel pairing. He reached a hand out to touch Alistair. The guide pulled in closer with a whimper. Alfric moved to block the man. But the big man shook his head, saying gravely, "You're not demons. You're just human, like us.”
Alfric could not repress a smile. "Jeme is your Sentinel Prime. Surely you have noticed he is not a demon?”
"Jeme is a warrior. He has no guide yet, and you have one.” The big man lit up with a sudden idea. “Why doesn't he share him?”
Alfric was scandalized, but hid his shock. "No sentinel would share a guide. We bond one to one”
The giant thought about this for a moment. "Then Jeme will have to get his own.”
"Yes.” The man seemed worried, so Alfric added, “If Jeme is as fine a warrior as I've heard, and he will have no trouble winning a guide when the time comes.”
The big man turned and then picked up a blanket that lay folded on the ground. "Caro said that when a sentinel and guide bond, they get presents. This is mine. For the guide.”
To Alfric's surprise, Alistair peeked around him and put out a shaking hand to accept the blanket, pulling it close. The big man beamed.
"Sentinel, my name is Henri.”
"I am Alfric. My guide is Alistair."
"Welcome, Alfric and Alistair of the Panther Clan.” Slowly other members of the clan advanced to greet them. Some still hung back, but others came forward and gave small gifts. All were accepted with thanks. For the first time Alfric could believe this was their clan.
The next morning, Alistair rose in time to eat with the sentinels and their new clan leader. Jeme watched with satisfaction as he helped himself from the common pot and began eating with enthusiasm. He was not only gaining strength, but also the confidence to move away from his sentinel's side.
Suddenly the hand holding the bowl let it fall, and with a cry of fear, Alistair tried to bury himself against Alfric. The sentinels had gone straight into Blessed Protector mode as they saw the small group entering the camp. Jeme recognized the device on their shields: Blue Sky Clan.
Jeme went to flank Saemund; he had taken over the role of bodyguard to his leader. Bryn and Hender spread out.
"Welcome, stranger, to the Panther Clan. What do you want?” Saemund asked calmly.
"That whore over their and his lover,” the lead rider spat out. “They killed the brother of our clan leader, and they must face justice.”
"Alfric and his guide are part of this clan,” Saemund said levelly. “As such, they have our full protection.”
“Are you crazy?” the man snarled. “They are guide and sentinel. This is a feayr clan. If you protect them--”
"We will protect them. Do not test us. This is the word of Saemund, leader of this clan.”
"This guide is nothing my lord,” he said, straining to sound reasonable. “He is a common whore, for the use of the camp. My master's brother offered to raise him, to make him one of his personal slaves, but he attacked him. We all know what happens to a slave who raises a hand to his master.” He gestured angrily toward Alistair, who stood well back, arms wrapped around his sentinel. “This sentinel took him. The guide is so degenerate that he bewitched him into losing his senses. They must be returned to face the wrath of my master.”
"Your master's brother was Franklin of the Blue Sky Clan?” Saemund asked?
"Yes. My master is Herolf, and Franklin was his younger brother.” He seemed puzzled about where Saemund be heading with this.
Saemund dropped his hand onto this sword. “Then your master's brother was nothing. He was a perverted bastard and will rot in his own slime.”
It was a challenge that could only be met with battle. The Blue Sky Clan warrior dug his spurs into his horse and they leaped forward, swords coming from their sheaths. Alfric pushed Alistair behind the log on which they'd been sitting and drew his sword at the same time Jeme did. A split second later, Saemund, Bryn and Hender were in action. The sound of metal on metal rang out. Henri appeared, standing over Alistair, battle axe held in large hands, ready to kill any who got through the sentinels' and Saemund's guard.
Jeme dodged the downward swing of a sword, grabbing one of the other men and pulling him off his horse. The man landed heavily and Jeme's sword came plunged down through his chest.
Saemund engaged in hand-to-hand battle with the leader of the group, using his greater height and strength to hammer the other man down, then dragging his sword across his neck with a sharp slash. Alfric, seeing his guide protected, went on the attack. Driven by the blinding rage of a blessed protector, he never felt the blade that caught his shoulder. He slashed and slashed until Jeme had to pull him off the body of his victim. He lifted his sword as if to strike again and then seemed to come to himself, rushing to his guide. He pulled Alistair up into his arms. His guide was safe, and his loyalty to Saemund and Jeme complete. Now with heart and soul they were of the Panther Clan. Henri smiled broadly as he patted the sentinel's back, accepting his thanks with a shrug.
Jeme stood breathing hard. He lifted his head and sent out his senses, he could detect no more of the Clan, but that was not to say that others would not come in time. But that no longer mattered, Alistair and Alfric, where now of their clan, and any attempt to take them would be met with force.
The moon was high in the sky, but Jeme was not sleeping soundly. He thrashed and turned in his sleep. Alfric pulled Alistair close to him, away from the man they shared a tent with. Saemund has promised them their own tent as a bonding gift, but it was still being made, so in the meantime they had taken Jeme up on his offer to share. Normally a sentinel would not have been able to put up with another sharing his territory, but Jeme was a Dark Sentinel, and Alfric felt honoured that Jeme had allowed them the sanctuary of his home.
In his dreams, the Sentinel Prime of the Panther Clan stood over the dead body of the un-bonded sentinel that had challenged him, his arms red to the elbows with the man's blood. It streaked his face and throat. His head fell back and he screamed. The cry echoed up into the night sky as the Dark Sentinel defended his position. His blue eyes, cold as death, swept through the watching crowd. His growl grew louder and he screamed again.
Alistair pressed his lips against the throat of his sentinel, as he whispered, “He cries out for his guide, Alfric. He will be driven to take one soon.” Alfric nodded and rolled over so that the younger man lay on top of him. The sentinel's hands roamed over the precious body of his guide as they started to bond, needing the connection. The Dark Sentinel raised himself from the furs, and then dropped back down, lost in his dream. The scent of linkage had called to him but he had dismissed it; it was not coming from his guide. He rolled on his back, and the dream faded to be replaced by nothing.
Over the months that followed, more sentinels and guides joined, some coming from the summons sent by Alfric and Jeme to brother sentinels. The clan watched as the first of them arrived, hard looking men with large swords and warhorses. Behind them rode their guides, all smaller than their sentinels. Some had robes that completely covered them from head to feet, their faces hidden behind masks of cloth, the sentinel not willing for any to see their guides' faces. But as time passed their guides adopted ordinary clothing as their sentinels realized that in this clan, the feayr were no threat
All did not go smoothly. Alfric was challenged twice, forced to defend his position as second sentinel to the clan, but each time he defeated his challenger, leaving them to lick their wounds.
But his concern was starting to mount about Jeme. He was sure he knew what was happening; no sentinel could be deaf to the dreams that plagued the sentinel prime. The time of bonding for their Sentinel Prime was coming. But no guide had yet been found. Alfric had seen Jeme stand over the dead body of an un-bonded sentinel who had challenged him, his arms stained with blood, crying out to the sky. He had known then that Jeme was about to start his guide quest. A few oblique hints about his condition confirmed what Alfric feared: raised among feayr, with no formal training, Jeme had no idea what was happening to him.
As soon as they could find him alone, Alfric and Alistair approached Saemund.
"Saemund, we need to talk to you about Jeme.”
He took in the sombre look on their faces and waved them to his tent. Alistair was always quiet, only coming out of his shell to people he knew. He had relaxed, slowly, but his experience at the hands of the feayr had left its mark, and he was skittish as a colt when he was among them. The clan had leaned not to try to approach him or touch him, giving him time to get use to them.
Saemund made a point of waving Alistair to a seat. The guide took up his favourite position, in his sentinel's arms, resting his head against his chest, a strong arm round him. In that position, Saemund knew, he felt safe, and the clan did not judge him because of his needs.
"Talk to him, Alistair,” the sentinel prompted.
The guide turned slightly toward Saemund and the clan leader smiled at him as if he were his own son. Something about Alistair seemed to cry out for protection.
"Jeme is coming to his time of bonding,” he said gravely. “Soon he will be called to the place of his dreams. He will need to claim his guide, and none must interfere with him.”
“How do you know this?”
“You doubt my guide?” Alfric bristled.
Alistair leaned into him and calmed him with touch and voice. “Saemund, Jeme's behaviour had been changing. He has been drawn more and more to me. He seeks me out without knowing why, and looks for excuses to touch me.”
“What are you insinuating?” Saemund asked, shocked. “Alfric, you know Jeme well enough to know he would never act on those feelings.”
“When I first came here he scented me,” Alistair said, flushing slightly. “But he knew I was not his match, even though I was still in heat from my joining with Alfric. But that doesn't mean the longing has gone away, just that he had yet to find the one he seeks. I have spoken to the other guides and we are all in agreement.”
Saemund looked rather surprised. Somehow he never really thought the guides got together. The sentinels he had seen drinking together, singing their songs of war and sexual conquest, but the guides seemed almost scholarly.
He sighed heavily. This was the conversation Saemund had been dreading since Alistair arrived. Despite Jeme's protests that he had no need or desire for a guide, Saemund had been afraid that Alistair's presence would trigger a need in him that had now been complicated by the other guides. "I understand, and I will do whatever is necessary to get one. But where do we find a guide for him?”
Alistair put in quickly, "Jeme is a Dark Sentinel, and only a Dark Guide can be his true partner.”
"A Dark Guide?” Saemund said warily. "By the gods, they are assassins, trained in the Dark Arts. They worship the old religion, gods of death and destruction. The elders would never allow such a creature into the camp.”
"That is what Jeme needs. If he doesn't get it he could fall into the void and never come back. Through the bonding Jeme would be able to control him, to harness his power. His senses would become far greater than they are now.” Alistair paused, watching Saemund intently, then continued. “It has been a great while since there has been a bonding of Dark Sentinel and Dark Guide. The clan that had such a pair would grow powerful indeed.”
Saemund snapped, “The glory of the clan be damned, it is Jeme that I care about. We have gold in the war chest, enough to buy many guides, but a Dark Guide--where are they found? Which clan would have one?” His mind was racing. Depending on the clan, negotiation could prove difficult. He might have to sweeten the deal to the extent of offering a pact of peace and mutual protection with them, or even mating with his Sentinel Prime. From what he had heard, the seed of a Dark Sentinel would be as good as gold to some clans. But that was jumping the river; first he had to find one of these Dark Guides.
“When they are found, Dark Guides are taken to the Temple of the Guides, for their safety and that of others,” Alfric said. “There they remain until a strong sentinel comes to claim them, or until the end of their lives if there is none they deem worthy of their bonding.”
Saemund scowled. “The Temple has been feuding with the Clans for years. Do you think they would make an exception, knowing what Jeme is?”
“I don't know,” Alfric said. “But I do know that if they refuse we will lose Jeme.”
Saemund took a deep breath, his mind made up. "We will see Warren first. He may be able to make the Temple see reason. He is, after all, the leader of the Council of Clans. If not, we may have to use force. But Jeme will have what he needs.”
Caro leaned against he side of her husband's horse, her hand on his knee, as he leaned down to kiss her. She pressed the food sack into his hands. “Do what you can, my husband. I would not like to loose my son.”
Saemund smiled. Only his wife could look at a deadly sentinel warrior and see a son in him.
“I will make sure that Jeme gets what he needs. Alfric will help you with him while I am away, Caro.” He pressed his heels into the horse's side and headed out of camp, his guards and a sentinel and guide scout with him.
When he arrived at the Council Lodge, Saemund found War Lord Warren in council with his chief advisor, Fallon. Saemund was admitted straight away. He was an old ally, and Warren had long tried to talk him into forming an alliance between Warren's Peacemaker Clan and the Panthers. Together, he argued, they could mould the Clans into one nation. But Saemund had always pulled back. The plan was too grand for his taste, but Warren always greeted him warmly. It was with that thought in mind that he hoped the man would help him in this matter. Warren rose met the Panther Clan leader halfway, clasping his forearm in greeting.
"Saemund, this is a surprise.” He changed the greeting to an embrace, and as he pulled back, he asked, “What brings you here? I thought we would not meet until the Great Gathering in the summer. Caro was going to help my wife match make my eldest daughter, I thought….” He trailed off as he saw the look on his friends face. “You have trouble, my friend. The eastern tribes? But I heard you had stopped them.”
“Yes, may the gods be thanked? It's been two months since we've seen any sign of them. I do have a troubling problem, though.” Warren gestured toward the table, which was strewn with maps. Saemund hooked one of the leather-covered stools with his foot and sat down.
“My Sentinel Prime, Jeme, is unbounded. His time of bonding is now on him. It seems that if he does not find a guide soon, he will be beyond our power to help.”
"Is that all, Saemund?” Warren smiled. “This is certainly no difficulty. I had word from Charles just the other day that he has a guide come of age. He is asking a fair price—the payment is only three horses. The man is strong of limb and sound of mind, he would make a fine addition to your clan.” He broke off as he saw the Panther leader shaking his head already.
"I wish it were so simple. Jeme is a Dark Sentinel. Only a Dark Guide can be his match. Do you know anyone who has one?”
"Dark Guides,” Warren mused. "Kingmaker of the White River Clan may have one. His nephew has been pledged to the Temple, but he is not trained, and of course there is no guarantee that he would fully develop into one.”
"What about the Scholars in the town?”
"Nothing, Saemund. They have a few grays, no more than that.”
"I have to do something,” Saemund said in frustration. “Jeme will die if I don't.”
Fallon coughed politely. The advisor in his time had been a great warrior, and still retained the dignity of his calling, even if his strength was failing with old age.
"The Temple has for the third year running refused our request for a number of gray guides,” he said. “They withhold the Dark Guides completely, saying that as barbarians we are unworthy of them. I have spoken to the high priest and he is firm; they will not allow any meeting of our sentinels to their guides.”
The two warriors exchanged looks, Fallon's pale eyes darting toward Saemund as if debating whether to trust him. Finally Warren turned back to Saemund with a slow smile. “It might be that you have come at the right time Saemund. You know my views on the Temple. For three years since I took leadership of the Clans, the high priest has dealt with me as if I were some barbarian lord ling, unschooled in the ways of sentinels and unworthy of their guides. His refusal to negotiate is seriously affecting my plans to solidify and expand the Clans.” He rose and gestured toward the maps in front of him. “I will confide in you, Saemund: We are calling together the sentinel clans. We are going to lay siege to the Temple and demand a share of the gray guides. They have them in great numbers but give them only to the ruling houses, denying them to us, to the Clans. This can not be allowed to go on.”
Saemund felt a ray of hope. “Is there any chance the Panther Clan might be allowed to join in?”
“I will see what I can do. Your clan is a new kind of beast, Saemund: neither fish nor fowl. But I know they have great respect for Jeme. I will speak with them and send word. In the meantime, you should prepare. The attack will come at the next quarter moon.”
The End of Part One. The Coming Of The Dark Guide