With thanks to my beta reader susan and her sister, and Julia R, with out you, this would not be the story that you see here now.
For everyone who asked about the ancient sentinel and guide this is their story.
Home at last. Simon settled himself in his favorite chair and took a sip from the cup of coffee by his side. His cousin Frank had sent him another package of coffee from his shop; this particular one had a nice vanilla taste.
He picked up the manuscript Blair had dropped off for him the day before. It was the result of a conversation with Jim and Blair during which Simon admitted he was struggling to understand the changes they were undergoing. The Captain had commented, with no little frustration, that Sentinel 101 no longer covered what he saw happening. It had become apparent to him that the sentinel "bible" was about as far from the truth of sentinels and guides as a school primer was from Hamlet.
Blair was obviously the author. The narrative was nothing like the blunt report style that Jim used at the PD. Simon waded through
reams of that at the office. The manuscript documented a series of very vivid dreams Blair and Jim had experienced. Even Jim had gone so far as to admit that he felt as if their past lives were calling to them from across the centuries. Before handing the manuscript over Blair had explained, somewhat shyly, that he had used some artistic license in recounting the tale to make it more readable. As Simon read, he thought that description hardly did it justice. The kid could really write; in his mind's eye he seemed to see the names on the page morphing into the people themselves as Blair's words put flesh to the bones of long-dead sentinels and guides. Refilling his cup, he settled in to read and soon lost himself in another time and place.
The Temple of the Guides was large and imposing, a place of study and wisdom. Its gray stone construction leant it a somber and scholarly air. Its archives were second to none with rooms of scrolls and manuscripts gathered from all over the known world. The monks were acknowledged to be among the finest scholars and teachers. Though they valued scholarship, they believed their highest calling was to prepare guides for the responsibility of helping sentinels reach the highest levels of achievement in order to protect their people.
Dar, Chieftain Priest of the Temple, watched from his room in the higher reaches of the Temple complex as the guides passed back and forth through the main courtyard. All, but one, were Gray Guides, possessing limited empathic ability. These would bond with worker sentinels, those with but two or three enhanced senses or with full sentinels whose range was limited. Dar's eyes fixed on the lone figure in black facing one of the training masters in the sparring yard. As if he sensed Dar’s attention, the Dark Guide turned and looked straight at him, as if assessing potential threat. Dar carefully broadcast “no harm”, “no threat”. Even though it was not entirely true.
Blaer was now the only Dark Guide left in the Temple. The others had been relocated to safer, more protected locations when the influx of clans with unbonded sentinels had been reported. Unfortunately, Blaer had been severely injured in a sword practice accident and had been deemed unfit to travel.
As the priest watched with worried eyes, the Dark Guide reached over his left shoulder, and with both hands took the hilt of a long sword. He pulled and the sword came smoothly out of the soft sheath that lay along his back. The gleaming metal swung vertically above his head, then down. It twirled with deceptive ease in one hand before the other hand joined the first to stop the spin. The young man moved easily into a balanced stance, ready for any attack the trainer might plan. Although smaller than many in the Temple, he had both the power and fluid movement to parry the teacher's blade easily. His long hair was held in place at the base of his neck by a piece of leather, out of the path of the swirling blades.
Denis, the teacher, had once been a Dark Guide; one who had survived the death of his sentinel. Dark Guides only bonded once; after which their empathic pathways were too badly scarred to take the bonding of another sentinel. Most Dark Guides committed suicide, using the potions of their calling, rather than live without their sentinels. Denis had been lucky, or unlucky, enough to be found by a woman with two sentinel powers and a warm heart. She had taken the broken guide under her wing and given him a reason to live. That the woman who was now his wife had even tried to help was a testament to her courage and compassion.
Dark Guides were widely feared, even by other guides and sentinels. The fears were based on misunderstanding. The stories and legends of the Dark Guides told of men trained from birth in assassination and poisons who would destroy any threat to their bonded sentinels without thought or remorse - trained killers. It was said the only safe Dark Guide was a bonded one. Their sentinels could control them, curb their instinctive natures.
What was not spoken of was the less fearfully dramatic aspect of the Dark Guide. They could be shamans, healers, giving back life with the same herbs that took it. A favored few of the Dark Guides had empathic powers of a strength and depth that it seemed as if they could will health back into a patient. These talents came at a price. A Dark Guide could be overwhelmed by the emotions of those around him. Unable to separate his own thoughts and feelings from the emotional maelstrom of others, he could be slowly driven mad. Knowing it was happening, but unable to stop it. Feeling the pain and injuries of others too deeply could afflict his own body, leaving him broken and ill. A sentinel, bonded to him, could save him from those fates
The Dark Guide and the Dark Sentinel would mesh, becoming flip sides of the same coin. Both would gain immeasurably by their bonding. Once the sentinel had a guide by his side, he would find that he could extend his powers much further even as the risk of being lost in the dark void lessened. The guide watched for the signs that would herald a void and could recall him with voice or touch. In return, the guide would be shielded from the emotions of the people around him, able to extend his empathy without risking the integrity of mind and body.
The bond was a strong one; sentinel and guide became brothers, comrades-in-arms, even, so it was whispered, one soul. On rare occasions, by mischance, a Dark Guide lost, or was separated from his sentinel. If he survived the trauma an unbonded sentinel might try to usurp the bond and force a new connection. No sentinel had ever succeeded; the Dark Guides who had thus been taken remained nothing more than prisoners, uncontrollable and dangerous. But endowed with strong empathic abilities and the stealthy skills of an assassin, a Dark Guide was a prize for which a warlord would pay a great deal of gold. If there were any chance, however slight, that a bonding could be forced with a Warlord’s sentinel, the resulting pairing would increase his power immeasurably. And while a Warlord might not risk his gold on such a chancy undertaking; great rewards awaited the sentinel desperate enough, and fortunate enough, to force the issue.
Dar worried over the young Dark Guide sword dancing in the courtyard. The longer he remained unbonded the greater a prize he became. Rumor had it that even Dark Guides had to mesh with a sentinel at some point. The longer they waited, the less resistance they had to bonding. Whether this was true of Dark Guides or not was immaterial; it was what was believed and what would be acted on. Blaer, about to reach his full majority, was well past the age at which Gray Guides normally bonded and was yet young enough that the adamantine shields of a mature Dark Guide were not yet his.
But thus far Blaer had refused to bond, and it was unwise to force a Dark Guide to bond against his will. The priest knew of cases in which Dark Guides had committed suicide rather than be bonded. They picked their sentinels, never the other way around. Dar had kept Blaer cloistered and closely guarded since the Clans moved in and would gladly have sent him away with the others. He silently cursed the guide responsible for Blaer’s injury.
The Abbot was quite sure the injury had not been an accident. The students' sparring had gotten out of hand and though Blaer had stopped and pulled back when ordered, the other student had continued his attack. Blaer had managed to retrieve his sword in time to partially deflect the blow, but it had laid his arm open from wrist to elbow. It was just now healed enough to allow him to resume light practice drills. With the current tension in the surrounding countryside, the injury assumed greater significance.
The culprit had been the Dark Guide Lash, a medium-sized man with straw-colored hair and a face made up of hard planes. He was the oldest of the Dark Guides, and the one that caused his teachers the most worries. Even the most desperate sentinel shied away from the man as if there was something rotted in his empathic touch. Lash had taken unnatural pleasure in inflicting pain on the Gray Guides until Blaer had called him out for it. Lash had ended up in the infirmary after their fight. After that lesson, Lash had to be satisfied with slaughtering the animals given to the Temple in tribute to work off his tempers.
Lash, Dar thought, was quickly becoming a major problem and the only answer appeared to be his removal from this life before he caused the death of innocent people. The priest had interrogated him after the latest skirmish and had been stunned by his venomous attack on Blaer's character. Some of it surely sprang from unhealthy jealousy. Blaer was the youngest and smallest among them in age but had proved to be one of the most powerful of the Dark Guides and had already bested Lash once. The older guide had also been disgusted that the Temple would accept the “bastard son of a Temple whore.”
The Chieftain Priest reddened at the memory of the words Lash had used. He was by no means innocent in the ways of the world, but to hear the woman’s service as a Temple of Aphrodis priestess referred to that way by a Dark Guide was offensive. Blaer’s anger had exploded when he heard what had been said of his mother and they had only narrowly managed to stop him killing Lash.
If he had succeeded, despite the provocation, the young guide would have found few supporters in the Temple. Even though Lash was unstable and unpopular, he was from one of the ruling families. His father had the ear of the Council which, coupled with his own empathic ability, had guaranteed him entry into the Temple. And most of the other teachers were weary, and wary, of Blaer. He was considered a talented but dangerous misfit. He had outstripped his teachers’ abilities and knowledge until they no longer understood him. They had been relieved to leave him alone to explore the darker side of warrior shaman skills. His interest in poisons and assassination techniques was considered unnatural for a boy of his years. Only Dar knew that the young guide paid equal, if not greater, attention to the healing potions and rituals.
Dar caught back a warning shout as the trainer used a particularly vicious move on his pupil. Blaer and his trainer shared a manic grin as the young guide slipped the blow with casual ease. Denis had ignored all the rumors about this Dark Guide and welcomed the opportunity to teach a student of such promise. Their practice session continued as it if it were an ordinary day but around them students and teachers huddled in nervous groups. Despite Dar's efforts, word had already filtered through the Temple that the clans were massing in the fields around them. Adding to their agitation was the knowledge that the attacking sentinels could hear any word or movement they made. Dar could not risk openly sending any more students away to safety since they would be easy pickings for mercenaries.
There was another choice. He could try to send a message to Warren, the most powerful of the lords, offering him tribute in return for leaving the Temple alone. He might have to give him a few Gray Guides, but the Temple would honor those chosen for their sacrifice and they would be treated well by the clans. Knowing Warren, though, he would demand a Dark Guide to bond to his sentinel bodyguard. Bonded, the man would be more in control of his powers than ever before. Coupled with the assassination skills of a Dark Guide, he would have a powerful tool at his command. So far, the few Dark Guides available had refused Warren’s Sentinel Prime. And Dar suspected that Blaer had caught his attention or, more likely, had his attention directed to the youngster by Lash’s powerful father. It was likely that Warren hoped that Blaer’s youth would make him susceptible to bonding. Either way, Blaer would be a prime target for the invaders.
While it was now too late to evacuate Blaer, the priest prayed that, if threatened, he would now at least be strong enough to defend himself.
The priest's train of thought was interrupted by a shout from the lookouts, followed by the pounding of feet. Cries of “Sentinels at the gates!" brought terror to the monks and students in the courtyard. They knew the sentinels among the attackers would use their senses to detect the slightest flaw in the gates and barriers.
For a moment Dar froze, hardly believing that the Clans, that Sentinels, were actually daring to attack the Temple. Moments later, cold-blooded pragmatism took over. Defense was no longer possible, just a delay of the inevitable. The monks would work at escorting the Gray Guides through the courtyard to the escape tunnels under cover of the coming fight. With a little luck, their losses would be minor, perhaps only a few guides. The priest shouted to Blaer's trainer, signaling him to move Blaer out of the courtyard as quickly as possible.
The great gates to the Temple shuddered under the pounding of a battering ram. Outside, unbonded sentinels were screaming, given over to their most base and primitive need: to claim guides for bonding. That driving need was what had brought them flocking to join the Lords’ attack on the Temple.
With a splintering crack, the gates flew open. Some of the monks, attempting to stop the surging mass, were clubbed down, even though the attacking sentinels knew that killing a priest was punishable by death. Once inside they scattered, pursuing their fleeing prizes.
Blaer's trainer tugged at his sleeve, urging him to greater speed. They flew down the corridor toward the tunnels, just in time to throw the brace on the door. Blaer's teacher knew he would be lucky to get his student out of here a free man. The young Dark Guide was probably one of the prime targets, and…he didn't have the courage to finish the thought. Denis thought death would be kinder to the unbonded Dark Guide than capture.
Jeme entered the Temple with the first wave of attackers as planned. Since early that morning he had been monitoring the high walls and the activity within. Every time he had tried to turn away, his head would turn back unbidden. He was scenting something that even the other sentinels of his clan could not smell. He shook his head to clear it and waved away the looks of concern. It did not stop the clan watching him warily. Jeme was a Dark Sentinel. Sentinel Prime of the Panther Clan even though he had never bonded. He had been challenged only once, perhaps because there had not been enough of the challenger left to give a decent burial.
There were twenty-four sentinels in the Panther Clan, 19 with bonded guides and more than five times that number of non-sentinel warriors. The Panther Clan was unusual in that, although it had a Sentinel Prime, Jeme gave his allegiance to Saemund, the feayr leader of the tribe. The clan members agreed the mix of sentinels, guides and ordinary folk as equals was a great success. It had brought the clan prosperity even as it had raised eyebrows. The Panther Clan were skilled warriors who hired themselves out as mercenaries to protect lords from those who would overthrow them by force of arms. There was no lack of business despite the efforts of the Council of Lords headed by Warren that was attempting to bring order to the chaos.
Control of Sentinels was a key element in any attempted conquest. This made sentinel/guide pairs highly valuable and highly vulnerable. If a lord could not gain the services of sentinels then he would try to deny their use to others. The Temple of the Sentinel had been ransacked again and again over the years until those with enhanced senses regarded temple training as a sure path to death or captivity. Sentinels were doing without the formal training needed to gain control of their gifts, a waste that told on all the warlords and clans.
Lord Warren had seen an opportunity to dispose sentinels to his service and extended his patronage and protection to the Temple. Under his aegis, Temple trained sentinels were guaranteed their choice of assignment; a practice which generally returned them to their clan. Thus guaranteed the safety of their kinsmen and their likely return, the Clans began to send their youngest sentinels to the Temple again. It was a start in Warren’s campaign to stop the periodic episodes of violence that lay waste to the countryside.
So far the Temple of the Guides had refused to co-operate; even the offer of his personal protection would not change their minds. They remained independent, sending their Gray Guides and Dark Guides where they deemed best, principally to the territories where they followed the old ways. That decision left Warren with little choice but to periodically attack the Temple to procure guides or so he would plead when called on to justify his attacks by other members of the Council.
The Panther Clan had little interest in Warren's schemes. It was there for one reason only. They would join the assault because their Sentinel Prime had been pulled to this place and time to bond. The instinct was as old as time itself and, as a Dark Sentinel, Jeme felt the need vibrate in his very soul. The other Lords wanted the Temple's gold and silver plate and whatever guides came their way during their plundering. Jeme wanted only *his* guide, the one that even now was calling to his soul. He was barely aware of the Temple guards he took out in his quest.
Two bonded sentinels from the Snake Clan had just succeeded in breaking down the door to the Temple's escape corridor. Their hearing and sight had allowed them to detect weak spots in the wood, which their superior strength had broken through. They headed straight toward a man wearing the colors of a Dark Guide. While guides were not their main objective, a Dark Guide was worth the time to capture. Even as the older of the two sentinels dug for a slave collar, they studied their quarry. The guide was little more than a stripling but he held himself as a warrior and something warned the sentinels that taking him was not going to be easy. They separated to come at him from two sides.
The Dark Guide was fast and deadly enough to outweigh their advantage of sentinel senses. As he was attacked, he feinted and then pulled his blade hard across the first man’s belly. The sentinel crumpled to the floor with a scream. His partner lunged… and missed. Off balance, the Dark Guide yet managed to catch him across the head with the hilt of his sword, then followed through with a killing blow, and took to his heels. He shuddered with apprehension. Something was after him… Blaer himself… not just riches. He felt focused intensity brush his barriers and it added speed to his withdrawal. Denis was beside him again and Blaer spared a worried glance for him. Blood trailed sluggishly down the older man’s temple.
There! Almost have him. Soon. Soon. The Dark Sentinel’s exultant thoughts leant speed to his feet as he hurtled the bodies of two sentinels and raced through a shattered door in search of the scent that called to him. A flimsy interior door was no barrier and it burst inwards, not even slowing him down. He saw *his* guide trying to lift the bar on one of the exits. Normally, Jeme would not have worried that he might succeed… the bar was heavy for two men and this small man had a bandaged forearm and a sweat-streaked face that told of recent injury and close exhaustion. And while he might have escaped through a narrow waste channel, he obviously would not leave the wounded man lying propped against the wall. Jeme could smell the battle rush that poured off the slender body, the desperation to save his companion that added strength to his efforts. He moved as quickly and as quietly as sentinel talents permitted.
Instinct told Blaer to turn, just as the large, powerfully built sentinel reached out for him. The Dark Guide carefully circled, sword at the ready. This sentinel, unlike the others, did not attack. He was waiting for the Dark Guide to make the first move.
Jeme could feel the energy pouring off the man in front of him. The sentinel had never felt anything like it from any guide he had ever met. His mind became crystal clear, the almost animalistic need to bond beginning to become more defined as he started to imprint the guide. This guide was made for him, called to him. His need called to the dark guide.
Blaer moved toward him slightly, then pulled back as he fought the instinct to go to the sentinel. This man was not his choice. He was a barbarian, untrained, not his equal, and he would not allow him to claim him. The guide lunged, but the Dark Sentinel was faster. Blaer pulled back and tried a second attack. Each thrust was parried and Blaer knew that the sentinel was reading his body’s responses. Exhaustion began to nibble at the guide’s coordination; the emotions of the dead he had left behind clamored for recognition. If he was to escape this sentinel, it had to be soon.
The other members of the Panther Clan had formed a circle around the two combatants making sure that no one else would interfere. They all recognized the desperation in the guide’s final lunge. They watched as, this time, Jeme used his superior strength and height as leverage. Catching his opponent’s blade, he swept it aside long enough to slam the hilt of his sword against the guide's head. He went down hard. The Dark Sentinel dropped his sword and straddled the guide, pinning him to the floor. Deep blue eyes opened dazedly in a surprisingly young face and a fierce determination won over exhaustion and pain. The guide began to buck and thrash as he tried to force the sentinel off him, but it was useless. He was too exhausted, too hurting, too small to overcome the large man holding him captive. Jeme could feel the Dark Guide panic as his arms were pinned above his head.
"Get the ropes, now!" the sentinel called out. In spite of the guide’s desperate struggles, he managed to flip the guide onto his stomach. With the help of one of his clan, he bound the strong, slender wrists tightly behind a wiry back, avoiding the sweat-stained bandage as best he could. Only then did he reach over to collect the Dark Guide's sword. Even in the dark corridor he easily picked out the engraved pattern down the center, the guide's life and training in symbol. Jeme had heard of such swords. They were even rarer than Dark Guides themselves and bespoke a high level of talent and training. There was a blank space where, traditionally, the sentinel's spirit image would be etched once the initial bonding was complete and they were one. Jeme felt his pulse quicken at the thought of his symbol on that bloodstained blade.
But there was not enough time to bond now by other than force, and Jeme shied away from an action tantamount to raping the Dark Guide's mind. Once they were safely in camp, he would take the time to accustom the guide to his touch, prove to him that their souls were meant to be one. Then and only then would they bond, as equals.
Denis had watched the fight through pain-filled eyes. The sentinel lifted his captive to his feet and shoved him into the hands of two of his companions. Icy blue eyes met Denis’ gaze. The sentinel moved over to the wounded teacher and Denis waited for his death. Blaer screamed and redoubled his efforts to break free. Sentinel looked from struggling captive to injured man. “He stayed for you. Loyalty such as that should be honored.” The man held out a hand and one of his companions handed him a sword with a panther etched on the hilt. Denis refused to close his eyes, he would look death in the face. The sword swept down and was planted in the ground. “If any try to take you captive, tell them the Panthers owe you a debt.”
Denis shuddered as he watched his pupil being dragged away, struggling and screaming. He pleaded with the gods to watch over the young guide, to bring him a sentinel worthy of his bond. He had seen the Dark Sentinel resist the urge to force a bonding and prayed it was a measure of the man who had captured young Blaer. Prayed that Blaer might find with this man what he had with his lost sentinel. He closed his eyes and let the darkness take him.
As the members of the Panther Clan made their way back into the courtyard with their prize, Warren himself intercepted them.
“Saemund, the others have almost penetrated the inner sanctum,” Warren said urgently. “You should hurry--I would hate to see my most valued warriors miss their fair share of the loot. Sean here has already filled his pockets with gold." The lord affectionately patted his brother, a sharp-faced man who stood beside him.
"Thank you for your concern, my lord," Saemund answered warily, "but we have the only prize we care about. I think you'll agree it's a rich one." At his gesture, the clan members parted so that Warren could see their struggling captive, his rank easily identified by his black tunic.
"A Dark Guide! I thought the priests had spirited them all away." Sean circled around to the captive, curiosity tinged with greed in his face. Seeing the calculation in Warren’s face, Saemund quickly moved to deny any claims Warren might make on their prize. He motioned Jeme forward. The Dark Sentinel transferred his guide to two feayr members of the clan and joined the two lords. “Our Sentinel Prime scented his soul match in the Temple.” His eyes warned Warren that this was a “Sentinel” matter that could not be put aside for political purposes. He acknowledged the magnitude of Warren’s loss with his next words, “He is value enough for the Clan.” Behind them, oblivious to the sub-text of Saemund’s conversation with his brother, Sean reached out and ran a hard, knowing hand over the young guide. There was something about this particular guide…The two feayr were afraid to stop Warren’s brother. And they didn’t have to… with a hidden grin the older clansman loosened his grip. As expected, the Dark Guide got away from his captors just long enough to knee his tormentor in the groin. A second later, the Dark Sentinel reacted, throwing Sean away from his guide.
"Mine…mine!" he snarled, low and deep-throated. He turned back to his guide and reached out, dragging him behind him, protecting him from the perceived threat. Warren raised a hand as Saemund readied himself to defend his sentinel, “No, Saemund, your sentinel was within his rights. Sean knows better than to come between sentinel and guide.” Saemund did not let his relief show. He merely nodded his head and said, “Thank you, Lord Warren.”
Jeme was disturbed by Sean's scent on his guide. That would change soon. Though not yet truly bonded, he already considered the young man his guide. The Panther Clan closed around them to protect this important addition to their Sentinel Prime's life.
It was a hard hour’s hike back to the temporary camp of the Panther clan. Blaer was barely staying on his feet, his stamina fading with the last of the battle rush. He found himself oddly grateful that the sentinel had left him to the care of the two feayr supporting his wavering steps. He could feel the man’s hunger for bonding and wondered at his reprieve. Exhausted, hurting, awash with the deaths he had caused and felt, bonding might happen despite his aversion as frayed nerves sought strength and solace. He was all but dropping when they reached the camp. The war camp was neatly laid out in a defensive circle. Horses, those most precious of beasts, cropped grass amid the tents. Even dazed, Blaer realized that this was not a poor clan if they had horses… and in such numbers. There must have been two dozen of the animals. Well-made leather tents promised protection against the elements. Blaer yearned for their shade, dizzy from combat and the too hot sun.
“Ho! We have success!” Saemund’s yell brought the camp’s guards to the center. For this one raid, the clan’s unbonded sentinels had been left to guard the camp. Saemund knew that Jeme had felt his guide and wanted no competition on the field of battle for the man. Now, these sentinels circled the captive.
The Dark Guide began to react, feeling their emotions. The unbonded ones were looking at him as if he were the only food in a famine. Just as their attention began to become unbearable, Blaer felt the Dark Sentinel's arm come around him, steadying him. Without thinking, he leaned into the embrace, not even his anger and despair enough to strengthen trembling limbs.
Jeme could feel his guide shaking and he gently pulled him along, toward his tent. He needed to bond quickly, but would not hurt the guide to do it. Once in his tent, the sentinel used the knife at his belt to release the exhausted guide's hands.
The young man reacted, pushing himself past human limits of endurance and dove for the knife. Sheer surprise let him grab it from the sentinel’s hand. Rolling, he got to his feet and turned to face his captor. Despite his state of near panic, his stance was well balanced, and he held the blade like an experienced knife fighter. If this sentinel thought he was going to bond with him, he was sadly mistaken. One of the guards shadowing the pair tried to help and was slashed; he fell back quickly and ran for help.
Jeme carefully followed his opponent’s movements, strangely unafraid. He found that he could read the guide's eyes and body; there was nothing he could do that the sentinel could not follow, even anticipate.
The Dark Guide saw the knife go flying as he was pulled to the ground, pain exploding in his injured arm. He blacked out.
Jeme sat beside the unconscious man, studying the one who was to be his brother in everything but birth. He felt a twinge of dismay as he recognized the youth of his guide. It had never been his desire to bond with a stripling who had not yet tasted life; to force him to order his life in accordance with the needs of the clan rather than the dictates of his heart. Even asleep, there was a sense of curiosity and wonder about the youth that seemed to fill the compact body with energy. The curious sword that Jeme and Saemund had studied on the hike back had an impressive number of tracings for one so young. Jeme sighed, accepting the blessing and burden the guide represented. They had both come too far to back away now. Already, the guide turned toward Jeme in his sleep.
When Blaer came to, he lay on what felt like a pile of furs, a warm blanket covering him. His arm ached, but no worse than it had a few days before. The sentinel was leaning over him, gently wiping the sweat from his face. He smiled and Blaer thought it sat well on the stern face.
"Easy, you're going to be all right.” Concerned blue eyes held his. “Your arm wound has opened up again, and you're running a fever. Our healer has prepared a draught to ease the pain. I want you to drink it."
Blaer flinched as Jeme lifted his good hand and molded it around the cup he offered. "What's in it?"
Jeme closed his eyes, and his nostrils flared slightly as his hand tightened on the guide's. "Wine. Last summer's. It was very good. Honey, from clover with a bit of heather. And meadowsweet. Not too much; Wulfstein knows guides are sensitive." Jeme's eyes opened slowly, and he beamed at the wounded man. "That would have taken me an hour, before. See how much you're helping me, and we've not even bonded."
Blaer tried to shove Jeme's hand away, spilling half the contents of the cup. "I'll never bond with you! I'll die first!" Jeme continued to stare at him, almost dreamily. He still held Blaer's hand and in spite of himself, Blaer could sense his emotions, happiness and an almost fearful desire to complete the bond.
Curiosity, his worst failing, halted his feeble attempt at rebellion and he suddenly stilled. "Why did you not bond with me before? While I was…" He did not get a chance to finish.
"I have always considered that no better than rape, guide. I want us to be equals. I want you to join me willingly." He gently stroked Blaer’s face with the back of his fingers. "Easy, I won't hurt you," he added as Blaer fell back from his touch.
The guide's head suddenly pulled back with a yell of "No!" He pushed against Jeme, the move knocking the sentinel off balance. His guide was trying to scramble away from him. Jeme caught his ankle. The guide twisted and kicked out. Jeme only just managed to deflect the blow. With a cry of anger, he lost patience and launched himself at the empath. His weight brought the two of them crashing down. The smaller man screamed his defiance and started to twist like a demon, his elbow connecting with Jeme's ribs and knocking the air from him with a whoosh. The guide rolled away.
With a roar, the sentinel dove for him again; this time catching him around the waist, twisting so that he hit the ground first. Then he pinned the smaller man under him, trapping his hands in a tangle of bedclothes and using his body weight to hold him down. One hand wrapped in the thick, curly hair that had pulled free from the leather band. Satisfied that the young man could not escape, he leaned in and sniffed at his guide, tentatively scenting him. Contentment filled him. This guide was his and would soon be completely his.
The need to bond was starting to burn through him, but suddenly Jeme stilled. He could see the fear and contempt in the guide's eyes. That would not do. With his free hand, he began to gently pet and stroke his guide's face and shoulders. He made a soft cooing sound, calming him down. The guide's breath was coming in harsh pants, which gradually slowed under the sentinel's touch. Instincts older than history kicked in and the guide unconsciously slipped into pliant acceptance.
Gently, Jeme slid one arm around his guide’s narrow shoulders and the other under his knees and lifted him up and back to the furs. He laid his guide down carefully. He reached a hand toward the healing injury, anxious to make sure it had not opened again in the scuffle. As he grasped the wounded left wrist and began to turn it, the stripling reached toward him with his other hand. The fingers were shaking more from the nearness of the sentinel than the effects of the fever. With this first voluntary touch, Jeme felt the fight go out of the slender body and joy went through him.
Blaer’s mind reeled from the events of the day. He was so tired, so hurting that he could scarcely think. But one thing stood out in his memory, this man’s gentleness and honor. He had met every challenge with consideration for the guide’s well-being. He had even fought off his obvious need to bond until Blaer could regain his balance. The Dark Guide felt his empathic controls fraying, felt the emotions of the men in the camp as they battered against his weakening barriers. Desperate, he reached out a tentative tendril of empathy and found strength and integrity and… caring. Maybe this sentinel was meant for him. Maybe his dreams of travel and study were just that, the dreams of a boy. Maybe his capture was fate’s decree that he put aside childish dreams and take on a man’s work.
Cupping his hand around the sentinel's cheek, he gently pulled the stern face down so that he could look directly into icy blue eyes. He extended his mind, just as he had been taught, touching that of the sentinel. The last of his resistance bled away as realized he could not escape the Dark Sentinel. Nor did he want to any more.
The guide’s acceptance triggered the release of his unique scent, which only a sentinel could detect. Jeme’s nostrils flared as he inhaled it, the sweetest scent he had ever known and the only one he would respond to from now on. As he bonded with the guide, he reached a hand out and carded it through the long hair, recording every variation of its color and texture. He read acceptance in the deep blue eyes which gave him the courage to continue.
He pulled the blanket backs and slowly began to undress his guide. The understanding in the deep blue eyes, the relaxation in the slender body, told Jeme that the young guide realized there was nothing carnal in his actions. Jeme despised those sentinels who used their guides to sate their baser appetites and, somehow, his guide recognized that. Still, Jeme gave him a reassuring smile and an explanation. "That bastard Sean. His scent is on you as is that of my clansmen. Tonight, I do not want anyone's scent on you but mine. Mine!" He poured warm water into a bowl and added herbs and spices, then used it to gently wipe the guide's body. Slowly, he ghosted his fingertips over his guide's face, his sight tracing every curve and plane, down his throat, across his shoulders, then down his arms to his hands, where his touch picked up the very pattern of his fingertips. He could feel the blood hammering through his guide's veins.
He carefully felt the wound on the guide's left arm, fingertips gently skimming over the healing flesh. He could not feel any heat coming from it and grunted in satisfaction. “There is no heat; it should heal cleanly.” A curly head nodded in agreement. His hands moved on to his guide's hips and down his body, rolling him on his stomach so the ritual could begin again on his backside. He finished by resting his hand for a moment on his guide's shoulder, then moved away briefly to collect one of his cloaks.
As he helped his guide into it, his hand return to cup the young face in joyous wonder, smiling as the smaller man turned his head into the touch. The bonding was well begun, and they were content, and exhausted. Jeme lay down on the pile of furs and carefully pulled his guide to him. His guide--two words that meant the world to him. He felt the solid body against him, the strong arms reaching for him, the curly head resting perfectly where his neck and shoulder met. He breathed in the scent of his guide, sweet ginger musk overlaid with herbs, without even exerting his senses. He had never felt so perfectly and effortlessly in control of his talents.
Then he felt the link burn into his head and, for the first time, he could feel the emotions of his guide. There was courage and tenacity there, matched by a bright intellect and a driving curiosity. Under it all lay a deep well of compassion and a fierce need to protect. But right now, the younger man was scared and hurting. He had not fought the bonding but it had taken an act of faith to trust himself to a stranger. Jeme tightened his grip on the smaller man.
"You are mine, guide, and no one will hurt you. My partner, my guide, my life."
"Claimed and marked, sentinel," the guide intoned.
"Claimed and marked, guide." The vow was returned.
With the pledge complete, Blaer finally relaxed. As he extended his thoughts through the link for the first time, he knew with certainty that his sentinel could never lie to him. He felt along the link as the doors to his sentinel's emotions opened to his touch. He shuddered as he felt his own barriers vanish. The pathway links had been blown open with the bonding, and for the moment were as tender as raw wounds, but they would heal. In the meantime he would need the shielding his sentinel’s presence provided until he could rebuild them, even stronger than before.
Jeme started to pull back to leave the tired guide to his sleep but stopped as he heard a sound of distress.
"It's all right, I'm not leaving you." He reached back just enough to catch hold of the blanket and pull it over them both. "Your barriers--how are they?"
He could feel the breath of his guide against his skin. "They are all gone." He almost sobbed those four words.
"I am here, to shield you until you are strong, my Dark Guide." He knew the warrior priests were stronger than normal guides, but that bonding drained them even more. The emotions of a Dark Sentinel could only be channeled by a Dark Guide; they would burn out an ordinary guide quickly, overloading him. This guide would have no such trouble. He was Jeme's perfect partner.
Jeme smiled in absolute happiness. "My name is Jeme, Sentinel Prime of the Panther Clan." He gently stroked his guide's back, soothing him. Only sentinel hearing could have caught the reply. "My name is Blaer, Guide Prime of the Panther Clan.” Jeme's heart sang. His guide had accepted his place at the sentinel's side. He tightened his hold on Blaer, which allowed him to effortlessly send his senses out to probe the area around them. Hearing the steady footfalls of the guards, content that they were safe, he wrapped his senses around his guide and drifted to sleep.
Blaer continued to sleep all the next day as camp was broken and the trek back to Saemund’s territory begun. The clan leader himself passed the small guide to the sentinel after Jeme had mounted his horse. For three days they traveled, seldom seeing Jeme and never seeing the guide except when they rode - the young man sleeping securely in the arms of his sentinel.
They made haste toward their home camp. Jeme was beginning to worry about the deep exhaustion that still held his guide and needed to get him home where he could rest. He could barely wake long enough to swallow the liquids that Jeme held to his lips. They arrived late the night of the third day and the Dark Sentinel disappeared into his tent, his Dark Guide cradled in his arms.
Saemund looked up from the fire and saw the pair come out of the sentinel’s tent. He had hoped for more than a day’s grace to prepare his clansmen for the Dark Guide that had come among them. But the young man who had slept like the dead on the trek home was standing behind Jeme as if he belonged there. //Ah, that one is never going to be where I expect him to be.// The irritable thought was fleeting when he saw the contentment that radiated from his friend.
The Dark Guide was dressed in the black robes of his calling. A warrior priest, Saemund thought irritably. It was all they needed. He had seen his kind at work when he had served as bodyguard to the former leader of the clan at a Council Meeting. One of the lords had lost his temper and pulled a sword on the guide's Sentinel Prime. The sentinel had not moved, but the dark clad man behind him had. The lord was killed quickly and efficiently and the guide had wiped his blade on the dead man's shirt as if he had merely gutted an animal. His gaze had fixed for an instant on Saemund, and he had seen death incarnate. It was well known that, although they were powerful, Dark Guides were notoriously hard to command, especially when their sentinels were in danger. They listened only to their sentinels; only they could control them. Still, it was what Jeme needed that mattered.
For a moment Saemund looked fondly at the sentinel. When they had first met, Jeme had been a trained warrior but a loner. He had been critically injured in a fight when he had suddenly fallen into the dark void all sentinels feared. Only Saemund's sword had kept him alive. After the battle, he had brought Jeme home where his own wife had nursed the sentinel back to health. Saemund had been able to win Jeme's trust, and had found in turn a man worthy of his friendship. Shaking himself from memory, Saemund gestured Jeme to a seat at the fire.
The Dark Guide knelt down as Jeme took the seat next to Saemund. He sat so that his back was against his sentinel's knees, maintaining as much contact with him as he could.
"Saemund, this is Blaer, my guide," Jeme began formally. "Blaer, this is Saemund, the leader of the clan."
"A feayr," Blaer said harshly, looking up at the tall, sandy-haired man. Saemund recognized the Temple word for a non-sentinel. He thought it meant "unsensing."
"A good leader." Jeme's hand rested on Blaer's shoulders, allowing his fingers to massage the tense muscles. Blaer sat with his injured arm resting on his lap. To Saemund he seemed barely aware of anything beyond Jeme's touch. He wondered whether it was the effect of drugs or the bonding, or whether he was going to have to get used to being ignored in Jeme's presence.
"I'm glad you've found your guide at last, Jeme," Saemund said. "But, I admit I'm not happy about bringing a trained assassin into a camp full of my people. Am I going to have to post a guard over the cook pot every night?"
Jeme lifted a hand from Blaer's shoulder to make a dismissing gesture. "Dark Guides aren't just killers, Saemund, they're healers too. They might use poisons to remove anyone who threatens their sentinels, but they can use those same herbs to give back life. As empaths, they feel the pain of the sick, so naturally they want to use their skills to ease it. Blaer will defend this clan just as strongly as I will."
"With one important exception," Saemund finished. "'The only safe guide is a bonded guide,'" he quoted. "There's a reason people say that."
"You have to trust the bond. We're one now, two parts of a whole. With Blaer's help I can extend my senses much further, without fear of being lost in the darkness. In return, I protect Blaer from the emotions of those around him. He has access to my thoughts, so he will learn, through me, that the people of the clan are my friends and will be his."
Saemund took a hard look at the young man that knelt so still under Jeme’s hands. He seemed to wilt under Saemund's gaze and shrank bank against his sentinel. He wondered whether his own upset emotions were causing the guide's distress and felt a bit guilty. Still, he owed it to his people to make sure they would be safe. Saemund’s face grew thoughtful. Jeme sat silently, one hand moving gently over a tangle of dark curls until the guide was drowsy.
"What about Offa, Thorkel, William, Robert?" Saemund named a few of the clan's unbonded sentinels. "Won't they be sniffing around him like dogs with fresh meat?"
Jeme felt his anger stir at the thought of the named unbonded sentinels around Blaer, but he damped it down so that it would not pass through the link and alarm Blaer. "It wouldn't do them any good. If an unbonded sentinel ever tried to take my place and force a bond, there might be some connection but it would never be strong enough to hold a Dark Guide. Sooner or later, he'd fall on his sword, or take poison, or give poison. He's mine-he now knows it, and they know it. Mine!" Jeme finished with surprising heat.
Jeme’s emotion seemed to rouse Blaer, who began groping around for something, becoming distressed when he couldn't find it. "Where is it? I need it, Jeme, to defend you. And I want to show you…the wolf…please, Jeme, give it back."
"Do you have his swords?" Jeme knew that Blaer would not rest until the sword had been returned to him. He needed to be able to protect his sentinel, but the sword had symbolic importance beyond being a mere weapon. "Please. It's upsetting him to be without it. He can't do much damage with it with that wound on his arm."
Saemund studied the young man who was now whimpering and clutching at the sleeve of Jeme's robe. It had been a rough few days for the guide, and Saemund felt sympathy for the young man who had been torn away from the life he knew and brought to live among strangers. He nodded and went to fetch the sheathed weapon from where it rested a few yards away, propped against a tree trunk. He handed it to Blaer, who stroked it distractedly for a few moments.
Suddenly Blaer rose to his feet in one fluid movement. He took the sword in one hand and rotated it, the sheathe flying off. His other hand moved into place on the hilt. Jeme sensed his heartbeat increasing and barely got his own sword up in time to deflect the powerful blow aimed at Saemund. The leader fell backward, scrambling away from the fire, as Jeme said firmly, "Blaer, NO!" Saemund recognized the same stern but kind tone he used with his own son. His own son, however, was not a homicidal warrior-priest who wanted him dead.
There was another clash of steel. "Blaer, I said NO! The rest of you stay back!" He yelled the warning as other members of the clan rushed to Saemund's defense.
Saemund watched as the Dark Guide continued to wave the sword in his direction, shifting on the balls of his feet as he planned his next attack. "He has to die, sentinel. There can only be one Sentinel Prime."
"Blaer, he's a feayr. I told you that. Saemund is the leader of the clan, and my friend. He will be yours, too, if you let him live.” A quick grin teased the corners of the stern mouth. “Trust me, it's for all our benefit that he leads the clan. Now sheathe your sword."
Jeme watched Blaer's gaze burn into Saemund for a moment, muscles tensing. Then the sword slid back into the sheath.
"I'm sorry, clan leader," Jeme said, stepping carefully in front of Blaer. "The bond between us is new and still raw. Blaer needs to understand that my loyalty to you doesn't threaten my bond to him." He patted Blaer's shoulder reassuringly. "Better it should happen here than when you're in your tent alone at night."
Only when Saemund nodded his understanding did Jeme relax, reaching a hand out and drawing his guide to him. He spoke to Blaer in low tones until the curly head nodded.
"Let's try this again. Saemund, this is my guide, Blaer. Blaer, Saemund is the head of the Panther Clan, a non-sentinel, and our leader by common consent."
"As you wish, sentinel." The Dark Guide locked eyes with his sentinel before he said grudgingly.
Jeme gently eased his guide down by the fire, and then pulled him back against his chest, allowing the empath to draw strength from him. He felt the tug at the back of his mind as the pathway between them opened.
Saemund watched the young guide carefully as he looked from his sentinel to Saemund and back again. He shifted, uncomfortable under the level, overbright gaze of the guide. Jeme had never questioned his place as leader, but then Jeme had been late developing his senses, as Dark Sentinels always were. But the guide was trained from birth to take his place at his sentinel's side, to die protecting him if need be. The guide watched his back in combat and guarded against treachery in time of peace, just as the sentinel protected his guide from the emotions and designs of others, especially other sentinels.
A powerful bonding, but a dangerous one, Saemund thought. Under the old ways, the Sentinel Prime led a clan, aided by the wisdom of his shaman. Or, if they had no sentinels, a feayr would lead. Few of the feayr clans lasted long against those with the sentinel advantage. But here was a feayr taking the leader’s role in a mixed clan, something new in the world. He doubted that Blaer was convinced of his right to lead, but had only acquiesced to the will of his sentinel. Some time in the future, when Blaer was stronger, he would have to confront the guide again. Until then, he would deal carefully with the younger man. Dark Guides knew more ways of killing than he could count, and there were stories of ancient Dark Arts still known to the Temple of the Guides.
Saemund forced himself to relax. He understood why Jeme had asked him to return the sword to his guide. Jeme had suspected what Blaer would try to do, and wanted to be there to control it, and make sure the guide understood that Saemund was a friend. He took a steadying breath and gestured for the rest of the clan to draw round. It was time to take the first step toward accepting the Dark Guide as a member of the Clan.
"My friends, we have something to celebrate tonight. Our Sentinel Prime has finally found a guide. Let us ask the powers above to bless them, and let us make Blaer feel welcome as a member of the Panther Clan. After--" he caught a gleam of warning in Jeme's eye, "--after he's had a few days to recover.” He amended. “I suggest you take my advice and don't learn the hard way, as I did." The men laughed at that, gladly raising their wineskins in tribute to the pair. This day had brought happiness to their sentinel and was sure to bring great success to the clan.
Simon reached for his coffee and was surprised to find that it had grown cold. The story had been compelling, all the more so because of the strange parallels to Jim and Blair's present lives. The gentle and private ritual between the ancient sentinel and guide made him think with regret of the stressful bonding Jim and Blair had endured. It seemed the modern system had forgotten--or purposely chose to ignore--what seemed to Simon like a natural balance in abilities between sentinel and guide.
Jim was a Dark Sentinel. Did unearthing these memories mean that Blair was coming into his own as a Dark Guide? If so the GDP and anyone else in his path better look out.
As Simon rose to put the manuscript safely away, a sheet of colored paper fell from between its pages and landed at his feet. He picked it up and saw his own name at the top of the page. The handwriting was Blair's.
I didn't mention this in the story because I didn't want to cloud your judgment. But Jim and I think it's important that you know, even though it may freak you out. Please don't be angry or think that I'm making this up. Jim and I both agree that it's as true as anything we have ever experienced as we've remembered our past lives. We both agree who the leader of the Panther Clan is, even though he looked and sounded different in our memories. But there's no mistaking the impression he left on us. Simon, the leader of the clan was you.
Simon knocked the cup from the chair arm. How could his life have anything to do with this Nordic clan leader from the past? The answer came back even as he tried to avoid it. Everything. Saemund had also tried to let sentinel and guide live their lives not as weapons to be bought and sold, but as free men whose abilities could be harnessed to protect and serve others. Simon wondered whether his counterpart had succeeded.
Simon looked at the coffee spilling from the shards of the cup on the floor. He might not have Blair's gift for storytelling, but at the moment the shattered cup seemed like a pretty good metaphor for his life.
Dark Guide II
Simon Banks put both hands on his lower back and tried to knead out the knot that always seemed to form there during the day. All told, things had been quiet--by PD standards, anyway. If he left now, he could beat the traffic. As he rose to grab his coat, he saw the package on the corner of the desk. Funny, he couldn’t remember anyone bringing it in, and most people knew better than to enter his office without his permission. Then he saw the handwriting on the front: Blair’s. Well, that explained that… Blair was not most people. In the privacy of his office Simon allowed himself a grin, he might even go so far as to say that the kid was in a class by himself.
From the weight of the brown paper wrapped parcel, he knew it had to be another chapter in Blair’s narrative of his and Jim’s memories of a past life in which they were also guide and sentinel. Simon’s interest had become more than academic when the anthropologist revealed that Simon himself had a role in those memories. He turned his desk light back on as curiosity won over a fast trip home. The last time Blair had left such a package for him it had contained a bombshell. Simon himself had featured in the dreams… visions… whatever… as the blond, blue-eyed Nordic leader of the clan to which the Dark Sentinel had brought his Dark Guide. It looked like he wouldn’t be beating rush hour after all.
Jeme tucked his guide behind him and waved over two young warriors who had been watching them with curiosity from across the clearing.
“I want you to meet my guide. Blaer, these are Bryn and Hender. They watch my back in battle.”
The two young men shifted slightly under the measuring look of the Dark Guide. “I guess that will be your job now, Blaer,” Bryn offered. “You’re lucky. Jeme’s the best we’ve got.” He gave Jeme a friendly slap on the shoulder. The harmless camaraderie got an unexpected reaction.
“This sentinel is mine!” Blaer snarled the words, as if offering a challenge to them. He reached over his shoulder, his hand fisting around the sword hilt.
Jeme made a lightening-fast grab for Blaer’s upper arm, careful of the guide’s injury but holding fast so Blaer could not draw the blade.
“Easy, Blaer. You are my guide,” he stated. His voice was calm, but his arm trembled with the effort of holding Blaer still. “These are my feayr friends. In my… your clan, all are equal, sentinel, guide, feayr. All can be friends. Join with me, and look at them through my eyes.” The guide lost his combativeness at Jeme’s words.
Jeme felt the tug at the back of his mind and allowed his trust in Bryn and Hender to surge through him. In return, he felt his guide’s uncertainty and instinctively tightened his grip on the young man’s waist to make him feel more secure. Blaer exuded so much competence that he kept forgetting how young his guide was, how different everything must appear to him. His concern grew as he felt their connection start to fall away instead of growing stronger. Blaer sagged into his supportive hold. Whatever was wrong, it needed to be dealt with in private.
“I’m sorry Bryn, Hender,” Jeme managed to mutter before his attention fell wholly on his guide. He tightened his grip on Blaer and half-walked, half-carried the younger man to their tent. Blaer was now making soft whimpering noises, none coherent except for an almost continuous “help me.”
Jeme gently laid him down on the pile of sleeping furs and quickly gathered others to cover him. Blaer’s eyes were half closed, his face ashen. Shaking hands kept reaching out for something… or someone. Jeme knew that he had to get into full body contact with his guide to ease his feeling of abandonment. His mind was spinning with possible reasons for Blaer’s collapse. Was it because he had not allowed Blaer to protect him? Was he not settling into his role as Jeme’s Guide as well as it had seemed he was? Had Bryn and Hender thought something that had hurt the younger man? No, that last he did not believe… Jeme shook his head; reasons were not important now. All that mattered was that his guide needed him.
Jeme quickly undressed Blaer and then himself. He slid under the covers and pulled the unresponsive body against him, drawing Blaer’s head against the side of his neck. He wrapped his arms around Blaer’s shivering body; the shaking was getting worse. He pulled him even closer as he did not feel connected to Blaer. He pushed down his fears, they were a burden his guide didn’t need.
“It’s all right, my guide, you are safe,” Jeme whispered softly in his ear. “I will not let anyone hurt you. Please come back to me. Please, I cannot lose you now.” His voice was almost pleading.
In desperation, the sentinel gently pushed against his connection to his guide’s mind, but got no response. He did it again with more force, scared that he would hurt the younger man but too worried to hold back. A painful mewling sound came from his guide. Jeme gripped him tightly, gently rocking him back and forth. Slowly Blaer’s keening became softer. Finally, there was a tentative push against Jeme’s mind, and he welcomed it, opening his mind as fully as he could, offering unconditional support. His guide was slowly responding to him again. Only his sentinel hearing could have picked up the words whispered softly against his shoulder. Blaer was rambling; mumbling fragments that made no sense to the listening sentinel, words of pain and death and abandonment. They were more emotions than distinct thoughts. Blaer began to keen again in distress. Jeme pulled him even tighter into his embrace, still rocking him.
Suddenly his guide’s eyes flew open, wide with fear, and he tried to push away. Jeme rolled on top of him, pinning him down with the weight of his body, until Blaer’s struggles slowed. Tears ran down the guide’s face; Jeme could smell the salt and see the tiny beads of moisture matting Blaer’s long eyelashes.
Jeme was completely at a loss. He found it hard to understand emotions and was comfortable with only two, happiness and anger. Guides, on the other hand, had deep and complex emotions, an outgrowth of their empathic ability. But nothing he could think of would explain the dark distress that tormented his guide.
Blaer had fought him like a wildcat at first, but after their initial bonding Jeme had thought he had accepted his destiny and was settling into his new life. Jeme knew that eventually the young Dark Guide would come to be accepted and treasured by the Panther Clan and thought he had passed that conviction onto Blaer. But suddenly, with no reason that Jeme could see, his guide was delirious with grief. The sentinel had no idea how to help him but to let his guide feel his deep concern and offer his protection. He started to shift his weight off Blaer, hoping to coax him into sleep.
Just then he felt a slender hand reach up and hook around his neck. The smaller man pulled himself up, so that he was in skin-to-skin contact, the incoherent sounds he made mere whispers in the sentinel’s ear.
Through their link, Jeme felt revulsion, pain and the fear of death. And finally, he realized what must be happening. Blaer was a Dark Guide, able to kill only because his training allowed him to shunt aside the agonies of those he battled. Later, if he survived the conflict, he could deal safely with those emotions, those feelings. But Blaer had moved from combatant to captive to clansman in the span of three short days. Three days during which he suffered all the emotional and physical upheaval of a guide in bonding. Bonding which left him with neither the time nor the strength nor the focus to expel the demons lurking in his mind. He had left it too late, and was drowning in swirling emotions that pulled him into the void. The shaman aspect of the Dark Guide needed to cleanse his soul of the deaths of the sentinels at the Temple but there was something preventing it. Their bond was not yet fully realized.
The Dark Sentinel in Jeme now came to the forefront to answer the need of his Dark Guide. With a growl, Jeme pushed hard against what felt like a wall in his mind, blocking the forming bond. Blaer’s mind was not as open to him as it had been before. He pressed even harder and Blaer howled like the wolf engraved on his sword. Jeme raised his head and roared in echo, low and deep-throated. Then he lowered his head and looked down, Dark Sentinel at Dark Guide.
A frantically beating heart and gasping lungs calmed as sentinel lay heavily atop his guide and the younger man unconsciously brought their body rhythms into alignment. When two hearts beat as one, the linkage opened as wide as it ever had. Finally, battle lust, fear and regret, the last emotions of those Blaer had killed, and the young shaman’s own horror at taking life, flooded through the sentinel where they could with them together. Within the sentinel’s unwavering protection, like rain off a roof, they bounced harmlessly away. The young shaman sighed in barely conscious relief.
Sensing the relaxation in the slender form beneath him as the emotional storm passed, the sentinel rolled onto his back. He pulled his guide with him and felt the warmth of the smaller man blanketing him. He smiled as Blaer snuggled against him, as trusting as if he was, in truth, a younger brother seeking comfort from his elder. He reached to tug the covers up, careful not to disturb the man he gathered into his arms.
Sleepy blue eyes looked at him and his guide yawned like a pet wild cat. A drowsy, “Jeme… my sentinel” conveyed gratitude and acceptance before Blaer fell into sleep. Their connection was complete again, the link humming with life. Jeme sighed in relief. He had managed to pull his guide out of the void that could have killed him. He now knew what few understood, that Dark Guides were fragile as well as fierce. As Blaer’s Dark Sentinel, Jeme vowed that such an overload would never happen again.
Too full of happiness to sleep just yet, Jeme stared up into the darkened recesses of the tent. It was larger than most used by the Panther Clan, large enough to hold the households of two men. The women of the clan had made the tent for the use of their Sentinel Prime during the summer seasons. Dyed patterns of a sun in lunar eclipse symbolized the melding of dark and light, the joining of sentinel with guide. It was here that they would spend the next five days in isolation to explore and deepen their bond and learn each other as people, not just as sentinel and guide. Blaer’s even breathing against his throat filled the sentinel with contentment and Jeme relaxed into sleep.
Some time later Jeme awoke and a flash of fear rushed through him as he realized he was alone in bed. Hearing found and focused on the heartbeat he now knew better than his own and he rolled onto his stomach to join sight to sound.
His guide had moved away from the pile of sleeping furs and was sitting cross-legged on the ground. Although his eyes were closed in shamanic meditation, Jeme knew he could feel his sentinel’s eyes on him. Their link rippled like a current of water running between them.
Deep blue eyes opened and locked on light blue. At Jeme’s unspoken invitation, Blaer moved back to the pallet of fur, picking up his sword on the way. He sat next to the man with whom he was forming a bond stronger than family, stronger than marriage. It was time to explain to the sentinel the meaning of the sword that a Dark Guide who was Shaman carried.
“I need to tell you about the sword, Jeme.” The sentinel could detect a small tremor in his guide’s voice. He reached a hand up and laid it against the side of Blaer’s face in acceptance.
“Claimed and marked sentinel,” he intoned, acknowledging that he belonged to the guide.
“Claimed and marked guide.” Blaer repeated the vow, granting ownership of his soul to the sentinel.
The final ritual of the claiming, that which bound their minds and souls, would take place later in front of the whole Panther Clan. But until their two souls became one, they each found comfort in the age-old vows of bonding.
Dropping his hand, Jeme pulled the covers back in invitation and his guide slid into their warmth. He hesitated for a moment, not sure if the touch that had been welcome when Blaer was in pain would be resented now that the guide was in control again. But when the sentinel opened his arms, Blaer went into them as if coming home, his head resting on the larger man’s chest, under his chin. Jeme could feel the pounding of his guide’s heart.
“Tell me about the sword, Blaer. It is obviously important to you, and what is important to you is important to me.” The empath could feel the truth of the sentinel’s words. It gave him the courage to speak.
“My sword bears the image of my spirit guide, the wolf. Next to it, we will engrave your spirit guide since we are now one and the same. If I were ever to lose you…” Blaer’s arms tightened, “…I would kill myself with this sword, to join you in the next life. Sentinel and guide cannot be parted.” He stated it as a matter of fact.
The thought of Blaer dying caused Jeme instant distress, but he quickly kept it from seeping through their link. He’d keep hidden in his heart the plans he would make to ensure that if he fell in battle, his guide would live. Perhaps he would ask Bryn and Hender to watch over him, perhaps Saemund could formally adopt him…but at the moment, he knew Blaer was too brittle to be argued with. He smiled at his guide, who returned the smile brightly, thinking that Jeme had been pleased by his words.
“My spirit guide? I’ve never seen one.”
Blaer shook his head and grinned as if Jeme were teasing him. “Of course you have. All sentinels see their spirit guides during their training…” His voice trailed off as he realized Jeme must never have received formal training. No wonder he had brought Blaer among unbonded sentinels and feayr so soon after the bonding. It wasn’t uncaring, it was unknowing. The last of Blaer’s reservations melted away.
What Jeme had done had been instinctive. Blaer had been trained to understand the levels of the bonding. Now that he was at peace, he would bring order to his sentinel’s chaos. This explained the raw emotions that his sentinel had channeled into him-- trained sentinels had more control. Still, there had been comfort in the aggressive protectiveness that Jeme had radiated through their link.
"Tomorrow, I will prepare a drink for you and you will see your spirit guide. You will know it and draw strength from it.” Now that the matter was settled to his satisfaction, he nestled back against his sentinel. The warm ministrations of the large hands seeking out tense muscles lulled him into sleep.
Jeme sent out a sensory net to protect them both. He had no fear of falling into the black void now that his guide was here. Even asleep, he anchored him. With a contented sigh, he settled back and joined the younger man in sleep.
Saemund pushed the flap of the tent back and smiled at what he beheld. The bonding was going well by the look of things. The guide was curled around his sentinel, whose head was resting on his guide’s chest, one arm draped around his waist.
Suddenly, Blaer’s eyes opened and fixed on Saemund. They were deep blue and blazing with instinctive hostility. Blaer’s hand reached out and grabbed the sword by the bed. Saemund moved fast and managed to trap the blade with a foot.
“Guide, I…” Before he could finish, the guide exploded from the pallet. Saemund’s feet were knocked from under him and Blaer was on top of him. Somehow, the young man had managed to grab one of Jeme’s knives. It slashed perilously near to Saemund’s exposed throat when a large hand caught the guide’s wrist and stopped the blow. Blaer screamed in anger and frustration as a strong arm wrapped around his waist and pulled him backward. Still intent on stopping the intruder, he lashed out and a bare foot connected with Saemund’s chest.
Saemund scrambled onto his hands and knees as he watched the sentinel struggle to control the guide. Wide blue eyes were blazing at the chieftain, and he was screaming at his sentinel to let him kill the man in front of him.
“Blaer, STOP IT NOW!” Jeme threw his other arm around his guide as Saemund backed a safe distance away, panting as he tried to regain his breath. Jeme leaned in to whisper quietly, but distinctly, into Blaer’s ear. “I told you this man was my friend, and our leader, and you promised to show him respect. You will not go back on your word to me!”
Jeme’s words were echoed by the feelings that came through the bond--the trust he felt toward both Saemund and Blaer; his need to have them be friends. The guide nodded slightly to show it was safe for the sentinel to release him. Jeme kept an arm draped around his shoulders but otherwise made no effort to restrain him.
“Why did you come here, Saemund? You know the rules.” Jeme frowned, until the bonding was complete the guide would be ruled by emotion not reason. Everyone and everything a danger to the sentinel of whom he was becoming part.
“It’s been a long time since our clan worried about rules, Jeme.” Saemund defended his actions. “Fancy training or not, this boy has to learn to take orders from me and to act like a member of this clan, not some half-tame wolf who bites anyone who comes near his master.” Saemund’s voice had dropped from a shout to a half-whisper as he realized that Blaer had stopped struggling and seemed to be listening intently.
“And that’s exactly what he’ll be, if you give him, give us, time.” Jeme smiled at his small defender, a beautiful smile that Saemund could not remember ever seeing on the face of the grim sentinel. “Blaer is my guide, my life. Once he believes that as strongly as I do, he’ll use his skills to protect me and the clan and nothing more.”
“So I just wait a few days for this miracle?” Saemund scoffed. “Forgive me, Jeme, but I find that hard to believe. As far as he’s concerned, I’m just a feayr who’s standing between you and your rightful place in this clan. Prove to me you can control him, or send him away.”
Jeme remembered Blaer’s smiling promise to kill himself and pulled him closer. “Impossible. We are one now. We would die without each other,” he denied Saemund’s order. But the thought of leaving the Panther Clan--the only family he had ever known--was unthinkable as well. There must be another way.
He looked into Blaer’s eyes, wondering whether he dared ask for such a sacrifice when the young guide was still vulnerable from the emotional catharsis that had him shaking in his sentinel’s arms. The link between them was wide open and Blaer frowned, then sighed as he sensed Jeme’s conflicting emotions. Jeme knew that Blaer sensed what he was suffering, and he hoped that knowledge would help him to comply with what he would ask.
“Blaer, Saemund needs to know, once and for all, that you’ll accept his leadership. Show him that you mean what you said before. Present your sword to him and swear fealty.”
Blaer eyes widened with shock, thinking for a moment that Jeme was casting him off and giving him to Saemund. But the link only held warm support and encouragement. Jeme reached down and picked up Blaer’s sword, which had been kicked aside in the scuffle. Silently he handed it back to its owner, pleading with his eyes and his heart that Blaer would obey him in this.
Blue eyes met and held blue eyes as Blaer accepted the sword from Jeme, holding the hilt in his right hand and supporting the blade with his left. Despite his conflicting emotions and the blatant disregard of Temple teachings, his sentinel needed him to do this. He would do this. Slowly he turned to face Saemund, and knelt gracefully before him. He slightly raised the hilt toward Jeme’s leader before speaking carefully,
“Saemund, you know that by my bond and my wish, I can only ever be loyal to my sentinel. But since you are his chosen leader, I swear to obey you in everything except that which concerns sentinel and guide. In return, you will follow me in everything that concerns his well-being.” He raised his eyes defiantly to Saemund. “That is the best I can do. Accept it, or I will end this matter myself.” His left hand joined his right on the hilt and he rested the point of the blade against his own chest.
It was all Jeme could do not to rush forward and knock the blade away but he held himself still, trusting Saemund’s wisdom in his heart. His chieftain, his friend held his guide’s life in his hands. Saemund reached out to clasp his own hands around the smaller ones on the hilt. He carefully raised the blade so that it hovered between them. Blaer accepted his touch, allowing Saemund’s emotions to wash through him. There was no hostility in the man he had twice tried to kill, only concern. The Dark Guide struggled to understand what was going on between them. Then he realized that Saemund was talking to him, words confirming his emotions.
“Not necessary, guide. I accept your oath, and I will make one of my own. I will not interfere between you and Jeme as long as the safety of my people is not compromised.” Saemund slid his arms down to cup Blaer’s elbows, urging him to rise.
Blaer hurried back to Jeme’s side where he was enfolded in a quick embrace. His sentinel’s relief and gratitude was palpable through the link. “You have what you wanted,” Jeme said, looking back at Saemund. “Now tell me why you risked coming here before the five days of bonding were up.”
“To give you a warning. Offa and Fergus and a few of the… others…” Saemund looked significantly at Jeme. The ones he had named were unbonded sentinels, but he did not want to say the words for fear of setting Blaer off again. He chose his words carefully so Jeme would still understand his message. “They think you should share the booty from the temple raid. They’re not happy to be left with nothing again.”
“Nothing? I saved their rotten lives when we raided Clytha Keep.” Jeme tried to check his anger for Blaer’s sake. “If that isn’t enough of a prize for them, tell them I’ll redeem it at any time in challenge.”
“I told them they they’d be mad to challenge you, but they’re young and hot-headed. They’ll come around in time. Just watch your back, and Blaer’s, when they’re near.”
Blaer had begun to sway a little on his feet and Jeme saw that he needed to rest. “Thanks for the warning. Please go now.”
Saemund knew he was being dismissed. “Very well, then. I’ll see you in five days, for the public bonding ceremony. The clan is looking forward to their holiday. In the meantime, I will send Caro with something to break your fast. I’ll make sure she leaves it outside the tent.”
Saemund left the tent, grateful to still have his life. He was all too aware of the tension in the camp. The bonded sentinels were keeping their guides close to them, feeling a frantic need to fuss over them. The Dark Guide’s mere presence had caused this. Until the bonding was tight, they would be nervous around him. Dark Guides had been known to kill gray guides, if they perceived them as a threat to their sentinels. The unbonded sentinels should keep away from the bonding pair, knowing instinctively that Jeme would kill them if he saw them as challengers. The guide, in his heightened empathic state, would feel their need to claim a guide and if that knowledge passed through the link…the combination would be explosive.
Captain Simon Banks reached a hand up and unconsciously touched his own throat, empathizing with Saemund’s problems. Next time Rhonda takes a day off and Blair helps me open the mail, I’ll make sure the kid doesn’t have a letter opener. He tried to smile at the thought, but the smile felt tight and unnatural. Blair is a Dark Guide. How much of this is in him? How will he react when Jim goes for the lieutenant’s boards next year? Will we be knee-deep in the bodies of other candidates? He took a steadying breath and returned to the manuscript.
Saemund settled down on a large log by the fire circle, a central spot from which he could monitor the camp. Soon his people were seeking him out with the ordinary business of the day: settling disputes, gathering and storing provisions, hearing complaints about this one’s guide or that one’s husband. Saemund was listening with one ear as Bard recounted his hunting exploits when young Bryn rushed up to him.
“Saemund! Bera’s daughter, Sigrid, has gone missing. It’s been a few hours since anyone’s seen her, and it will be night soon, and the wolves have been active…” Bryn only stopped because he ran out of breath.
“Easy, son.” Saemund soothed. “She’s a little girl and can’t have strayed far. Have the sentinels started looking for her?”
Bryn nodded his head, his handsome face grim. “They’ve been trying, but they can’t sense any sign of her. She’s a pretty girl, so it’s possible raiders took her. She could be miles away already. The sentinels say they’ve done what they can. They need Jeme’s help.”
Saemund sighed. He’d wanted to leave Jeme and Blaer alone until the bonding feast. But as he’d warned Jeme, the business of the clan couldn’t stop while he and Blaer worked things out. Saemund rose slowly.
“Bard, you and Bryn go back to Bera’s tent. Organize a party to be ready to search--through the night if they have to. I’ll bring Jeme as quickly as I can.”
Saemund walked back to Jeme’s tent and stood a few feet before the opening, steeling himself for what might happen next. He called softly, “Jeme! Jeme, we need your help.” After a few moments Jeme’s sleepy and entirely annoyed face appeared.
“What now? Keep your voice down, Blaer’s asleep.”
No one’s tried to kill me in a couple of hours, and I’m feeling neglected, Saemund wanted to say. Instead he tried to keep his voice gentle. “Bera’s little girl has run off, or been stolen. No one can sense a trace of her, and they’re asking for your help.”
Jeme’s face changed. Bera herself had only been a girl when Jeme had encouraged her to run away from her brutal father to join the Panther Clan. The sentinel she had married died in battle, and her daughter was all she had left of him. He needed to help but his place was with Blaer.
Jeme thought for a moment and looked back over his shoulder, judging his guide’s condition. “Let me tell him where I’m going. He should be all right by himself, as long as no one disturbs him.” The tent flap closed and scant minutes later Jeme emerged fully dressed. “Come on, let’s do this quickly. Night is falling.”
Inside the tent, Blaer stirred drowsily, content. His sentinel was truly a leader; he was the one the clan turned to in a crisis. Even without him, Jeme’s newly heightened senses would help him find the lost girl. Soon, Jeme had promised him, soon Blaer would be at his side and they would protect the clan together. His thoughts drifted to the final bonding ritual.
Blaer suddenly sat upright. There was something important still left undone! Sleep, and Jeme’s care, had lulled him into forgetting his duty. He rose and pulled on his clothes hurriedly. Peeking out of the tent, he saw only a few people nearby; the rest must all have gone to join in the search for Sigrid. He sighed with relief and walked quickly to the tent of the Clan’s healer, clearly marked by bunches of herbs drying on racks around it.
The healer smiled when he entered. “I am Wulfstein. I am pleased to see that you are healing well. The starflower was most effective? Do you need more of it, or some of my other herbs?”
“Herbs, yes, but not for healing.” Blaer went from pot to pot, carefully smelling them, and breaking off pieces as he went. Wulfstein did not comment on Blaer’s rudeness, just stirred the pot in front of him. He understood well that common courtesies were beyond a guide this close to bonding and he had hopes of making Blaer a friend, even, a colleague. He had learned from his mother, the previous healer, how to treat both sentinels, guides and feayr. But the young man in front of him knew more about poisons and cures than he would ever know. He could feel the power pouring off the younger, smaller man; power that was just starting to bond to the will of his sentinel and, through him, the clan. Until that happened fully, the Dark Guide was as dangerous as any wild animal. In the midst of the healer’s musings, the guide nodded and was gone.
Blaer made his way quickly back to his tent, apparently not noticing that he had acquired a shadow.
Bryn had hurried through the encampment, tasked by Jeme to guard his guide. As he approached Jeme’s tent, he had seen the Guide leave the sentinel’s tent and had followed, heart in his throat, as his mind ran through the various disasters a partially bonded Dark Guide could instigate or fall into. If any of his fears came true, HE would have to answer to the Sentinel Prime. Knowing that newly bonded guides were extremely sensitive to the presence of others, he followed at a discrete distance as Blaer went about his self appointed task.
He breathed a sigh of relief when the Dark Guide made it safely back to the sentinel’s tent and he took up sentry position a few yards away. He scanned the area in front of the tent, gauging possible threats, when he found himself facing a drawn blade; held by the man he was supposed to be guarding. The blade was raised, ready to strike, but the guide’s head was cocked, as if thinking-kill, or not kill? For Bryn, it was the longest moment of his life as he forced himself not to react. Bryn’s eyes held Blaer’s as he let Blaer read his intent. It worked; Blaer was lowering his sword when they were both knocked to the ground.
A heavy weight slammed into Blaer at waist level and he was thrown forward into Bryn. The only way he could avoid impaling Jeme’s friend was let go of his sword. The guide found himself unarmed and pinned, looking up into the pale eyes of a heavy-set, red-haired man. The man leered down at him, showing large, crooked teeth. Blaer struggled frantically in the huge man’s grasp. Pain scorched through Blaer, and his vision grayed, as dirty fingers ground into his wounded arm. Denied escape, he looked for help. Where was Jeme’s friend? Where was Jeme? All he saw were four men that he had never seen before. Feeling the emotions coming from the strangers, Blaer knew with sick certainty that they were all unbonded sentinels.
He turned his head away in revulsion as breath as foul as the man’s emotions washed over his face. “So you’re the prize Jeme’s been keeping hidden. Well met, little guide. I see it’s true what they say about Temple guides. I’m Offa, and these,” He jerked his head back to the men standing behind him, “Are Conor, Thorkel, Bede and Fergus. We came to welcome you.” He caught sight of Bryn, struggling to get his wind back and grinned, “but I see you’ve already found a friend to keep you entertained.”
The touch of large man was agony, and Blaer squirmed futilely, trying to think of a way out of the situation; fighting a growing nausea and panic. Hope flared briefly as he saw Bryn try to slip away for help, but the one called Fergus grabbed him back. “Don’t go, Bryn, I think the little one owes you an apology.”
Offa laughed, insultingly. “Give the boy some credit. Maybe Bryn thought that pretty face of his would buy him some favors and the little guide refused.” A large hand caught Blaer’s chin and he was forced to look at Offa as he bent closer, leering. “Don’t settle for him, little one. Your face is pretty, too. And I think you’ll find me much friendlier than that slab of stone you’re with now.” His thumb stroked the guide’s face suggestively.
“Stop it, Offa,” Thorkel said angrily. “You said we were just going to talk to him. It’s clear he wants no part of you or your ugly face. Now let him up.” He pulled ineffectively at Offa’s shoulder. The huge man just shrugged him off.
“So he can run back to Jeme? I don’t think so. We need to keep him leashed until he agrees to give us what we want.”
“He’s not a dog, Offa, he’s a man, and an educated one.” Thorkel’s
blue eyes, held a plea for forgiveness as he looked into the guide’s eyes and spoke to him directly. “Blaer, I apologize for Offa’s actions on our behalf. We came here to ask a favor of you.” He looked at Offa with disgust before continuing, “And not the one Offa’s looking for either. If he lets you up, will you hear us? We promise not to take much of your time.”
Blaer, disarmed by the desperate plea in the man’s eyes, lowered his barriers slightly, trying to read whether the man was sincere. He was instantly swamped with the odious emotions coming from Offa. He closed his eyes and centered himself and after a moment, was able to focus on Thorkel alone. His apparently genuine regret for the way Blaer was being treated was underpinned by another stronger emotion: hope.
Blaer nodded acceptance of the bargain, refusing to look into Offa’s pale, greedy eyes. “Tell him to get off me, and I’ll hear you.” Relief filled Thorkel and washed over Blaer.
“You heard him, Offa,” Thorkel growled. “Move away.”
Reluctantly, Offa shifted back on his haunches, clearly expecting Blaer to dart away. Instead, the Dark Guide rose slowly to face Thorkel, wavering slightly from the continued stress of being in the presence of four unbonded sentinels.
Thorkel dropped his eyes for a moment, working up his courage. He addressed Blaer humbly, trying to explain. “We’re unbonded--of course, you know that. And you probably know we need the Sentinel Prime’s permission to bond. Well, Jeme won’t let us bond until we’ve proven we have control of certain skills. He says a sentinel with no control is a danger to his guide, and that a guide should be a partner to push you along, not a crutch for your inadequacy.”
Blaer felt Thorkel’s painful shame and guessed that he was repeating, word for word, criticism that had come from Jeme. “We’ve been with the clan for years, some of us born to it, and we haven’t yet learned sufficient control of our senses.” Thorkel took a deep breath, and got to the point. “We know you were an advanced student at the temple. We thought that maybe you could help us. If you can work with us, even for a little while, that might help. If you can’t work with us…maybe you know something that will improve our control.”
Blaer’s innate compassion awoke at Thorkel’s explanation and plea. To see others bond, year after year, and to be denied the privilege, must have been difficult. To his surprise, he found a desire to help in himself. He answered honestly, “We do learn a number of techniques to help sentinels focus: meditation, mental exercises, avoiding certain foods. I’d be glad to teach you, and any others who want to learn. But you understand it be only with Jeme’s consent, and you must wait until after the bonding ceremony.”
Thorkel brightened at Blaer’s words and started to thank him when Offa erupted. He glared at Thorkel and the Dark Guide. They had spoiled his plan. He had been sure the guide would refuse to help them, as was customary, and the other unbonded sentinels would join him in punishing the guide for that refusal. Now, his real reasons for accosting the guide would be exposed. He reached out and fastened a hand on the guide’s arm as he broadcast all he felt with all the strength he could muster. Blaer swayed at the onslaught, knees going weak, vision graying. Offa ground out his objections, eyes darting a challenge at the other sentinels.
“We’ve waited long enough. Days, weeks, years, while the great Jeme told us we couldn’t bond, making us think he was so controlled and perfect. He could outdo us even without a guide. The bastard didn’t even need one.” Offa almost spat the words. “Turns out he just didn’t want anything but the best. Now he gets the pick of the litter, and we’re not allowed to touch or talk to him. Well, I want a guide and I mean to have one today. This guide. Right now!”
Offa pounced, throwing the reeling guide back on the ground. Once again, he straddled the compact form, pinning down his shoulders. He reached for the empathic pathways that were already sensitized to a sentinel’s mind, ready for bonding. Offa’s mental power was a candle flame compared to the blaze of Jeme’s, but it was completely uncontrolled and raging. Carried on a tide of burning greed, Offa’s mind pushed into Blaer’s with a force that made him cry out in pain. He felt darkness reaching out to him and knew with sinking clarity that this time he might not return. He fought back with all his training and strength. Jeme, he thought despairingly, Where are you?
Thorkel froze, appalled at Offa’s actions, unable to believe what he was seeing. Then he grabbed the big man’s shoulders and tried to pull him off the young guide. This was wrong! He fell back in pain as Fergus, long time crony of Offa, went for the knife at his belt and slashed Thorkel’s shoulder open. Conor tried to disarm Fergus but he too dropped to the ground as the knife blade caught his forearm. Bryn, forgotten in the melee, waded into the fray. He grabbed Fergus’s arm from behind as the man raised the knife to finish off Conor. Using a quick, painful twist he removed the knife from Fergus’s hand. He tossed it toward Blaer; hoping that maybe the guide could bring himself to use it in self- defense. He froze in amazement as the guide easily snatched it mid-air. This caused his undoing as Fergus’s elbow caught him squarely in the solar plexus and he fell to his knees, doubled over in pain, gasping for air.
Sensing Bryn’s intentions, Blaer had suddenly come back to life, fighting with every trick ever taught him. Offa staggered back, clutching his throat, trying to force air through it. The guide’s elbow had smashed into his throat, narrowly missing the larynx, in what would have been a killing blow. Having caught the blade Bryn had thrown him, Blaer staggered to his feet and slashed at Fergus as he tried to bash Bryn’s head in. He succeeded in distracting the unbonded sentinel but his inattention to Offa cost him. Offa had recovered enough to tackle him to the ground again. He hit hard, his breath leaving him in a whoosh, dagger flying from his sweaty hand. //No!// his mind wailed as he once again tried to wriggle free from the unbonded sentinel’s pinning weight. Offa swore luridly and slammed Blaer’s head into the ground, stunning him.
Bede had been watching the fight while deciding which faction to join. With Offa winning, Bede untied a length of rope from his waist and started to help tie the hands of the struggling guide. It was now open war between the unbonded sentinels for the guide. The two who had tried to help Blaer were badly injured, broadcasting despair and pain. The three who wanted to use him were radiating unbridled triumph. Blaer could barely hold on to his sanity as their combined hunger swept over him, stripping him of what little control he retained of his barriers.
Suddenly a roar of rage was heard across the camp. The scream of a large cat, angry and in pain, reverberated around the Dark Sentinel as he appeared in their midst. He moved toward the combatants, his movements becoming more fluid as, without conscious thought, he dropped into the persona of his spirit guide. His nostrils flared as he smelled blood, his guide’s blood. Rage filled him as his eyes telescoped, piggybacking on the smell, and focused on a cut on Blaer’s mouth and the blood trickling down his chin. Offa hearing the roar, slackened his grip as he turned to identify the threat. He immediately regretted it, as Blaer managed to slam a knee into his groin. Writhing in pain, his ears ringing, Offa’s rage and fear gave him the strength to slam the guide into the ground again. He ground his fingers into the young man’s shoulders as he tried to force a bond.
“MY GUIDE, MINE AND NO ONE ELSE’S!” The words were growled low and deep-throated, filled with anger and possession.
The crowd of feayr onlookers that had gathered around Blaer and the unbonded sentinels parted out of Jeme’s way. Those who didn’t move fast enough found themselves flying through the air. Jeme was in full protector mode. Anyone that got between him and his guide could end up dead.
Before he could reach his goal, Alfric, the clan’s bonded second senior sentinel, Saemund, and a number of the bonded sentinels arrived. They grabbed Jeme, restraining him, risking their own lives for his welfare. In his unthinking rage, Jeme could kill the innocent which would haunt him when sanity returned. For his sake, they had to make sure his anger fell only on the guilty.
Alfric, a tall, fair man with a pleasant face, stern now in disapproval, looked down at Offa. The renegade sentinel still straddled Blaer’s hips, pressing the guide’s shoulders against the ground. The young man was obviously in great distress, eyes closed, breathing ragged, sweat pouring down his face. His hands were still trying vainly to push Offa away. The red-haired giant’s thumbs were moving slowly, almost involuntarily, over the guide’s shoulders. His face held the blank expression of a sentinel attempting to bond. Beneath him, Blaer moaned painfully.
“Offa. Offa!” Alfric cuffed him on the shoulder to break the sentinel’s concentration. There’d be hell to pay if Offa succeeded in bonding with the Dark Guide. Offa’s head came around with a snarl. “What?” His eyes held a fathomless hunger; and anger that drained away as his attention was pulled back by the lure of the guide.
Alfric’s staff knocked the man’s hands from the guide’s shoulders, forcibly breaking the connection. “Is this what it looks like?” he demanded. “Are you trying to claim this guide?” Offa nodded curtly, arrogantly. He had “tasted” the guide and found him toothsome. He was almost his. He would be his.
Alfric turned to Jeme and addresses him formally as was proper. “Challenge has been given to the Sentinel Prime. Do you take up the challenge?”
“YES.” Jeme’s growls had become a continuous rumble. He was still restrained by Saemund and the next most senior of the bonded sentinels.
“Offa, do wish to continue the challenge?” He offered the unbonded sentinel a way out of his stupidity. It would mean exile but at least Offa would keep his life.
The unbonded sentinel looked around him, reading the crowd, then back at the Dark Sentinel. His smile was one of arrogance. “The clan fought for the guide. Why should you have him. The guide should have been assigned by lot, or, shared between us equally. Why should you have one, when we go without?”
Alfric snorted in disgust at the specious reasoning. “Offa, guides cannot be shared. You know this. The Dark Guide was meant for Jeme from the beginning. Saemund and the Clan Council decided to follow Jeme to the time and place when HE was called to bond. HE has proven his value to this Clan and, bonded, he would render even better service. HE captured the guide. HE stripped the guide of his defenses and barriers. You have transgressed the custom of the sentinels and the decrees of the Clan. You….”
Jeme shook the restraining hands of his friends off, interrupting Alfric. He’d be damned before Offa got off with Clan justice and Alfric seemed to be heading in that direction. “Challenge is accepted.” He said it coldly. Ice blue eyes bore into Alfric’s, daring him to deny him his rights as Sentinel Prime. Alfric bowed his head in compliance.
Offa rose and backed away. Fear finally touched him as the realization hit that he was committed to facing the Sentinel Prime
in challenge. The onlookers shifted and a ring was slowly formed around the two sentinels. The unbonded sentinel could see his death written in the face of the Dark Sentinel. Frightened now, he looked to Saemund for rescue, but the clan leader’s face was stolid, showing no emotions. Clearly, he considered this sentinel business, and as a non-sentinel, would not interfere. Offa had committed the ultimate sin. He had tried to take another sentinel’s guide. That transgression could only be answered in blood.
The unbonded sentinel had no choice but to fight. With a strangled shout of defiance, he attacked. It was futile, he was out-classed by the Dark Sentinel. There was something vicious in the way Jeme moved, as if he were trying not only to kill but inflict the most pain he could on the man who hurt his guide. Finally, when Offa could fight no more, he hurled the man to the ground head-first, breaking the unbonded sentinel’s neck. He studied the dead man with satisfaction before turning back to the crowd of onlookers.
“No one tries to take my guide.” He said simply, pinning each person with his eyes. “Who else was involved in this?” Jeme’s eyes questioned his trusted friend. Bryn gestured subtly in the direction of Fergus who had moved into the crowd, trying to look like an innocent bystander.
Jeme’s blow sent the man to his knees. The young sentinel did not even try to get up, but scrambled away on his knees. Getting to his feet, he began to run, knowing his life in the Panther Clan was finished. Jeme then turned to the remaining unbonded sentinels, who backed off warily. Bryn interceded. “Jeme, Thorkel and Conor tried to help Blaer. They were wounded in his defense.” Jeme’s eyes softened with gratitude. “My thanks.”
Alfric called out the rest of the ritual. “Is there anyone else who wishes to challenge this sentinel’s claim? If so, do it now, and save us the trouble at the bonding ceremony.”
"Sentinel Prime.” The voice was Bede’s, and had a defiant ring to it. “I wish to challenge.”
Jeme, fully in control of himself again, advanced on the unbonded sentinel. “The challenge is accepted.” He said formally. The unbonded sentinel made a slashing motion of negation with his hand.
“Not you. Him.” Bede gestured to Blaer, who had pulled himself together and now stood shakily at Jeme’s side.
Saemund, momentarily distracted by Hender who was helping Thorkel from the field, heard a horrified intake of breath from Alfric. “What’s wrong?” He whispered urgently. “Bede’s challenged…” Alfric started to explain. Saemund interrupted, “So? Jeme can take care of Bede with one hand tied behind his back.”
"Saemund, Bede isn’t claiming the challenge from Jeme. He’s claiming the challenge from the guide. It’s only done when a guide attacks or provokes a sentinel.” Alfric turned stricken eyes to the Clan Leader. “Blaer’s in no shape to defend himself and if he dies…” He couldn’t finish the sentence aloud. Saemund blanched as he finished the thought “Jeme will follow.” A thought struck him and the Clan Leader held up a hand. “Wait. How did Blaer attack or provoke Bede? From all that I have heard, the guide was defending himself.” Bede snarled, “He left the bonding tent without his intended sentinel, reeking of linkage scent. Jeme himself has said that I have little control over my sentinel instincts. As a guide, he…” he pointed at the pale young man standing next to the Prime Sentinel… “should have known that!” Alfric nodded silently to Saemund’s unspoken question.
Bede smiled triumphantly. He had read his death in the Sentinel Prime’s eyes. Now, he had contrived it so that he could win his life. All he had to do was beat a guide. A young, inexperienced guide who was wounded, in bonding, and had just experienced an attempted forced linkage. He felt confident. He was a sentinel and Blaer was a guide. It was well known that guides were at a disadvantage in combat because they felt their opponent’s pain and were leery of causing any distress. He pushed to the back of his mind the stray rumors of what a Dark Guide could do, the training some were given. He could do this. Once he had defeated Blaer he would be safe, and in possession of a guide. There could only be one challenge to or from a sentinel/ guide pair.
Saemund turned to the Dark Guide. Blaer looked little older than his own son at that moment except for the dark blue eyes that met his; they held the determination of a man years his senior. “Blaer? What do you answer to Bede’s charge?”
The Dark Guide shrugged one shoulder casually but his words were precise. “I had thought that all the sentinels would be hunting for Sigrid. I had that to do which must be done. I took what should have been a slight risk to do it. I was wrong and my sword will answer the sentinel’s challenge.”
Jeme, anguished, looked into Blaer’s eyes for a long moment. He read an indomitable will to win and a fear that his sentinel would not trust him to accomplish what he must. Jeme shut his eyes to the plea in his guide’s eyes. He did not want to risk his guide to this, but neither could he put aside Blaer’s right to make his own decisions. He bowed to the inevitable. “The challenge to our bonding is yours,” he said to Blaer, even as he sent strength and support through their bond. He backed off slowly.
Bryn respectfully handed Blaer his sword and then he, too, stepped back. Once the challenge match was started no one could interfere.
Blaer centered himself and prepared to shunt aside pain and fear, his own and Bede’s, until the combat ended. The proper mindset accomplished, he stepped back into the arena made by the parted crowd. He held the bonding sword in his right hand and with the other waved to the unbonded sentinel to come to him. Bede snarled at the implied insult and stepped forward.
As the match wore on Saemund relaxed. Even though he had never taken to Bede, he felt almost sorry for the man. It was obvious that he was out of his class. The Dark Guide held his sword in both hands, his body perfectly balanced, his eyes never straying from the man in front of him. He parried the blows, easily batting them away. The smile on his face was chilling. He was, Saemund realized with a shudder, playing with the sentinel.
Blaer waited for the opening he wanted. Finally, as Bede lost his temper and slashed without skill or discipline, the moment arrived. Blaer sidestepped his opponent’s clumsy swing and pulled his sword across the man’s waist. Bede folded to his knees, his hands trying to hold his body together.
The Dark Guide stepped around Bede, changing his grip so the sword was held out, point down, in front of him. He looked straight at HIS sentinel. “Your guide, claimed and marked.” He brought the sword down through Bede’s shoulder to his heart. As Bede fell forward, the Dark Guide pulled the sword free. Jeme’s head went back and he roared acceptance. The rest of the bonded sentinels took up the roar, affirming the witnessed pledge. The challenge had been defeated; sentinel and guide were one again.
Then Blaer walked to his sentinel and halted in front of him. Jeme reached a hand out and placed it along the side of his guide’s jaw, his thumb rubbing gently against the side of his face. The smaller man leaned into the caress. The sentinel’s arm came around him, and he shepherded his guide back to their tent. Ah, gods, Blaer! Another death to weigh on your spirit. Are you sorry I did not leave you in your Temple? Jeme watched as his guide sank down onto the bed of furs and crossed his legs, his hands resting on his knees.
Blaer breathed deeply and rhythmically until he found his center. He had shielded his mind from Bede’s chaotic emotions during the battle; shunting them aside allowed him to function, to protect his sentinel. But there was a price. For a short time after purging the dead man’s presence, he would be weak and vulnerable. He had done as much in the past when he had gotten too close to another’s death. But this time was different, this time he knew his sentinel was there to shield him. A smile actually teased at his lips as he channeled Bede’s emotions at the point of death, the damage done by Offa’s brutal assault on his mind, the hunger of the unbonded sentinels from his mind, effortlessly. He basked in the care and comfort Jeme sent through the link, salving the hurts that had been inflicted on him.
When he opened his eyes it was to see his sentinel sitting opposite him, a warm smile on his face.
“How are you feeling?” Jeme asked softly.
“Tired. Did you find the little girl?”
“She chased a rabbit into the woods. Some hunters found her and thought she’d bring a better price at market than the game they were hunting. I could hear every word they said, even miles away.” He paused for a moment as he listened. “The search party is closing in. They’ll have her home in time for dinner.” He paused for a moment, then asked gently, “Why did you leave the tent, Blaer? You know it’s not allowed.”
Almost guiltily, the guide pulled out the herbs he had selected from Wulfstein’s store. “I was going to make you a drink that would allow you to see your spirit guide. You have to see it, to complete the…” he waved at the sword.
Jeme sighed softly. The sword was all the stripling was worried about. Jeme did not understand why it assumed such importance; it was a symbol, a thing. It was the bonding itself that held meaning for their lives. He wanted to tell Blaer to forget the sword, his safety was more important! He would have to speak with Charles from the Firehorse Clan. Charles’ guide carried a sword that had belonged to his father; a sword that bore eerie resemblance to his guide’s blade. The two were due to meet up in three days’ time, when the Sentinels Prime from the neighboring clans would gather to watch the bonding of the Senior Sentinel Prime to his guide. Dark Guides were an elite, and the bonding of Dark Guide to Dark Sentinel was rare. Even sentinels who lived to old age rarely saw it more than once. The Sentinels Prime would come to pay their respects to them and to bear witness to the claiming.
Jeme studied the exhausted man who was willing, no… anxious… to spend his last strength to complete a ritual Jeme still didn’t understand. He reigned in his worry and his words before either disturbed the empath. This was important to Blair for whatever reason; more important than his own fears.
“Go ahead, Blaer. Make the drink.” The Dark Guide beamed and went to work with a will, pleased with his sentinel’s trust.
Outside, Saemund looked toward the sentinel’s tent as Wulfstein told him what herbs the guide had taken and assured him that none were harmful. Somehow, the healer’s words did not make him feel any more comfortable.
Feeling uneasy himself, Simon Banks took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Night had fallen while he read and if he were not careful he would end up spending the night in his office. Reluctantly, he closed the manuscript and tucked it into his briefcase. The rest would have to wait.
Dark Guide III
Simon Banks set his supper dishes in the sink and picked up his coffee. The dishes could wait until tomorrow. His mind was already journeying to the past coming alive in Blair’s manuscript. He settled down in his recliner and lifted the envelope out of his briefcase. He took a sip of coffee, opened the neatly typed manuscript and felt Cascade falling away. In his mind’s eye, he saw the tent village, in the center of which stood a platform covered with furs and bright woven blankets. Each blanket, Simon read, represented one of the families from the tribe. A bonding platform, erected and furnished with love, affection and respect by the entire clan for their sentinel and his chosen guide. Simon contrasted those joyfully solemn ancient preparations with images of Blair’s claiming.
The young empath’s abused body in restraints… blue eyes dazed from his head’s repeated contact with a wall… a ragged and starved small figure struggling against his much larger captors … the look of absolute despair on an ashen face as he lost the fight against brutal holds and was viciously shoved into a small room to sprawl at the feet of a sentinel on the verge of madness.
Simon shuddered. If only he had known then what he knew now…
Saemund stood with his wife Caro as he watched the preparations for the bonding tomorrow. Tonight, at dusk, the rituals would start. The setting of the sun would signify the ending of Jeme’s and Blaer’s old lives as individuals. Tomorrow, the break of dawn would symbolize the start of a new life together. The other Clans’ Sentinels Prime with their guides had already arrived to watch the bonding. Anticipation was high, Dark Sentinel was bonding with Dark Guide, an event of much importance. Saemund would take precedence among the Clans’ leaders, even though he was feayr, because he possessed the loyalty of the Dark Pair.
Little by little the ways of the ancients were changing. No longer did sentinels control all the clans, with such feayr as they permitted to partake of their protection relegated to the role of servants. No longer would the feayr settlements outlaw sentinels and guides except as contracted mercenaries. The Panther Clan was the first where all members were valued according to their merits, whether sentinel, guide or mere human and much of that change was due to Saemund’s tribe. There was much to celebrate. Saemund spared a moment’s thought as to what the reasons for the celebration were doing.
Blaer sat cross-legged on the tent’s floor, mixing the herbs that he had taken from Wulfstein. All his concentration went to making the drink that would summon the spirit guide. He had drunk it when he had first gone to the temple. A shaman had sought him out and told him who he was, what he was to become. The Temple priests frowned on the Shamans who did not fully recognize Temple authority but Encha promised answers to the questions haunting Blaer’s dreams. So he had accepted the shaman’s help and his drink.
The potion’s bitter taste had led to a sweet reward… he had found the wolf that guarded and guided him on the spirit plane. On his walks in that otherworldly place, a black shadow, powerful, and fierce had stalked him. His wolf had turned on it to protect him, but the shadow vanished. He had recounted his experience to the shaman who had helped him journey and the man had smiled. He had been puzzled and not a little upset that his fears were discounted.
But the shaman had assured him that what stalked him was not evil. Instead, it was a joyous assurance that Blaer would find his sentinel and bond. The shadow, Encha explained, was his sentinel’s spirit guide, foretelling their bonding. None could say why it was a mere shadow, and not a creature fully formed. Now Blaer believed that he knew why: Jeme was not trained. His spirit guide had yet to be called to his service, but it tracked the guide meant for him. Now was the time, before the final bonding, to bring his sentinel and his spirit animal together. Blaer’s thoughts drifted as he carefully ground the herbs together.
He had seen a final bonding ceremony performed in front of the elders and the priests of the temple, but this... he shuddered. To perform it in front of the whole tribe and visiting sentinels seemed barbaric, but even as one part of him was frightened by it, another part celebrated and looked forward to the joining.
Jeme was far from happy with Blaer’s insistence that they call his spirit guide. Blaer had been taxed to his limits by the day’s events and should be saving his strength for the coming ritual. But his guide seemed to think it was necessary that his sword be inscribed with the image of his sentinel’s spirit guide before their final bonding. So here he sat, cross-legged on the other side of a small brazier from his guide…and shaman in this instance… waiting to find a spirit animal he had never known was lost and studying the sword in question.
The sword had a V-shaped groove cut into the metal just below the hilt, right now still faintly glowing from the burning coals it had rested in. Blaer had explained that the flames would drive out the evil that might sour the cuts in their hands they would make on its bright blade during the public ceremony. The notch was above the place his spirit animal would be engraved to join Blaer’s wolf. Jeme could see how their blood would flow down the groove to mix together before bathing the images of their spirit guides. Thereafter, the sword would be the very symbol of their joining, one soul in two bodies; brothers by blood and by spirit, brothers in all but birth.
Jeme accepted the drink from the hand of his shaman and sniffed it. Trust was the necessary basis of their pairing, so he took a deep drink of the liquid. It had a bitter taste that became sweet as it warmed his throat. He blinked, trying to clear his vision. His skin was suddenly too tight for his body. His clothes hurt and he pulled off his shirt and threw it aside as all his senses began to cascade.
In the midst of chaos, Blaer was there; his hand on Jeme’s shoulder, his breath warm on his face, and his voice low but strong as he talked his sentinel back to him. Jeme reached up and caught Blaer pulling him forward. His sense of smell was swamped by the scent of his guide. Something powerful and primitive welled up in him and he twisted, pulling Blaer over and under him, one strong hand seeking the smaller man’s throat.
Blaer’s breath left him in a rush as a big body landed on him. Dazed, he looked up into brilliant blue eyes that showed no sign of recognition. A low, deep-throated growl was coming from his sentinel’s throat. Blaer reached a tentative hand to his sentinel’s face and froze as Jeme snarled, showing his teeth. Gods help me. He had brought forward his sentinel’s spirit guide, but it was taking over his sentinel’s mind.
"Jeme, you have to listen to me, listen to my voice. Follow me back to the light, away from the dark.”
His voice cut off as the pressure on his throat increased. Blaer struggled, trying to get Jeme to let go. A black void was opening up around him; he was losing consciousness.
Jeme’s head snapped around as the spirit guide Wolf burst through the side of the tent. The animal increased its speed and jumped, the impact knocking the sentinel off the guide. Blaer drew in a lungful of air as he rolled to his side. Another few breaths and he managed to get his feet under him. He steadied, only to be hit hard against the back of his legs by the body of his sentinel. His head snapped back, stars exploded in front of his eyes. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.
The sentinel-Panther glared at the crumpled body under him and prodded it with his hand-paw, waiting for it to move or make a sound. It was silent. The sentinel-Panther lowered his head and took a deep breath. The scent steadied him, was soothing to his soul. With his tongue he carefully took a lick at the side of his prey’s face. He could taste the essence of his prey…no, his… guide. He snuffled around the curly head, feeling the breath from the small man’s lungs on his skin. He bridled as he caught the copper scent of blood. He snarled; that had no right to be on his guide. He carefully rolled the guide’s head to one side, the long hair falling like a veil over his face. There was the wound, small but messy. But the very smell of it brought a cry from the throat of the sentinel-Panther, the pained wail of a creature whose mate was hurt.
Saemund wandered through the camp, checking to see that all was in order. He exchanged greetings with his sentinel counterparts from other tribes, hiding a grin as they grudgingly accorded the feayr the respect due him. His stroll took him past the tent where Jeme and Blaer should be bonding for the last time before the official ceremony started. This final private bonding would keep the Dark Sentinel from getting too aggressive and control some of the emotions the Dark Guide was handling. Guides this close to the final claiming could become erratic, seeing threats where none existed. The private bonding eased those fears.
Saemund’s heart leapt into his throat as a scream reverberated through the camp. Jeme’s scream. Saemund ran, waving away the other clansmen who were rushing forward. He pushed open the tent flap and stopped dead in his tracks. Jeme was cradling the limp body of his guide in red-stained hands. The smaller, younger man’s face was covered with blood. Bloody scratches covered his shoulder, looking for all the world like claw marks. Jeme, his trusted sentinel, his friend, his brother, looked feral and dangerous.
As Saemund made to come nearer, the sentinel’s lips pulled back over his teeth and he snarled. Saemund halted. Slowly, one eye on Saemund, Jeme lowered his guide onto the furs. His larger body blanketed that of his guide as a constant rumbling rose from the back of his throat. The chieftain’s heart came down from his throat as Blaer’s pale hand lifted and brushed over his sentinel’s face. The slender hand dropped, to be caught by his sentinel and cradled between their hearts. "Blaer.” The single word held all Saemund’s concern and questions.
"I released his spirit guide and he lost control.” The Dark Guide sounded so very tired.
"Jeme,” Saemund said urgently.
"He can’t hear you, Saemund, but he will be all right.” Blaer hooked a hand around his sentinel’s neck and pulled him down to rest his head against the guide’s heart. He petted the sentinel with a shaking hand. “My sentinel, my friend, my brother, my soul mate.”
Saemund hesitated, and then slowly let the flap drop. He managed a grin for the tense clansmen waiting for news. “They are fine… this claiming will be told around the fire for generations.” Satisfied, the crowd broke up… Wulfstein lingered, until a shake of his chieftain’s head sent him on his way.
The sun slowly worked its way across the sky while sentinel and guide held onto the other part of their soul.
Blaer awoke with a start, and could not remember how he came to be sleeping. He tensed, thinking he must have blacked out. Then the panther, sleek and powerful, appeared by the pile of furs and memory returned. He glanced at his sentinel and found him sleeping. "Come to me,” he ordered the spirit guide. It padded over, sat down and looked at him. He met its gaze levelly and the large cat put its front paws on the furs. Blaer leaned forward and, very carefully and gently, went nose to nose. Its whiskers were coarse on his face. Gold eyes seemed to look into his very soul, weighing what they saw. Then it bowed its muzzle and allowed him to rub its short, compact head. A large paw moved and pinned the hand down gently. A long tongue licked the inside of his wrist as Spirit Guide paid homage to the Human Guide that would lead the Dark Sentinel.
The panther turned away and was joined by the wolf. The big cat lay down, and the wolf settled beside it, leaning into its warmth and protection.
Blaer was pulled back into a trusting embrace and looked into the wondering and awed eyes of his sentinel. It was time to etch the panther onto the blade…
Saemund sat in front of his fire. Every now and again, he would look towards the sentinel and guide’s tent. This was a time of great rejoicing, but at the same time he was nervous of what it portended. He reached out and pulled his wife close to him. Caro smiled and said, "Already some of the single women from the clans are vying for the right to sleep with the sentinel and guide before the claiming at dawn. Marla of the Horsefire clan has offered two stallions for her daughter to bed the guide. You know the legend: a baby conceived from a sentinel or guide on the eve of his full bonding will grow strong in the powers. Horsefire has been thin of guides this generation and more." Saemund leaned down and gave his wife a soft kiss on the mouth and a hug. “You will choose as you think best, love.” Caro studied his face, “What concerns you, my husband?”
Saemund was silent, then spoke reluctantly. “Blaer… he is of age but he is Temple raised. His mother is a priestess of Aphrodis… regardless of what others think about Aphrodites, he was raised to believe sex was sacred. There is that about him that yet speaks of innocence…. I would not have him disgusted by the matings.” Caro answered, “I will choose girls who will not take advantage of the ceremony. Does he know of our custom?” Saemund looked startled, it had not occurred to him to wonder if Blaer understood what lay ahead this night. Judging by the side-long glances he had seen the young guide cast at the maids of the clan, when he wasn’t bound up in his sentinel, he didn’t think the boy would be averse to the idea. But whether he knew the custom…
Wulfstein came up to him then. Saemund had never seen him so happy. "I see you are really looking forward to the bonding,” Saemund said.
"Of course. The gain of a Dark Sentinel and Dark Guide will strengthen the clan and Blaer has knowledge of healing and herbs that outstrips mine.”
"You don’t see him as a rival?”
"Rival?" Wulfstein chuckled. "I don’t matter, Saemund. If he saw me as a rival I would be already dead. Dark Guides don’t take to rivals very well. And until he is settled into his role as a shaman, it is the Dark Guide that rules.” He paused. "You have never actually born witness to this type of bonding, have you?”
"The reason we have to separate the sentinel and guide is because we must force a crisis point in their bonding. For the space of sun setting they must be kept apart. Blaer’s barriers will begin to fall, and the sentinel will start to hurt, needing to merge his mind with his guide’s. When they come together, the bonding will be glorious! I have brought with me the food they will eat together. Then it will be time.”
Saemund and Caro carried the food, a simple porridge and flask of wine, into the tent. While his wife set out the food, Saemund went to wake Sentinel and Guide. He smiled, the two men looked like littermates snuggling into each other for warmth and security. Their closeness boded well for the bonding. It looked as if his stoic Dark Sentinel had managed to tame the volatile Dark Guide. The young man’s face was peaceful where it rested against Jeme’s powerful shoulder. Blaer was small against the bulk of the sentinel, but there was strength and grace in his lean body. The two men were well-matched in tenacity and purpose.
Saemund laid a gentle hand on Jeme’s head. Two sets of blue eyes opened. There was wariness in the lighter set that vanished when Jeme recognized Saemund; confusion in the darker blue eyes that lasted through the sentinel’s gentle prompting to eat. Blaer was practically in Jeme’s lap as they ate and took no part in the quiet conversation between sentinel and husband and wife. The guide’s barriers were falling… and he instinctively sought his sentinel’s shields for protection. All was at it should be. Saemund and Caro waited patiently until both men were drowsy, then left quietly to call the chosen guardians.
Now came the hardest part of the separation. The healer had drugged the food carefully. It would rob Jeme and Blaer of their strength for a time that was short but long enough to achieve their aim. The clan leader had selected Bryn and Hender because of their close relationship with Jeme to carry out the separation. Saemund hoped that the sentinel might tolerate their presence more easily. Even in his drugged state, he could be dangerous.
Saemund waited outside the tent with Charles of Horsefire and Frank of Riverbend as the chosen men went inside. Not five minutes after they entered, Bryn came flying out of the sentinel’s tent to land heavily on the ground. "Charles, Frank," Saemund ordered, "come on, before they kill someone.” This was always the most dangerous point of the ceremony: separating the sentinel and guide. As they got nearer, he yelled "Bryn, is Blaer awa..."
At that moment, Blaer appeared in the doorway, sword in hand. "Don’t bother, I can see him,” Saemund’s voice was surprisingly calm.
The Dark Guide was angry. "You poisoned my sentinel, you sons of …"
"Blaer!" Saemund called out, trying to break Blaer’s fierce concentration on Bryn.
The guide turned, his sword coming up. "You!”
"Me, Blaer. Remember what you swore to Jeme: you will obey me.”
"My sentinel is poisoned, you bastard. You brought the food!” The young guide screamed in defiance and lunged. Saemund got his sword up in time to deflect the blade. The clan leader was good, but he knew that he was facing death; the stripling was too fast, too angry. He’d be dead already but for the drug.
Bryn had gotten to his feet and, keeping his emotions under strict control, moved up behind Blaer. He brought the hilt of his sword against the back of Blaer’s head. The Dark Guide folded.
"Are you all right, Saemund?” Bryn asked, concerned for his leader and friend.
"Fine. Thank the gods we only have to do this once."
"Fast little wildcat, isn’t he?” Charles said, amused respect in his tone. Perhaps he would tell his wife to offer two stallions and a mare for second spot.
"You’re telling me.” Bryn’s voice was fervent. “He took Hender out before I had a chance to get to him, then he ... well, let’s just say he wasn’t pleased.”
"His head is going to hurt. Other than that, Blaer didn’t do too much damage." Bryn pulled the restraints from his belt and eased the young guide onto his belly. He tied Blaer’s hands behind his back and looped the rope around his neck before drawing it down to his feet and hobbling them. Only when the guide’s movement was safely limited, did he bend and sling the Dark Guide over his shoulder. He hesitated.
"Why does it have to be so hard, this game of possession?” he wondered aloud. As they walked to the tent that had been prepared, Saemund tried to explain.
“In a perfect world it would not have to be acted out. Wulfstein tried to explain it to me once: sentinels and guides bond during the time of isolation, learning trust and dependence on one another. At dusk, they are forcibly separated to remind them what it is like to be alone. They will be empty of soul, desperate for connection. This is turned to the clan’s advantage… children begat on the night of final bonding are believed to be strong in the power. Clan matriarchs have been approaching Caro, since the pairing had been announced, for the right to bed their young women with sentinel and guide. The matings this night will spread their seed throughout the tribes and bring in wealth and influence for the Panther Clan.”
Bryn lay the guide down on a pallet of furs. “Blaer doesn’t seem very interested in mating, Saemund.” The Chieftain nodded, “Not now, you are right. In their confused state, the wiles of the girls would be ignored, the mating instinct suppressed along with all other needs but the need to bond. The drink Wulfstein is brewing will release that drive and they will seek physical connection since they are separated from their other half. And when they awake, they will remember that even mating does not bring closeness to match their bond. If… when… sentinel or guide marry, it will be secondary to the bond, and the tribe will be secure.” He waited until Wulfstein arrived with a beaker of white, thick milk.
"Help me with him,” Wulfstein directed. They supported Blaer’s back and raised his face. Their presence, their emotions surging through his mind woke the Guide. The healer poured the mixture down the small man’s throat. Blaer struggled but had to swallow or drown. When they released his face, the young man was gasping, his body shuddering. The men changed the ropes to allow him less limited movement. Blue eyes opened, wide with desolation and panic. Slender hands, now tethered in front with an arm’s reach of rope, groped frantically for something or someone. Wulfstein said, “It is time.”
Saemund nodded to the healer and addressed the young warrior. “Bryn, as Jeme’s friend, you will keep watch over his guide. His barriers are wide open and he could be badly hurt. The girl is not to try to bind him to her while they lie together. His seed belongs to the tribe this night; his heart remains his to bestow. Understand?” The young man nodded and sat down far enough away to keep him from intruding on this most private of acts, but close enough to keep watch on the guide. No enemy would come upon him in this most vulnerable state, that Bryn swore. A small lamp cast vague shadows through the tent.
Darkness held the center of the camp. Fires had been lit at the four directions on the outskirts of the community. The torches were extinguished, and the first girl came forward. She was from their tribe, selected by Caro for her gentleness and emotional control. She knelt down by Blaer and removed her cloak. Naked, she moved into his arms. The drug intensified his talents; he read her willingness to lie with him. His own need to fill the empty space in himself moved him to respond. But even as his body answered her desire, his mind and spirit sought his sentinel…
Saemund walked back to the other tent. Wulfstein had managed to get the sentinel to drink the drug with the help of three other people. Saemund himself would watch over his friend during the next few hours.
The girl left and then the second, from the Horsefire Clan, came in. She nodded at Bryn, acknowledging him as guardian, and then claimed her prize. If the gods smiled, she would become pregnant from her time with the Dark Guide. Her baby would grow, much loved, as he developed into a guide. She would have a place of honor at the hearth of the clan Sentinel Prime. He would pick for her a husband, a warrior of strength and wealth. She ran a hand through the long, curly hair and cupped the Dark Guide’s face as he reached for her. She was fortunate indeed. This Dark Guide was young and comely and pleasing to her sight; she moaned at his touch.
Bryn exhaled slowly. He had deliberately lost count of the number of girls who moved over the Dark Guide but the clan’s coffers would be full indeed by morning. And if children resulted… what richness they might bring. Finally, the last girl left. Wulfstein came back and brought another draught. As Blaer drank it, his body spasmed violently and he vomited the contents of his stomach. Wulfstein nodded in approval as dazed blue eyes opened. Confusion and desperation filled the young face. “jeme… sentinel…where…wha’ happnd” The whispered words were ragged.
Caro came in with a bucket of water and soft rags. “It’s all right, Wulfstein. I will get him ready,” she said. She smiled reassuringly as Blaer tried to pull away from her. Vaguely, he remembered other women’s voices and his body going where his spirit did not. "It’s all right, son, you are with your family now. The night is over and you did well.” She reached a hand out. At that moment he reminded her of her son when he was ill; he looked so pale and fragile. She was angry at the rites that forced this young man through this kind of ordeal. It was not natural, she thought, but at the back of her mind she added that neither were sentinels and guides. But, she scolded herself, these were their guardians; tribes without sentinels and guides soon were overtaken and killed.
Caro’s soothing voice called to the confused and hurting young guide. He had not heard such a tone since his mother… Blaer took her hand, adjusting his barriers without thought as he had done countless times before. He jerked back as if Caro’s hand was a burning brand. The compact form struggled against the ropes as he tried to curl into a ball as the pain of her emotions burned through his head.
"Sorry, Blaer. I am sorry.” Caro’s voice was horrified. This was not good! Wolfstein had promised that the drug would have no potency now.
"don’t touch me… barriers…gone.” The blue eyes were tightly shuttered. “jeme… please…” he begged.
Caro said softly, “Oh, my Blaer. Jeme will come when the time is right. My anger was not for you, child. Take my hand, feel what I feel for you…” A shaking hand grasped hers lightly, then tightened as she poured the love of a mother for a son into him. When Blaer had calmed, she slowly coaxed him through the purification ritual, gently bathing the lean body, washing the tangled curls. She helped him don the black tunic of his calling and wrapped a warm robe around his shivering form. The horizon was lightening and soon it would be time for the bonding. But there was yet time for the exhausted young man to rest.
Saemund just hoped that Bryn had had a better night than he. Jeme had accepted the girls with lusty enthusiasm, finding relief in the familiar act. But, between visits, he would raise his head and stare through the darkened tent at his friend and leader. When his body was not occupied, he sought his guide. “Blaer!” Jeme’s voice grew needier each time he whispered the name. By the time Wulfstein appeared with his potions, Saemund felt as if he had betrayed his most loyal clansman. Wulfstein’s beaker of liquid had the correct effect and Jeme voided his stomach. Saemund had coaxed Jeme into the tub set up in the corner and had poured water over the big man’s body until the worst of the night’s sweat was gone. Not for the sentinel, the gentle touch of soft cloth to skin; his senses were now so heightened only his guide’s touch would not cause pain. Finally, the purification was finished. Jeme no longer even recognised him. He had gone into a state that was pure sentinel; all that was Jeme was gone and would not return until the final bonding was complete.
Members of the different tribes and clans formed a path between each tent and the platform: sentinels for Jeme; guides for Blaer. Each man held a torch. In the center of the tent village waited the bonding platform, a burning torch at each corner. Around it stood the Sentinels Prime of the guest Clans and their guides, together with Saemund and members of the Panther Clan. All were called witness to the Claiming and Marking of the Dark Guide and Dark Sentinel.
From the moment Blaer walked into the cordon of guides he could feel the skin on his body began to crawl as their emotions crashed into him. He started to breathe hard and fast. Wulfstein watched him worriedly. The healer paled and called out, "No, it can’t be.” Wulfstein rushed to the bonding platform and pulled Saemund back. "Blaer is wide open. He cannot control his barriers.”
"The drug for the purification would not do that, would it?” Saemund asked urgently. Wulfstein shook his head. “No… but something did. Look at him!” He pulled at Saemund’s arm and directed his attention to the young guide.
Blaer stumbled, then pulled himself upright and walked onto the bonding platform. His chest rose and fell rapidly, a fine sheen of sweat pearled on his brow. Dark blue eyes were wide with panic as he sought for one face amid the crowd.
Saemund’s face showed his horror. "We have to stop it now. In this state he will be lost in the emotions of the others. He needs to gain control.”
"If you try to stop this now, Jeme will kill you.” Wulfstein warned.
"I am his friend.”
"You would be challenging his right to bond with Blaer and that can only be met with force. Look at him and tell me you see your friend.” The clan leader shook his head. Jeme looked like some feral creature as he strode singlemindedly between his escort, searching for his guide. No, there was precious little of Jeme in the Dark Sentinel who stalked his guide.
The Dark Sentinel sent his senses out until they wrapped around Blaer; his head tilted as he scented him. The musky ginger scent was carried by the waves of pheromones that poured off the smaller man, attuning the sentinel to him.
Simon Banks choked on his coffee. Blair, his Blair must have put that in, understanding now what the ancients could not have known about pheromones. This was getting a bit too personal. Was this what Blair Sandburg had done to Jim Ellison? He took a steadying breath. He could stop or carry on... Simon brushed coffee off the paper. Maybe, just maybe, he could understand them by reading this. Why else would Blair have given it to him?
Jeme detected the underlying scent of sickness and sex that still clung to the guide despite Caro’s gentle cleansing.
Blaer saw Jeme and knew that he was facing the Sentinel-panther whose scratches he still bore on his body. In his normal state, Jeme would never hurt him, but like this, his control was balanced on a fine edge. He would want to force the bonding and claim him as his slave. Blaer would not be claimed but as the equal he was. He was a Dark Guide, not a simpering gray who would kneel in abject submission to the will of his sentinel. His anger blocked the emotions of the others that would have overloaded him.
Blaer backed up and slowly circled keeping his eyes fixed on his sentinel.
Saemund leaned forward and hissed to Charles, "Is this natural? I've never seen this before. I thought they just…”
"This is a dark bonding,” Charles whispered back, “Rare and dangerous. What happens now sets the tone for the rest of their lives.”
Blaer saw Jeme suddenly lunge for him. The guide managed to dive out of the way. He landed, rolled and came to his feet, his movements smooth. Jeme’s smile held a smug cockiness as he gave a slight nod to the guide, acknowledging that he had done well in avoiding the first attack. Blaer grinned as if it were a personal joke that only they could appreciate. Charles suddenly smiled.
"What?" Simon asked curiously.
"It was as Blaer told Jeme. He is going to be a good addition. They will be strong team." Charles exchanged a remembering glance with Arthos, his guide. Arthos said softly, “I find myself glad that our bonding was not this…intense. I doubt that I would have survived.”
Saemund shook his head. He had seen Blaer’s mouth move but had heard nothing. He must have been talking for his sentinel’s ears.
The Dark Sentinel was carefully mapping his soon-to-be-claimed guide’s movements as he wove a pattern across the large bonding platform. Jeme feinted a lunge and Blaer skipped backward, never taking his eyes off Jeme’s intense gaze. Blaer habitually twisted to his right. Part of Jeme’s brain noted this. Habit could get you killed in combat; that he would have to correct. Now he would use it to catch his guide and show him that he was his.
Charles’s hand came out and snagged Saemund and pulled him behind him as the guide’s eyes rested on the clan leader. "Keep back--he can select another and make Jeme fight in order to claim him.”
"He would not…”
"No, it’s probably all right, but let’s not risk it, my friend. It is best that this be a straight fight between them.”
Saemund could only agree. Fascinated with the way the sentinel stalked his guide and the younger man evaded capture, he asked, "You did this with your guide?”
"My guide is a grey guide." Charles stated as if that explained everything, “This is rare.”
Jeme moved and this time his feint tricked Blaer into going right. He caught his guide around the waist and brought him crashing to the platform. He twisted to shield the smaller man from the impact, and then rolled to pin him down. But Blaer managed to get a knee up and pushed Jeme backward. He had almost regained his feet when the sentinel’s heavy weight slammed him to the ground again, driving the air from his lungs.
Jeme’s larger body pinned him down. One arm was pulled up high behind his back; then the other arm as well. The Dark Sentinel held both slender wrists in one big hand as his other carded through the long curls, trying to calm his guide. The body under him suddenly stilled. He smiled; his guide was ready to be claimed now. He moved off him, releasing his hold until just a hand remained on one lean shoulder to roll his guide onto his belly.
An instant later, while he was still congratulating himself, he found himself on the ground, his arm numb from a blow to the pressure point. His guide was rolling away from him. With an angry bellow, he pounced again, unable to secure a hold with his arm still numb, he had to let go. The sentinel got to his feet. With his good arm he rubbed the circulation back into the other limb. Now his gaze was almost feral. He growled low in his throat as he stalked his guide. Jeme was now in his most dangerous state. Dark Guide and Dark Sentinel glared challenge at one another across the bonding platform. Sentinel soul yearned for the control promised by his guide’s nearness and shaman soul felt that longing and had to answer…
Suddenly, in one graceful motion, Blaer knelt. His hands crossed behind his back, his head lowered so that his long hair became a veil. He put aside challenge and defense and left himself totally vulnerable to the wrath of his sentinel.
The Dark Sentinel’s heart swelled with pride at this act of total commitment and allegiance, panther persona quieted. Blaer was totally open; only his sentinel’s proximity kept him from a dangerous overload from the now silent witnesses. The sentinel circled him, his hand dropped to rest on the back of his guide’s neck. His fingers tightened on Blaer, but his heightened senses allowed him to apply only the slightest pressure. Blaer did not flinch; Jeme nodded at that sign that he was trusted.
“Now, Saemund,” Charles prompted. Saemund approached the two men cautiously. This was probably the single most dangerous act he had ever done. He held the bonding sword out, hilt toward Jeme, blade toward his own heart. When bards sang of this day, the bravery of Saemund and the rare trust between sentinel and feayr would be extolled.
Jeme took the sword from his leader, holding the hilt in one hand, the blade resting in the other. He moved so that he faced Blaer, then changed his hold so that both hands were on the hilt. He raised it high so that the point was to the ground. Blue eyes met blue before a dark curly head lowered trustingly. The sentinel brought the sword down hard and fast, embedding the blade only inches from his guide’s head. Blaer never moved. The Dark Sentinel rose to his fullest height and placed one hand on the crown of his guide’s head and the other on the hilt of the sword. There was a terrible majesty about him as he roared out the ritual challenge to any who dared to try to lay claim to his guide. A Dark Guide was a rare prize indeed, and the challenge must be answered now or never… but there was that in the sentinel’s appearance that made silence attractive.
Saemund said into the quiet, “None have challenged.” Charles responded, “So is it noted.”
Jeme stared silently down at the black-clad man at his feet. He had known Blaer for less than a fortnight; had stolen him from all he knew. But he had come to know and treasure the valiant spirit and the generous heart of the younger man; this was right. And it would be a partnership of equals. He knelt across from the smaller man, the sword standing between them. Jeme reached out and placed one hand on each of Blaer’s shoulders, the sword circled by his arms. His thumbs gently rubbed his guide’s muscles to reassure him. He felt Blaer push against the link and he immediately opened his mind. He could not hold back, and he nearly reeled as he discovered that Blaer had no protection from the emotions of the people around him. Sentinel barriers snapped around him and the crowd ceased to exist for the two men kneeling on the platform.
"Lift your head, Blaer." Dark blue eyes locked on his without reservation, hiding nothing from the sharp eyes of the sentinel.
"We are one soul in two bodies,” Jeme said, the words coming from his heart as he met the bright blue eyes of his guide.
Blaer’s hands moved forward, and he placed them both on the blade. Jeme moved his hands onto Blaer’s. It was the sentinel who drew the guide’s hands down the bright blade, inflicting the wounds that would bind them with blood. The witnesses saw clearly the unflinching control Blaer ceded to the older man. Jeme honored the younger man’s courage, allowing the blade to bite deep and clean on the left palm, slightly less on the right. Offering both hands to the blade confirmed the guide’s trust in his sentinel’s protection. That a Dark Guide who fought as this one did would do so much had the Clan sentinels gasping in awe. The sentinel smelled the copper tang of the blood as it flowed into the notch.
Jeme started to drop into the void as his senses focused on the life essence of his guide. Then he felt Blaer through the link calling him back, the soft voice only he could hear restoring him. Blaer’s bleeding hands covered his and Jeme moved his left hand across the sharp edge until his blood mixed with his guide’s on the blade. “My right hand will defend us, my guide, until you stand whole again. We are one soul in two bodies from this time forward.”
Blaer repeated the words. "We are one soul in two bodies.
“Marked, sentinel.” The guide brought the sentinel’s bloody hand to his face.
“Marked, guide.” The sentinel brought his guide’s bleeding palms up to cradle his face.
Both watched as their blood twinned together down the gleaming length of the sword, bathing the panther and wolf. Charles bowed to both Dark Sentinel and Dark Guide before he pulled the sword from the platform and raised it high. While the witnesses roared their approval, Saemund handed strips of cloth to Jeme. The sentinel carefully bound up the smaller hands. What had seemed marks of honor in the emotion of the moment now appeared gaping wounds to the man who inflicted them. Blaer caught the feeling and smiled. Saemund could not help the proud look he threw Charles’s way as the young guide spoke from his heart. “They will heal, my sentinel, and none can doubt my willingness to be of your clan and stand at your side, secure in the protection of my kinsmen.” A feayr claimed the loyalty of the Dark Ones. Charles nodded in acknowledgement as he passed the sword to Saemund. The two leaders retired from the platform.
Blaer rose first and placed his bandaged hands on Jeme’s shoulder as he offered up his own challenge. Again there was silence. None contended his ownership of the sentinel.
Jeme got to his feet. Through his touch he could sense that Blaer was shaking. He was having trouble preventing his emotions from being overloaded by the people surrounding them. Jeme accepted the black robe from Caro and helped his guide into its warmth. He slid his own on rapidly and nodded to his leader’s wife as she retired.
"Now they enter the final phase of the bonding." Charles’s voice was a soft whisper. But even that was enough to get Charles pinned by a cold glare from the sentinel. He gathered his guide to him, then took him to the side of the bonding platform and lowered him onto the pallet of furs and blankets. Blaer turned to lie on his stomach. Jeme shook his head and with a firm hand turned him onto his back. His guide needed to see him; his pulse was all over the place and he was in danger of losing himself in the overload. The sentinel frowned, something was wrong… his guide’s barriers should be firming again, with his sentinel within. He could sense his guide trying to do just that but pain was spiking through the younger man with his efforts.
Jeme pulled him close, a strong hand easing the curly head against his chest and then making soothing motions through the tangle of long curls. As the slender arms went around his body to hold tight, he heard a sob of despair. Jeme wrapped his senses around his guide. Now it did not matter that the tribe was watching; all that mattered was that his guide, publicly marked, needed him. He swaddled his guide in his emotions, pulling him back from the edge of overload.
The panic slowly faded and he could feel the guide begin to push against him. Blaer’s head eased up, presenting his throat so that his sentinel could scent him. The need to claim was overwhelming them both.
Suddenly Blaer saw a movement: a man with a knife broke from the circle. Blaer threw the larger man away from him; he had to protect his sentinel! He scrambled between the attacker and Jeme. They landed heavily. Physical and mental pain exploded through Blaer and he felt nothing more.
Saemund saw the sentinel roll onto his feet with a primal scream. He yelled Jeme’s name. The sentinel did not even seem to look as he caught the sword Saemund tossed in mid-air and swung it around as the knife was lifted for another strike. The sword decapitated the attacker in one powerful stroke. Jeme tossed the dead body away from the injured guide, kicked the head off the platform. Laying the sword aside, he carefully rolled Blaer onto his back. The knife wound was at waist level. He pulled open the robe and tunic and cringed at the damage wrought by the assassin.
Wulfstein came to his side. The healer ignored the snarl from the sentinel but met his eyes until Jeme recognized him. He reached slowly for the younger man, understanding that any quick movement could be met with lethal force. The sentinel was in Full Protector mode; the bonding had been interrupted at the most critical point. It must be completed and very soon. Wulfstein checked the wound and pressed a rag against it. "Your guide is in luck, sentinel. It is messy and deep but, thank the gods, not fatal.” He waited until the sentinel had taken that in to continue, “The bonding was not completed.” The healer stared into icy blue eyes, needing to make sure the sentinel understood.
"Carry him to your tent and I will bring herbs to ease his pain. He will be all right, Jeme. You will be able to complete the bonding then. Saemund, Charles, Arthos, you will be needed to bear witness to the claiming.” It was unusual to conclude the ritual in private but no one challenged the healer’s directions. There was no doubting the rightness of this pairing - the bloody bandages on both of the Guide’s hands and the men’s single-minded defense of each other were more than sufficient public witness that the bond was strong. And the barely conscious, bloodstained figure of the young guide called sympathy from even the fiercest warrior.
Jeme was just bending to lift his wounded guide in his arms when Bryn called to him. Jeme looked up and saw two men being held by the clan sentinels.
The smaller of the two was talking. He was clearly scared and was trying to explain away his guilt, in short, sharp bursts since he could see his death in the faces around him. "I was paid by him," he nodded to his fellow prisoner, "to poison the guide, so that he had no defense against others’ emotions. Sean was to kill him if he survived the ritual." He nodded toward the fallen body.
Jeme started to power himself upright. Only Blaer’s bloodstained hand held him back. He glanced into the pain-racked face. "jeme, home.” Blaer breathed the words, then his eyes closed.
"You are safe, my guide." He gathered him in his arms before turning to the other man and demanding, "Why?”
The man laughed in a way that jarred Jeme’s nerves. "Because the bastard doesn’t deserve to bond with a Dark Sentinel. He’s a disgrace to the Temple of the Guides. His mother is a whore who calls herself a priestess. She lies with any man who pays her. The Aphrodis Temple says it brings them to their god, I say it brings them to their gold.” He looked at the young guide indignantly. "You really think that this bastard is worthy of the prize of a Dark Sentinel?”
"And you think that you are better?” There was pain under the challenging words of the Dark Guide.
Blaer’s eyes opened. He concentrated on pushing the pain down so that he could function. He struggled to sit up as he responded to Lash's voice. Then he felt himself caught in strong arms and he instinctively knew it was his sentinel holding him.
"Lash." There was a world of history between the two guides in the way Blaer said that name, none of it good.
"Bastard Blaer.” Lash grinned. "I challenge you.”
"NO!” Jeme cut across his guide’s hot words. “You had your chance to challenge but were too much of a coward to act on it. That chance is now gone.” Jeme’s lips pulled back into a smile that was chilling. "To the north of the camp is the river. If you make it to the river you can go free, but never return.”
Blaer reached up a bloody hand to snag his sentinel’s robe. Jeme gathered his guide close, one arm going under his legs, lifting him like a child.
"Charles, the hunt is on,” the Dark Sentinel intoned the words as he passed a death sentence.
Lash’s smug look vanished. "You can’t do this. I am a guide.”
Lash stood there in disbelief. Sentinels did not hunt guides to the death! Then the other man pulled on his arm. "Come on, they’ll kill us!”
For a moment Lash was about to refuse. Then he looked around and saw the expression on the other sentinels’ faces, let himself feel their emotions. He began to run, panic lending wings to his feet.
There was an unreal silence on the group. Then, as one, the sentinels started to pursue them, instinctively forming a hunting pack.
Saemund, Charles and Arthos bore witness to the final claiming. It was done gently, with great care for the injured guide. Wulfstein had tightly bound the young man’s ribs but Blaer had refused the numbing drugs. He would not give his final consent to his sentinel’s demand while he was not fully in possession of his mind. Jeme was not happy with his headstrong guide but was proud of his courage and spirit. Big hands moved with care to divest his guide of his robes. Blaer was shivering with cold and blood loss by the time Jeme had removed his own robes and joined him on the pallet. Jeme drew his guide’s back to his chest and held him warmly. Gentle hands began to stroke across cold flesh, bringing the guide's heartbeat and breathing into alignment with the sentinel’s own. The feel of skin on skin faded until they were one skin.
Blaer's heart and mind and soul opened and welcomed the sentinel in. Nerves tingled as connections were formed and awaited only the final sealing. Blaer was writhing as his head pulsed with pain. “jeme… jeme… please…” The words were gasped. The sentinel drew his guide across his lap and tangled a hand into his long hair. Blaer’s head fell against Jeme’s shoulder, his neck vulnerable. Sweat streaked both men’s bodies and spots of red appeared on Wulfstein’s careful bandages. A distant part of Jeme’s mind noted the bleeding but his concern for his young friend was drowned out by the primal needs of the Dark Sentinel. His senses were heightened until he was aware of the multitude of heartbeats in the camp, could hear the Hunting Pack as they stalked their prey, could identify the least scent on the air. Then, just as he was being lost in the sensory barrage, all his senses focused on the young man he held.
He breathed deeply of the spicy scent, fixing it in his bones; he studied the fever-flushed face and bright blue eyes until the fine features were engraved in his mind. Big hands followed the contours of a compact body until its reflexes echoed in his own muscles. Sharp ears focused on the sounds of heart and lungs, traced blood pumping through veins, until he would hear their call amid the loudest din. When smell and sight and touch and hearing had memorized his other half, then did his tongue come out to catch the sweat that trailed down the side of the younger man’s face. Taste exploded in his mind and he threw his soul into the keeping of this spirit and blood bound brother. His teeth clamped into the exposed throat until he tasted the coppery tang of blood. Fire flared in both men’s brains, there was no Blaer and no Jeme, just sentinelguide. Their cry was echoed by the scream of their spirit guides, as on this plane and the next the final bonding was witnessed. Silence held for a long moment as the sentinel gentled the bright mark on his guide’s throat with his lips. The heartfelt words, "Claimed guide” and "Claimed sentinel" were spoken on a whisper.
The peace of the night was suddenly broken by the roar of a large cat. Echoing it were the calls of other hunting animals followed by a scream, long and lingering, of pure terror and pain.
Jeme tightened his grip on his guide. The threat was gone. Lash would never trouble his guide again.
Blaer lay nestled against his sentinel, who was propped up against the furs. The drink Jeme had given him was making him sleepy and dulled the pain; but it was the feeling of the bond that made him feel warm and contented. He had finally reached the place he belonged.
Saemund led the other witnesses from the tent. They were solemn and humbled. Charles said quietly, “I would offer you allegiance, Saemund. Your Dark SentinelGuide carry with them the smell of the future.” Saemund answered, just as quietly, “Come to my tent and we will talk.”
Caro came into the tent and smiled at the two men. She carried a new poultice made with herbs and wine. She knelt beside the pallet and reached for the young guide. “It’s all right, Jeme, I will not hurt him. We are family now, all of us.”
Jeme nodded, then smiled as he felt his guide stir against him. “Hear that, Blaer? You are family.”
"My clan." It was said with wonder as if he finally believed it. He had needed the public bonding to confirm his place in their society.
"Your clan, Blaer.” Jeme agreed, laying his cheek against the top of his guide’s head.
Caro gently opened Blaer’s robe, checked the wound and replaced the pad. The bleeding had stopped and there was no redness around the wound. Since Jeme had not mentioned it there could be no fever building in the smaller man. She arranged the bandage, then reached up, and with the back of her fingers stroked his cheek. He leaned into her touch. She smiled, then patted Jeme's face. "Look after my new son, Jeme.”
"With my life, Caro.”
She smiled with contentment. The clan was now safe. Their new Dark Guide would heal, and with this partnership the clan would grow strong.
As she left she lowered the flap on the tent and looked up at the moon. Already the celebrations had started. Tomorrow, the gods
willing, the pair would join in the celebration of their bonding.
Simon closed the file and rubbed his eyes. It was three o’clock in the morning. He had not realised the time had passed so quickly. Before he turned his footsteps towards his bed, he put the latest manuscript with the others in his safe. All this meant something, he was sure of that, but what? Of that, he wasn’t sure. Until he knew who he could trust, this would remain the secret of those who had shared past lives.
To be continued