Thanks as always to JR, Gail, Jade and Jess and Susn. For your beta reading and your encouragement.
Saemund sat in front of his fire. Shivering, he pulled the blanket around him and gave his wife's hand a squeeze. That had been too close; but for the skills of the Dark Guide, he would have been dead.
He looked around him as the camp slowly came to life. Today they would trade and talk; alliances would be made; and then tonight, they would continue the celebration of the bonding. Charles of the Horse fire Clan had a Gray Guide to bond with a Sentinel from the Eagle Clan. The Sentinel was the youngest brother of the Sentinel Prime, and was willing to move to his Guide's clan, so Charles would be gaining the strength of a new Sentinel soon. Frank of the River bend Clan and the Panther Clan's own Ovin -who had finally gained permission from Jeme to bond--would join with their chosen Guides tonight, so new partnerships would be formed. But none would be as highly charged as the bonding of Dark Sentinel to Dark Guide. It would be a great night of feasting, and the Dark pair would be there to witness it. All of these things would bind them closer together.
Daryl appeared and ambled in his father's direction. He was in a bad mood, judging by the way that he threw himself down on the ground by Saemund's side. "What's the matter, Daryl?"
"Jeme. He promised me that he would show me the new horses, but all he wants to do is be with that killer 'friend' of his."
"Blaer is a Dark Guide and a member of this clan." He censured his son gently, knowing the boy had been badly frightened by Saemund's brush with death the night before.
Daryl shook his head stubbornly. "I hear people talking. Bryn and Hender--all the others say that he's a killer, an assassin. He's dangerous to Jeme."
Saemund knew that Daryl had taken to the tall warrior when he had first been brought back, wounded and alone. Saemund had taken him into his tent and into his clan, even when Wulfstein had identified him as a Dark Sentinel. He had embraced the man as his friend.
Jeme had healed, and far from being the detached mercenary whose heart was dead to all but war, he had proved to be a good man. He took the time to talk to Daryl and had the patience to put up with his endless questions. Now, it seemed, his son was jealous.
"Be friends with Blaer, son. He may be slightly confused at the moment from the bonding, but he is a good man." Saemund was aware of how lame the last statement must have sounded, but that could not be helped. The man had tried to murder him twice in as many days, and he still got a creeping feeling between his shoulder blades when he turned his back on Blaer. He was aware that only the hold of the Sentinel on his Dark Guide prevented the young man from planning his demise. He had seen the kid in action; he was fast and deadly with a sword. Even in a straight fight, Saemund was all too aware that he would die. Jeme had made Blaer swear his loyalty to his leader, but Saemund still had his moments of doubt. He believed that Blaer was no threat to either his wife or his son. The problem was that Blaer was still not, in his heart of hearts, a member of the clan, and still saw Saemund as an obstruction to his Sentinel's proper place in life. But last night, when the kid had saved his life, he was sure he had seen something in his eyes. The kid was coming around.
Daryl didn't bother to argue with his father; it was clear the role Blaer had played in his recovery had fooled him into thinking the Dark Guide had his best interests at heart. Either that, or the he had used charms and spells to fool his father as well as Jeme. So no matter what his father said, he knew Blaer was a killer and a danger to them all. How could Jeme trust this man, let alone bond with him? Daryl could see his father would not listen to him, and pushed away storming off into the camp in search of his friends. To Saemund and the other adults, he was just a child, but he knew more than they did just the same. Soon enough, he would show them he was right.
Jeme woke and scanned the inside of his tent--now their tent,their home. He smiled at the feeling of the warm body pressed against him, head on his shoulder, arm around his chest, holding him so trustingly. His Guide. He sent out his senses to probe Blaer's vital signs, trying to check the status of his wounds without waking him. The arm wound was healing; there was no heat in it, or the sour smell of pus that would have shown the wound was inflamed. It was healing cleanly. Jeme could feel the bloodstained bandages on the palms of Blaer's hands as he clung to his Sentinel. He stirred slightly, then moved closer, burrowing his head against the broad chest in contentment. The Sentinel pulled him closer and smiled. He tugged the blanket around them both. Outside, he could hear the sounds of the camp starting to come awake with the start of a new day. He moved slightly and got a complaining moan from his Guide as he pulled him closer, not yet willing to leave the comfort of his bed.
Today Blaer would meet the clan, each member of it, and they would meet their new Guide Prime. He hoped that putting names to the faces would still some of the more possessive needs the Dark Guide had, needs that made him see threats everywhere.
As always, Jeme broke his fast with Saemund and Caro. He reached out a steadying hand to help Blaer settle down on a log near the fire. He squeezed Blaer's shoulder, long fingers massaging away the tension. Caro gave Blaer a smile and was rewarded with one in return. She had decided that Dark Guide, assassin, shaman, and warrior priest--it did not matter. He was a young man, alone and in need of a family that treated him as a person, not a fear-inducing icon.
Caro put the food down in front of him. As the senior female of the clan, her job was to look after the Sentinel Prime, until such time as he was married, if he ever did. It was not hard; she had taken to Jeme and her maternal instinct reached out to Blaer. She bent lower and asked him quietly, "Have you taken the draught that Wulfstein prepared for you?"
"No," Blaer whispered, not meeting her eyes.
"Blaer, he's one of the best healers in the Clans."
"He is not trained, and his knowledge comes from-"
"Blaer," Jeme cut in quickly, "not everyone is a scholar. But he still has much to teach even you." Blaer's expression was noncommittal, a slight shrug of the shoulders. Jeme gave his shoulder a nudge. "And he can brew an ale that can send you to the gods."
"In the temple, drink was forbidden."
"Then, my Guide, your education is incomplete. A good ale is like-"
Saemund cut in smoothly, "Like the caress of a good woman."
"That was forbidden as well in the temple," Blaer put in austerely.
"Then how did you…deal with your needs?" Saemund asked. "You're only human."
"There was a small enclave of disciples of the faith in the village," Blaer continued, his tone deadpan. "They had been expelled from my mother's temple. They…it was complicated. But I soon learned to climb a fifteen-foot wall, and cover a mile in less than twenty minutes to get back in time for dawn." Jeme was finding it hard to suppress a grin. His Guide's tone was flat, but Blaer did have a sense of humor, though it was rather dark at times.
"How did you have the strength?" Jeme put in, deciding to play along, just pleased to see his Guide creeping out of his shell.
"It was only three times a night. In the temple, the disciples under my mother could bring a man to the faith four times. But it was swimming the river that was the passion killer, especially if it was cold. That would make any king a pauper, and the disciples prefer a king."
"Only three times a night?" Saemund looked across at Caro, walking toward them. "Whatever you do, don't tell my wife. She might get ideas."
Jeme looked at his innocent-looking Guide in a whole new light. "You, er, came to the faith regularly?"
"Once a week, twice during holy festivals. My mother believed in dedication to the faith."
"Your mother must have been proud of such a pious son," Jeme drawled.
Caro came back with the wine skin, a little wine to sweeten the bitter draught, but in plenty of time to see her husband spray the honey wine all over the ground a he fought for breath, and to see the unusual sight of the Sentinel Prime doubled over in laughter, and a twitch on the lips of the Dark Guide at the comment the Guide had just leveled at his own Sentinel, age and stamina being the gist of it
. Saemund was thoughtful even so. Yes, they had joked with Blaer, even though he still saw everything in the context of the faith. But he decided that it was a step forward.
When the two men finally settled down again, Jeme opened the linkage between them and gave Blaer the support he needed. For all their laughing and joking, his Guide was still fragile; a lot had happened in the last two weeks, and he was still adjusting. Blaer had been brought up at the temple with his mother, in the large city, surrounded by constant activity and visitors from afar, and then taken to the solemn and orderly confines of the Guide Temple. By contrast, the Panther Clan and its camp must seem rough and barbaric. His Guide would need time to adjust to them fully. But from their talk this morning he was settling in well. For the first time he truly believed that he was seeing the man behind the training, and the needs of the Dark Guide.
Jeme pulled his Guide into a more comfortable position, allowing Blaer to rest against him while he picked at the food. When he halted after just two mouthfuls, he got a gentle push. "Eat, or else I'll feed you myself." He looked up into the bright blue eyes of his Sentinel and saw the laughter in them, but also the strength of will. He continued picking at the food.
Blaer reluctantly withdrew from the linkage, feeling alone. Then Jeme's arm gave his a squeeze and he sighed; it felt nice, this feeling of belonging. He made sure that his barriers were high, and then accepted a hand to get to his feet. He was armed-that Jeme had expected. He had heard it said that a Dark Guide slept with their sword, and that only in death would they allow it to be taken from them.
Bera was the first they met on their tour of the camp. The petite woman greeted Jeme with a smile that hid despair. She was attracted to the Sentinel, but he forever saw her as the young girl whom he had rescued. She pulled her daughter forward; normally, Sophie would have thrown herself into the Sentinel's arms, but today she held back, eyes like saucers, taking in the Dark Guide: the black boots, black trousers, black tunic and black robe, the long hair pulled back with a leather tie, the pale skin-young though he was, he looked like death. Sophie looked from her mother to Jeme, and then tipped her head to one side and looked at the Dark Guide critically. She could feel the ripples of power flowing off him, like the circles of water when she threw a pebble into the river. She was a Sentinel, and she could hear his heart beating strong.
Jeme smiled and leaned down to talk to the little girl. "Sophie, this is my Guide, Blaer. It's all right for you to approach him." The girl smiled nervously, but she was still a little scared. "Blaer, this is Sophie, the girl we rescued from the hunters. She is a Sentinel."
"No," Blaer said bluntly
. "No?" Jeme's face showed his puzzlement.
Blaer shook his head again. "Females cannot be Sentinels. They can give birth to them, but the powers do not go through the weaker female line, just as they can give birth to Guides but do not have the strength to become one. She perhaps has one or two enhanced senses since her father was a Sentinel, but they could not be as strong."
Jeme's mouth fell open. In the clans they had known of women Sentinels over the years; they were slightly rarer than male Sentinels, but Blaer's scathing opinion of them was a total surprise. Then the stone dropped. His training at the Temple of the Guides-the celibate priests would not admit that a woman would ever have the same powers as a man. But in the clans their worth was well known.
Feeling rejected, Sophie backed away from the Dark Guide. "Blaer, Sophie has all five senses, just like me. She is a Sentinel." he put in gently. He saw the surprised look on Blaer's face as he stooped down. "It's all right, Sophie. Blaer is learning our ways. He's just never met anyone as special as you. Please come here. He won't hurt you."
Sophie hesitated and then closed the distance between them again. She couldn't help it. Although she was scared of him, she itched to touch him. It was like the time that Wulfstein brought the magic rocks and the metal was drawn to them.
Blaer stepped back from her and looked at Jeme. He could not believe that he would allow or even suggest that an unbonded Sentinel-regardless of age or sex, he thought with disgust- touch him.
Jeme caught his Guide and wrapped one arm around his waist, holding him in place so that he could not edge back again. Through their link Jeme could feel the pathways burning brightly, the power that he knew could hurt the child. It was the protective instinct of the Dark Guide, to burn and overload any Sentinel, bonded or unbonded, who tried to touch him. "Blaer, no!" Jeme said sharply. Slowly the power in the link began to fade to a softer focus. "It's all right, Sophie, just take Blaer's hand." His own hand cupped his Guide's. The girl put her hand on his. He felt the young Sentinel's mind push against him, but it was the slightest brush. Her face lit up. She was very careful of the hand he had injured in the bonding.
"Sophie will need help as she develops, and we will need to find her a Guide when she gets older, but we can do that," Jeme said softly. He did not need Sentinel hearing to detect the scandalized intake of breath that followed his words. It was a pity Blaer couldn't accept the girl, but they still had time. Maybe this had been one jump too many and too soon for his young and hurting Guide. He hoped that Blaer's innate sense of justice would eventually win out. "Come on, Blaer, we need to meet the others." He gave Sophie's hair a gentle ruffle, and they moved on.
Jeme had completed his circuit of the tents of the Panther Clan. To the occupants of each he introduced his Guide, their Dark Guide. The Sentinels, with their Guides, carefully extended their hands and ran them over the pair, not touching, but keeping a finger's width from them as they imprinted the scent of the Guide so that they could later identify him. After the first few encounters Blaer started to get nervous. Twice, when a hand brushed his skin, he started to pull his sword, and only the tight hold of his Sentinel stopped him before anyone could lose a head or a hand. By the end of the tour, he was emotionally rung out, and leaned against his Sentinel for support. Jeme nodded curtly to his clan leader and took Blaer to their tent.
"It had to be done, Blaer." Jeme said, his voice soft in apology. "They need to recognize you as their Guide Prime, just as they know me as their Sentinel Prime. I just wish it could have waited."
Blaer carefully eased himself down onto their bed, a faint tremor running through him. He reached a hand up. Jeme lay down beside him, opening his arms for his Guide, positioning him so that he did not put any weight on the wounded side. He felt the connection link the two of them, the Guide's mind meeting his. Blaer gave a little sigh of relief as the pain and emotions of other people were pushed aside, and the splitting headache that had descended upon him began to fade under the steady hand of the Sentinel. With sensitive fingertips Jeme carefully caressed his Guide's forehead. Slowly, Blaer's wound-up body relaxed, safe in the bond, knowing his Sentinel would protect him. Today would be the hardest they would have to go through. The clan now knew their Guide, and hopefully the introduction had gone a long way to lessening some of the unrest and fear that Blaer's entrance into the camp had generated.
Blaer settled down. His headache was fading, and his mind was working clearly now. A female Sentinel? It was blasphemous! The priests at the temple had been right; these were barbaric people. They had no idea how to conduct a bonding, followed none of the rules. But he still had his Sentinel, and that was all that mattered. He curled up tighter against Jeme and fell quickly asleep.
Early the next morning Blaer came out of his tent, paused for a moment to make sure no one else was about, and then headed for Wulfstein's tent. He pushed open the leather flap, and for a moment just stood there looking at the healer. Taking in every detail of the tall, lank healer, his robes stained with the juice of his medicines and infusions, his fingers yellow with the milk of the plant he was pounding into a paste.
The Dark Guide's voice held a slight edge, as if trying to be civil to the untrained healer, but it had a pleasant tone, which showed that he might be open to forming a partnership with Wulfstein. This time, Blaer did as custom dictated and announced himself. Their other meetings meant nothing; this one would set the tone for whatever followed. "My name is Blaer, Guide Prime of the Clan. My thanks to you for your help with my injuries."
Wulfstein smiled; at last the time was here. "Wulfstein, Healer of the Clan. I bid you welcome to my home, dark priest." He waved the younger man to sit down and handed him a cup of wine he had made. The Guide Prime sniffed it warily. But Wulfstein took no offense; to do so would be to curse the sun when it rose in the morning, and set at night. Dark Guides were assassins, so to them each stranger was a source of danger. But he was sure that he and this Dark Guide could become friends
. "What can I help you with?"
Blaer slowly undid the bandage on his left hand. "The salve you made has caused the wound to become painful. I will make my own."
Wulfstein took note of the implied criticism but chose to ignore it. Now was no time for petty rivalries. "Take what you need." He waved a hand at the various baskets and hanging bunches, then watched as the Guide collected the ingredients. "May I see, Guide Prime?"
For a moment Blaer just looked at him, as if judging his worth, remembering what he had said earlier, to Jeme. Then the teacher in him came forward; knowledge was a weapon, but it was also a gift. He exhaled slowly as the tension went from him, and then launched into an explanation as he added the herbs and plants to the small bowl that the older man gave him. "If you put some drops of the milk of this plant here-" he selected one from a hanging bunch-"it stops the salve from becoming too strong, if it is allowed to stand for too long before it is used. Wulfstein smiled as he watched him work. They could become friends, and today was the first step in that direction. Together they would serve the clan.
Daryl returned to his tent, his temper none the better. His friends, far from being on his side, had seemed unable to understand the threat of the Dark Guide. To them, he was an exciting presence in the camp, and they had pestered him with questions about him. Was it true he could read and write? Had he seen the bonding up close? The questions had gone on and on until; sickened, he had walked away. His mother was busy when he got back, weaving blankets with the other women and organizing the food for the further celebrations to come, salting down the meat the men would take with them on the hunt, and lending an ear to the complaints of wives about their husbands, be they feayr, Guide or Sentinel. Between them, Daryl's parents mediated the problems of the camp.
He sat down and began to poke the dirt with a stick. He was a Guide-couldn't they see that? He glared in his mother's direction. She said he wasn't, but if they had waited for him to be just a little older he would have shown them that he could Guide Jeme. They didn't need that killer; better he should go away and not return. Then everything would go back to what it had been before Jeme brought him into the camp. His mother called to him, but he ignored her.
"Daryl!" This time, there was the familiar tone in her voice that told him she wasn't pleased. He gave her a sulking look before getting up and walking slowly toward her. "What's wrong, son? You've been looking forward to the bonding festival for months, and now you look as if you can't wait for it to be over."
"I am a Guide!" he couldn't help blurting out. "Jeme was my Sentinel. When he came to us, I thought-"
"No, son." Caro put down the shuttle of her loom with a sigh. They had had this conversation many times before, and she dreaded it every time.
"My father was a Sentinel. Therefore, since I am not a Sentinel, I am a Guide."
Caro put a hand out and gently brushed the hair from his face. "Daryl, my love, Jeme could never be your Sentinel. He is a Dark Sentinel. Only a Dark Guide can partner a Dark Sentinel. Blaer is his perfect partner."
"No!" He tried to shrug her hand away.
"Yes, Daryl. It doesn't stoop you from being the person you are. I can ask Blaer to check you. He would be able to tell us if you could be a Guide."
"Not him. I don't want him near me." He got up and stormed away.
Alice looked up from her work. She was Caro's younger sister, a comely girl, her long hair twisted up in a knot at the back of her neck. "Daryl is jealous. Jeme is like an older brother to him, and now Blaer has taken his place. In time he will listen to reason, but you can't expect him to right now."
Caro resumed her work, wishing she could do more for her angry son. "He sets such store by being a Guide, but rocks have more ability than he does. He couldn't even be a Gray Guide."
"The truth is always the hardest to listen to, but they come around in time," offered Halla, a long-suffering mother of eight. "My three boys were no better at that age. Just pray for strength and hope it passes quickly."
As the women fell back into the rhythm of their work, Alice leaned nearer, her voice still loud enough to carry to the others. "Blaer, the Dark Guide-has he favored any of the girls in the clan yet?"
Caro's expression was one of amusement. So, she thought, the matchmakers had already started.
"Leave him be, Alice. That is one young man who is not ready to make any commitments yet, other than to his Sentinel.
Karin put in, "I hear that he is well-favored." She raised her eyebrows, the flash in her eyes making her meaning clear. The other women leaned closer. "You did clean him up for the bonding, sister."
"Leave it be!" Caro threw her hands up in despair "You are worse than the men." Seeing the disappointed looks, she relented. "But I can say that he would certainly make his lover happy. Now leave the poor boy alone."
"Have pity, Caro," Karin sighed. "If I were ten seasons younger, I would go for him myself. Admit it, you would not throw him out of the furs on a winter night." The other women dissolved into laughter.
"I care nothing for pretty boys," Helen declared, to disbelieving hoots from the others. "Now, the Sentinel Prime-there is a man. The Guide may have the learning but he lacks the experience. They do say that Jeme could make a mute cry out in pleasure. I heard-"
A few tents away, Jeme had heard the laughter, but when he extended his hearing, he was shocked. All those blushing maidens and worthy matrons-was that really how they talked when there were no men around? As he stepped from their tent, Blaer's hand still linked to arm he felt himself flush bright red.
"Jeme, what's wrong?" Blaer followed his Sentinel's gaze to the women. "What are they saying?"
"You're too young, Blaer. Believe me, you're much too young."
When they passed Saemund, conferring with Thorkel about plans for the day's ceremonies, Blaer was still trying to wheedle it out of Jeme. The Clan leader heard the laughing and started toward the women, then decided it was better not to give them a new target, and headed in the opposite direction. A wise man knew when to stand and when to run, and faced with twelve women, he ran.
Daryl had moved near the Sentinel Prime's tent. In his hand was the knife that Jeme had given him for the season of his birth. His face brightened as he saw Jeme come out of the tent, then hardened into a mask as he saw the other figure, his shadow. Daryl looked up to the heavens and wished him gone.
Jeme walked over to meet him." Daryl, I'm going to take Blaer to the river to show him the fishing spots. Do you want to come?" Come on, kid, accept the invitation, he added mentally. Any other day he would have jumped at the chance, enjoying his position, as Jeme's younger brother, but not today: that man was with him.
Suddenly Jeme's head snapped around, and he looked toward the far side of the camp, up toward the edge of the dense tree line. His sight rushed forward, focusing on a glint of metal, joined with a rank smell. He had begun to tip forward into the black void when he felt a hand on his arm, then the pressure of a body against his, and he snapped out of it. In his mind, he could feel his Guide supporting him, and he cast his senses out further.
Daryl grabbed at Blaer shouting; "Get your hands off him!" Blaer was totally open, and the touch was like and ice-cold shock. He managed to mutter one word "Jeme" before his head seemed to explode as the boy's emotions crashed through him, burning like acid, anger, hatred and jealousy. He hung on, trying to keep Jeme anchored in the present. Completely drained by the effort, he slid down onto the ground. Jeme snapped out of it as he heard the scream from one of the other Guides. For a moment he forgot where he was. Then he looked down and instantly dropped onto his knees and pulled his Guide to him. Blaer's body was shivering, and he was incoherent.
The Gray Guide knelt down, one hand touching him. With a squeak, he pulled his hand back; the power and emotions ripping through the Dark Guide were too much for him to handle.
"Can you hear me? What happened?" Jeme's voice took on a panicked tone.
"Daryl touched him when he was bringing you back from the void," the young Guide said gravely. "I'm sorry I couldn't stop him in time, Jeme."
Jeme's face was infused with anger as he turned on the boy. "You touched him. You know better than that, Daryl. I can hear your excitement; your heartbeat is like an animal in the hunt, you wanted to hurt him. Daryl, why? What did he do to you?"
"He's your Guide. It should have been me," Daryl said sullenly, too lost in his own anger to be in awe of Jeme's.
"What do you mean, child? You're not a Guide and will never be one. Live with it. If you were a man, you would be dead," he snarled with the full fury of a Dark Sentinel. He reached out and pulled his Guide into his arms and carried him back to their tent, leaving Daryl alone, silent tears falling down his face.
Rolf had watched the whole scene from his position in the trees. As leader of a raider group, he had no claim to attend the bonding. He had been told as much when he tried to approach the camp. His people were all feayr, but he wanted Sentinels, for only with them could his group prosper and succeed. He did not have the gold to buy mercenaries, but through mating he might have gotten a Sentinel in his clan. A child would have been treasured and honored. Instead, it had been thrown back into his face. Sean's plan would put that to rights. Personally, he hated the thin, hatchet-faced man, but in this case his idea was sound. He pushed his concern to the back of his mind, and swore as Carl let the bag he was holding drop to the ground. "Keep the sage near you, its hides the scent of your body Otherwise they might smell us."
Carl was a smaller version of his brother with a portly build. He had slight Guide ability, being able to read surface emotions and nothing more. But he could not even be accepted as a Gray Guide at the temple, as a result he had lost them the chance of getting a Sentinel through bonding
His attention fixed on a small figure all in black. "A Dark Guide!" He breathed it with reverence. Sean was right: he was here. If they took him, they would get what they wanted. The problem would be separating him from his Sentinel long enough to effect the kidnapping. The bonding was new, and the Sentinel would be reluctant to part from his Guide for any length of time. The last thing they wanted was to face an enraged Dark Sentinel.
Finally the days of celebration were over: truces had been made, Sentinels bonded, and women married. The clans broke up, with agreements to meet at the autumn fair, where the Council would also be meeting.
But Saemund's feeling of contentment was short lived. Word came through that Rolf of the White Water Clan was trying to take some of their territory as his, and this could only be answered in blood. The White Water Clan was a small one, and Saemund was convinced that one look at the Panther Clan would be enough to make them back down.
Blaer sat at Jeme's side as he listened to the plans Saemund was making to combat this threat. "I will ride with you." a simple statement which started the argument.
Jeme turned slowly to look at his Guide. "No, Blaer you're not well enough to ride, your side is still healing."
"I can ride and I can fight, my place is by your side." The Dark Guide insisted.
Saemund cut in. "Later Blaer, but not now we have to ride fast." He meant it kindly, but the reaction was far from it.
"You would deny me my right." The young Guide's voice dropped slightly and the tone was cold and dangerous.
Jeme snagged his Guide before it could get out of hand, and pulled him away from the feayr leader. Blaer tried to turn back towards Saemund, but was jerked back sharply but kindly, the argument was watched at some distance by the rest of the clan. It was the first time the dark pair had argued in public, and everyone was watching the reaction of the stoic mercenary and the volatile young Guide.
Blaer threw his hands up, trying to break the hold on his shoulder.
"You prefer the company of that feayr." He spat the words.
"Saemund is my friend, and Bryn and Hender will watch my back, but you are my Guide, my sanity, my brother." Jeme hissed, "Blaer, you are not well enough to ride, I would not endanger your health on this mission. Later, we will be side by side, but not now."
"But my place is by your side! I need.... ." He dropped his head.
"Blaer," Jeme said the name softly, and with one finger gently lifted his chin up so that he could look into the blue eyes, "we are soul mated. Link with me and you will see into my heart and my soul."
He felt the tug at the back of his mind, and smiled as he felt his Guide in his head, the gentle caress of Blaer's mind against his. He sensed his hot-tempered Guide calming, he looked round, they had time, he slid an arm round him, and with a gentle tug took him to their tent, they had time to bond before he needed to leave, and the bonding would settle Blaer down, he would feel his Sentinel's need for him, and accept what Jeme said.
Saemund breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment there it had looked to the onlookers, when they say the muscles jumping in Jeme jaw, a sure sign of his displeasure, that normally had them running for cover, that Jeme's young Guide was about to be blasted into the next season. But then Jeme had controlled it, and they seemed to reach an agreement. If the Dark pair needed time he would give them time.
Preparations where almost ready when the Dark pair re-emerged, Jeme's arm anchoring his Guide. Blaer walked him to his horse, watching his Sentinel swing into the saddle. Jeme reached down, his hand cupping his Guide's face. "Marked and claimed Guide."
. "Marked and claimed Sentinel."
The ancient vow made. Only then did Jeme put his heels into his horse's belly and lead the War Party out of the Camp.
Blaer looked round him, noticing that there were only feayr members of the clan left, remembering what Jeme had said he tried a smile, some returned it, but others quickly turned their backs and hurried off. Blaer shrugged and returned to their tent.
Sophie and the other children watched the departing warriors with awe and pride, it was said that none could stand against the Panther Clan, she noted that all the Sentinels where going with the War Party, the talk of the men as they had gathered supplies had been one of confidence, a short sharp lesson to the interlopers and then back to the camp. For that reason Saemund hadn't left any Sentinels at the camp, it was safe in the care of the feayr clan members. She pulled herself up to her full height, it meant she and the other child Sentinels would have the watch. Mindful of her duty, she listened to the sounds of the camp while she gathered firewood into a bundle. At first she heard nothing more than the usual noonday activities: the clanging of cook-pots, the women's looms, the voices of children singing as they went about their chores. Suddenly there were new sounds, pounding feet and war cries, followed quickly by the screams of women, her mother's rising above the rest. Dropping her little bundle of wood, Sophie dashed back toward the camp.
Horses reared, swords flashed down in silvery arches as the sun glinted off the blades. Tents where pulled over and women and children where trying to avoided the slashing blades. Already the sound of metal on metal could he heard ringing across the camp, mixed with the screams of attackers, defenders and the injured.
Blaer came out of the tent, sword in hand, heading for Caro's tent, the only thought in his mind, to protect his Sentinel's adopted family. He saw a young girl pulling a bow back and letting loose an arrow; it found its mark in the leg of one of the horsemen. With a scream of anger the raider rode straight at her, to run her down. Blaer lengthened his stride, caught her by the waist and pulled her out of the way; they hit the ground and rolled out of the way. He released his hold on her and used the momentum to get to his knees. The raider's horse was over him, he ducked the sword swung his way and then smashed the hilt of his own sword into attacking horse's mouth, as he had been taught. The horse squealed in pain, unseating its rider, and Blaer's blade slashed down. Turning he headed for Caro, never seeing the girl cut down an attacker who had come up behind the Dark Guide. The Sentinel child Kira, notched another arrow, only to be dragged into the safety of the surrounding woods by her mother.
Blaer caught Caro's arm. "I have to get you out of here, come with me."
"Daryl, my son." then she saw him; the boy had snatched up one of his father's swords and was trying to attack one of the raiders. "Daryl …… NO!"
Blaer pushed her toward the woods. "I'll get him. GO!"
Daryl's sword was batted from his hand, but the sword of the Dark Guide deflected the slash of the sword that would have killed him. "Get out of here now!"
"No, I can fight."
" Just do it kid." Blaer's attention was fixed on the attackers, he could see two more heading towards him, and he had to buy time for Daryl and Caro to escape.
"Get out of here. NOW!" Was all the warning he could give before he went on the attack? Blaer ran the first man through. He saw the boy hadn't obeyed him, turning fast he caught Daryl by the scruff of his tunic and shook him hard. "Get out now before it's too late!"
Daryl swung round, and tried to bat away the Dark Guide's hand, Blaer suddenly pulled him against him as a rider-less horse rushed in a pain-induced panic past them. Daryl slammed his elbow back to get the Guide to release him; it hit Blaer's injured side and pain exploded through his chest. He let go and stumbled, fighting for breath, he turned too late, and a club swung down bludgeoning him to the ground. The attacker jumped from his horse, Blaer tried to lift his head, but the club swung again and he blacked out.
Sophie tried to break free from her mothers grip, her need was to go to the Dark Guide, "Why aren't they helping him? Help him!” thick tears rolled down the girl's face, her mother holding her tight to her chest. Kira's mother was also wrestling to keep her daughter at her side, the child Sentinel's fighting to reach and protect the Guide.
The unconscious black dressed Guide was thrown over the neck of one of the horses, and with a victory cry the attackers thundered out of the camp.
The child Sentinels gathered together, the feayr defenders had protected the horses, the wealth of the Clan, but not the Dark Guide. "Kira, Justin, get the horses. We do not have time to waste." Sophie took command. Her mother was helping with the wounded, but her mind was already made up, their course of action clear. She bent down to pick up the Guide's sword, his bonding sword. Her fingers traced the outlines of the panther and the wolf. She looked around her, the others in the camp seemed more concerned with the damage to the camp than to the kidnapping of the Dark Guide. The only men in the camp were feayr and old, they had no loyalty to the young Guide.
When the most badly injured had been carried to Wulfstein's tent, Bera hurried back to check on her daughter, afraid that the shock of the attack had sent her into the void all Sentinels feared. But when she met her daughter's eyes, she saw that this was no longer just Sophie; this was a Sentinel. The age of her daughter no longer mattered, she had heard stories from her husband about young Sentinel driven to acts beyond their age by their instincts and she knew she was looking at such now.
She hugged her daughter, holding her tight. "Sweetheart, don't worry. The bad men got what they wanted. They won't come back to hurt us." As she pulled back, she saw no fear in the child's eyes. Instead, she said calmly, "Tell the Sentinel Prime that we are tracking his Guide and will keep the watch until he returns."
Any arguments died on her mother's lips. She had seen the same look on her husband's face; it was Sentinel work, and she would either return with her task complete or die in the attempt. She nodded and said, "I'll get the horses and food."
She helped her daughter onto the saddle and handed up the bundle. "Wulfstein said to take these herbs. The Guide Prime's barriers will be low. Add the herbs in the small bag to the water, and it will act as a painkiller." Sophie tied the bag to her saddle, and then accepted the water and food. Turning, she looked at her hunting pack, Kira and Justin, seeing the determination in their faces. They would not let the Sentinel Prime down.
The feayr members of the clan could not see the immediate need to take off after the missing Guide, they where prepared to wait for the Sentinel Prime to return. They certainly would not listen to a bunch of children, even if they where Sentinels. They where determined to secure the camp against another attack, not take off after a missing Guide who many saw as no more than a killer, even if he was held in such high regard by their own Sentinel prime.
Sophie knew they could not wait.
Daryl had been watching the scene from a short distance away, and darted out to catch her bridle. "You're both girls, and Justin is only nine seasons old. You're crazy to go out there on your own. Let me come with you."
"I am a Sentinel!" Sophie blazed at him. "It is our calling to protect the Guide. Why do you want to help? You have done nothing to welcome him to the clan, yesterday you hurt him through your hatred of him, remember Daryl, son of Saemund, I have heard you talking with the others. So why do you want to help *NOW*?" Daryl lapsed into silence, his mouth working as he tried to put into words what he was thinking, his hand dropped away from the bridle.
She looked down at her mother. "We will return, but only with the Dark Guide, the watch is ours." Then her voice softened, and became child like again. "Mother… I love you."
"Love you, Sophie." Her mother's hand squeezed her knee, in one heartbeat she wanted to pull her from the horse and forbid her from this folly, but in the other she knew that as a Sentinel she must go. Sentinel soft she said. "I am proud of you my daughter." She removed her hand reluctantly as Sophie nudged the horse forward.
. Daryl called after her. "He took my Sentinel away! Jeme was mine!"
Sophie pulled the horse round to face him. "You're wrong, Daryl. The gods meant them to be together. Without each other they'll be unhappy, so unhappy they won't be able to live. Do you really want that?"
Daryl watched them leave in silence. As soon as they were out of sight, he raced off to the paddock to get his own horse. His mother and the other adults were too busy to notice as he slipped out of camp, following the Sentinels. He rode in silence, his mind running through the events of the day, Blaer had fought his way to him and his mother, protecting them with his blade, running through one of the men that had grabbed his mother, but *he* had had to argue, to try and grab one of the swords to fight, he would have died if Blaer hadn't cut in front of him, to deflect the sword, and had shoved him hard. *His" stupidity had delayed them, and he had seen the towering warrior club the Dark Guide down and throw his lifeless appearing body over the back of a horse.
He had seen the attack and should have called out to the feayr warriors that Blaer was under attack, but he hadn't, he had kept quiet, he had rejoiced to see the obstacle to him being Jeme's Guide taken away. Then as the time had passed he began to feel the guilt eating away at him, as in his heart of hearts he knew that he had killed *his older brother*. Sophie's words ran through his head "The gods meant them to be together. Without each other they'll be unhappy, so unhappy they won't be able to live. Do you really want that?" Now, he had to make it right.
A few uneasy hours passed before Bera heard the sound of hooves in the meadow near the camp. She ran up to the returning men, her heart pounding. "Jeme! Jeme! The Black Arrow Clan attacked the camp. No one was hurt, but Blaer…he…" She looked away, unwilling to say the words she knew would break Jeme's heart.
"Blaer! What happened?"
"He was captured." She finally stuttered. "They attacked the camp, they tried to steal the horses and some of the younger girls, we managed to stop them from taking the girls, but Blaer was their main prize and.... ." She trailed off.
"Did the feayr protect him?" Jeme's voice was ice cold.
Caro's face showed her answer. "Jeme, they where protecting their families." Even as she said it she knew that to Jeme that was not an excuse. "Blaer protected us, Jeme."
"Was he hurt?"
"He was Jeme, I saw them throw him on the back of a horse, he wasn't moving."
"How many of them were there?" Jeme looked round the camp, the feayr members of the Clan where avoiding his eyes, they had failed him, and they knew it.
Saemund, moved up to him. "Jeme, we will find them and get him back. They can't have gone far."
"I have been telling him that he belonged to this clan and they didn't even try to help him. They let him be taken, a Sentinel clan would have fought to their deaths to protect a Dark Guide, and you wonder why he had trouble with accepting that this is now his home." Saemund put a hand out, only to have it knocked away, "feayr." it was snarled like an insult.
"No, friend Jeme," he replaced his hand, "and *MY BROTHER* we will return him to your side. Bryn, Hender, collect supplies." He started to bark out his orders.
Blaer came around to find himself tied to the back of a horse. His head was splitting and nausea threatened to overcome him. After a seemingly endless ride, they finally came to a halt, and he was manhandled onto the ground. A sack covered his head and shoulders, making it hard to breath, and his hands were tied behind his back. Hands caught at his robes and he was dragged along, hearing voices crying out the news of their prize. He was propelled into what he guessed was a tent, his feet catching on a rug and bringing him down on his knees. A hard hand pressed down on his shoulder, keeping him there.
"You have my prize, Rolf." The gloating voice was somehow familiar.
"Just as you planned." His captor's voice was deferential, as if he were trying to curry favour with the other man. "Now, we should get this over and done with. I want to be gone before his Sentinel arrives. Life is too short to get between Guide and Sentinel."
"You worry too much. You made good time; it will take them two days at least to track you." Blaer's drug-fogged mind chased after a memory of another time of fear and capture, a memory that this man had been involved in.
"We rode hard and fast," his captor boasted. "I had to leave two of my men behind. They could not keep up the pace with their injuries. That is worth something, I think, is it not? My brother was one of them. He will lead the Panther Clan a dance before the return to our campsite. Your healer has the draft."
"Later, prepare the girls first, now I would like to talk to this one".
Blaer could sense his captor's disgust at the other man's eager tone, and, more frightening still, greed bordering on lust coming from the man himself. He could smell the stink of wine on the man's breath as he moved near to rub a hand over Blaer's chest.
Blaer tensed as he felt a cold knife blade at his neck, slicing through the rope holding the bag over his face. He blinked, and then focussed on the man leaning over him. His skin crawled; it was Warren's brother Sean. Blaer remembered encountering him as Jeme had led him, claimed but still resisting, from the temple. He, a real Dark Guide, had fascinated Sean and Blaer had rewarded his interested with a kick in a private place. Evidently he had not forgotten the experience, nor, Blaer feared, the kick.
"Guide, you are mine now." Sean gloated. He smiled and ran a rough hand over Blaer's face, his thumb lingering over the lips. "Very nice. You're lost on stonehearted Jeme. That body lying next to him each night and him not touching you-such a waste, little one." With a leer to the guards he added, "Or have you managed to thaw him out, put a little fire in his belly? Jeme plays the lord with the ladies, but none so far had snared him as you have little one." He dropped his hand lower, feeling Blaer's body. With a snarl, he tried to pull away, only to be pinned down by the two guards. Sean grinned. "You certainly do that to me."
Blaer spat, "I am his Guide, not his whore!"
"His loss, little one." Sean crooned. He caught Blaer by his long hair, anchoring him, and leaned closer. Blaer spat at him. Sean looked at him in disbelief and slowly wiped the spittle off his face, then slapped Blaer hard, anger replacing the lust that was rolling off the man. "I have sent a messenger to Saemund. If he wants you back, he will pay. But not before we get a chance to get better acquainted. There are plenty of things we can try-things you will enjoy." He dropped his hand lower to make his point.
Rolf returned with three girls in tow, young and comely. Though they bowed their heads shyly, all looked at the Dark Guide with interest. Blaer knew better than to be flattered; a Guide meant a chance at a better life. If they got pregnant and the child could be a Guide, they would be honoured. Sean pulled his hand away, saying. "First business and then pleasure."
Rolf had the drugged wine skin in his hand, his voice showed his disgust, he avoided looking at the young Guide, he had convinced himself that they had to do this, it was easy when he didn't have to look at the man and see his expression, the loathing on the fine features. "Lets get this over and done with, then my clan is gone. This is bad business Sean and I want no more to do with it."
"Cowards." Sean sneered.
But Rolf was not going to be goaded into a rash act. "I am not a coward, but I am not an idiot, either."
"Leave now and you miss the gold from his ransom."
Blaer could not believe what he was hearing, they wanted to put him to stud like a prized stallion, all he had thought of the feayr leader seemed to be true, the man had no right to be their leader. His Sentinel prime would never had considered paying the ransom, instead of gold he would have come down on them like the god of war, bring death and destruction with him. Sean would be tied down and horses would have torn him limb from limb to the four corners of the winds, for this crime. And this man would follow, his Clan scattered for all time. His mind was brought back to the present as he heard his kidnapper say.
"Gold? What he has in his loins is enough for me. Put the girls to him, and we will gone." he said impatiently.
"He looks young and healthy."
"He is." Sean answered
Even though Blaer knew that there was no escape, when the guards undid the bonds to allow him to lie down, he brought an elbow hard into the face of one of them, the larger of the two, and a long scar marring what would have been a handsome face. He felt the nose crack; the man yelled his hands going to his face. Blaer managed to get half way to his feet when the other guard brought him down hard, onto the furs; his weight driving the air from the smaller man's lungs leaving him gasping for breath. A knee to the centre of his back, and a hand in his long hair pulled his head backward, and the drug was forced down his throat, he had to swallow or drown, instinct cut in and he swallowed.
Only when they where sure that he had taken enough of the drugged wine the smaller man was pulled onto his back, his bonds re-tied. Blaer yelled insults at them, "You poxed bastard you.... ." A heavy blow across the face cut the inside of his mouth, and he spat the blood out. But by then the drug had started to take effect, his head rolled back against the furs. Although it robbed him of speech, he could still hear them, but was helpless to do anything to protect himself.
Sean grinned his gap-toothed smile. "Saemund is a crafty fox. He has a gold mine in those two. Put them to stud once in a while, and the prosperity of the clan is guaranteed, better than with any stud horse. To think that Saemund was nothing before he got the Dark Sentinel. My big brother is right Rolf: a mixed clan is a powerful one. And you, my little one-" he walked over to his prisoner-"are my stud stallion". Saemund knows your worth. Why do you think he allowed Jeme to go to the temple?" His hand reached out for an intimate caress. Blaer tried to struggle, but he could not control his movements, then he stopped when he saw the lust in the man's face. All his movements were doing was inflaming him.
Rolf reached out and pulled Sean away. The more Blaer listened to them, the more he was convinced that Saemund was just like all the others. If Saemund came to rescue him, it would just be to protect his investment. But Jeme…the very thought of his Sentinel gave him hope. Jeme would kill them for him, and his eyes blazed at the thought. Sean's tent was large, as befitted the brother of the Council of Clans leader. He had the furs pulled to the centre, covered with a blanket. Blaer was tugged to the centre of them.
Soon, the light in the tent faded and became edged with colour. The next hours were a living nightmare. The draught stripped him of his barriers, eroding them while his libido flared. These matings lacked the gentleness of his dealings with the women of the Panther Clan: the girls' emotions crashed around him, pushing him toward an overload. Finally, he lay spent on the pile of blankets. A voice hissed in his ear as he felt a calloused hand moving over his skin. "Soon you can sleep, little one, but first we play. I can be soooo good to you."
Blaer was unable to block Sean's emotions, the lust and the excitement of the man where like claws down his mind, he tried to fight the man off, and received another blow across the face, rough hands where pawing at his naked body, his mind exploded into white pain, and he tumbled back into blissful overload.
Saemund collected his wife to him. She sported a bruise on her forehead and was in tears. Daryl was gone. Caro feared he had followed the young Sentinels, in a misguided effort to save Blaer and help Jeme.
Behind her, he could see Bera talking to Jeme. The Dark Sentinel threw his hands up, his anger barely suppressed, and stalked away from her. Bera caught his arm and tried to pull him back. Her husband had been an ordinary Sentinel, but even so, there were times when instinct overtook him. Jeme needed to centre himself; otherwise he would be nothing more than a killing demon.
Saemund heard a commotion outside and disengaged gently but quickly from his wife, afraid the raiders had returned. He found the Sentinels warily watching a horse and rider enter the camp. Guides were pulled into place behind them as swords slid from there sheathes. The rider was nervous; his fear flowed off him like water in a river. He stopped short and swallowed hard as the Sentinels began to circle him.
Saemund stepped forward. "What do you want?"
"Saemund, the Panther Clan leader."
"I am he."
"My leader sent me." He reached down to his boot and pulled out a knife, throwing it to the ground, and backed up his horse. Jeme gave a bellow of anger and crossed the distance to the rider in seconds, caught hold of him, and pulled him off his mount and onto the ground. He scoped up the knife and pressed the blade against the rider's throat. "My Guide," he growled. "Where is he?
"Jeme, wait," Saemund, warned. "We don't know who he is. Warren could have sent him."
"This is Blaer's knife. I gave it to him as a bonding present. This bastard's clan has my Guide."
Saemund cut in quickly. In Jeme's heightened state, if the man breathed wrong, he would die. He gave a shudder; the last time he had seen his friend in this state was when Jeme had been challenged. It had been hard to find enough of the corpses to bury. "Jeme, let the man speak," Saemund said, trying to imitate the soothing tone Blaer used with him. He reached across and caught the Sentinel's wrist and firmly pushed his hand back, even as he reached toward the knife.
More confident now, the man announced, "The Sentinel is right. My clan is holding your Guide. My leader wants gold-half of what you received at the bonding, and the horses. All of them."
"And that is all?" Saemund was puzzled. The ransom was high, yet his gut feeling was that he had not heard all of it.
"The seed of your Sentinel Prime. We already have his Guide's. Then we will let him go." The man smiled down at Jeme. "Our clan has no Sentinel, but that will change."
Slowly Blaer struggled up from the drug-induced overload and curled up into a tight ball. His skin was ice cold and he was shaking as shock hit him. Pain knifed through his lower body. He could feel the sticky, wet mess on his thighs and stomach, and he shuddered. Hot tears began to squeeze out through his tightly closed eyes. Nothing he had ever thought of could have prepared him for what had happened. The drug in him had robbed him of any chance to fight. His body had responded to the commands Sean had given him. Even as his mind screamed, his body had ignored him.
The tent flap opened and another man came in, even bigger than his Sentinel. He knelt down next to Blaer who with a whimper tried to pull himself away, only to find that he was tethered to the ground like some sort of animal.
"Easy. I am not going to hurt you, Guide." He caught the chain between his wrists and pulled him close, shaking his head. To Blaer's relief, it seemed he didn't like what he saw. "My name's Garth. Your Sentinel did me a favour once, and a warrior always repays a debt of honour.” He gave Blaer another assessing look. "Your barriers?"
"Gone." Blaer flinched back. He had not choice but to answer the man. His eyes fixed on the knife the man wore at this side, if the man came closer he could get it, the man seemed to sense it and gave a bemused look that vanished almost as quickly as it came.
He looked round quickly, to make sure no one was coming, then grabbed the chain in both hands, he pulled out a iron stake and used it to break the link. He gathered Blaer's clothing and threw it to him, evidently not wanting to risk overloading him with emotions from close contact. "I'm sorry, kid, but if you're going to leave it will have to be now. Sean is already drinking his way through the fortune they plan to get from you. As soon as the flasks are empty, he'll be back." He reached out and caught Blaer's jacket and tugged him along.
Grateful as he was for Garth's help, Blaer had trouble keeping on his feet, feeling as unsteady as a newborn colt from the drugs and pain. Garth led him away from the fires, where he could hear the men carousing, to the far edge of the camp, and pointed to a bright star rising just over the trees. "See that? The point of the scythe? Follow it and you'll come to the West Road. Follow it, but keep yourself hidden; they'll be looking for you soon enough.” Muttering his thanks, Blaer stumbled away, moving as quickly as he could. All to soon he heard the distant shouts of the clan as they realized their prize had gone. At least he did not have to worry about Sentinels.
He was hunted through the night. His body hurt, and already he could feel the start of a fever building. Even as he ran he collected a few plants; all that he needed was time to work on the drink that might help him, but he knew that was in short supply.
Simon Banks shook his head. God only knew what this knowledge had done to their Blaer. The Guide was already very skittish. It seemed that the GDP was not the first to consider a breeding program. Times changed, but not human nature-a chilling thought. He read on.
Daryl was now travelling with the three Sentinels; he had found them waiting for him just out of view of the campsite. He had met their eyes one by one. "I need to come and I need to put this right." Simple words that said more than any long-winded speech.
Sophie's sombre expression and lifted and she had smiled. "We would be pleased by your company Daryl. This way, we have a long way to travel."
Sophie rode at a steady pace, a sword slung over her shoulder, the sheathe banging against her back. It was the Dark Guide's weapon; she had picked it up knowing that it must be returned to him. The three young Sentinels followed the trail as if they could see it etched into the ground in front of them. Kira was a year younger than Sophie, and across her shoulder was a bow and quiver of arrows. Both girls were big for their age, and were expected to grow into beauties. Now their pretty faces were deep in thought as their senses worked on one thing and one thing only: Find the Guide Prime. Justin was only nine seasons old. He clutched the small knife his father had given him, his mind, like those of the girls, set on his mission. Unknowingly, the three had made a hunting pack.
Daryl watched as the three young Sentinels turned as one. A smile split Sophie's face, for a moment she looked around as she tried to locate the source of the scent that called to them, and then her triumph was replaced with a very real look of fear as she slid from her horse and rushed over to a pile of branches. She pulled one back to find the nest the Guide had managed to pull together to camouflage himself just before his strength gave out.
Sophie hesitated a moment, then put a hand out and nervously, with the backs of her fingers, gave the Dark Guide a push. He did not move. Kira was already reaching for him; she felt the need to touch, to protect, to nurture, transcending her age. The Guide did not move, but three pairs of ears could hear his heartbeat, the breath from his lungs: he was alive. His body shook violently. Then his eyes flew open, and he pulled back.
"Guide Prime. Please, Guide Prime, it's alright, we are here for you." Sophie tried to keep her voice level.
Blaer focussed through his pain, and then blinked again as he recognized the female Sentinel. Even now his mind balked at the words. "What are you-" he looked around for his Sentinel, for the clan.
"Kira, no!" Sophie warned, as the younger girl was about to put a hand onto the Guide. She could see Justin inching toward him. The need to touch was drawing him closer. She had felt the touch of the Guide's mind, and knew that if they tried to connect with him, even very gently, he could hurt them.
Something had disordered the Guide's mind, and injured his body as well. She saw bruising on the pale skin, and could smell blood and something else-for a moment she couldn't place it, and then she flushed bright red. The smell of it turned her stomach, it was mixed with the heavy scent of blood, tears began to pool in her eyes but she pushed it back, there was time to worry about that later. Now she had to reassure him, tell him that his Sentinel was coming.
"The Guide Primes of the clans are on their way," she said softly. "We, er.... we followed you after your kidnapping."
"You?" There was total disbelief in his voice.
"Yes." Sophie put in firmly.
Blaer shook his head as he looked at them, three small Sentinels, nothing more than children, two of them female, and they had come after him. There was nothing in the chronicles at the temple that spoke of such abilities, not this young.
Kira tugged at the older girl's arm. "People are coming, Sophie."
Fearing the approach of his captors, Blaer tried to scramble to his feet, but slipped on the dew-damp leaves. "Please, Guide Prime, let us help." Sophie pleaded, reaching a hand out. Between them they got him to his feet. Sophie slid the sword from her shoulder and handed it to him. Blaer pulled the harness over his shoulder, reunited with his bonding sword; he felt a surge of power, a sense of being whole again.
Sophie gingerly put an arm around his waist, encouraged when the Dark Guide rested his arm across her shoulder, allowing her to help him. Daryl hesitated, and then took the Guide's other arm and found himself almost nose to nose with the Dark Guide as he straightened up. He remembered the lessons his mother had taught him, *control your emotions*. He saw the bruised pale skin, the split and swollen lip, and the caked blood matting the long hair that fell forward on his face.
Daryl, hesitated, he had never meant for this to happen, "I am sorry." He trailed off, Blaer's eyes softened, he did not know why the child was apologies to him, but his emotions showed it was important to him, he raised a hand and lightly petted Daryl's face. Maybe the child would tell him later what it was all about, at the moment his mind was too woolly to think clearly.
The two youngest Sentinels, moved into position, one in front, one behind, as they started to escort the injured Guide back to their horses. Blaer's body felt as if it had been cleaved in half. Each footstep was an effort. Sophie was concerned; the Guide's body was getting hotter, he was running a fever. They had to stop twice so that he could void his stomach of the small amount of food he had managed to eat.
The sounds of hooves in the far distance made the Sentinels freeze, exchanging worried glances. Turning in the direction of their pursuers, they drew their small knives, prepared to defend the Guide to the death if necessary. The child Sentinels could only hope that they would meet Jeme and a rescue party. Then and only then the life they protected would be safe.
Suddenly two of Sean's men crashed on foot out through the trees, cutting the group off from the horses. Blaer pushed the children back and hefted his sword. He would not go back, and could not allow the child Sentinels to be caught.
The first attacker made the mistake of taking the Guide's battered, exhausted appearance as an invitation to rush forward. Blaer deflected his blade as he turned; the man's momentum took him past the younger Guide, who's knee caught him hard in the groin, the man collapsed onto his knees, his sword dropping from his hands, as the pain ripped through his body. Instinct told him the other attacker was reaching for him from behind. Blaer changed his grip on the sword and stabbed backward, the blade going between his left arm and side. The man cried with pain as he was impaled on the sword. Blaer jerked it free. The other man started to get up and Blaer stabbed down, the sword taking the man through the back and into the heart. Blaer's energy suddenly ran out, and he wearily pulled his sword out of the body. "We have to get out of here." he sighed.
He swayed, and the children immediately caught hold of him, pulling and tugging him to the horses.
As they rode, Saemund kept his eyes on his friend and Sentinel Prime. The raiding party was made up of Sentinels, Guides and feayr. Half of the men stayed behind to protect the camp; the others were with him. All were grim and quiet. This attack had hit at the very heart of the clan. Jeme was holding together. His rage had turned inward; he was not verbal anymore. His panther spirit Guide was moving forward. Only one thought pounded through his head: Find the Guide. Kill any who harm him. Find the Guide. Kill any who harm him. Destroy. Protect the Guide.
Sophie took her eyes off the trail and looked at the young man who was holding her, a strong arm around her waist, his head resting against her back as he rode behind her. She felt herself flush; he was good-looking, and looked so fragile. She had to remind herself that he was a Dark Guide, an assassin, and a cold-blooded killer. But she could not hold that thought. Inside her was the need to protect him, to protect the Guide. She knew how painful he found the ride, and she could hear his quick intake of breath. A brief outward scan told her there were no more hunting parties nearby; they could afford a short stop.
They halted. Justin dismounted from the horse he shared with Kira; pulled off the water skin he had thrown over his shoulder and offered it to Blaer, his hand tentatively stroking the Guide's hand. He felt him flinch, pulling back from the protective urge to stop an unbonded Sentinel from touching him.
Blaer chided himself: these were children-Sentinels and female Sentinels-but children nonetheless. They did not mean to bond. He was shaking badly.
"Guide Prime Blaer, how can we help you?" Justin asked softly.
"My barriers are gone now.,” he whispered.
Daryl looked at his friends, he had known them all his life but now when he looked at them he could see nothing that was familiar, these were Sentinels now, no longer children. He could see their minds working. Even without enhanced senses, he could see the thin film of sweat beading the Guide's face. He was in pain, and would not be able to go much further.
Sophie looked around her. Sentinel eyes saw a cave, the opening well camouflaged from ordinary eyes. They would halt and wait for Jeme. Her hearing told her they had outdistanced the evil men who had taken the Guide. She slid off the horse, and then held it tightly as Blaer followed. For a moment his legs almost gave way at the pain that flared in his lower body. Then, with harsh breaths, he straightened up. She tugged him into the cave, the younger Sentinel moving the underbrush to make a nest for the injured man. Sophie knelt down and said, "I know that we can't bond, but could you let us shield you?"
For a long moment, she looked into the blue eyes. Then he nodded. Carefully she lay down and wrapped herself around the Guide. Justin and Kira followed suit, each of them channelling energy into the abused Guide. Untrained they might be, but they acted as a balm to his mind. Kira smiled, whispering, "He's asleep now."
"We'll keep shielding him," Sophie whispered back. "Otherwise, he might wake up."
Kira nodded. "They hurt him. He's a Guide; how could they hurt him?" It was the plea of a small girl. With the Sentinel's drive to protect, she gently petted his long, curly hair, and gave Sophie a brilliant smile as the Guide moved against her hand.
Daryl sat near the entrance to the cave. He had hidden the horses and was now holding a knife, on guard. He could barely make out the three Sentinels, as they talked Sentinel-soft to each other so as not to upset the sleeping Guide. That man was the one thing he could never be. He would never be a Guide, his father had said. While he no longer wished Blaer any harm, he couldn't help resenting the fact that he had everything Daryl didn't: Guide abilities, the respect of the clan, Jeme's trust. But when he thought back to the Guide's injured, abused condition, he felt petty.
Sophie turned with a growl, as if sensing his angry thoughts. Then she turned back to the Guide. He shivered and she pulled him closer. Her Sentinel maternal instinct to nurture an injured Guide made her move her hand over his head and shoulders, imitating the movements that her mother used to calm her. She heard the softest of sighs, and he went deeper into sleep.
During the night Daryl jumped as he felt a hand on his shoulder. " Daryl, the watch is mine." He shivered in the cold, and tried to pull his jacket closer to him, Kira, gave him a push to where Sophie and Justin where curled round Blaer.
Sophie reached up and pulled him down. "He's cold, we need everyone's body warmth."
"I could hurt him, I did before."
"Did you mean to do that Daryl?" Sophie asked levelly.
"Then keep that in your thoughts, and you can not harm him." Gently she tugged him down and positioned him. Blaer stirred in his sleep, and Sophie's attention turned back to him, she cooed softly, petting his head and shoulder. "Your Sentinel is coming Guide, he is coming."
Blaer's sleep deepened, his mind reaching out to the Sentinels curled round him, and then brushing against Daryl's, and for a moment he struggled against the emotions there.
"Daryl", Sophie chilled him.
"Sorry." Daryl forced himself to take a couple of deep breaths, and think of his time with Jeme, the Guide's body relaxed, in response to the happy thoughts.
Dawn was breaking when Daryl woke up, the two Sentinels where already awake, Sophie put a hand out, and felt the Guide's face, his skin had lost the touch of fever to it, the herbs Wulfstein had given them had been given to him during the night, and had taken the edge off the pain and fever. Suddenly all three Sentinels looked up, each tuning in to something only they could hear.
"Protect him," Sophie said to Daryl, it was a sharp command, and the boy felt a surge of pride that they would trust him with this vital job. They crawled out, heads turning to locate the noise. For the first time, they gave a sharp sigh of relief. They could hear the voice of their clan leader. Sophie called out. "Sentinel Prime we are over here. Over here." She knew that Jeme would hear her.
Jeme was following the scent trail of the child Sentinels, it has crossed with that of his Guide earlier, and for a moment he had nearly zoned when he had smelt the blood, thick and heavy. Then he has crossed to the copses and had recognised his Guide's handy work. The children could not have done this, Blaer was now with them, his scent was strong, and Jeme had followed, quickening the pace. The need burning through him to find his Guide, increased. Jeme and the other Sentinels had pulled up sharply as they had heard Sophie call out.
"Saemund! Saemund!" Sophie burst through the trees. "We have Blaer!" She pulled back as she saw Jeme almost throw himself off his horse.
"Where is he?" he demanded.
"This way, Sentinel Prime. We found him. He's hurt, but he'll be all right now that you're here."
Jeme threw out his senses and latched onto his Guide's heartbeat. The young Sentinels had to hurry to catch up with him. He went unerringly to the mouth of the cave and pulled aside the brush they'd used to block it. Jeme glared at Daryl, then pushed past him, his eyes fixing on this most important part of his life. He put a hand out and whispered, "Blaer? Blaer!" There was concern in his voice that softened when his Guide's eyes opened.
"Jeme…Jeme…" Blaer's voice faltered.
"I am here." The Sentinel gathered his Guide into his arms, pulling him close, almost crushing him tightly. His hands moved over the body in his arms, Daryl forgotten for the moment as the three child Sentinels pulled him out of the way. But Daryl has seen Jeme's eyes blaze and his heart sank, Jeme was still angry because he had hurt Blaer before. When he found out that he had been the cause of his Guides capture Jeme would hate him, he felt the tears welling up in his eyes, but he fought to hold them back. He followed the child Sentinels out to leave the Guide and Sentinel alone.
He could detect a slight fever in the small body, the warmth of bruising, and then his nose twitched and a smell made him catch his breath with a gasp. Then the odor was forgotten in a moment as he felt the tremors running through his Guide.
Jeme suddenly remembered holding his youngest brother Edger when he had been wracked with fever, he had heard the rattle of it in his lungs as he tried to breath, had fought for breath he could not take. The *little one*, his pet name for Edger, had died. He had thought of his Guide as *little one* not just because of his size, but the same need that had called out to him then to protect Edger called out to him in a greater, more intense way when he held Blaer, and now unknowingly the name came to his lips. "I am here, little one."
Suddenly Blaer began to fight, his confused mind seizing on those two words. "No, no! Let me go!" He struggled weakly.
"Blaer, I'm here. Talk to me, please."
"Jeme." A hand reached up and stroked his face. In his half-delirious state, he had suddenly doubted the man holding him. Then he realized it was Jeme, and his body relaxed into his hold. "I don't know what happened, Jeme. I'm sorry. He buried his head against his Sentinel's and tried to climb into his lap. Jeme did not hesitate to pull him close. The Sentinel ran his hands over the smaller body, trying to calm him down. Making him feel protected, his mind wracked with guilt, he had left his Guide behind and this had happened, he buried his face in the long curls, taking comfort from his Guide being in his arms.
Blaer tried to process what had happened during the night, His memories where a little sketchy but he knew that he would never have gotten through it, as he had felt the control stripped away from him. They, the children, had given him all the support he had needed. Then he remembered Saemund's son, at first he had nearly drowned in the hateful emotions. But then those emotions had softened and he had brushed across the mind of another empath and he had channelled them all to form a temporary barrier. He owed them, he had denied them as Sentinels, but they had acted with honour and the devotion of a Sentinel for an injured Guide, made all the more special in that they where all unbonded.
Blaer plucked at Jeme's jacket "Daryl." He felt the flare of anger at the boys name surge through the Sentinel, and gave a soft groan as it tore across his raw pathways. Immediately Jeme was pulling him closer, petting him harder, making concerned noises. "Jeme."
"What?" the look was almost comically distressed. "Am I squashing you?"
"A bit." Blaer felt the arms relax slightly, Jeme would never harm him, and if he did it would be from over petting and cherishing him. He patted Jeme's chest gently. "I am alright. Saemund's boy, he helped me, Jeme, he is an empath."
"No Blaer, he has not, you must be… you where hurting, you… Wulfstein checked him."
Blaer pushed himself back so he was looking Jeme right in the face, "Who is the empath here Sentinel?"
"You are Blaer.” he admitted slowly.
"Then you listen to me, Daryl is an empath. His skill is very weak, he will never be a grey Guide, but he could be a healer." Blaer's strength gave out and he landed on top of Jeme with oomph.
"Blaer he hurt you! He..."
"He is a jealous child Jeme, you're the uncle he never had. He wanted to be your Guide, then I came along."
"He is only a child."
"A child Jeme has strong emotions, and are not always rational." Blaer yawned, his head was too heavy and rested back against Jeme's shoulder. "But he still helped me last night, gave what I needed. Don't be angry with him." His hand touched his Sentinel's face.
Jeme looked round him, "Do you think you can move?" He felt the nod against his chest. The Sentinel carefully drew him out of the cave. Alfric handed over a long hooded robe that the Sentinel wrapped around his Guide, covering him from head to foot. Jeme climbed onto his horse, then reached down as Alfric scooped up his Guide and handed him to his Sentinel.
"Are we going back now?" Saemund asked.
"No first we take Sean and kill any who get in out way." Jeme's voice was a low growl, and there was an answering growl from the other Sentinels. He had marked the scents on his Guide, and now he wanted revenge.
Jeme sat on his horse, a strong arm holding his Guide against him, feeling the head resting trustingly on his shoulder, face flushed with a slight fever. He drew the blanket around to hide him from the eyes of others. Only Jeme could see his face. He felt the link between them and channelled his power into the smaller man.
"The children helped me," Blaer murmured. "I could not have gotten this far without them. I would have overloaded." His hand stroked his Sentinel's chest in small, frantic movements.
Jeme looked down from his horse on the children, still gathered in a protective circle around the Guide. "Sophie, Kira, Justin, my thanks, Sentinels. Your watch is now over. The Guide is safe." For a heart beat he looked at Daryl it was the longest moments of the boy's life, then he said gravely. "My thanks, Daryl for your help as well."
The children blushed slightly with pride under the approving gaze of their Sentinel Prime. He had acknowledged them. The children collected their horses, and joined the Clan, Daryl fell into place next to his father, the young Sentinels where brought into the centre of the group, along with the Guides, to give them maximum protection. Now was the time for revenge, the feayr would protect the guides and the children, while the sentinel went hunting. This was a show of trust in them, if they failed again, the Panther Clan would be a lost cause. Together they rode towards Sean's camp, only when Jeme signalled did the sentinels dismount and start forward on foot.
Jeme moved forward with the stealth of is panther spirit guide, his arm ghosted round the throat of one of the look outs, then a sharp twist and the mans neck broke without him even breathing a warning. He moved on without breaking stride with death in his heart, only one person could call him back from this killing rage, and that person was in no condition to do that. Any of the Clan he met died; one had tried to fight the death incarnate that had coming out of the dark at him. Jeme had gutted him like a deer, blood running from his hands, as his knife had sliced through the man's throat and chest. No one was going to get in between him and the man that had tried to posses his guide.
Sean jumped to his feet and peeked out of his tent for the tenth time in as many minutes. He felt a stab of fear. Out there in the night, he was sure, was the Panther Clan, and Sentinel Prime Jeme was bound to be after him. He tried to settle back against the blankets. His men had him well guarded; no one could get to him. Tomorrow they would head to his brother's territory. There, the Panthers would never dare move against him. Sleep was just claiming him when he felt a cold blade against his throat and a harsh whisper in his ear.
"Hello, Sean. You should have known I would come."
"Jeme…" Sean croaked.
"Your worst nightmare." It was a low growl.
Jeme moved towards him, his knife already red with blood, Sean sank back his hands thrown up to try shield himself from the blade that he knew would pierce his chest.
Simon took a deep breath and turned to switch on the lamp by his side. It had gotten dark, and he had not realized it. He got up, stretched, and looked at the remaining pages of the manuscript. If he were going to finish it, he would need another cup of coffee. He paused for a moment, his thoughts with those of his ancient counterpart Saemund, trying to walk the line between the feayr and Sentinel worlds. He could sympathize with him; some of his troubles would have taxed a saint.
Saemund never thought to see Sean alive when Jeme had set out. It was with relief that he saw the other Clan Leader was still breathing, better that he was brought before the Council, to have them stand in judgment, than have him killed in a blood feud. Otherwise some of the feayr leaders might have used his death as a cause to move against the fledgling mixed clan. Saemund ordered his most trusted warriors to act as Sean's guards then turned his attention to Blaer and Jeme.
Rather than let Blaer ride alone, Jeme held his Guide tightly around the waist in front of him on the horse. Feeling the younger man nestled up against his chest Jeme found the trust that Blaer gave him humbling. The robe masked him from the view of other people. It was to Saemund that he had entrusted the task of helping his Guide onto the horse, his Guide's energy was low, and relaxed by the bonding he needed to rest and sleep to center himself for what would come later.
Saemund and the feayr members of the Clan had understood and taken it as no slight to them. The Dark Guide was processing the attack and its emotions, and in this state had a need to be only with his Sentinel. This all was of the Sentinel world and the feayr wisely stepped back from it. By the time that evening had come round though, it was plan that the Dark Guide was in trouble.
"Your tent is ready," Hender stepped back from the entrance as Bryn came out, "I have laid out the sleeping furs and blankets". Jeme nodded his thanks to his feayr friends, Saemund then said. "Sentinel, take your Guide. I will see to your horse."
Jeme nodded, and then took his Guide back into his arms. A pale hand reached out and plucked at Hender's sleeve, Jeme's head went to one side "He says thank you". The hand dropped away, Hender had seen the shake of Bryan's head and made no attempt to catch hold of it, it was enough now that Blaer had acknowledged them.
Jeme carried Blaer into the small traveling tent and laid him down on the blanket-covered furs. He recognized the pattern on the covering; it belonged to Hender. He made a mental note to thank him tomorrow. Cooing softly, he began to undress his Guide, his hands soothing away the fear.
The need to protect Blaer was transforming into the need to nurture him. His Guide didn't struggle but lay passively as he was undressed. A hand cupped the back of Blaer's head as Jeme checked him for injuries. The big man's face-hardened as he detected the lump from the attack on the camp. With hypersensitive fingertips he lightly brushed over Blaer's now closed eyes and features. He took in the heavy bruising on his shoulder, and a touch to the injured man's stomach brought a deep intake of breath. Lower, he could see the blood on Blaer's thighs and smelled the stink of old sweat and passion.
Blaer's eyes opened and he looked up at his Sentinel, there was such fear in them that it took Jeme's breath away. Jeme was suddenly frightened, he had to make Blaer understand that no matter what had happened during his captivity he was his Guide, and nothing could affect their bond. "Blaer nothing that happened can take away what we have", he trailed off as he saw that his reassuring words didn't get the result he thought they would. Blaer just shook his head, "I felt his emotions, this body, his", the Guide couldn't finish the sentence, "I know what I felt", Blaer's tone was heart breaking, as he pulled free from his Sentinel's hold, wrapping his arms around himself, "I am soiled, no Sentinel can have a soiled Guide, I should have killed myself when I had the chance, before the Sentinels found me, they know of my disgrace…of the disgrace to our bonding". He dropped his gaze from his Sentinels face; he couldn't watch the moment that his Sentinel would reject him.
Jeme caught his Guide's face, this time his fingers held tightly, fueled by desperation. Blaer had to understand that nothing could make his Sentinel send him away. Fear ate away at Jeme, his Guide felt so shamed that he would consider suicide. "Blaer you're my Guide, we are one, one heart one soul, nothing," he repeated, "Nothing, would ever make me cast you out."
Blaer shook his head; Jeme was untrained and didn't understand the rules of the temple. Any Guide used against his will, by another Sentinel, either by rape of the mind or body, or especially if the attacker was feayr, was considered dead to the Clan, and to his Temple. He would be no better than a dead man walking, only to be acknowledged again when he had redeemed himself in the eyes of his clan and his own Sentinel. Until then he would wear the cowl and robe to hide him from the eyes of all, until his time of purification and reclamation by his Sentinel. If Jeme refused to claim him publicly, then he would be dead to all, and Jeme would be free to claim another Guide.
Blaer knew of the ritual, it was long and painful for the rejected Guide, who would soon perish, driven insane by the overload, survival depending on the whim of a Sentinel willing to take in a disgraced Guide. Death would be better. Blaer allowed himself to sink into the void that called to him.
The young man's desperation leaked through the link between the two of them and fueled Jeme's concern, sending him straight into Blessed Protector mode. He shook Blaer almost violently as he said, "I am your Sentinel." He infused those words with power. "You will not leave me like this Guide!" and his hand lashed round and hit his Guide's face with the flat of his hand. Pained blue eyes flew open and Blaer fought back from the void.
Blaer began to struggle in his Sentinel's hold beating at Jeme's shoulders, to hear Jeme say his rejection would be like a stake though the Guide's heart. But his sudden energy was false, as soon as it started it flared out and he collapsed back onto the furs.
"Shush… Shush Blaer, easy". His Guide's chest rose and fell as he gulped in a large lungful of air. Jeme was now desperate; he had to make Blaer understand. "I am your Sentinel" he infused those words with power, "We are bonded and nothing and no one can break that bond. Claimed and marked, until death Guide."
Blaer was silent, didn't Jeme understand?
"Claimed and marked until death Guide!" it was repeated this time with the roar of the Dark Sentinel out to claim its mate.
"Jeme." Blaer bit his lip. "I.... ." He stopped in mid sentence at the roar of Jeme's spirit guide. The ebony big cat walked through the wall of the tent, and circled them, before settling into the body of his Sentinel. Jeme's features changed to the one Blaer remembered from when misguidedly he had released the spirit guide. This was Jeme at his most feral, dangerous and wild, this was his judgment, if he survived the night then Jeme would claim him soon after purification, but if he failed he would be dead, the spirit guide would ordain it.
Blaer was pushed back against the furs, his Panther Sentinel leaning over him on hands and knees. Leaning his head down he took a deep scenting of his Guide, sniffing the long curls and throat, a deep growl coming forth as he isolated the various scents they carried. Sean and other feayr unknown, gradually he made his way down the smaller body, his hands turning him from side to side. His Guide was placid, knowing only that he could not fight this version of his Sentinel.
Finally he came back up and laid his hands on each side of Blaer's head, his fingers gripping the pale face. Blaer felt himself spinning out of control as the raw brutal power that surged through the linkage set it on fire. He gave a ragged cry of pain as each pathway was blasted open, his mouth dropped open, and he was gasping for breath again. Jeme's face vanished and he was looking into the face of the Panther, he raised a shaking hand and his fingertips brushed the other's face. "The circle is complete Guide", the words came through the link. "It is safe to remember".
His memories were forced from him. The voice was insistent "These are memories, they can not hurt you Guide". The words where edged with a deep growl.
He walked round, he felt his face flame at his naked state, Sean all over him, pawing him, trying to rub against him, he could feel the nausea. Then he remembered Sean about to claim his body, rolling him onto his stomach, a strong arm going round his waist to pull him into place. There was nothing Blaer could do to fight Sean off as he was nearly drugged unconscious.
Then he heard the scream of the Panther and it had come through the side of the tent, it's face a picture of rage. Sean had seen the shadow of the cat and been thrown back from the Guide, who's limp body had folded onto the furs. Blaer had lifted his head and seen his spirit, the spirit of the wolf, it's teeth bared, it had run straight at him, the wolf going into him, suddenly he could see himself fighting against the drug, his body thrashing against Sean violently, as the man tried to reclaim his prize.
Sean's hands went to his own head, at the pain that threatened to tear through it as Blaer had focused all his power on the mind of his attacker. But Sean had blindly lashed out, backhanding him. Sean had then reached for a whip and began to beat him, the pounding blows on lower back and buttocks cutting Blaer deep. The smell of the blood, then Sean excited, no longer able to contain his passion, voiding himself over his body. The bastard had gotten off on his pain, Blaer's stomach began to cramp, and then suddenly he was pulled back to the present.
The Panther Sentinel gently, with a feather light touch to his stomach, eased away the cramp. Blaer nestled safely in his Sentinel's arms, primitive, feral, but his Sentinel. Tonight the Panther would stay on watch. But Blaer needed more..
He needed Jeme, but not as the Panther, his Jeme… kind, considerate Jeme. "Claimed and marked until death Sentinel." Blair said the words the Panther Sentinel needed to hear. And hearing them, the feral persona calmed…and withdrew.
Jeme shook his head, clearing it, now he knew. "He beat you, but didn't rape you."
"He didn't rape me." The Guide's voice was weak and sounded lost, but then added, "Say that again." There was a pleading in the younger man's tone.
"He didn't rape you."
Blaer gave a heartbreaking sob and the next moment Jeme had his hands full of weeping Guide. The trauma of the attack triggered an emotional crash. He knew his only salvation was in the protection of his Sentinel. The younger man sobbed until he could cry no more, then, exhausted, he curled up in the arms of the one man that he trusted with his very soul. Jeme eased him back onto the blanket, then reached down and pulled another blanket up and over them. A muttered word, silenced with soft words of friendship.
Outside the tent those of the clan not on guard duty where gathered round the cooking fire in silence, occasionally a man would glance to the tent of the Sentinel Prime, no one wanted to put into words what they where thinking.
The Sentinels sat with their arms round their Guides, pulling them close, needing to feel the connection they felt as they linked, each lost in thought as to what they would have done if it was their Guide. Sean was under guard in the center of the camp and the looks sent in his direction where as sharp as daggers. Sensing the prisoner Sentinel pulled their Guides closer, the man was evil.
Finally Saemund rose to his feet and brushed the leaves off his clothing. He was the Clan leader and thus the chore fell to him, to find out what had happened to the Dark Guide. He bitterly hoped that everything was all right with the dark pair. He made sure that Jeme was well aware of his coming; he could only imagine the state of the Sentinel's emotions at this time.
The tent flap opened and Saemund leaned in. "Well, Jeme?"
"Blaer is all right," Jeme said quietly. "He wasn't raped. That bastard whipped him, but he's all right. The spirit guide came to his aid, protected him… when his Sentinel could not."
Blaer reached a hand out and stroked the side of his Sentinels face, Jeme did guilt so well, and the Panther spirit guide had bought him the time he needed for his own spirit guide to help him fight Sean off. Jeme had sent the spirit guides, whether he knew that or not. But Blaer knew.
"I am pleased for both of you." Saemund passed a hand over his face in relief.
"Sean will pay for what he did. He has been secured." Jeme asked tensely.
"I have Sentinels guarding him with two feayr. We need to take him to the council. He can't get away with stealing a Guide. He will be brought to account for his actions Jeme."
"And you expect justice from his brother?"
"Warren is a fair man. He will see right done, Jeme."
The Sentinel shook his head and turned to his Guide again. Without being told Saemund knew he was being dismissed. Softly, he said, "I will tell the clan about Blaer. Calm their fears about *their Guide Prime*." He left to return to his son and the waiting members of the clan.
The voice was soft and shaking. "Tell the Clan?"
Jeme detected the increase in Blaer's heartbeat. "Easy. The clan needs to know that you are safe." He felt the heartbeat ease.
"Little one?" the name was a question. Blaer felt the heat from his Sentinel's face. He could do nothing to stop the embarrassing flush to his face as he said the endearment, it had seemed so right.
"I am sorry." Jeme said softly as he picked up the tremor of the younger mans voice and body
"Jeme, you called me 'little one.' Why did you do that?" he needed to know. "You pulled back, I.... ."
"That is what he called me."
"I am sorry." Jeme barely had a chance to finish the word.
"When you said it, I felt safe and cared for. But I don't understand why you called me that. Talk to me, Jeme."
Jeme sighed. "I use to call my younger brother that."
"Your brother." Blaer said it carefully, not wanting to spook his Sentinel. This was the first time they had actually talked about him. Jeme had never mentioned a brother, and judging from his expression, the subject was difficult for him.
For a moment, he was quiet, and Blaer feared that Jeme was about to close up.
"My father was a Clan Leader." he began. There was still pride in those words. "Leader of the Firestorm clan. As the eldest son I was to lead in his place upon his death."
Blaer was puzzled. Why would Jeme leave his own clan, where, in time, he would have been Sentinel prime?
Jeme continued, "He disowned me in front of them all, and exiled me from them for life. He turned his back on me, as did my brother, then the rest of the Clan. They lined the way from my tent to the outer limit of the camp. I could only take what I could carry. My life ended then." He lapsed into silence.
Blaer felt a splash of water on his face and he carefully eased back, looking up into the face of his Sentinel. Jeme seemed to be looking at something only he could see. The tears ran slowly, unchecked, down his face. Blaer reached out to him through the link, giving comfort, knowing through Jeme's emotions that this was the first time that the Sentinel had allowed himself to feel and confront his feelings about what had happened. He tightened his grip on his Guide, pulling him closer, and buried his face in the curls, needing to confirm that his Guide was there by his side.
In his mind he relieved that moment, his fathers terse words, ".... A Sentinel unbonded would reach the time of bonding, a great need to take a Guide, would overrule any conscious thought. He would become as dangerous as a wild animal. Driven, he would go on the hunt which could only end one of two ways, death or bonded."
Unwilling to buy a Guide, Wilhelm, Jeme's father, had expelled him from the Clan, before the rumors of his Sentinel son could blight the plans for a rich marriage for Jeme's younger brother Stephen. The girl was from a family outside of the Clans, she would have brought a good alliance to the Firestorm Clan and to the Council, but her father Clark would not want his daughter to marry into a family that spawned a Sentinel. To Clark and his house any Sentinel was unclean and the familiar of the dark gods, evil and unnatural.
To Wilhelm the choice had been simple; Jeme was by his Sentinel nature lost to him, a Sentinel was not allowed in their feayr Clan other than as a mercenary. Jeme's further presence would challenge Stephen's new standing, so it was better that Jeme leave to what every destiny awaited him.
Blaer's heart ached for his friend, his Sentinel. For a Sentinel to be rejected by his tribe was unthinkable. Everything that a Sentinel is was bound in protecting the clan. To be denied that fundamental right could lead an unbonded Sentinel to seek death rather than the disgrace of being alone and clan-less, in a Sentinel society were Clans where the means of defining themselves. The Sentinels would become mercenaries so that even fleetingly they would have a clan, a purpose for living, and to these temporary clans they would give the devotion that they would have given their own. Always looking for a clan that would take them in. For some death came first, others found a home, just as Jeme had.
"I became a mercenary. A feayr tribe called the Panther Clan hired me; they needed a Sentinel. I was in battle when I became lost in the void, and time stopped. When I came to my wits I had been badly wounded. Saemund stood over me, striking down any who came near me. When the battle was won Saemund brought me back to his tent so his wife could tend to me. He trusted me with the two most important things in his life: his wife and his son.
"The amount of trust he had in me still leaves me speechless, Blaer. Once I was healed, instead of turning me out, he offered me a place in the Clan. The feayr Clan accepted a Sentinel into there midst. Saemund did for me the one thing my own father, my own clan could not, accept me for who and what I was.”
“Alfric was the next Sentinel to join. He was very wary when he came across the Panther Camp, his Guide Athos was barely conscious in his arms." Jeme tightened his grip on Blaer, as he relived the fear that had poured off Alfric as his Guide's limp body had been held against him. "He saw me and knew I was a Sentinel, unbonded, but he still came into the camp. He was desperate for help. Alfric drew his sword when he realized it was a feayr camp, but I made him understand, and he allowed Wulfstein to help him, we gave him food and shelter, and they stayed."
"What had happened to Athos?" Blaer asked softly, caught up in the telling of the story, just like a child, Jeme smiled sadly.
"They had needed supplies, so Athos had entered a feayr camp on his own to buy what was needed. But they found out he was a Guide and beat him, forcing him from their camp. I was prepared for Alfric to challenge me, I was Sentinel Prime by virtue of being the only Sentinel there, but I was unbonded." Blaer gently stroked his Sentinels face with the back of his fingers, it was said like a girl admitting they where a virgin, with almost shy embarrassment. "But Alfric, deferred to me."
"He recognized you as a Dark Sentinel. Bonded or not you are stronger than him." Blaer answered with pride.
"And so the clan became mixed. Other Sentinels and Guides followed until we are as you see us now. We all became one Clan, feayr and Sentinel working side by side, making the Clan strong. This, Blaer is your clan."
Even as his Sentinel had said that, Blaer had felt a flare of something in the bond, something that caused anger to bubble to the surface. He knew there was a reason, but his mind could not hold onto it so he dismissed it.
"Our clan," Blaer said proudly. "And anyone who opposes us is our enemy. That includes your father, Jeme. He had no right to send you away from your home and make you sell your sword to earn a living. You're a chief's son. I swear to you, Jeme, if we ever meet I will avenge your dishonor and make him give you back your rightful place."
Jeme smiled at the ferocity of Blaer's words; even now, when he was tired and in pain, he could be roused to anger by a threat to his Sentinel. "No need," he replied. "Everything I want is here." He increased his hold on his Guide, making his meaning plain. As he spoke the words he felt the need to reaffirm their bond and felt Blaer's answering need through their link.
But first he had to put something right. "Blaer, I should not have dumped all this on you. Not when you are hurting, not when you are tired, but....." Jeme trailed off lost for words. But along the link he felt himself embraced by his Guide's emotions, the soft caress of understanding and pride. "Blaer, how could you feel pride in a rejected sentinel?"
His Guide smiled at him, "My pride in that you survived to be there to take me, you are mine, ordained by the gods, a weaker Sentinel would have died before our meeting. Now… claim me, Sentinel."
Those where the sweetest words that any Sentinel could hear, and said with the full trust of a soul-mated Guide. Jeme carefully eased Blaer's head back and looked into the blue eyes, seeing his own need for the deep bonding reflected back. "Claimed and marked, Guide."
"Claimed and marked, Sentinel," they intoned one after the other, taking comfort in the traditional vow.
With great strength curbed by the need to be gentle, Jeme eased his Guide's body down on the furs covering the traveling bed. Then Jeme carefully eased himself down so there was only a slight gap for the cold air to play across his naked body. Blaer reached up and pulled his Sentinel down to him so that he could feel the warmth of his Sentinel's close against him. Needing to feel Jeme, the physical connection re-enforcing the connection that he was about to make through the link, Blaer lowered his barriers so that his mind was open fully. He had total trust in his Sentinel not to harm him; only a bonded pair had this trust. The smaller man fed off his Sentinel's emotions, calming and centering him.
The Sentinel only then opened all his own senses to their highest setting. His body became a touch pad as it blanketed the smaller man, his Guide. To Blaer it was as if they were melting together, becoming one. Words were no longer necessary; thoughts were exchanged and answered between the two of them, comfort given and received, fear and anger purged from their collective minds. The warmth burned out the chill from the Guide's body, and he was able to channel away all the emotions he had absorbed during and since the kidnapping. The Sentinel reached back and tugged a blanket over them, knowing his Guide hated to be cold, then with a soul-deep sigh, slid back deep into the bond.
Saemund sat by the fire, a blanket round his shoulders. He gave a look to the tent and was sure of one thing: if Blaer had been raped there would not have been enough left of Sean to bury. When Jeme had abducted Sean from the camp a guard had interrupted the Sentinel; Bryn had seen the remains and had thrown up. Only the fact that Jeme wanted Sean alive had prevented the kidnapper of his Guide from dying the same way. Jeme had vanished and only the Panther warrior had remained, the Dark Sentinel giving reign to his most basic instincts. Saemund hoped never to see that part of his friend again, now that he truly understood why the Dark Sentinel was feared.
His son cradled against him, Saemund gave thanks that he had been found safe. Daryl's voice was soft, as he made the confession to his father, one that he would one day soon make to the Sentinel prime. "It was my fault that Blaer was taken. I was angry, I ran away from him, this was entirely my fault." Daryl's voice broke into a sob. Saemund gathered him close as he soothed him, his son was growing in mind and body, and he was facing his own mistakes.
A dusk Sophie brought the food to the tent, hearing Jeme as he growled low and deep throated, an instinctive reaction to her unbonded state. Jeme clamped down on it straight way and had the goodness to look embarrassed. She was careful not to brush the Guide's hand as she handed him his food. Then just as quietly she left, but she halted as she heard the soft "Thank you."
When Jeme had appeared the next morning his Guide was with him. Over Blaer's shoulder was his sword and he moved stiffly as if in pain. The smaller man still wore the robe that covered him from head to foot, his face half hidden by the ebony cowl.
Jeme took him over to the cooking fire to break his fast. Sitting down he tugged his Guide down between his legs, pulling him so Blaer's back rested against Jeme's chest one arm anchoring him round the waist, the Guide's sword with his by their side. The Sentinel checked the food before he allowed his Guide to eat. The Guide who was cooking took no offence, it was natural for a Sentinel in Blessed Protector mode, and his own Sentinel would have done the same. When the Dark Guide hesitated Jeme gently rubbed his arms and shoulders, soft words encouraging him to eat. His Guide's barriers where gone, emotionally he needed to remain close to him. The others respected the Dark pairs wishes.
Before they continued on their journey Jeme had taken his Guide to bond, he had detected the tremors starting in the smaller body and had heard the whispered words. "My barriers are gone Jeme." Then he felt the tug on the back of his mind, and he was no longer alone.
It was enough for the Sentinel to act now. Pulling his Guide down onto the traveling furs he pulled the trembling figure tightly against him, and he heard the soft chuckle at chest level. "Jeme I am not trying to run away. You can ease up there."
"I am squeezing you too hard."
"A bit, but you make me feel safe and protected my Sentinel."
"I allowed you to be taken, I should never have left you alone, Sean should... ." Blaer could feel the guilt rolling off the Sentinel; he could not stop a smile tugging at his lips. Jeme did guilt so well. Even after their earlier talk, it was still bubbling just below the surface.
"It was not your fault Jeme. You are Sentinel Prime, you lead the clan, and it was your place to go Jeme. Not wet nursing your Guide."
"Blaer, I left you undefended."
"You left me in your, our camp, I should have been safe. There was no way you could have stopped it happening." He put a hand up and lightly stroked his Sentinel's face with his fingertips. "I am here now, that is all that matters. You came for me, and Sean will pay."
"If his brother doesn't punish him, Sean will not live the day out, my Guide."
With a contented murmur Blaer settled down in the warm security of his Sentinel's embrace. In his mind he was already planning Sean's death, something slow and painful. Then he realized that Jeme was getting distressed as he fed off Blaer's anger, so his hands began to move over the Sentinel's body in firm strokes, soft words of comfort coming from his lips. Blaer took a mental deep breath and allowed himself to relax in the bond, almost immediately Jeme settled.
The Panther clan started their journey towards the Council of Clans; they had broken camp in muted voices. Jeme kept his arm round his Guide, knowing that the younger man needed his support, both mentally and physically.
The Council of Clans encampment lay at the foot of a dip in the cleft of a narrow valley, protected at it's back by one arm of a deep Y-shaped ravine, and at it's front by a rocky stream that ran down towards a swiftly moving river. The Council building, long and rectangular with a thatched roof, was used as a gathering place for the clans.
This was the home of Warren and his clan, which he had named the Peacemakers, believing the gods had given him a destiny to unite the warring clans. It was hard work, but he could see the fruits of his labor growing. Warren was a wise leader; he truly believed that by working together the clans could unite against any threats from the Outlanders who sometimes tried to invade their territories.
Saemund had sent his most trusted man ahead with a message to Warren, telling him what had happened. The Panther Clan leader, his Sentinel Prime and Guide, and their prisoner were escorted immediately into the Council Hall. Only a scant three days had passed since Blaer's rescue.
Warren looked relieved to see his brother in one piece. Although Sean was the bane of his life, and a fool, they were of the same blood. He kept his eyes fixed on the Sentinel Prime, trying to gauge his temper, remembering the rules for dealing with an angry Sentinel. He did not try to look past him to see the Guide; the Sentinel's broad shoulders shielded him, and all he could see was a pale hand resting on a muscular forearm. He turned his attention to Saemund. "My thanks for your restraint in this matter. I wish to reassure you that I consider the kidnapping of a Guide a serious matter, especially one that has so recently bonded. Was he injured at all?" As he asked the question, Warren offered a prayer to the deities that Sean had curbed his obsession with this Guide. All he had spoken about since the attack on the Guide Temple was the Dark Guide, bleating on about his beautiful face and how Warren should have taken the Guide away from Saemund and given him to Sean. Fool, Warren thought; he had far more value as a Guide than as a play toy for his brother.
"He was beaten, Warren, and this dog tried to take his pleasure with him. You are lucky that Blaer managed to fight him off enough to stop him. Otherwise, Jeme would have killed him," Saemund said grimly.
Took pleasure with him, not raped, Warren thought. Sean must have stopped just short of the actual act itself, which could give Warren a way out. He made sure to keep his voice grave. Looking at the Sentinel, he could see the man was on edge; the Guide's pale hand tightened it's grip on his arm.
"You hear what you are accused of, Sean. Have you any explanation?" Warren demanded.
Sean's fears had eased the moment Saemund had decided to bring him before Warren. Though his brother had little love for him, he was a politician, and eager to show that his own brand of justice was better than blood feud. Still, it would make things easier if he gave Warren a plausible excuse to let him off. Speaking with unaccustomed humility, he began, "My clan was not allowed to take part in the bonding because we are feayr, and because of that we have no chance of our women birthing a Sentinel or Guide. Why should we be excluded? Warren you believe that all are equal in the Council, so why not in this?"
Saemund cut in smoothly, "The clan rules state that only Sentinel clans can take part in the mating ritual before the bonding. The women chosen all have Sentinel or Guide blood in their veins."
Warren gave a mental yelp of yes--this was his opening, "But times are changing, Saemund. The Panther Clan has a feayr leader and yet a Sentinel Prime. Perhaps it is time for the rules to be changed, and to invite all the clans to the bonding. What did my brother ask for?"
"He asked for gold, horses and the seed of the Sentinel Prime."
Warren's face-hardened. Damn him, he thought, he would have had a way out but Sean had screwed it up royally with his demands for horses and gold. If it had just been for the Sentinel Prime to lie with the women of the clan, it could be overlooked, or considered as a sign that it was time to change the rules. But the gold and horses made it seem more like extortion. And then, of course, he had let his obsession with the Dark Guide run free. Still, for the sake of peace and Sean's life he had to put the best face on it.
"You think my brother is greedy, wanting more," he conceded. "Perhaps he sees it as redress for not being allowed to participate. He is proud, and quick-tempered; in his anger he may have taken his frustration out on your Guide. These things happen between warriors--you know that, Saemund. Besides, the young man seems to have made a full recovery."
Jeme could see which way this was going: his Guide had been hurt and abducted, and it was being argued down to nothing. "Your brother tried to rape my Guide. Only the fact that he was not able to perform"--it was said with a sneer--"prevented him from completing the act." Jeme's tone revealed his disgust. "So he took his perverted pleasure in another way, by beating him. Does that sound like a dispute over clan rights, Warren?"
The Sentinel's hand covered the pale hand on his arm. His Guide was working hard to keep him focused and calm, but he had given a slight groan of pain, his pathways still raw from the past few days. Immediately the Sentinel turned to him, easing him around so that he could pull him close.
"Sean will pay for the damage done in the attack on your Guide," Warren continued. "But your Guide will submit to the will of the Council. If they decide the feayr clans have a right to participate in the mating, then your Sentinel and Guide will both obey. I think you will agree that this is fair; I will have no special treatment for any clan, Sentinel or feayr."
"Not a whore," said a voice from under the hood. "I am not a whore, that you can barter for my body." To Saemund he snapped, "You will accept no payment from this scum for my attempted violation," and then to Warren, "Punish him or I will see that he doesn't live to see another sun cross the sky."
"If you-" Warren started to warn.
"Try to stop me-hah! You really think you can?" It was said with the fury of a Dark Guide.
Jeme put a restraining arm in front of Blaer, who resisted the urge to go after Warren but still vibrated with anger. "Saemund, you will put our case to the Council," Jeme said tightly.
Sentinel and Guide then walked out, the smaller hooded figure seeming to lean into the bigger, more solid Sentinel.
"Saemund, we--" Warren began to complain.
"It was the vow of a Dark Guide, Warren. If you want your brother to live we need to see that his punishment fits the crime. Remember, the Council includes the heads of many Sentinel clans. How would they see the attack on a Dark Guide, the most treasured of all Guides? The punishment must be one they will accept. Only then will your brother live."
Jeme took a deep breath and felt the weight of his Guide's head on his shoulder. They had started across the front of the Council Hall when there was a call from behind them.
The Sentinel turned and his body became tense. The Dark Guide's hand fisted over the handgrip of his sword as he pushed away, ready to fight and protect. His eyes raked over the approaching man who matched his Sentinel in height and build but was older, his brown hair heavily flecked with gray. This other was still fit, and moved like a warrior, although the practiced eye of the Dark Guide noticed that he suffered from the ague, which would affect his speed and flexibility. As his eyes moved up to the man's face, he realized he was looking at an older version of his Sentinel, and his anger started to build. His thoughts were confirmed when the man spoke.
"I heard that the Panther Clan had come to the Council Hall. You are looking well, son."
"Father." Jeme spoke hesitantly to the man who had disowned him. For a moment, there was an uneasy silence. Beside him Blaer went rigid with anticipation as he realized the man he had sworn vengeance against was standing before them, alone and unprotected.
"What do you want?" Jeme asked scornfully. "If you remember, you disowned me from your family and the clan for being a Sentinel."
"It was the way of the Firestorm Clan, Jeme. A Sentinel would have attracted others of his kind, and they would have brought Guides." He allowed his distaste to spike his words. "The next leader of the Firestorm Clan would have been under the influence of another, who had no tie to us and our kind. You would have been a poor leader, slave to a Guide's whims."
Blaer's sword slid out of it's sheathe, and he rotated it until it was held in balance in two hands. Only the light touch on his shoulder stopped him from raising it. A low growl vibrated in the Guide's throat.
"Jeme, call him off!" Wilhelm was clearly worried, and his voice betrayed a slight tremor.
Jeme could feel the aggression humming through their link. Blaer's anger was on a knife's edge; all it needed was one negative thought from Jeme for the Dark Guide to run his father through. He tried to calm the volatile Guide down, but the link blazed and he found himself thrown out of it in a burst of anger. "Blaer, be calm, and I will introduce you to my father. Father, this is Blaer-my Guide, my family, my brother."
"A Dark Guide?" It was a question that Wilhelm needed answered.
"There are no other, feayr." Blaer spat.
Wilhelm nodded, realizing there was no point in forcing the issue with his son, as long as this growling watchdog was there, better to offer the branch of peace now, and deal with the watchdog later, after all, he was the father; the other was just the Guide. "I was wrong, Jeme." He offered the apology to his son, seeing the surprise on his face. "Saemund has proved how a Sentinel and feayr combined clan can prosper if they work together. I want you to return to our clan as Sentinel Prime. One day your brother will lead the clan. With you as Sentinel Prime, he could lead it to great victories."
"You are unbelievable, father!" Jeme spat. "You cast me out, and then expect me to desert the clan that befriended me. Then you insult my Guide. Forget these arrogant schemes. I am Panther Clan, and none other."
"You are my son. Have you forgotten that?" Wilhelm moved forward and then halted in his tracks. A sword point rested against his chest and he heard the snarl from the Dark Guide as he fed off the anger from his Sentinel, the anger of betrayal by his own father.
"Leave him alone now and walk away." Blaer said coldly. "Stay, and they will carry you away."
"Jeme, can you not control him?" Wilhelm complained nervously.
The Sentinel shook his head. "Come on, Blaer. He's not worth it." Jeme turned on his heels, but Blaer remained where he was and looked the man up and down. He had dared to expel a Sentinel, a Dark Sentinel, from his clan, and his own son at that. After a betrayal like that, the man did not deserve to live. His body tensed up, every emotion screaming at him to strike down this man, but he held his hand. He had felt the emotions from his Sentinel. He might be able to lie to himself, but he could never lie to his Guide.
Jeme had broadcasted his feelings almost as if he had spoken them; he was not yet ready to bury the man. He still felt a need to connect with his father. Only when that had passed would Blaer remove the threat. He would respect his Sentinel's wishes, for the moment, but if the threat increased, then he would deal with it. With a final glare at Wilhelm, to make sure he had gotten the message, Blaer turned on his heels and followed his Sentinel, falling into his place to the left and just behind so that he could protect his weaker side from any attack.
The Council meeting was boisterous, so much so that Warren had trouble controlling it. Sean stood in front of the Council members flanked by two feayr guards of his brother's clan. His face twitched with barely suppressed delight as some of the feayr clan members took up his defense.
Philip of the Hawk Clan had the floor. "All Sean did was what all of us have wanted to do in the past: claim a right to the first mating. But all of us have been refused, because our women are not of the blood. All he did was assert his rights-rights we have been denied. As I see it, there is no charge to answer." Cries of outrage came from the Sentinels Prime. Charles of the Fire horse Clan cut in, "To demand such, that is one thing, but we are talking about the attack on the Dark Guide. To use him like a common slave-that is the charge that must be answered."
Philip looked around at the clan leaders, noting two older Dark Guides. "Come now, we all know the stories of the Dark Guides and the power of attraction they hold over some men and women. Who is to say that this one did not seduce Sean?" There was a murmur of assent, to many not of the Dark Guide's temple faith, of the old religion. To them the rites of the faith, where ritual prostitution in the Temple of Aphrodite were practiced, it was nothing more than a brothel of sin and degradation.
Sean couldn't believe his luck. He would never have had the nerve to make the claim himself, but now that Philip had floated it, it seemed many of the feayr seemed prepared to accept it. He eagerly picked up the bone that had been thrown his way. "Warren, it's true. I didn't dare say it before, knowing how Jeme would react. But the Guide did offer himself to me. When I refused, he went crazy." He looked for support to the feayr members of the Council. "We all know why they keep them locked in the monastery until bonding: so their cravings can be controlled out of the sight of ordinary people. I lost my temper, yes, but you can see that I had cause." His voice had dropped, adopting a wheedling tone.
The sound of two swords leaving their sheathes brought everyone to attention as two Dark Guides charged forward. Their Sentinels moved fast, catching their Guides with an arm around each waist and a hand on each wrist, pulling them back as they tried to link and calm their anger.
"Censure him, Warren, before they do." one of the Sentinel's demanded as he turned his attention back to his own Dark Guide, trying to calm the man down so that Sean would not lose his life in the Council Hall.
Warren turned to Sean and asked sternly, "Will you withdraw that remark?"
Sean looked from one Dark Guide to the other with genuine fear, knowing his own guards were ill equipped to stop them. Still, their rage was playing neatly into his hands, and he was not about to withdraw the remark. "My apologies to the other Guides, but my words are nothing more than the truth."
The Dark Guides bristled, but obeying their Sentinels, allowing themselves to be tugged back into place, they're Sentinels talking low, trying to calm them. It was to them that Warren addressed his next question. "If it can be proved that my brother acted only to preserve his clan rights and his own honor, will you let it go? If he is guilty, will you allow the Council to prescribe his punishment?"
The Guides exchanged a look. The senior Guide, Henri, garbed in the habitual black of his calling in stark contrast to his long, blond hair, nodded. "Present your case to the Council, and let us consider the evidence."
Warren ordered, "Let Guide Prime Blaer be brought in." Blaer entered, flanked by his Sentinel and his clan leader, the hooded robe in place. The Dark Guides nodded in approval at the way he was conducting himself; though young and newly bonded, he clearly understood the ways of the Dark Guides.
Jeme's face was an icy mask as his gaze settled on Sean, the anger becoming a living thing inside of him, curling up ready to strike the man down. A pale hand reached out and caught his arm, and he felt himself calm.
"Jeme, what has your Guide to say to these new charges?" Warren was careful not to directly address the Guide directly. Knowing that the Sentinel would have heard and relayed them to his Guide.
"He denies them!" Jeme's voice rang to the rafters of the hall. "Sean is a lying dog, a coward who would attack a helpless man and then blame his assault on his victim."
"So he made you think, Sentinel," Sean said smoothly. He turned back to address the Council. "Who will you believe: a Temple-trained Guide who loathes all feayr, or the brother of your Council leader?"
Jeme listened indignantly to the mutters of approval for Sean's words. "Believe me, then!" he shouted. "Blaer shared his memories with me. I saw for myself how Sean drugged him, then put his filthy hands on him. He would have completed the deed had not-" he stopped abruptly as he felt Blaer tug on his arm. Apparently he had come too close to matters that were private between Sentinel and Guide.
Warren sighed. This was turning out to be what he had feared: an impasse that split the council down feayr and Sentinel lines. "Jeme, can you produce any other proof? Any witnesses who saw him, during or after the act?"
Jeme looked back at him blankly: it had never occurred to him that the Council would doubt his word. Sentinel Prime Hilderman rose and addressed Warren before Jeme had a chance to reply. "It is the custom of Guides who have been touched by other to seek purification. Is that not so?"
"It is," Dark Guide Henri said solemnly. "Once Guide Prime Blaer's honor has been restored, he will seek purification and re-bonding with his Sentinel."
"Then the evidence you seek is here, on the Dark Guide's body." At this, Sean's smirk vanished; Warren looked visibly relieved.
"Let it be so, then. Jeme, your Guide will remove the robe, and then submit to examination by two of the Council," Warren ordered.
"No," Jeme snarled, "He will not remove it until justice had been done, and he can be purified."
"He will submit to examination." Warren let them hear the steel in his voice. He would not let the Sentinel defy him.
"Warren," a new voice cut in. It was Rufus, a feayr clan leader. His was a small clan, but a successful one. "What if we allow this Sentinel to help us?" He motioned to an antechamber behind the Council chamber. "Only the chosen two will be admitted. It will be done with reverence, and an understanding of his Guide's state."
Warren nodded. "Rufus, you will be the feayr member. Sentinel Prime Hilderman, you will be the other."
Saemund moved to follow the two, but Hilderman blocked him. "Stay here."
"No. He is my Guide Prime."
Hilderman shook his head. "You have no authority here, Saemund." Hiderman like some of the other Sentinel clan leaders was uneasy with Jeme a Dark Sentinel taking second place to a feayr leader. His words where calculated to insult Saemund, to make him understand that in the world of the Sentinel he was nothing.
But Saemund was an old hand at this, and he met Hilderman's gaze head on." He is mine, of the Panther Clan," Saemund snarled. "I know your thoughts on that well enough, Sentinel. If it were up to you no feayr would lead a Dark Sentinel or Dark Guide. But in this room, at least, you will respect my position." He turned to Jeme, gesturing toward the antechamber. "You have my word, Jeme, that this will be as painless as possible. It's the best and quickest way to prove that Blaer speaks the truth." With that, he brushed past Hilderman and entered the antechamber, allowing the cloth curtain to fall into place. Jeme said nothing to Blaer, letting him decide for himself whether he trusted his Sentinel and leader to protect him from further shame. After a few moments, Blaer nodded slowly and glided silently into the small room.
Inside, Hilderman moved a step toward Blaer. "Dark Guide, I am sorry, but I must scent you for the Council. I mean no harm, and I can understand your reluctance to show yourself before the purification, and in front of feayr-he glared at Saemund-"but this must be done." Blaer knelt down, facing his own Sentinel, but he knew his duty. Jeme heard the Sentinel soft words as did Hilderman, Jeme's voice was a low growl, "Saemund come here." The feayr leader moved forward, unsure of what was expected of him. He watched as Blaer slid the sword off his shoulder, and then holding the sword out offered it to Saemund, the symbolic nature of the gesture was not lost on any of them. Saemund took the sword from his hands as Blaer acknowledged him as his Clan Leader, he would not disgrace Jeme with his own distrust of Saemund. Only then did he lower his cowl, letting it drop back from his face he bowed his head, his long loose hair falling forward over his features, acting as a veil, hiding his face from the everyone but his Sentinel and leader, but his eyes where fixed only on Jeme..
A Dark Guide would kneel to only two people, his High Priest or Trainer, then after bonding, his Sentinel. Now kneeling in front of Jeme he was offering himself to his Sentinel, by lowering his barriers he was risking overload on the emotions of the people round him, in handing his sword to his Clan Leader, he was unarmed and in all things needed his Sentinel, the guardian of his body and his soul.
Blaer leaned forward his shoulder leaning braced against his Sentinel's hip. Jeme's hand rested on his shoulder, fingers caressing his Guide's muscles to help him relax, sending reassurance through the link. The Sentinel drew his own sword, holding it in one hand while he placed the other hand on Blaer's head as his Guide lowered his eyes to look at floor. Like this Jeme proclaimed his protection of his Guide.
Only then did Hilderman begin to circle, opening up his senses. Through them he picked up the scent of the younger Guide, then the rank smell of Sean and the scent of his spent passion. With a look of disgust, he exhaled and stepped back. Rufus stepped forward. "May I, Sentinel Prime?"
Rufus knew that he had to progress slowly, showing respect to the Guide's condition at all times. Looking at the young man on his knees the feayr clan leader realized that he didn't have to pretend, something about the Guide called out for no less.
He saw the Sentinel's hand flexed on the hilt of the sword. Keeping his voice level and with reverence, but edged with the command of a council member he ordered. "I have no senses Sentinel, your Guide must unclothe himself."
Blaer's breath came in a quick gasp, as through the link he felt the anger turn to white rage. "Jeme no", and a hand wrapped round Jeme's wrist, "he is only doing what he has been ordered to do." Blaer's mind rebelled at what he was expected to do, a Dark Guide didn't ... He forced himself to keep calm, he was only enflaming his Sentinel's anger more and innocent people could get hurt. Blaer looked up into the blue eyes that watched his every emotion and movement, his protector, his brother, his Sentinel. "It has to be done Jeme. If they want proof, we will give them proof."
Under the cover of the robe he removed his clothes, until only that shielded him. Then he rose gracefully to his feet, his eyes holding only those of his Sentinel, at that moment the world telescoped between them and only they existed. He reached his hands up, and undid the over robe tie, letting it fall by his side, his shoulders moved slightly as he shrugged it off and it fell down to pool at this feet. There was an arch of power between the two of them, as the Sentinel light blue eyes fixed on the darker blue of his Guide, for the moment there was only the two of them. There was no need for a physical touch to transmit their bond; it leaped between the two of them, crackling like static electricity.
Rufus moved forward and the Sentinel with a cry brought his sword round, Blaer moved catching the flat blade between the palms of his hand, holding it.
Jeme felt the vibration move up the length of the sword. "To serve you Sentinel, and to protect you.' Blaer spoke the words of the Dark Guide oath.
Jeme knew the response by rote, but this time the words hung in the air heavy with meaning, "To protect you Guide, and to serve you."
"Your sword at this time is not needed, kneel and pay witness." Saemund's mouth dropped as his friend, his Sentinel, who would bend a knee to no man, went to his knees in front of his Guide, his hands holding the sword pommel against his lap, the blade resting against his shoulder, the razor sharp tip pointing to the ceiling. "Now feayr do what you have to do."
Rufus placed a hand out and touched the Guide's hip, he felt the younger man flinch away, and then force himself to stand still. Then the older man remembered something he had once heard, "Guide you may read me." He placed his hand on the Guide's arm. The Guide never broke eye contact with the Sentinel that knelt at his feet, the low deep-throated growl was a sound no normal man would make, and it was the sound of the wildest and most dangerous animal. A primal animal ready to kill to protect a mate. "Easy, son, no one here will hurt you," Rufus said gently, not knowing who he was aiming the remark too.
"Do what you have to do, I see you take no pleasure in it, you are a man of honor."
The skin of the Guide's shoulder was marred by bite marks, the marks where that clear that he could see in the bite the imprint of Sean's buck teeth, if feayr eyes could see that what would a Sentinel see? Crisscrossing the Guide's back was a mass of welts, red and angry, still swollen.
Blaer flinched again at the touch that spiked pain through his back, but he forced himself to keep still.
The welts carried on down over his backside, and down between the cheeks, it was clear that they had been inflicted with great force, and the regular pattern told him the Guide had been helpless at the time, bound or perhaps drugged, no Dark Guide would have laid unmoving for such treatment.
Rufus kept his voice level, and respectful. "I know this has been hard for you, Guide Prime, but it had to be done for the sake of justice, and be seen to be done. Please cover yourself now." Having seen the damage to the Guide, he bent to pick up the robe, but Hilderman, caught him and pulled him back. "No Rufus, no scent other than the Guide and his Sentinel must be on the garment, other wise he might see you as a threat, and he would kill you in the state he is in at the moment." Hilderman, turned. "Your forgiveness for intruding on you at this time Guide. You have born it well, a credit to your calling and to your Sentinel. Come Rufus, we will go back to the council."
He didn't need to add 'to give privacy to the Guide while he dressed'.
Warren sat with his fingers pressed together forming a pyramid, only the slight whiteness at the fingertips showed the pressure he was putting on them as he watched the antechamber. As soon as he saw the small group come out, he knew what the verdict would be. All he could do now was try to control the amount of damage.
"Thank you for your help in this sad matter." He took a deep breath. "What are your findings?" He looked at the young Guide, covered again by his hood and leaning against his Sentinel.
Sentinel Prime Hilderman cleared his throat. "The Guide Prime has been attacked, and has the scent of the prisoner all over him, and the stench of his seed." His blunt statement caused cries of outrage from the Council members. Warren turned to the feayr member, the man looked equally as grim. "He has been beaten, and no man would willingly allow that degree of abuse, this was no love play Warren, this was an attack on a man who could not protect himself."
Warren turned to his brother. "Sean, I will soon call for a verdict. There is nothing I can do to save you from the will of the court. None of us is above that. Do you have anything to say?"
Sean licked his dry lips. This was not going the way he thought it would, but he still hoped to save his own life. "The fault is not mine. He seduced me. He cast a spell on me-we all know they're capable of that." He appealed to the feayr members of the Council. "Dark Guides are sorcerers who bind themselves to their Sentinels with Dark arts. They train in the use of their bodies. We have all heard the rumors of the rites they practice," he leered. "He used them on me. I was bewitched. I am the innocent party, and he is the one who should be punished."
Warren had to stop himself from yelling at his brother, who seemed intent on digging his own grave. Several chairs slammed back. Suddenly the guards that were holding Sean were on the floor, sword points at their throats the weapons held by Sentinels.
Sean himself was on his knees, the blade of a knife pricking at his throat, a thin line of blood beading its keen edge. The Dark Guide Henri had moved too fast, and he seemed ready to execute Sean there and then.
"No!" Warren shouted. But his cry did not still the Guide's hand. Instead, it was a yell from the younger Dark Guide.
"Leave him be!"
"He attempted to dishonor a Guide and the temple!" Henri nudged the blade, causing Sean to let out a squeal of fear.
"He failed. Besides, he is nothing more than a base animal, uncontrollable. I want him punished too, but not like this, not so they can call him a martyr. The punishment must be in public." He walked over to Sean, looking down at this upturned face, reaching over his shoulder, he fisted the hilt of his sword, and pulled it down and across his body, and it slid from the sheath. The blade pressed against Sean's groin, and his voice dropped to a bare whisper. "If you ever touch me again, I will make a woman of you, Sean." Blaer spat on the ground and turned away to rejoin his Sentinel. Jeme had his back to Blaer his sword at the ready, facing off the Peacemaker guards who from their position at the doorway had moved toward Blaer the moment he pulled the sword.
Blaer returned his sword to its sheath, and then to Saemund's relief turned his attention to calming his Sentinel. The Clan Leader saw the muscles in the Sentinel's jaw relaxing, as he felt his Guide's hand move over his shoulder in the gentlest of caresses, the touch of the hand and the soft tones that only he would respond too.
Henri smiled; the young Guide had spoken well, conducting himself like a seasoned Dark Guide.
Warren took a steadying breath. "The verdict?" He went around the Council, but it was a foregone conclusion that his brother was doomed.
As Panther Clan leader, it was Saemund's right to state the sentence he was prepared to accept. For what he had done, Sean deserved death.
Warren turned to the Jeme, as he asked, "Will you abide by the ruling of the Council?" The last thing he wanted was Jeme to call a Sentinel Blood Feud down on his brother, if he did then Sean's life could be counted only in minutes, he would never live to walk across the court yard.
Jeme didn't answer.
Warren for the moment didn't press, "Dark Guides, are the most treasured of all Guides, honored by the Council. Do you bide by the ruling of the Council?" Although their Sentinels where Council members, the very volatile nature of the Guides meant that they might go their own way to remove a smear on the name of their order and on the assault of one of their kind.
"We will, if our brother Guide does."
"Guide Prime?" Warren waited.
Jeme did not attempt to try and link now, because he knew that Blaer would strike out through the link. It took all of Jeme's willpower not to sway his judgment with a look or gesture. If Blaer's honor required Sean's death, than he must support his Guide in that, no matter the political consequences for the clan. He lowered his head in token of agreement with Blaer's decision, whatever that would be. After a long moment, Blaer broke the tense silence.
"As my Guide wills." Four words but said with great deference to his Guide.
Saemund sighed with relief. As Clan Leader, he, not Jeme, would have to pronounce a sentence that would satisfy the Sentinels and Guides, as well as Sean's clan and kinsmen. He knew that Sean's execution would split the Council along the very lines that Warren was trying to unite them. In his own clan, he would have to build bridges between feayr and Sentinel after the feayrs lack of help in protecting the Dark Guide. Everyone looked at Saemund and waited.
"I will accept a payment of no fewer than ten horses for my clansmen killed or injured in the raid, but not for the assault on my Dark Guide." He saw the look of disgust on the faces of the Sentinels-his Dark Guide? "For that I demand blood. Only that can erase the stain on my Guide."
The Council gasped, but Warren nodded, clearly understanding his intention. "Agreed, Saemund. Sean will be whipped in the main compound-twenty-six lashes-and he will be banned from the Council for the span of a year. His clan will not be able to attend the gathering. Will that satisfy your Guide's honor, Saemund?"
Saemund nodded. "Blood for blood."
Sean stood to receive his sentence. He had kept his mouth shut as his older brother had warned him to do; although he was angry, he was not stupid. He would wait his time, but he would one day own the Guide, willingly. The man would come to him, or so his brain deluded him into thinking. In the meantime he had avoided the death sentence, being tied to four horses, with the horses beaten to render him limb from limb. Saemund was weak; he had not pushed for the death sentence. Next time, he would make sure Warren gave the Guide to him.
Sean's thoughts snapped back to the present as the guards strode forward, taking him by each arm. Tamely he allowed himself to be led out under guard. The Sentinels filed out, some stopping to offer words of support to the Sentinel and his injured Guide.
Outside, in the courtyard of the large Council Hall, the people had gathered to watch the punishment be carried out. Warren could have demanded that it be done behind closed doors, but instinctively he knew that would not have appeased the Sentinels. A Dark Guide had been kidnapped and attacked. Justice not only had to be heard being done, it must be seen. All their attention was fixed on the grim figures escorting the cringing figure of Sean. He shot a worried look at his brother, hoping he might call the punishment off, but all he saw was the neutral look of a politician. This issue was bigger than his brother. His very position as head of the Council was being threatened, he had to proceed carefully; he had to be seen to rise above his blood ties to his brother and work for the good of the Council.
Sean was taken to the pole in the center of the courtyard, his hands tied above his head, his shirt pulled down to his waist. Warren nodded as Jeme moved forward; as the aggrieved Sentinel, it was his right to administer the punishment. The Sentinel's eyes fixed on the figure in the long robe that stood a step nearer than the others, hearing the words spoken Sentinel-soft: "His punishment is yours, Sentinel."
Jeme's arm arched back and Sean screamed as the first of the lashes fell across his back. "One," Warren intoned, as he counted out his brothers punishment, each blow was measured, and delivered with the vengeance of a Dark Sentinel.
But Warren was all too aware that they had yet to address the question of the feayr being allowed to partake of the mating, his brother's guilt had quieted the voices in the council, but it hadn't made them go away.
The punishment complete, the injured man was taken away to the Peacemaker healer.
Blaer had felt anger and the right of retribution burning through the link as his Sentinel had administered the punishment. But at the same time, the same emotions were eating away at the Guide. He needed to meditate, to bring his mind to calm, to center himself as he had been taught.
The senior Dark Guide Henri came up to Jeme, acknowledging the Dark Sentinel, and then turning to Blaer to speak in the ancient tongue. Blaer answered levelly, trying to master his emotions so they would see he had not forgotten his training. After a few moments they reached out and drew him into their keeping. Jeme started forward, only to be stopped by a hand against his chest. It was Hilderman. "Let them care for him, Jeme. He is a Dark Guide and of their calling."
Reluctantly, he watched the Dark Guides shepherd his Guide away. Blaer settled down onto the blankets in Henri the senior of the Dark Guides tent, and laid his bonding sword across his lap. The other two sat down in a circle, their own swords overlapping, to form a ring of steel. The incantations started with a burst of color as the senior Guide threw powder onto the small fire. They each spoke in the tongue of the ancients, breath and heartbeats synching. Their sprit guides, a lynx and wolverine, came out of the walls and sat near their masters. From behind him Blaer's wolf appeared and settled down at his side. Finally together, they set off across the spirit plane, flanking them walked the large cats of their Sentinels, in this plain as in the real world they, like their Sentinels, would protect their Guides. Here Blaer would face his fear and his future.
Later that evening, Jeme sat on the ground by the fire, Blaer sitting between the long, powerful legs of his Sentinel. His back was against Jeme's chest, and a strong arm was wrapped around his waist. Jeme's head rested against his shoulder. His Guide was more relaxed after his time with the other Dark Guides, and seemed more centered. Blaer's hand moved on Jeme's thigh in small strokes, thus he received and gave comfort, knowing what his kidnap had done to his Sentinel, so soon after their bonding.
Jeme still couldn't help feeling that Blaer might have felt pressured into accepted Sean's punishment. Tightening his arms gently around his Guide, he asked, "Blaer, the punishment-blood for blood-was it enough?" When he got no answer, he asked more bluntly, "Will you kill him?"
There was a long silence before Blaer said, "Justice has been done, for the moment. So he will live."
"Good. By all that's holy, I wish I could have killed him myself. But to kill a feayr now could cause trouble between the clans. Innocent people could suffer for Sean's crime."
"I'm not sure the feayr members of the Council even considered it a crime," Blaer said bitterly. "Half of them were nodding their heads when that dog was telling his blasphemous lies."
"I don't understand that. Blaer, what was he talking about, about the monastery--?" He pulled his Guide a little closer as he felt a shudder run through the smaller frame.
"Dark Guides are known to have a power of attraction that other Sentinels, and some non-Sentinels, cannot resist. As we go through the grades of our calling, and our powers increase, the attraction can grow greater and greater. For that reason, we are kept in the monastery until our time of bonding. Then and only then are we introduced to our Sentinels, to accept or reject them."
"Only you did not have the chance to do that," Jeme said hollowly, as he lifted his head up.
Blaer leaned back, his arm coming up to circle his Sentinel's head, and pull it down into the crook of his neck as at the same time he tipped his head back offering more of his throat to him. He made a contented noise as his Sentinel tried to draw him even closer. "I would not exchange what I have here and now for any ritual bonding in the Great Hall of the Temple itself. We are one soul, joined." The hurt came back into his voice. "Sean, that bastard, is of the kind of feayr attracted to Dark Guides, and he-" he stuttered. Jeme carefully ran a soothing hand over him, calming him again.
"You are a pure light, Blaer. Do not let him take that away from you." He nuzzled his Guide, taking comfort in his scent. For the moment, he was Jeme's world.
"Claimed and marked, Sentinel."
"Claimed and marked, Guide." Jeme had lifted his face to talk, and then he dipped his head to nuzzle his face against the crook of his Guide's neck again, searching for, finding and inhaling his rich scent. Now there had been justice, Blaer could start on the way of putting his life together again. Beginning with purification.
Wilhelm had walked to the Panther Clan encampment, thinking that his son might be in a better mood now that his Guide's attacker had been punished. Spotting a tall figure by the campfire, he came closer.
He could not hide his displeasure at what he saw. He looked around at the other members of the Panther Clan seated before the fire, and could not understand how they just accepted this closeness between Sentinel and Guide. In fact, the feayr members were smiling and nudging each other, happy; it appeared, to see their Sentinel and Guide Prime together. Jeme did not move, having felt his father's presence the moment he entered the net his senses had woven around them both.
"Don't stand in the dark, father. Come in." He had no choice but to ask; he knew his father, and the man would not go away until he spoke his mind. Better to see what he wanted. Nothing good, he predicted; he had seen the look on his face, and the distaste in the way he glared at his Guide.
Wilhelm nodded, knowing his son would see it. The hooded figure stirred, and the arm tightened on his waist for a moment. "Jeme, we need to talk, son." He paused. "Alone."
"Blaer is my family. Remember that, father. He stays."
"As you wish. Have you given any thought to my offer? It is genuine. Stephen wants you to come back. He misses his brother."
"He wanted me out, father, and you know that. He wanted to be the leader of the clan. My Sentinel powers were the godsend that he wanted, so that he could take from me what was mine by birth, and you threw me out without a thought."
"Never think that, Jeme. But I had to think of the clan. We were small then, and struggling. I put the clan above everything. But now things are different; the Panther Clan have shown that." Wilhelm was willing to appeal to his son's beliefs, to show that he understood the new ways and would adapt to them. Stephen was hotheaded, inexperienced in the ways of battle. He spoke of making alliances with the very factions that could destroy them. He needed Jeme as a counter-balance, and was willing to work hard to get his son back.
"As Sentinel Prime, I should be clan leader." Wilhelm saw the Guide smile coldly at that. "I should be the next clan leader, by right of age and blood. You are offering me nothing new."
Wilhelm motioned to the fire. "May I sit?"
Jeme nodded. This version of his father unnerved him. Behind his polite surface was the same man who had beaten him when he made a mistake. He had pitted one son against another to compete for his love and affection. When he had become a Sentinel, this man had disinherited him in a heartbeat. Now the man was trying to tell him that he wanted him back. It felt so very wrong.
"I offer you a way back to your own clan, to your real family. With the love of your family, you would not have to find solace with this-person." Wilhelm kept the sneer out of his voice with a visible effort, but his meaning was very clear, to him Blaer was nothing more than a common whore. Wilheim had heard stories of Dark Guides and their bonding, giving their bodies to their Sentinels to bond them even tighter; their very religion was based on ritual prostitution. What more could you expect from them?
"We are a bonded pair, father. Do you know what that means? I am no longer alone. I have my Guide, my soul mate, and together we are stronger than either of us alone. I am a Dark Sentinel, and I no longer need your approval. I have grown beyond that."
"This person-" Wilhelm spluttered. "His kind uses Dark arts; they can set charms to enslave a man. I heard what Sean said."
"Then you listened to the words of a liar and a criminal," Jeme said scornfully. "To live without my Guide would be like having part of my soul missing. Only when I am with him do I feel complete. He helps me extend my abilities farther than I could ever have dreamed. He is my anchor, my link to sanity. The sanctity of the bonding is something you can never understand. It is something only such as we can know, feayr."
Wilhelm shook his head. "Have you forgotten that I am your own flesh and blood? Are we really so different? Jeme, you are my son."
"Now you remember," Jeme hissed. "Go back to your real son, your feayr son, father." Evidently feeling Jeme's distress, Blaer reached up a hand to caress his Sentinel's head.
"How can you let him touch you like that, that f-" Wilhelm stifled the comment in time, but Jeme understood is intention.
"Freak? So, father, you nearly said it. And that is the reason I will not return to you. Here in the Panther Clan, we are needed and respected. With you I would be a tool to control Stephen, nothing more. So, no." He marveled that he could still read his father this easily. Then he snapped back to the present "No, Blaer, it's all right."
Wilhelm looked to the robed figure that had said something that only Jeme had heard. Now a strong hand was running over the smaller, leaner body. A look of undisguised disgust passed over the older man's face.
Jeme gave a sigh; his father would never get over his prejudice. "Saemund accepts the need of a Sentinel and Guide to be together. All you see is what your imagination paints for you. Go, father. Leave us now." He turned his attention back to his Guide.
Wilhelm's anger burned. He was not used to being dismissed, especially not by his own son. "I will see Warren tomorrow. He will make you return to your clan Jeme. He is a father himself, and will understand the pain I feel, seeing you lead this mockery of a warrior's life, among people who have no regard for your honor."
Jeme raised his head to look at him for a long moment, and then said with a chilling voice, "Go, father. You have nothing you can threaten me with. This is my clan, my life." Then he turned back to his new life. Blaer watched the retreating back of the older man. As he disappeared beyond the edge of the fire, he gave a low snarl, and his Sentinel gathered him close.
That night Blaer lay curled up in the arms of his Sentinel. Their tent had been given a position of safety near the fire. Its light flickered through the open flap of the tent, showing Blaer his Sentinel's face. In the presence of his Guide, the emotionless mask that normally hid the Sentinel's features was no longer needed as a defense. Even as Jeme slept, Blaer could the lingering lines of strain and worry. His mind made up, he gently pushed his Sentinel toward a deeper and more peaceful sleep. Then, slowly, he got to his feet, pulled his clothes on, and slipped out of the tent, his dark garments merging with the night.
Wilhelm woke to a hand across his mouth and the prick of a knife against his throat, a strong arm holding him, pinned.
"You will leave the camp tomorrow morning," Blaer hissed. "You will not attempt to hurt Jeme again, otherwise I will kill you. This is not a threat, it is a promise." The Dark Guide's voice sent chills through him. Then the pressure and the knife were gone.
Early in the morning, Wilhelm was in conference with Saemund. "Your Dark Guide threatened me last night. He entered my camp and my tent and told me to leave the Council. I admit we have had our differences, but Jeme is still my son. I can't believe that he would allow this man to threaten my safety."
Saemund leaned back against the saddle he was using as his backrest. "Then you are a fool, Wilhelm. So far that Guide has tried to kill me three times, and only your son's direct interference has prevented him from succeeding. The Dark Guide is hard to control and only his Sentinel can do that. Blaer sees you as a threat to Jeme. Keep away from him, and you will be all right. Go against him, and I am sure your funeral will be glorious."
"That young man is barely into his manhood. I am a warrior tried and tested. I have nothing to fear from that stripling." The smug contempt in his voice angered Saemund. The man was not even honest enough to admit to his own fears, he had to try and bluster and blow, but he fooled no one. Saemund tried to warn him.
"That young man is a trained assassin, a Dark Guide. Believe me, you do not want him after your hide." Involuntarily, Saemund rubbed his throat.
Jeme's father was thoughtful when he left. He had listened to Saemund, but did not believe him. Jeme was his son, and that bound him tighter to him than any hocus pocus that the Dark Guide could conjure up.
Jeme had always been hard headed, setting his face against the wind. Eventually, he would make him see sense. And he in turn would control the Dark Guide, and if he strayed out of line, he would make Jeme discipline him. The Sentinel was the master, the Guide his tool, just like his sword. Everyone knew that. Other rumors came back to him like whispers in his mind, things said around the campfire about Dark Guides and the Dark arts that they used to bind their Sentinels close to them. He would not let that little freak stop his son from regaining his place in their clan.
He searched for his son for some time, finally spotting him as he emerged from one of the Fire horse Clan's tents, striding back in the direction of his own camp, the Guide still at his side. "Jeme!"
The Sentinel turned as he heard his name called out, and his face automatically became emotionless. He had heard this tone of his father's before, and for a moment he was back in the Firestorm Clan, his father coming out of their tent with the belt in his hand, calling him for punishment, using the same tone that demanded complete obedience.
"Father?" In his mind he heard the echo of the younger Jeme.
"Please, Jeme, we have to talk."
"We have nothing to talk about." He wanted to cut his father off now, before it was too late. The last few days had been traumatic enough; he did not need this.
"Oh, I think we do. That unnatural creature of yours tried to kill me last night. What do you have to say to that, Sentinel?" The way he said the title made it sound like an insult.
For a moment Jeme just looked at his father, and then spared a quick look at his shadow. His Guide had threatened his father? Blaer looked back at him calmly, neither surprised nor ashamed. With a shock, Jeme realized he had forgotten about the sense of responsibility of the Dark Guide. He could read Jeme's emotions and had acted on them. Seeing a threat, he had moved to neutralize it, only holding his hand at the last moment-no doubt because he had also read Jeme's desire not to physically harm his father.
"If he had tried to kill you, father, you would be dead," Jeme said coldly. "That was a warning. Take it as one, and leave me alone." Jeme turned and started to walk away.
Wilhelm's face was suffused with anger. How could his son walk away from him, how dare he? He grabbed Jeme's arm, pulling him around to face him.
"You would turn your back on your own family and clan? If you will not return alone to your own clan, then bring the Panthers with you. Saemund is no fit leader. The man was a war slave-he had no family. The bards cannot sing of his ancestors. Old Tagg his clan over to a weak man, trying to cling to power by buying off those he could not conquer. He insults the other clans with his presence at the Council." Wilhelm abruptly realized the affect that his scorn was having on his son. He dropped his voice and let it become more coaxing. "We are fourth-generation clan leaders, destined for power by the gods. We could merge the Panther with the Firestorm. You see? You need not even leave your friends behind."
"Saemund is our leader, and a well-respected one." Jeme said sternly. "I would not challenge him. And though you may scorn it, the Panther Clan is rising quickly. We have twice as many horses as last year, and three times as many Sentinels."
Wilhelm sighed. "You were always too loyal for your own good to waifs and strays. But you know you could challenge Saemund if you wished." He looked slyly at Blaer, as if he thought the Guide might favor the idea. "The Council would support your leadership. That creature of yours could remove Saemund, if you do not want to soil your hands. No one would blame you for it, and he will do your bidding." He grabbed hold of Jeme's arm as his son spun around and tried to walk away.
Jeme's face was livid. He could not believe what his father was saying. He tried to keep his anger from igniting into action. "No, father. We have our own life now, one built on honor and loyalty-concepts you seem to have forgotten. Leave us, and I will do my best to forget this conversation ever took place."
Wilhelm's face darkened. "Just as I feared. You are a coward after all, Jeme, afraid to take what is yours by right. You allowed yourself to be thrown out of our clan. If you'd had the guts, you would have fought for your position. You are a weak-willed coward!" He was trying to goad his oldest son into reacting, a strategy that had worked before. But Jeme's hand reached out and caught his father by the front of his shirt.
"If being weak means I cannot kill my own father, then I am weak. But challenge my clan, father, and I will not stay my hand." He gave him a hard push away, turned on his heels, and stalked back to the tent.
Standing nearby was the Dark Guide. For a moment, Wilhelm looked at him, but could not meet his gaze and had to break contact. With a shudder, he left quickly.
His plan had to work--he needed the strength of the Panther Clan, if he was to defeat the Sunrise Clan and their leader, Kincaid. Already the man was poaching in Firestorm Clan forests. Just yesterday he had received a message that a Sunrise spy had been captured near the camp. Soon Kincaid would make his move, and without a Sentinel, they would have no warning. Once Jeme realized the threat, his son would do as he wanted, and the clans would come together. If needs be he would play Kincaid off against the Panther Clan. Kincaid had embraced the new religion that believed that Sentinels and Guides where the spawn of the underworld. If he could get Kincaid to turn on the Panther Clan, then Kincaid would die without endangering Wilhelm's own clan. One thing he knew was that Jeme would not run to Saemund, his son kept his own council but he would not forget what had passed between them.
Saemund was busy running a knowing hand over the hindquarters of a white stallion. The horse was smaller than the others in the herd, but was quick on its feet and had the agility needed in battle. He was bartering down the owner; finally he spat on his hand and shook on the deal. The horse was now his, a gift that he would have great pleasure in giving that evening
The Clan leader, not being a Sentinel, had been unable to hear the exchange between the son and father. But he had witness the confrontation and had seen the storm on the father's face; no good would come from it.
Wilhelm stormed off to the Council Hall where he found Warren and some of the clan Chiefs drinking ale and arguing over grazing rights. They all looked up in surprise as he said angrily, without preamble, "That creature of Jeme's tried to kill me last night. Is that the protection that you give to visiting clan leaders? This is a place of truce."
Warren carefully set down his cup. "First, Wilhelm, tell me: what did you do to bring his wrath down on you? The Dark Guide is very protective of his Sentinel."
"I was only trying to talk sense into my son. It seems that demon thinks I have no right even to talk to him."
"I will not get between you and the Dark Guide. If you have a problem with him, talk to his Sentinel. I certainly will not be brought into the matter." He paused for a moment to dismiss the other men. When they had left the hall, he continued, "Wilhelm, I know of your history. You disinherited your own son. The other Sentinel Primes know of it as well. Your standing in the Council is weakened by it. You will never be able to win them over while you are estranged from your son. So make your peace with him, and his Guide, as Saemund has done."
"That slave!" Wilhelm spit. "I offered Jeme the chance to merge our clans, and he swore his loyalty to a slave instead."
"Jeme sets great store by Saemund," Warren said sharply. "He saved Jeme's life, remember that. Honey catches more flies than vinegar." But he could see that the older man was not listening. "I can do nothing to punish Jeme's Guide for the attack. When you're ready to make a truce with Jeme and Saemund, let me know, and I'll arrange it. Otherwise, you must take your chances."
Outside, Wilhelm looked up at the blue summer sky dotted with white clouds, trying to calm himself. He glanced across at the camp of the Panther Clan, and then walked back to his own campsite. Stephen sat next to their tent, in the middle of trading furs for tools with a local blacksmith. Stephen was smaller than his older brother, and not so muscular, without the years of training. His hair was light brown. Wilhelm's face softened; this son had the looks of his mother, and had made a good marriage, even if his wife was proud and demanding. If his oldest boy had turned against him, his younger one had been obedient, and deserved to inherit a strong clan, no matter what the cost.
All that had happened made Wilhelm's choice in the matter clear, so he turned on his heels and headed into the village to the local drinking den. He found the man he wanted and pushed a mug of ale to him, saying, "Tell me about the Guide."
When the man had first approached him with his idea, the older man had sent him packing, believing that his hold on his oldest son was still as strong as ever. But know it looked as if he would need him. The man took a deep pull on the ale knowing that he had the Clan Leaders full attention, and started to speak.
Wilhelm nodded with satisfaction; soon all the pieces would be in place.
A new group had arrived in the Council Hall. High Priest Dar pushed the white cowl from his face and tightened his grip on a tall staff decorated with carved images. Trainer Denis flanked him; with them was a group of the temple guards. He had come to see Warren. The last attack on the temple had finally convinced the Temple Elders that they needed some protection from the clans. Denis was still moving a bit stiffly, recovering from his wounds. He could sense the Sentinels moving among the people in the hall. Although no longer able to bond, he could still feel them, like an itch that could not be scratched.
Denis stiffened as he recognized one of the men who had taken part in the Temple attack, the tall, powerfully built Sentinel who had taken his favorite student by force. He looked around him but could not see Blaer. Surely they had bonded? This man would not have traded Blaer to someone else. He wanted to question him, but there was Temple business to attend to first.
The Temple party was given rooms in the Council building; places of honor reflecting the importance Warren gave to their presence at the gathering. Tomorrow, after they had rested, the Council would discuss the distribution of the Gray Guides.
Among the group was Adrian, a Gray Guide too young to bond. He was one of ten brought along by Dar to be matched with the young Clan Sentinels. They would be allowed to meet ten unbonded Sentinels, to make their choices guided by their own instincts. For two years they would continue to meet, chaperoned by trainers. Then, when the time was right, they would bond.
Denis had sent Adrian out into the camps with a message for Blaer, whom the trainer had learned was indeed at the gathering. The young man was uneasy, remembering Blaer from the Temple. There was something about Blaer that had unnerved him, but he did the bidding of the senior trainer.
He kept his head down as he walked past the bonded Sentinels and Guides. The Sentinels turned to look at him, then ignored him. He was a Guide, but he was not leaking the linkage scent that would mark him as a Guide ready to bond, the scent that would attract an unbonded Sentinel to him.
Stopping a few times to ask feayr for directions, he finally found the Panther Clan camp. He immediately recognized the Sentinel Prime from Denis' description, sitting in front of a tent cleaning his sword. He walked over and knelt down, lowering his head so that it touched the ground. After he had shown proper respect, he looked up. "I am sent here by Dark Trainer Denis. I have a message for Dark Guide Blaer."
"Blaer is not here at the moment," the Dark Sentinel said civilly. "He is with the other clan Dark Guides. Give me the message and I will make sure he gets it."
The Gray Guide hesitated, and then dug out a roll of parchment. Jeme did not bother to look at it since he could not read or write. "I will give it to him."
"My thanks, Sentinel." Adrian touched his head to the ground again, and then got to his feet. Jeme pocketed the parchment, feeling annoyed at the pointless display of formality, but not wanting to upset the kid by showing displeasure. He finished his chore and headed back into the tent, joined a few minutes later by Blaer. The Guide slid off his black robe and let it fall to the floor, sinking down onto the furs next to his Sentinel, allowing him to pull him close.
Jeme's senses went around him, taking in his vital signs as he felt the tug at the back of his mind. He could tell Blaer was at peace, free from the emotional turmoil he had experienced following the attack.
"What did they do, Blaer?" Jeme spoke softly, his face pressed against his Guide's, marveling at the soft, silky feeling of Blaer's hair and the richness of his scent.
"My brother Guides allowed me to draw on them. We meditated, and now I know what I must do to reach harmony with you and myself."
"Later, Blaer I need to bond. Now." But as Jeme moved to draw him closer, Blaer's eyes fell on the parchment. "When did this come?"
"A Gray Guide delivered it, not an hour ago." Blaer pushed himself up and reached for it.
"Blaer-" The Sentinel sounded put out, he wanted to bond, but his Guide was already pulling the tie from the parchment and reading it through.
"It's from my mother," Blaer said, and Jeme immediately understood. One of the things that had saddened the young man about the way he left the Temple was that all his scrolls, including his mother's letters, had been left behind. The sadness caused by this reminder leaked through to his Sentinel, and he felt a heavy hand begin to pet him. His mother's letter was written by the local scribe in a cramped hand, and told of her fears for him as he neared the end of his training. As he finished a quick perusal, Jeme pulled him down next to him on the furs and curled around him, giving physical and mental support to his Guide.
"What does it say, Blaer?"
"My mother heard about the clan gathering from one of the men she called to the faith. She was concerned that if there were no truce made between the clans and the temple, I might be targeted by a Sentinel." Blaer's voice dropped to a whisper as he read the rest of the letter, the tightness in his body soothed under the gentle hands running over his body, easing the tension, nestling him close.
His Guide was so fierce and protective that it was easy for Jeme to forget how young he was, how much he had lost when they had bonded. He vowed then and there to make sure that his Guide would not suffer for that.
Blaer sat up, looking down at his Sentinel. "You said a Gray Guide brought this from the temple? Do you know who it was? I must see him."
"Some priest arrived with the Gray Guides and that man from the temple when I claimed you".
Jeme shrugged; he did not know the man's name. He gave an angry snarl as Blaer jumped to his feet, and reached out to try and grab his Guide. But Blaer pulled back away from him. "Don't worry, Jeme, I will come back soon. But I must see them." He reached down and snagged the robe, but froze as he started to put it on.
Jeme rose immediately and touched his arm. "Blaer, what's wrong?"
"Do you think they are still here in camp? Did they say when they were leaving?"
"They have to complete their deal with Warren. Besides, they only just arrived." Seeing his words did little to reassure Blaer, he added, "You have plenty of time, little one. I promise you."
Blaer hesitated. He needed to see Denis, but at the same time he could see the deep need showing in the Sentinels eyes. Jeme wanted to bond, now, Blaer smiled. "Then we bond."
Jeme gave a chuckle as he was suddenly pushed down onto his back, an excitable Guide pinning him down. At any time Jeme could have pushed him off, but he did not. His heart ached as he saw the need burning in his Guide's eyes. But through the link he could feel his Guide laughing. It was infectious; he was so pleased to hear it that he joined in.
In a tavern brothel, one of several that served the Clans, Lash laughed gratingly as he took the gold coins. "Keep your distance, Wilhelm," he warned mockingly. "You would not want your son to know that you had his Guide killed. Once Bastard Blaer is out of the way, we will unite the clans."
Personally Lash didn't give a damn about Wilhelm's plans. But he could see in them the chance at real power; the Dark Sentinel would, under his guidance, kill Saemund. And through Jeme Lash would gain control of the Panther Clan. Then the ambitious Dark Guide would have the two clans together; perhaps with the death of this old fool Wilhelm, even Warren's position would be for the taking.
"You know something of this Blaer's history?" Wilhelm asked, he needed to know.
"He is perverted. He gives all Dark Guides a bad name. He would roll over for anyone. That is why he was going to be expelled from the Temple." The lies rolled easily from his tongue. With glee he saw the older man buying into it. He could stoke the man's hatred, and then manipulate him. All the time they had spoken Lash had been reading the man's emotions. Now the time had come to put his plan into action.
Wilhelm watched Lash leave. There was a risk, but he had been told that if Blaer were killed Jeme would live, as long as he could be made to bond with another Guide immediately. Or he might die… but Wilhelm was prepared to accept that chance, if necessary to save his clan.
Lash was a perfect partner in his quest. Once bonded to Jeme this Dark Guide would be an asset to the Sentinel, his age giving him a maturity that Blaer lacked. And if things went as intended, well Jeme would be in no condition to argue. If the rest of the plan worked out, then Wilhelm's involvement would be untraceable.
Blaer rose from the bonding. Jeme was still asleep. He pulled on the black robe, tucking the cowl in place and swinging his sword over his shoulder.
He found High Priest Dar walking through the camp. When he heard his name called from the dark, the Temple guards accompanying the esteemed elder moved forward, but Dar recognized the voice and waved them back. "Come forward, Guide."
The black-robed figure stepped forward and then, still a yard away, went down his knees. The cowl-covered head touched the ground in total submission to the High Priest of the Temple of the Guides.
"I heard what happened to you, Guide." Dar's voice was sympathetic. He would not say Blaer's name while he was unclean and unclaimed. "Your Sentinel-is he willing to reclaim you?"
"Yes." Blaer fought against the pain the cramped position caused in his abused body.
"I am pleased to hear it. Then I will officiate at your ceremony."
"I would be honored."
Dar reached down and laid a hand on the bowed head, giving his benediction. "Meditate, Guide. Bring your soul to peace. Then, at dawn, you will be purified before all. Denis will bring the ceremonial wine. The time of your test is at hand." Dar then swept past, leaving Blaer on his knees.
Jeme stood watching in the shadows. His Guide was too precious to be allowed out unguarded. Some members of other feayr clans were openly hostile to Sentinels and Guides, and some made sport of going after Guides, although to attack a Dark Guide would be suicide. He saw Blaer get slowly to his feet and walk away. Jeme shadowed him back toward their tent. Blaer was taking the longer route, not wanting to go through the busy center of the camp.
Jeme pulled back as he saw three men begin to shadow his Guide. As they drew closer, he smelled the stink of sage, and lengthened his stride. Blaer spun as he heard the word "Danger!" shouted near his ear, his Sentinel's voice vibrating through the link. Blaer fisted the hilt of his sword. In the moonlight, he saw the flash of a blade and parried it, then slashed, forcing the attackers to back off. After a moment, they pressed forward again, placing him on the defensive.
Jeme plowed into one of the men, bringing him down with a crash. Jeme's hand sought his knife. He was bigger and stronger than the attacker and pinned him down easily. Without hesitating, he slashed down into his exposed throat, blood soaking his hand. The second attacker turned his attention from Blaer and moved toward Jeme, slashing down with a wicked-looking curved blade. Jeme twisted away from the body beneath him as the sword cut into his thigh. The man pulled the blade back to stab again as Jeme rolled clear, scooping up the dead man's sword, pain overridden by the killing rage of a Sentinel willing to protect his Guide at all costs. He deflected the blade and jumped to his feet, the power of his blows forcing the attacker back.
"Alfric, Blaer is under attack!" he yelled. As he twisted the attacker's blade down, his elbow smashed up into his foe's face. The man faltered, his grip on his sword slackening, and Jeme wrenched it out of his grasp. The assassin grabbed for his knife and the last thing he saw was the blur of a blade as his head was taken off with one powerful stroke. Jeme's attention was now fixed on the man his Guide was fighting.
Alfric arrived with a roar, and with him the Clan Sentinels having heard Jeme's almost silent cry for help for his Guide. Their torches held high, they encircled the fighters in a ring of steel. Alfric pulled Jeme to his feet, a strong arm holding him up. Lash backed away from Blaer, shouting, "Blaer, I challenge you and your right to be reclaimed by this Sentinel. You are unclean and unclaimed. He will be mine!" As he spoke his face showed pure rage that the plan had gone wrong. He was sure, though, that he could put it right. Blaer would have to accept the challenge. If he won, he would escape the wrath of the Council; if he failed, death held no fear for him.
"You," Jeme breathed, stepping forward. "You died in the hunt."
"No, Sentinel," Lash said, smiling. "I jumped in the river. The current took me away. Your hunting pack thought me dead. But now I am back to claim what is mine."
"Challenge is accepted," Blaer intoned.
"No!" Another voice cut Jeme off before he could protest further. The High Priest pushed through the crowd, which parted in front of him in respect, the Gray Guides going down on their knees. "The time of challenge will be at noon, in the center of the camp. This will be done in the light of day, not hidden from anyone's eyes. Lash, the Temple guards will take you to the Council Hall. There you will await your destiny.”
Turning toward the target of Lash's ambush, the High Priest commanded, “Guide, go to your tent."
"His name is Blaer." Jeme snarled.
The high priest turned and looked at the barbarian who had claimed one of his brightest and most talented Guides. "No, not until he is cleansed. Until then, he is no one's. Guide, prepare yourself for dawn."
Blaer moved back, accepting he had been dismissed. The High Priest seeing the barely suppressed anger on the Sentinel's face, reached out to him. "Sentinel you are a bar...." he trailed off for a moment.
"A barbarian." it was said with sarcasm, something that Jeme didn't do well.
"Yes, you are ignorant of our way, if it is not done correctly Blaer would not be recognized as your Guide and he would be open to challenge. This will be done by our Temple Laws, in the light of day, and in the eyes of those gathered he will be yours again."
Hender was by Jeme's side, he put a hand out to help the wounded man, and Blaer was suddenly at his Sentinel's side, pulling him violently back, his hands moving over the wounded men. "Our tent, now. Just hang on, Jeme."
He looked at the High Priest as if challenging him to deny him the right to tend to his Sentinel. Dar ignored it, what he didn't see he didn't have to react too. He knew that Blaer was bonding with his Sentinel; technically it was against the rules until the reclaiming was completed, but as a High Cast Priest he had been able to see the bond as it snapped and crackled between them. In his soul of souls he knew that he was looking at a pair that would reach the highest bonding level, and the fact it was being reached so quickly was a source of amazement to him, considering the events of their initial bonding.
Once inside the tent, Jeme felt himself being eased onto the furs. Blaer was fussing over him, his smaller hands pushing away Jeme's own. With great care the Guide pulled down his Sentinel's trousers, easing the material away from the gash. Cold fingers probed and examined the wound, causing Jeme to take a quick intake of breath.
The Dark Guide was in his healer persona, pulling close the pack that contained the herbs and cloths Wulfstein had packed for them. He selected two plump tubers and cut them with his knife. He then used the butt to pummel the tubers until thick, white sap came out. This he then applied to the leg wound and bound it with a clean cloth.
Even though it was more of a flesh wound Blaer treated it with just as much care as a more severe one, knowing that men could die of small cuts if the flesh went bad. All the time he was working he was talking, and Jeme just lay back with a tolerant look on his face as his Guide worked
Finally Blaer declared the injury not serious and would heal cleanly as he knelt back on his haunches and wiped the salvia from his fingers.
Blaer had started to straighten up and put away his medicines when an arm caught him around the waist in a tight hold. The Dark Sentinel had come to the fore, his eyes burning with the renewed need to bond. He pulled the Guide down, a hand going to pillow his head to prevent it hitting the furs. Jeme felt the familiar tug in his mind and suddenly Blaer was there. His mind opened wide at the first touch from the empath. Nothing was held back; one soul, one mind, they reached another level as they mentally relived their first joint combat, taking no pleasure in the deaths, but savoring the way each had looked after the other.
Jeme channeled his strength to the Guide, saying softly, "When you face Lash, you will already have been reclaimed, and you will kill him. No one will stand between us and live." Blaer nestled close to him.
"Sentinel Prime?" the speaker called from outside the tent.
Injured or not, Jeme reached for his sword. Blaer's hand grabbed his wrist. "No. It's Denis." Jeme could hear the smile in the Dark Guides voice at the thought of his old teacher.
Blaer opened the tent flap so Denis could duck in, nodding to him curtly. "Greetings, Guide." Now he was all business; later, he could talk to his former pupil as he wished, but now he had to serve the Temple. His eyes slid over to the barbarian Sentinel who had his Guide at his back, ready to kill to protect him.
He held out a beaker. Blaer reached for it, but Jeme snatched it away, his senses flaring as he scanned it carefully. Denis kept perfectly still. He remembered fondly his own Sentinel doing this very thing for him, fully twenty years ago. "There is nothing harmful in the drink Sentinel Prime," he said. Finally convinced, Jeme handed it to Blaer.
"B-Guide, drink it to start the preparations for the ceremony. It will not harm you." Blaer drained the drink, and then pulled himself into the meditation position. He would need all of his abilities of control as his barriers came crashing down. Jeme curled around his Guide, his stomach, thighs and chest, pressed against Blaer's back, his body keeping contact with the smaller man, grounding him.
The Sentinel woke a little while later, his nose twitching. Blaer's scent was heavily overlaid with the linkage scent? His head snapped up; his Guide was in the heat of bonding. His anger burned-how could they have done this to them?
"Blaer?" he called softly. The Guide jerked and scurried away from him. Fear now mixed with his scent. His Guide was skittish as Jeme looked over every inch of his body, searching for the source of his discomfort.
"Blaer?" he tried again to put a hand out, only to see the young man flinch back when he understood… they had broken the connection between Sentinel and Guide, leaving Blaer confused, his normally clear blue eyes dazed.
"It's all right, my Guide." Slowly Jeme inched toward him, frightened he would be rejected again. But this time Blaer flew into his arms, holding tight, shaking violently. With one hand, Jeme wiped back the sweat-stained hair. "You don't have to do this, Blaer. I don't care what they say, you don't need any kind of-"
"Purification. The High Priest is going to officiate. It must be open to all who wish to witness the reclaiming." Blaer's voice trembled, body shaking like a leaf in the wind, his hands clutching at his jacked to try and stop the tremors in his fingers.
"Easy." Jeme opened his mind fully to his Guide, but the drug blocked the connection and he felt the loss keenly. He could not even start to imagine what it was like for the Guide. But what he could offer was physical contact with his Guide. Carefully, as if he was fragile, he laid his Guide down on the thick furs. His Guide suffered from the cold and Jeme would not have him endure it. Cooing, he gently opened the robe and then reached for the tunic, but slender fingers reached round his wrist. "It's alright, Blaer let me."
The hand dropped away, passively.
The tunic was laid down by his Guides side, then Jeme moved and pulled off the boots, unconsciously he checked them, they needed resoling, his Guide would not go round ill shod.
Blaer's distress was getting worse; the Sentinel reached a hand down and gently stroked the upset man's chest and stomach, small circles, soothing, his voice pitched to calm the volatile, skittish Guide.
Then he removed the Dark Guides trousers before removing his own clothes, and then lay down next to the other. Unable to link Blaer would need to feel the touch of skin on skin, the warmth, the trust. He gathered the smaller Guide to him, pulling the blankets round them snuggly, tugging and placing the shivering form in the most comfortable position.
Blaer still could not sleep, although some of the tension came from his body; the Sentinel gently petted the smaller body, at the same time cursing the Temple of the Guides. It angered him that they would put this pure soul through such an ordeal.
Cold hands slid round his waist and the curly head buried itself against his chest. Slowly the shuddering slowed as Blaer felt such warmth from Sentinel, both body heat on a physical level, and the feeling of being cherished, touching his very soul.
Jeme's voice was soft against his Guide's ear as he began to tell a story. It was one from his child hood, he was rewarded with a chuckle from chest level, by the time he finished the tale, his Guide was asleep against him. Only then did the Sentinel follow his Guide into sleep.
A hand on his shoulder woke Saemund early. He followed Hender and Bryn out to the river behind the Council camp. Blaer and Jeme were already by the riverside. Joining them were the two other Dark Guides, Henri and Tepic, and their Sentinels. Others also began to gather, some Sentinels and Guides from the clans, others merely feayr drawn by the novelty of witnessing one of the secret rituals of the Temple.
The High Priest started the ceremony by turning to the rising sun, chanting in the ancient tongue, hands held up to welcome the rays of light as they fell across the dark robed figure laying on his stomach before him. He lit the herb sticks that circled the man, the blue smoke filtered up into the early morning sky, the scent sickly sweet. The High Priest turned to one of the officiating senior Gray Guides. Taking the burning tapers of incense, he etched out the sacred patterns above the man prostrating himself on the ground. Then he reached down and pulled the cowl back, exposing the Guide's head for the first time. He lowered his hand to rest on his head, the other reaching up to the sun. The chanting grew louder as he called on the sun god to cleanse the soul of the Guide.
At a sharp order, Blaer pulled himself up to kneel upright as the High Priest pushed the robe back from his shoulders. It pooled around his knees as the sun played across his pale skin, the injuries for the first time exposed to the gaze of the watching Sentinels and feayr clan members.
The reaction was instantaneous, Guides where pulled closer to protect them, an instinctive reaction to the abuse of a Guide.
Another command, and Blaer got to his feet, entered the icy cold water of the river, and knelt down again. The High Priest waded into the river, dipping the white ceremonial cloth into the water and wiping it over the shivering body, cleaning off the shame. Turning to the crowd on the bank, the high priest said, "Welcome back to the Order, Blaer, Guide of the Temple." He was giving Blaer's name back to him. The days of the cowl were over; he was reborn, and now he had to be reclaimed.
Jeme stepped forward; the linkage scent was carried to him across the water as his Guide emerged from it. Blaer's eyes were burning now with the deep need to be claimed. The Dark Guide closed the distance until he stood so close to his Sentinel that they were almost touching. The drug-induced linkage scent was heavy in the early morning air. Jeme's senses opened wide. He could see the water beading on Blaer's forehead, the wet strands of his long, curly hair. He could taste the linkage scent as it underscored the scent of his Guide that he knew so well. Blaer shivered as, in his heightened state, he could feel Jeme's senses wrap around him, the tingling becoming more intense as they ignited pathways already sensitized to this Sentinel-HIS Sentinel!
The linkage scent triggered the instinctive nature of the Sentinel to claim his Guide, for him all logical thought had escaped, it was as if they where bonding for the first time. For the moment all that had gone before had vanished, all that remained was the need to take the Guide and make him his.
Jeme began to circle him, his hands held out, fingers never touching the other man, but gliding just above his skin as he confirmed the body map of his Guide. Trembling racked Blaer's body as the power arched between them like static electricity, his body swaying into the touch of his Sentinel, only to have the hand pulled back to avoid actually contact, Blaer's breath was coming in short pants, as the need to be claimed by the Sentinel was increasing, the need to be touched was becoming unbearable, the linkage scent got richer and thicker, as the need became keener.
"My Guide, chosen of my own free will, through this life and the next!" Jeme's voice roared out into the morning. "Joined mind and soul, reclaimed before the gods!" His hands reached out and cupped the young face, his eyes burning into Blaer's and he felt a smile tug at his lips as he felt Blaer enter his mind. The need to be one again was like fire across the sensitized pathway.
Jeme lowered Blaer down onto the layers of blankets that had been prepared for him. The Guide reached up and pulled his Sentinel down to kneel by him, their eyes fixed on each other. Blaer looked up into his face, seeing total trust there. A hand brushed Jeme's neck and powerful shoulders and arms, small strokes linking the power and strength of the Sentinel to the knowledge and wisdom of the Guide. Then a strong hand lowered Blaer reverently onto his back.
The High Priest moved forward, his face showing surprise as the Sentinel growled low and deep in his throat as he came to close to the young Guide. In the temple the Sentinels accepted the High Priest's presence, but this barbarian Sentinel in the throes of bonding, could only see him as a threat to his Guide.
With a show of trust Blaer tipped his head back exposing his throat to his Sentinel as the Priest offered the bonding knife to Jeme. Like this the Guide was offering his life to his soon to be bonded Sentinel, if he was rejected at this point the knife would slash across his throat and take his life, it had happened before in the temple history. He felt a powerful hand circle his throat. "My Guide, my partner, my mate." The words where said with such power and conviction that Blaer felt it through to his very soul, his body trembled at the intensity of it vibrating through the link.
The warm hand then moved and was placed above his heart. The throb of his Guide's heart sounded in his ears and under his fingers, taking the knife he cut into the flesh of Blaer's chest above his heart, the blade making two vertical lines, then one diagonal line, and from it two smaller lines in a V. He reached for a small vial of dye and added it to the wound. When healed, it would leave a mark. Saemund and the others recognized it; it was the mark that identified Jeme's property: his sword, his horse, and now his Guide.
For a moment Jeme's eyes and nose where filled with the blood, he was slipping towards the void, then a cool hand rested against his wrist, and Jeme came back to see Blaer's concerned face. Jeme laid the knife down, then reached and pulled his own tunic off. He moved back, pulling Blaer into a kneeling position, and handed him the knife. The High Priest started to move forward… this was unheard of; the Guide was going to mark the Sentinel!
But one look from Jeme caused the Priest to halt in his tracks.
Blaer took Jeme's arm, his hand traveling up, his Sentinels limb in a gentle caress, his eyes never leaving Jeme's face. For a moment his hand stroked his Sentinels cheek, then the fingertips gliding over his lips, the stern features that for him could soften into such understanding, compassion, love and trust.
The knife bit into the Sentinel's arm as Blaer drew the same design adding to it a double V instead, the mark of a Guide added to that of his Sentinel. The heart of the Guide was the wisdom of the partnership, the arm of the Sentinel the strength of the partnership, coming together as one. Then he added the dye, marks they would carry to the end of their lives.
"Marked, Sentinel." he intoned.
"Marked, Guide." Jeme repeated.
The marking of a Guide by his Sentinel was only done in the presence of the High Priest of the Temple, as it marked one of the highest levels of commitment between a bonded pair. For Blaer, Temple-trained, this was important; it showed that his Temple supported his bonding, even though he had been taken by force.
Now Jeme heard the sweetest words that a Sentinel could hear from the lips of his Guide: "Claim, Sentinel." the words swept over him like a caress.
Saemund knew how Jeme protected his privacy; the idea of stripping naked in front of the watching crowd should have been enough to send him striding away from the riverbank in disgust. But this was not Jeme… this was the Dark Sentinel. The crowd watched avidly as the Dark Sentinel's strong hands eased his Guide back down onto the blanket, and removed the rest of his own clothes, he could see the Guide's head moving to one side as if seeing the people for the first time. The scent of fear came off him, made more intense by the linkage scent. The Sentinel lowered himself down, taking the weight on his hands so as not to hurt his Guide, mindful of the injuries at the hands of Sean. Now only inches separated the face of Guide and Sentinel, the nerves that had wracked him where replaced by need.
Reaching up he pulled Jeme down on top of him, his legs wrapping round his Sentinels own, his arms round the larger man's chest and neck, so that he could bury his head against his Sentinels neck, hiding his face from the watching people. The young man's shy action brought a smile to the face of his Sentinel. Even at such a time. His Guide was so young. He ran a steadying hand over Blaer's, his voice pitched only for his Guide's ears, "Sssh little one, it will soon be over, what we do now, no one can take away from us."
Blaer lifted his head slightly, then rested it back down again, just those words and the look on his Sentinel's face, the pride he saw reflected in Jeme's eyes, for him, gave him the strength to calm. With a gentle sigh he brought their heartbeats into synch. It was as if a burning sensation traveled through the length of their bodies as they touched. To Sentinel and Guide it was as if they melted into one, then Blaer's head went back and he screamed as the Sentinel's mind ripped into his, there was no subtlety in the entrance, it was enforced with the need. Blaer was flooded with the high emotions of the Sentinel, the pathways where like fire, but even as he screamed he rejoiced in the bonding, his yell was echoed in the deep roar of his Sentinel, as he was claimed, and he in turn claimed, in front of all, for all to see and bare witness too.
Now no one would doubt that he had been reclaimed by his Sentinel The reclaiming would prove to the clans that Blaer had been taken back into the tent of his Sentinel, that the partnership of the bond was just as strong as before. Without it, the clans would consider Blaer a non-person, without status, and another Guide could challenge him for the right to bond with the Sentinel.
The bonding complete, Jeme returned to himself first. He looked down into Blaer's face and saw an almost dreamy expression, the sated look of contentment. Ignoring everyone he bundled Blaer up in the blankets, rubbing him briskly to get the blue out of his lips and nails. Then he helped his Guide dress, leaving behind the discarded robe. It was no longer needed; the purification done, his Guide could now regain his place in the clan.
Jeme's arm tightened around his Guides waist as Hender and Bryn approached them, carrying the Dark pair's weapons. Blaer was linked to him, and was leaning on him mentally for support since his barriers were still low. As feayr, Hender and Bryn knew that their role as bodyguards to the Senior Guide Prime was an honor that showed their standing in Jeme's eyes. Although reclaimed, the drug had not left his system, so Blaer still reeked of the linkage, and Jeme wanted him protected, he could see to many hungry unbonded Sentinels for his liking, and to them Blaer would be toothsome. Desperation might lead one of them to a suicidal attempt to make Blaer theirs.
Alfric came up to them with his Guide, Athos "Jeme-" he broke off as he inhaled the linkage scent. A low growl came from the base of his throat, Athos increased his hold on him, and Blaer plastered himself tightly against Jeme. "Why, by the gods, did they have to do that to him?" Alfric demanded.
"If Jeme had rejected me, then I would be open to bonding with another Sentinel," Blaer answered. Jeme growled, the Dark Sentinel objecting to Alfric's presence near his Guide. "Jeme," Blaer added, "It will fade. I am yours."
The Sentinel meanwhile looked at the position of the sun in the sky…there was other business yet untended to. But there was time for Blaer to rest before answering Lash's challenge.
The High Priest had meditated long into the night, about the challenge to Blaer's claim on Jeme. He could have ordered the reclaiming to be put back so that Blaer would have had to fight first, but his distaste of Lash had increased as he had heard about the low handed attack at Blaer's bonding at the clan. Blaer was young, the uncertainty would have affected him badly in the fight, and so the High Priest had made him undergo the reclaiming ceremony first. Now Blaer would meet Lash with the full rightness of the bonding behind him. And he would kill this creature that had brought the temple into disrepute.
"You need to rest, Blaer." Jeme said as they made there way slowly back to the tent. Hender and Bryn took up positions at the entrance as Jeme carefully guided his friend gently down onto the furs. His strong hands, their sensitivity tuned to the body of his Guide, slowly massaged away the tension of the morning so that his Guide would be at his best for the fight. He felt Blaer's stomach muscles cramp slightly, and touched them with feather-light circles to ease it away. Suddenly he was pulled down, and found himself nose to nose with his Guide.
"Lash will die now," he hissed. "No one will live who threatens our bond." Jeme tried to pull back but Blaer clutched him tighter than he would have imagined possible. "No one claims you, Sentinel. Jeme, you are mine and only mine!" The rage of the Dark Sentinel fanned the Dark Guides anger as Blaer was channeled the aggression of them both, and turning it into a weapon for his battle with Lash
Lash was escorted out of the Council Hall by a few of the Gray Guides from the Temple. He had meditated and was ready for the fight. Last time he had drawn blood, and Blaer knew it. That put him one up on the younger, slighter Dark Guide.
The two Dark Guides saluted the high priest, but kept their distance. An instant after the High Priest had signaled his readiness, Lash lunged, trying to catch Blaer off guard, but the young Guide dodged him. Jeme almost charged Lash, but Saemund pulled him back, saying, "The kid is all right, Jeme. He can take him." But as the Sentinel stood, he let his knife slide down his sleeve into his palm. If Blaer fell, then Lash would die, even if it meant his own death. No other would claim him. He would die with his soul-mated Guide.
Lash attacked, pushing Blaer back, not allowing him a chance to go on the attack. He swung his sword low and Blaer jumped, more fluid in his movements than Lash was. The swords reflected the sunlight as the blades flashed, back and forth. Both men were good, taught the same way; to the onlookers it seemed like an even fight. Death would come to the one that made the first mistake.
Lash watched Blaer intently; the kid was better than he remembered, but he had a habit of turning to the right, a habit, Lash grinned to himself, that was about to get him killed. The blades caught and Blaer forced them down into the dust. Lash slammed a knee into the younger Guide's body. Blaer had twisted to the left, and instead of stabbing his groin; the blade had caught him in the side. Pain shot through him, and his fist smashed into Lash's face. As the older man stumbled backwards, Blaer put more distance between them. He took deep breaths, trying to control the pain, but he couldn't rise from his knees.
Lash put a hand to his face; blood streamed down from his broken nose. Angry, he rushed at Blaer. Jeme had to be held back as his instinct to protect his Guide came forward.
Blaer deflected the sword aimed at his head, and then dropped his other hand to his boot. Grabbing his knife he thrust up into Lash's chest. Shock and pain marred the older man's face; he could not believe he was dying. He stumbled backward and then down onto the ground. Blaer pulled himself to his feet, needing to lean on his sword. The high priest rose. "Challenge is answered. The Sentinel is yours."
Jeme went to his Guide's side, an arm holding him upright. The Sentinel suddenly pushed his Guide down as his hand moved to the knife Blaer still gripped in his hand; he grabbed it and then his hand snapped back. Lash took the knife in his throat. This time, he did not get back up again.
With a gentleness that stemmed from his concern for his guide, Jeme stopped Blaer from rising while he pulled the tunic up to check the wound, it was more messy than serious but care would have to be taken to prevent it from rotting. Jeme had seen too many people die from a scratch to take any wound to his guide lightly. Only then did he help Blaer up, and escort him to their tent, and his territory.
In the background Wilhelm fumed, furious that he had failed, not once, but twice, to rid himself of the troublesome Guide. The only positive thing was that knowledge of his involvement had died with Lash. But now a golden opportunity had also passed, and he was no closer to getting his son back to the Firestorm clan.
The Panther Clan was getting ready to return to their range. Saemund walked over to the Dark pair who were busy loading onto Jeme's horse all the gifts they had received from allies who had been unable to attend Jeme and Blaer's first bonding. A smile touched his lips as he watched the big sentinel fussing over the smaller guide, not letting him carry anything because of the wound to his side, the younger guide face was a picture, it reminded him so much of his son, a sort of pained tolerance.
"Blaer?" The Guide looked at him thoughtfully, not sure what the feayr leader wanted. "We thought you were lost, and you were returned to us. I am more pleased than I can say that you have decided to stay, when you might have returned to the Temple to seek a proper pairing." He gestured behind him. "This is from me, to celebrate your reclaiming”. He called over his shoulder “Hender”
The young feayr clansman led a white stallion forward. "This horse has no connection to the tribute and is clean of all things associated with it. You will need a horse of your own for the hunt." He smiled. "I hope you will accept it."
Blaer looked at Jeme and saw him smiling widely. But there was something he had to know. "Saemund, Sean said that you would have paid the ransom only to regain an asset to be used. Was that true?"
"No, Blaer, we set out to return you to Jeme by force if needs be. If Sean had hurt you... ." Saemund voice faltered slightly, unable to say 'rape you', instead falling back on the words hurt, he added, "I would have killed him." Saemund felt the Guide's hand touch his arm as he probed his emotions. Although they were only surface emotions, Blaer knew he spoke the truth.
"Then I am honored to accept the horse from my clan leader." Jeme's hand ruffled Blaer's hair. It was hard to understand what went on under those curls. Jeme knew that Blaer was quirky and intelligent, too smart for his own good sometimes. Despite his youth, the Dark Guide needed a strong Sentinel to keep him in line, and a leader to channel his remarkable abilities in a constructive direction. Maybe this gift, from leader to Guide Prime, would cement their ability to work as a team. Saemund pulled Jeme to one side as he noticed the Dark Guide's trainer, Denis, coming toward them, guessing that they needed some time together.
Blaer was running an admiring hand over the horse's flanks when he turned to find Denis standing behind him.
"Blaer, are you all right?" Denis looked surprised to see Blaer, unhurt and apparently unguarded by his Sentinel.
"I am now. Denis, it's good to see you. I was worried that you had been taken prisoner during the attack on the Temple."
"Your Sentinel marked me as Panther Clan, leaving me with a Clan sword, so none tried to claim me. I was concerned that the barbarians would force me to bond then and there, even though I am no longer able."
Blaer petted the horse. "He took me that evening in his tent. He did not force the bond, even though he was in need, great need. He took the time to be gentle with me, and care for my wounds. He could not have been kinder. He never lost himself in his own needs. He is a good man, Denis."
Denis looked uncertain. "He is still a barbarian, and you were trained for better than that, Blaer."
"Jeme is a man of honor and courage. There are none better."
Denis pulled out a large skin bag. "I hoped that I would meet you at the gathering. I brought this with me." He handed it across.
Blaer opened it, and saw his scrolls and letters. His expressive face showed his pleasure as he recognized some of the few possessions that he owned. "Thank you."
Denis' hand rested on the younger Guide's shoulder. "Remember your teaching, Blaer. You have the potential to be one of the strongest Guides the Temple has ever trained." “To you might fall the honor of the Spirit Animal Dark Bonding, only a few are ever called”.
“If I am called to that honored state, it will only be with Jeme, without him I am nothing, two hearts one soul Denis, two lives one destiny”.
Over Blaer's shoulder, Denis saw Blaer's Sentinel standing, not moving to intrude but evidently anxious for him to leave. With a final pat to his shoulder, he walked away with a softly spoken "Good bye." He would watch his former student future with great interest.
Blaer hugged the bag to him. Now that he had his past, he could begin his future.
Denis looked back at them and saw his former pupil pointing into the open bag. The Sentinel had a tolerant look on his face as Blaer no doubt started to tell him all about the scrolls. The Sentinel's arm wrapped around his shoulder, Sentinel and Guide together, just as it should be.
The clan party returned to their camp in the early hours of the morning. Jeme was more at peace than ever before with his family, not his family of blood, but his family of the heart and mind. He reached a hand back and dropped it on the thigh of the man riding behind him, and received a squeeze from the arm around his waist. His Guide had been safely returned to him, and all was right in his world.
The white stallion followed behind them on a lead rein, the skin bag and the tent strapped to its back.
Jeme wanted nothing more than to fall into bed, but the smell of baking bread proved irresistible to Blaer, who had eaten little during his captivity or the past few stress-filled days. The Dark Guide followed his nose, and the Dark Sentinel followed his Guide, across the camp to where the women tended the cook fires. Several of them pulled their children to them, still fearful. Caro stepped forward without hesitation and pulled the young man into a hug. For a moment he was tense. Then his body relaxed as he accepted her greeting, dipping his barriers so he could sense the honest emotions behind her welcome. "Come, eat." She guided him to her tent, gesturing to him to sit down just outside.
The next morning Bera stood with her daughter in front of her own tent, combing the girl's hair in the early morning sun. She looked up, and for a moment fear flashed through her. The Dark Guide stood there, both hands resting on the pommel of his sword, his head cocked slightly to one side, looking at Sophie. Bera was all too aware of the reaction he had had earlier to her daughter being a Sentinel; he had made it more than clear, telling her sternly that only men could be Sentinels. Even though Sophie had helped to track him and protect him, the girl had been scared by the stories she heard of Dark Guides and their violent ways.
Sensing her fear, Blaer embedded the sword into the ground and then smiled a bright smile and put a hand out to Sophie. That was all the encouragement the young Sentinel needed. She ran up to him, hesitated a second, and then threw her arms around him, burying her face in his black robes. His presence was a balm to her senses, and she made no attempt to push against his barriers, instead simply feeling his mind touch hers, as light as a summer breeze. He hugged her to him, his head bent and resting against hers, talking Sentinel softly to her.
Beyond him Bera could see Jeme standing, watching intently, and for a moment fear surged forward. Unbonded Sentinels did not touch a bonded Guide, even if they were only children. But Jeme's face showed contentment and pleasure. Dark Guide, warrior, assassin, shaman, teacher-Blaer was all these things in one package, and it seemed he was now willing to share all these gifts with his clan.
Gently Sophie eased back from the Dark Guide, but did not break contact. She called Caro, Justin and the other two Sentinels, who were slow to peer out of their tents, but came quickly when they saw what was happening. Caro wrapped her arms around the Dark Guide's waist, holding him tightly, and his hand dropped to stroke her head. Justin laid a hand on his back, the need to make contact with the Dark Guide overwhelming. After a few long minutes, Blaer eased back, breaking the contact, and sat down. The young Sentinels each took a seat around him, their faces lighting up as he spoke to them. Caro and Bera watched in amazement as their normally restless children listened to Blaer with rapt attention for nearly an hour. Finishing his lesson, Blaer got up and walked back to his Sentinel, allowing the strong arms to close around him, pulling him near. Jeme had permitted Blaer to go near the others while he taught them; now he wanted, needed, to show everyone that this was his Guide.
Bera collected her daughter, still vibrating with excitement over what had taken place. "Sophie, what did he say?"
"Guide Prime Blaer said that starting tomorrow, he would start to teach us all how to use our senses. Mother, he's going to train us." She threw herself into her mothers arms, happy and proud that she was finally being accepted as a Sentinel in her own right.
Blaer eased back from his Sentinel's embrace and saw Saemund's son standing a short distance away. The boy was unable to meet his gaze, looking down at the ground and then brushing past the others to walk out of the camp. Head still down, he kicked at stones as he ambled toward the river. The Dark Guide thought about it for a moment and then followed him. "Daryl, we need to talk."
Daryl spun around; he had not heard the young Guide coming up behind him. He felt nervous, never having actually spoken to the Dark Guide before. He had always been a shadowy figure to him; somehow it had been easier to hate him when he did not know him. Daryl fidgeted. "If you want," he said with a surly tone as he plunked himself down on the ground by the riverbank.
Blaer settled down near him. "I know what you think of me, Daryl."
"Then why talk?"
"Because I am not leaving, and neither are you. This cannot go on."
Daryl looked at him for the first time, his eyes full of tears, which rolled down his face. "Jeme is my friend. He was my friend first, and then you came along. He was my Sentinel, not yours. Not yours…" he trailed off with a sob.
Jeme stood back a short distance away, listening to them, a firm hand on Saemund's wrist, as he relayed the conversation to him. Saemund was in a panic at the thought of Daryl laying claim to Jeme. He started forward, but Jeme pulled him back, wanting to see how Blaer would react. Daryl was challenging the Dark Guide's claim to his Sentinel; something that the volatile young Guide had always met with force.
Jeme tilted his head to one side. Even at this distance he could see the tension in his Guide, hear the increase in his heartbeat. Then abruptly, his body relaxed. "Children walk where the deities fear to tread, Saemund," he said quietly. "Daryl is safe with Blaer."
Blaer watched the large pool as a fish came to the surface, and then lowered his head to speak softly. "Jeme could never be yours, Daryl. The power in the mind of the Dark Sentinel is too great."
"I could have handled it. I would have." It was said with the desperation of a child.
"No, Daryl, you would not. A grey Guide would have been unable to channel him, let alone you." He said it levelly, without censure.
"You think I have no power!" Daryl said desperately.
"You have some. I felt it when you shielded me, and for that I am thankful. But it is not enough to bring a Sentinel out of the void, or to bond."
"I know I could, it's just that--"
"You would never be able to bond, Daryl. Without the bond you would not be able to help your Sentinel, and he would die."
"But I am young." Daryl desperately did not want to give up his dream, but at last, the reality settled like a lump of ice in his stomach. He knew he had to admit that what the Dark Guide was saying was true. "Could I not train?" he asked in a last attempt to hold on to his dream.
Blaer shook his head and said gently, "It doesn't work that way."
"No," he sobbed, hitting his knee with a fist. "It's not fair, it's not fair…."
He felt a hand touch his shoulder, long fingers gently rubbing it. "Daryl, it's not the end of the world. You do have power enough to help Wulfstein as an apprentice. I can help you, my brother, to be the best you can, if you would let me."
"You would do that?" Daryl raised his head and looked at him through tear-clouded eyes.
"We are family. Caro has cared for me as a son. Let me help you."
Daryl could only nod in reply. "Please, Dark Guide."
"Blaer. The name is Blaer, brother."
Jeme's face split in a smile as he relayed his Guide's words, his pride overwhelming. Saemund looked in wonder at him. "And you thought Blaer was only an assassin," Jeme said. "You forgot that he is also a shaman/priest and healer of the mind and body."
Saemund looked at the two figures in the distance, thinking 'that that one would never do what he expected'.
Early the next morning, Jeme sat with his Guide, Blaer kneeling behind him, one hand resting on his shoulder. His voice used the Guide tone, power embodied in the words, the tone that a Sentinel would have to obey.
"I want you to push out your hearing past the camp and into the woods." Jeme shook his head slightly, not in resistance but out of fear. "No, you will not fall into the void. I am here. What do you hear?" Reassured, the Sentinel did as he was told, the light touch on his shoulder and the link with his Guide anchoring him as he pushed out.
"I can hear the women and children on the river, splashing and talking. A bear with its young, waiting to come down and drink.” Jeme's eyes opened and he reached a hand back to cover his Guide's. Gently squeezing the cold, slender fingers, he made a mental note to make sure that before the winter season his Guide had gloves and a full set of winter clothes; he never seemed to hold warmth. He released his hold with a soft sigh.
Blaer moved around and knelt in front of him, feeling the other man's hand rest on his hip, as Sophie took her position, kneeling in front of the Dark Guide. She was clearly nervous; this was the first time she had received any teaching on how to control her senses.
Jeme had only agreed to the lessons as long as he was there. Although Sophie and her friends were children, they were still unbonded Sentinels, and he knew that his presence calmed Blaer's volatile nature and his instinct to burn them off if they touched him.
Sophie felt Blaer's hand on her shoulder, and the Guide's voice, so sweet, which she followed for the first time. She extended her hearing out, and a smile spread across her face as she heard the sounds of the camp. She reached a hand out and laid it on Blaer's arm, her fingers gripping the material of his sleeve. As she pushed against his mind, a sudden need flared in her. She gave a cry of pain, and her hand dropped away.
Jeme had pulled Blaer back the moment he had detected the flare, trying to extinguish the surge of power before it was too late. His arms wrapped around the Guide, holding him close.
"Easy, Blaer. She meant no harm to you. Take a deep breath, allow it to channel out." He held his Guide tightly against his chest.
Sophie looked scared. "Guide Prime, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to, Jeme. I just suddenly felt…" She ground to a halt. Jeme nodded, understanding.
"Sophie, you must not try to push against Blaer. He will strike back if you do." Jeme paused, searching for the words that would explain Blaer's actions without frightening the girl too much. "You must touch his mind like a hand stroking a baby wildcat. It must be gentle, or the cat will bite without meaning to."
Blaer allowed his Sentinel to calm him down. Jeme smiled and tightened his grip on his Guide's waist, saying, "Sophie, you can put your hand out now." She laid her hand on Blaer's forearm, feeling the brush of his mind across hers as the Guide balanced between the two Sentinels. She began to follow the verbal cues given by the Dark Guide. This time, she did not allow herself to be drawn into the seductive calm of his mind. Only then did she begin to follow his voice again, determined to learn and make her teacher proud.
Saemund watched the Dark Guide and Sentinel performing a sword drill amid the clanging of metal meeting metal. They had started with a slow exchange of blows, designed not to pull on the healing wound in the Dark Guide's side. He had heard all about the lesson that morning with the child sentinels. He felt for the first time that in his heart, Blaer was accepting that this was now his clan, his life. The more he became involved in the day-to-day life of the camp, the more he would calm down and settle in.
He noticed that Jeme was trying to check his Guide's habitual turn to the right, which he had noticed during the bonding. Blaer turned naturally to his stronger side; Jeme's attacks were intended to strengthen his weaker left side.
The speed of each attack and parry was increasing. The two now moved in a fluid dance of power and aggression. Saemund could see the true speed and agility of the Dark Guide, and he marvelled at the thought of what the young man would be like when he was fully fit. Jeme was the only one that stood a chance of holding him in a fight, his Sentinel senses locking on his Guide, mapping his movements without conscious thought, reading the bursts of energy in the muscles as he moved. Saemund knew that any clan chief would spend a lot of gold to recruit them as clan mercenaries, yet they gave their allegiance to the Panther Clan freely. Correction, Saemund thought: Jeme gave it freely. Blaer's allegiance was to his Sentinel first and foremost.
Also watching were Bryn and Hender. Prior to Blaer's arrival, they had been Jeme's usual sparring partners and his bodyguards in battle, helping to protect him if he zoned.
Blaer wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. Jeme hooked an arm around his Guide, pulling him firmly against him, letting their minds link. His touch was still not deft, but he sent his trust in the two-feayr men to his Guide. "Bryn, you can practice with Blaer. Hender, to me."
He turned to his Guide, retaining his firm grip. "Don't hurt Bryn. He is our friend. He came with me to find you, and he was ready to fight to regain you. Be gentle, Blaer, gentle." He held Blaer's gaze, keeping the volatile Guide calm. Sophie's lesson had been a good start, but Blaer needed to interact more with the clan. He broke contract only when he was sure that Blaer understood him.
Bryn took a steadying breath as the Guide turned toward him, sword balanced in his hand. "Thanks, Jeme." There was a touch of amused sarcasm in Bryn's tone.
Bryn tentatively faced the Dark Guide. The fact that the man suddenly smiled at him did nothing but unnerve him.
"Don't worry, I won't kill you, Bryn. Jeme wouldn't like it if I did."
Bryn nodded, but he wished just the same that Hender had gotten Blaer as a sparring partner. The Guide was just too good with his sword, and what he had seen earlier made him realize that the man could kill him without breaking a sweat.
They continued the workout, Blaer slowing so Bryn could keep up with his attack. When they finally called it a day, Blaer caught Jeme's wrist and tugged him back to their tent He dropped down onto the blankets and sat cross-legged, his sword balanced on his knees, the backs of his cupped hands resting on the blade as he focussed himself. After a time, his eyes opened, and he gave Jeme a piercing look. "As my Sentinel, you want me to overcome my weaknesses, so that I can be a worthy partner for you on the field of battle, and protect myself." Jeme nodded slowly. "Then you must do the same. Your focus is improving, but it is not strong. Now copy me."
"Blaer, we've been hard at work all day. Wouldn't you rather go see what Caro's cooking and-?"
"Jeme." It was the command of a Dark Guide. The Sentinel followed the summons and sat down beside him. Instead of focussing on the spirit plane, he concentrated on his own talisman, his Guide, hearing the beat of his heart, turning his head to one side to take it in, revelling in the musky ginger scent that meant his Guide was right beside him. He could see the beads of sweat on his upper lip, the movement of muscle under his skin. His Guide was his life, his everything: warrior, shaman, and teacher. The clan could only be enriched by his presence, and Jeme's life would never again be complete without him.
Simon closed the manuscript, wondering whether that was how Jim saw Blair, as the whole of his life. At one time, that would have been hard to believe-"Iceman" Ellison needing anyone-but he was beginning to accept it.