Disclaimer: The main characters are not mine, this is an amateur effort written purely for the fun of it, and no money has exchanged hands, and it is not intentded to breach the copyright of Paramount and Pet Fly Publication.

This story is Rates PG-13 . My thanks to Lindermere for all her help and encouragement, and of course to my hard working beta reader Susan, whos help as always makes this the story you see.

The events follow those of Dark Guide Part one.

Dark Guide Part Two
Traditions

Simon Banks picked up the now familiar manila envelope he had brought home from the office and looked at it for a moment. He felt a faint stirring of excitement - another piece of the sentinel/guide puzzle was about to be unveiled. He settled down in his favorite chair and undid the clasp. As he drew out the printed pages his thoughts drifted to Dan Slater. The GDP Commander was becoming a friend… and a rock for Simon in the often stormy waters of the sentinel world. Simon was almost ready to trust him with the recovered memories of the ancient sentinel/guide pair that were carefully documented in the manuscript he held. He grinned as he thought of the GDP Commander's excitement when a Sentinel clan had joined Jim at the Cascade PD and wondered what the man's reaction would be to the world unfolding for Simon in Blair's vivid descriptions.

From the very first paragraph, he could hear the voice of Blair Sandburg, not the young guide who was still finding his feet in the world of the Cascade Police, but the seasoned anthropologist bringing an ancient society to life.

In those days, Blair wrote, there were two main types of clans, feayr and sentinel. A feayr clan would only tolerate sentinel and guide pairings as mercenaries, a relationship that was strictly a business contract. The pairings could expect no help from the clan; if they were injured in battle, they had to fend for themselves. Once the contract was over, the pairings would be expelled from the camp. Some clans went so far as to bar any pairing from entering their camp at the risk of bodily harm. And while the Sentinel clans would allow feayr members, they were nothing more than servants, second-class citizens walking the difficult border of the sentinel world. The Panther Clan had broken all kinds of social taboos by combining the best features of both clans. This was the world Simon was about to enter and he wondered what lessons the past might hold for a man who was witnessing, even abetting, a modern revolution in the way society regarded the gifted among them, especially the guides. Simon smiled gently as he thought of the young guide who was the catalyst for that future change as well as his guide to times past….

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Saemund sat by his fire, his son at his feet, a plate of the stew in his hand. Caro scooped two large portions onto plates, together with big hunks of the bread she had made that morning. Saemund put his plate down and rose to take them from her hands, saying, "I'll take it to them." Caro picked up the medicine that Wulfstein had prepared for the Dark Guide--her new son, she thought smiling. She glanced at Daryl, making a note to find out what he thought of his new brother. He seemed a bit suspicious of Blaer but she was sure that would fade. He already liked and respected Jeme and for the sentinel's sake he would accept the Dark Guide. Acceptance would grow into liking, she was sure of that as she thought of how readily the young guide had found a place in her heart. Now that Blaer and Jeme had bonded, Blaer's control would be better and he would settle into the rhythm of the clan. She delayed a moment to run a gentle hand over her son's head and remind him to dump his dish in the washing pan.

Blaer sat propped against a pile of furs, his hands resting on his knees as his mind walked the spirit plane. Some part of him knew that his sentinel was near, that he was safe to travel away from their tent, away from his body.

The colors he gazed at were vibrant and more real than life. The earth thrummed with power that offered itself to him, for the using. The sky was wide and blue, and when he moved his hand, the very air seemed to ripple from his fingertips. His spirit guide loped by his side, tail wagging and mouth set in a wolfish grin. Keeping one step ahead was the spirit guide of his sentinel, the panther. Its gold eyes seemed to glow when it turned to study him. The great beast inclined its head and gazed over at the wolf. A rough tongue swiped at his hand before his spirit animal joined the panther. Both creatures faded away as the waking world called him back.

Blaer exhaled slowly. The spirit walk had told him only that he was following the path the gods had ordained for him and that his sentinel would protect him. I felt that… but it was nice to have it confirmed. A smile tugged at his mouth as he opened his eyes and focused on his sentinel. His sentinel. Blaer felt a surge of warmth at those two words. Jeme sat crosslegged on the tent's matting, carefully sharpening his weapons and those of his guide. Blaer watched as his finger paused for a moment to glide over the newly etched spirit panther on the guide's blade. Jeme looked up as if he felt his guide's eyes on him and smiled.

Jeme saw his smile reflected in his guide's face. There was a slightly dazed look to the deep blue eyes that met his gaze - not uncommon after a spirit walk, or so said Wulfstein. When the sentinel had spoken to Wulfstein of Blaer's calling of his spirit animal, the healer had sighed and looked worried. "Not enough that the boy is guide and a Dark one at that. No, he must also be shaman. Jeme, when he returns from the Spirit Plane… I have heard it said that the Plane does not always relinquish its visitors readily. He may need grounding." Grounding. The sentinel had his own ideas on that head… born of the way his guide's simple touch could recall him from a zone. Jeme laid the sword down and opened his arms.

Blaer moved into the offered embrace and settled trustingly against the warm, powerful body of the man whom he had sworn to protect with his life. Lash's poison was fading and he should be able to start to rebuild his barriers but the pain from his wounds robbed him of his focus. The painkillers Jeme made him swallow did not help his control either, so he took shelter from the emotions of others behind the shield of his sentinel.

Once his senses told him that Blaer was relaxed and comfortable and that the tension was gone from the compact body, Jeme asked the question to which he most wanted to hear the answer. "Tell me about the other guide, Blaer."

He felt the tension return, but his guide settled under the soothing motion of his hands. "Lash did not like me from the start. Denis told me it was because I was younger than he yet more advanced in the Arts." Blaer shrugged as if such jealousy was alien to his understanding. Jeme interrupted, "Denis… he was the man with you at the Temple?" His guide shifted in his arms until dark blue eyes met his. "Yes, Denis. He is… was… my teacher… my friend." Jeme brushed a hand over unruly curls and said softly, "Is, Blaer. His injuries were not fatal and he was left under the protection of the Panther Clan. And I think he would not let himself die until he was reassured as to your fate." The sentinel had seen the care and worry for his guide in the man that Blaer had fought to protect. Gratitude filled the young face before Blaer continued. "Lash liked to inflict pain on the grey guides. The abbot would not do anything to stop him; he and his family have wealth and power and supported the Temple generously. I… I felt it wrong and stepped in and called him out. He backed down but he hated me for humiliating him in front of the other guides." Blaer shuddered. "After that, he killed the sacrificial animals. It was not his duty, but the Abbot allowed him to do it. He was a cruel man, and he... liked it, gained pleasure from it."

"And?" Jeme prompted gently.

"Lash called my mother a whore. He said…" Blaer trailed off, then took a deep breath. "My mother is a priestess from the Temple of Aphrodis." Blaer made said it almost as a challenge.

"An honorable calling, Blaer." Jeme put in gently.

Blaer's head came up, meeting his sentinel's gaze. The older man meant it. The guide settled back. "Yes, she has brought many to understanding. It was she who walked me across the hill range to bring me to the Temple of the Guides. She had seen it in a vision and said it was my destiny."

Jeme petted his guide. "I like her already. Our summer range takes us near the Aphrodis Temple. Perhaps we can visit her there, if you like?"

Blaer nodded against his chest. Jeme was more than happy to reunite mother and son for a time if that was what his guide needed. They rested for a few moments before Jeme felt Blaer's face begin to heat.

"This talk of mother's Temple…" Blaer's voice was thoughtful… and wistful. "Last night I had a dream…"

"…That young women came to you?" Jeme chuckled softly and allowed Blaer to change the subject. "That was no dream."

"What?" Blaer pushed back, away from the comforting arms, so that he could see his sentinel's face. He grabbed his side as the pain knifed through his wound. Shock and horror showed before disbelief settled on the young features as his sentinel's words took hold.

"It was part of the bonding ceremony, Blaer." Jeme raised a hand to touch his guide, only to have it batted away. He was puzzled. He could think of no reason that Blaer should be upset. He could feel the anger pouring off his guide, the shortening of his breath, the change in his body temperature. The young guide's body fairly crackled with rage.

"Blaer!" His guide pulled away from him, anger replaced by distress.

"Explain, Jeme. Explain this violation of my body." Blaer entreated.

"Easy. Breathe slowly, calm yourself." Jeme reached for him again, only to be rebuffed. He drew a deep breath and forced himself to speak slowly and quietly. "It is the practice among the clans that the night before a sentinel and guide bond, the young women of the clans vie to lie with them. They believe that a baby born of the union will be strong in body and power. This way our seed is spread among the clans."

"Whores!" Blaer spat the word out with disgust.

"No!" Saemund spoke firmly as he entered the tent. "Girls of good family and standing. Charles of the Firehorse Clan offered two stallions for the right of his daughter to be first to lay with you. Frank of the Riverbend Clan gave two stallions and a mare. The clan has done well by your matings."

"You knew of this and did not tell me?" The irate guide spat at his sentinel

"Calm down, Blaer. This has been part of the bonding for as long as there have been sentinels. Surely you knew?"

"It is barbaric practice. The bondings I witnessed took place in the Temple, after purification, in front of the abbot and council. It is… " He spluttered to a halt.

Saemund shook his head. "It is no different than what your mother does."

Blaer's head snapped around. He moved too quickly for Jeme to grab him. He ignored the sharp shooting pain from his wound as his fist connected with Saemund's chin, dumping the bigger, stronger man onto his back. He stood over him and yelled, "My mother is a priestess. You are nothing but a whoremonger, a feayr whoremonger!"

"Jeme!" Saemund looked at Jeme in frustration. "Will you explain to him that we meant no insult by what we did?" Saemund lay there, rubbing his throbbing jaw.

"Saemund, he comes from the cloistered world of the Guide's Temple. I thought it was common practice in the bonding, or else I never would have allowed it."

"You chose him as your guide, Jeme. It is the way of the clans. He is one of us now, and will obey our customs," Saemund said firmly.

Jeme could tell Saemund was put out. He had taken the utmost care in the mating, and here was the young guide yelling at him like…like some deflowered virgin. That thought hit him hard, and he shifted uncomfortably. Jeme was used to the idea of the mating. When the clans met, the Sentinel Prime usually found a willing partner to spend the week with, parting later with no regret. But his young guide was different. Even Jeme, tied so closely to him by bonding, had not anticipated this reaction. He clearly had not thought the whole thing through.

Saemund had apparently followed his line of reasoning. He asked softly, "Blaer, are you a virgin?" The guide flushed even deeper. The clan leader continued on, "I meant no disrespect to your mother. I myself have been to the Temple of Aphrodis. I have worshipped at the altar there… and been with a Priestess, sharing my seed in hopes that Aphrodis would see fit to send me a mate." Saemund's voice had grown reflective as he thought back on that time. Almost two decades later, and despite his love for Caro, he could still recall every line of the priestess' face. When he had found Caro, he thought his petition had been answered. But they had waited so long for a child and his wife had grown ever more despondent. Saemund had made another journey to the Temple… with Caro. And Caro had spent an hour with the same priestess. To this day Saemund did not know what they spoke of… he only knew that Caro had come back to him with a lighter heart. And two years later… Daryl was born. He came back to himself as he heard Jeme speak.

"Was that the first time that you lay with a woman?" Jeme put in gently as he realized that his guide was not going to answer the feayr leader. The sentinel was starting to understand and he cursed himself for not realizing it sooner. His guide's understanding of sex was wrapped up in his mother's duties as a priestess. He saw it as sacred, reverent ritual and not as the earthy act of the clans, done with a lusty appreciation of the pleasures to be found in each other's bodies. He pushed against the link between them and felt his mind flood with distress and disgust.

Saemund came nearer the now quiet guide. "I'm sorry, Blaer, I didn't understand. I thought you would have had some experience by your age."

"I have." Blaer shook his head. "But that was in the Temple. We worshipped together-- Judith, Cissa, Aelfflaed, Aethelswith -"

"We get the idea, Blaer." A touch of amusement colored Jeme's voice, along with some relief. His guide had plenty of experience by the sound of it.

"We celebrated each other and were brought to a place of peace." He shuddered. "It was not like that disgusting exhibition you put me through." He spat the words, and swore at Saemund. "Defiler."

Jeme shook his head and pulled his guide closer, pleased when the young man did not fight his hold. "Saemund, leave us now. We need to talk."

"No, Jeme, we need to settle this now. I respect your bonding and understand that he is yet new to us and our ways. But he is part of the clan now and no one I lead may raise his hand against me without consequences. Give me a reason I should not confine him to his tent for a week." Saemund looked with disfavor on the Dark Guide.

Jeme tightened his hold on his guide as the young man reacted to Saemund's words and look. "Blaer! Calm yourself. Saemund is within his rights." His guide's emotions lashed through him. The violation of his body, the slur against his mother…. Jeme realized that Blaer had been too upset to even hear Saemund's words… and the seeming betrayal by his clan leader fueled a rage that set the linkage alight. The sentinel was all too aware that the last person that had slighted Blaer's mother had been Lash. Older and more experienced a Dark Guide than his young guide and still Blaer had taken him on. He tried to send calming emotions through the link, but it didn't work. The violent nature of his guide had come to the fore.

"You think that you can punish me, feayr?" Blaer shouted. "Try, if you will. I don't know how I let Jeme persuade me to swear fealty to a barbarian. You know nothing of the sacred ways. You are uncivilized and this shame you have brought on me is proof."

Saemund shook his head. The youngling snarled like a wild cat. How could he have ever thought that he had Blaer under control?

"You are challenging me, Guide." Saemund warned.

"Blaer." Jeme's tone was heavy with censure.

He patted his sentinel's shoulder. "I can kill him, Jeme. There's no threat from him. He is nothing."

"No, Blaer!" Jeme caught him by the shoulders and pulled him around, not heeding the quick pained gasp of his injured guide. "You swore loyalty to Saemund. Have you forgotten that so quickly? He did not betray you. All he did was what our tradition dictated. And we are bonded; one soul, two bodies. You are my guide but Saemund is my friend… and my leader." Jeme shook him, trying to break his murderous mood and wondering how this had gotten so far out of control. "Saemund meant no disrespect to your mother, did you, Saemund?"

"No, of course not. I only meant that lying with the girls is our custom. It is also a sacred act. In times past, clans have fallen through the lack of guides and sentinels. We believe that a child sired by a sentinel or guide on the eve of bonding is blessed by the gods and will grow strong in mind and soul and body. Such children will lead the future. The gold and goods given to the clan for the bonding right is not the money of whores. It is a gift, offered with respect, to be given to those in the clan that have great need: the women who have lost their men in battle, the children orphaned in raids, the weak that need extra food. It is not soiled; it is a way of doing good." He swallowed hard. "My own wife lay with a sentinel of the Fourhills Clan but my son was not blessed with the gifts."

Jeme realized that Blaer was not even listening to the Clan leader. He grasped his guide's upper arms and prepared to force his attention. At that moment, Caro came through the tent flap with the medicine prepared by Wulfstein. Immediately she knew that there was something wrong. She knelt down and smiled gently, reaching for Blaer, but he pressed back against his sentinel, away from her. Then he pulled away from Jeme and all Caro's instincts screamed a warning.

His barriers cut in and out with his emotional distress; there was too much for him to take in. Blaer pulled away from Jeme and curled up into a ball in the corner of the tent, rocking slowly. Even his hair ached. With the return of his memories, he could feel the girls' emotions crashing around him. They were not sacred priestesses; their emotions spoke of dreams of wealth and position. How could Jeme have allowed this to happen? Blaer gasped at that disloyal thought, then shook his head savagely. No, Jeme was not to blame; it was this feayr creature that had allowed it.

Caro's mouth dropped open. "What have you done to that child?"

Saemund shook his head. "Caro, that is no child; that is a Dark Guide, remember?"

"There is an innocence to him."

"Caro." Saemund's voice rose. "He's a trained assassin. He has tried to kill me three times, three times, Caro. That is not a child; that is a cold-blooded killer."

His wife looked at him, thrust the medicine into his hand, and pushed past Jeme. "Get out of the way, you oxen, let me see." She ignored the sentinel's deep-throated growl as she knelt down and gently put a hand out. With just her fingertips, she brushed the top of Blaer's head and spoke softly. "Ssh… it will be fine, Blaer." Jeme calmed as he listened to her words. She gathered the guide to her and said gently, "Tell me, Blaer."

She listened to him describe the horror of what he saw as a violation of his body and his mind. She felt his arms go around her, clinging tightly. "They… used me… for goods and gold… for a high place in their clan…for…" His voice trailed off as he shot a look at his sentinel. Caro could see that he needed to talk, but she could also see that he was embarrassed, afraid that his sentinel would not understand. She could almost hear his thoughts: Jeme was not bothered about what had happened; his sentinel would think him weak and unworthy. Caro sighed. All her care in choosing the girls had been foiled because no one had thought to explain to the young man what was to happen… and why.

Caro pressed her face against the curly head. Blaer was no innocent with women, if his words to her were true and she believed they were; he had not said it in a boasting way. But there had been a loss of innocence, nevertheless, his beliefs in the reasons for mating had been violated.

"Blaer, son. Listen to me." Stormy blue eyes locked on hers as she tilted his face up to hers. "Blaer, Saemund had no intent to dishonor you. But, he…we… did not take into account your upbringing."

"He said my mother was no different than…than those…whores!" There was outraged dignity in the choked words. Five years of Guide Temple had not overcome almost 13 years of tutelage at Aphrodis' Temple.

"No, Blaer, he meant that, according to our understanding of what the gods demand, our girls were no different than your mother. Would he insult the young women of his tribe and his allies?"

Jeme and Saemund watched in disbelief as Blaer quieted. A thoughtful look entered the deep, blue eyes. "Explain to me this understanding… please." His voice held pleading.

Caro said carefully, "Blaer, Saemund took me to the Temple of Aphrodis when I was unable to conceive a child. I spoke with a priestess whose hair was as fiery as her heart was warm."

"My mother… she has hair the color of flame. The only one in the Temple to have such." There was a hint of wonder in the soft words, a welcome change to the hurt and anger that had colored his voice.

"Is your mother's name… Naomi?"

Saemund started… he hadn't even known the priestess' name. What had Caro and...Naomi… yes, that name suited the exotically lovely priestess he remembered spoken of?

"Yes! You know my mother?" There was tremulous joy in that question as if an unlooked for connection had been found.

"I believe so. Naomi told me that the priestesses of Aphrodis believed that the gods had created the original human as a single person, whole in himself. So whole, so self-sufficient, that he needed nothing outside himself, not even the gods. So one was divided into two… man and woman. Always searching for the other half, discontented until they found them. The mating urge was given to man so that he would look for the missing piece… and give thanks to the gods when he found it."

Blaer had quieted and was listening intently. "You understand!"

"Yes, I do, Blaer. Now I want you to understand. The clans would die without births to replace the deaths. Births that come from the union of two, man and woman."

"The union of two brings forth life. A gift from the gods to show their pleasure when we abide by their plan." Blaer murmurred.

"Yes, child. The gods gave us this gift, this way of life. That the act necessary for survival of the clan also brings pleasure is simply proof of the gods' love for their creatures. It has long been noted that a clan that restricts its mating, its marriages, to its members soon has nothing but sickly children."

"Because they horde the gods' gift as if they are sufficient unto themselves." Blaer offered. Caro smiled at him and said, "Exactly so, Blaer. So do we also believe. And the gifts of sentinel and guide must doubly be shared. So, the matings before the bonding ritual."

"But their emotions were…"

Caro eased his head onto her shoulder and ran a hand through his curls. "That was my fault, Blaer. That we must share your seed is custom and ritual. But under the influence of the drugs, you would have been vulnerable to schemes. Your heart might have been snared even as your body was shared. We would not have that. When you marry, when you give your love… that is your decision. I chose girls who understood this, girls who would not try to capture your heart. They were told to remember their clans and the good that could be done by lying with you."

"I… understand. But… I should have been told… should have been asked. The girls held right reason in their hearts… I did not. I was no more than the beasts of the field." There was hurt and anger still in the tired voice.

Jeme moved over and said quietly, "He is exhausted, Caro. Best we leave this for another day." Caro lay a hand on the guide's unruly curls in a gentle benediction before relinquishing the young man to his sentinel. Jeme took his brother in his arms. Blaer transferred his grip to the other man's tunic and reached for the link. Jeme welcomed him in and he slowly relaxed, surrounded by the soothing presence of his sentinel. But when he looked at Saemund there was a flash of anger. Caro caught her husband's hand and pulled him out of the tent.

They paid no attention to the two feayr clan members standing near the tent flap, drawn there by the shouting from the Sentinel Prime's tent. The two men hurried away, deep in conversation; soon the story would be circulating within the Panther Clan.

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0

The celebration of the bonding was in full sway when the reasons for the festivities came out. Blaer leaned into Jeme, who had a strong arm around his waist holding him upright, steadying him. The wound in his side had started to trouble him again but he had refused Wulfstein's potions, opting instead to mix his own. Jeme had brought him to the healer's tent. Wulfstein had stood back and watched him, eager to learn from the Dark Guide. The younger man was not ready yet to share his knowledge and had talked of everything under the sun… except what he was working on. They had returned to their tent and Jeme had arranged the poultice over Blaer's wound. The younger man had rested his head on Jeme's thigh and fallen into an uneasy doze. The rest had restored him sufficiently so that Jeme felt safe in returning to the festivities. It was important that Blaer be seen taking part in the clan's celebration. But as Blaer caught sight of the eyes on him, he tensed and Jeme knew that although the physical healing was well under way, the emotional wounds were still raw.

"How many people know?" Blaer asked, his voice shaking. Jeme knew to what he referred.

"All of them Blaer. It's our custom, remember?" Jeme smiled as his guide turned sideways and looked at an attractive girl who eyed him in a knowing manner. She smiled, making sure that he had no doubt what was on her mind. He flushed and turned into his sentinel. He was silent as they made their way to the Chieftain's circle where they were welcomed with warmth… and warm comments about their amorous adventures that made Blaer uncomfortable. Jeme lay an arm across his guide's shoulders and changed the subject quickly.

Blaer was quiet. He sat near Alfric, the second senior sentinel of the Panther Clan, but neither spoke to him nor met his eyes. As the celebration started to get louder, laughter rang out through the night--music, singing, and a joyful completion of the more serious business of trade.

Rufus, the Sentinel Prime of the Skyeagle Clan, leaned across from his place at the fire. "Jeme, have Blaer take his pick of the stallions that I brought. Your guide needs a good horse. Mine are young, strong, and spirited."

"Your gift is most generous," Saemund commented. Rufus only snarled at the Panther Clan's leader; he did not believe in the unsensing leading a clan. He again directed his words to Jeme. "Your guide can bed my guide's daughter. She has a figure that makes a man think he has died and gone to the gods. I know he is hurt, but she will be gentle. And I can promise that the Panther Clan will do well from the mating." Blaer's face showed pure horror, despite Caro's explanation he had not accepted the practice, had been grateful that it was over.

Jeme snapped, "Rufus, back off. The time for that has passed." He waited for his clan leader to tell Rufus to forget it but to his shock, Saemund just said, "Let her meet Caro. If she is the right type, then we will see."

Blaer pulled himself to his feet, and spat at him, "Whoremonger, you will not profit from me again, try and you will regret it."

At first, Jeme could not believe that Saemund would even consider it after that morning upset. But Saemund, he thought with a heavy heart, was putting the needs of the clan before those of his guide. Whatever Saemund's personal thoughts, the clan came first. With a look of dismay, he followed his guide. Blaer was emotionally volatile at the moment and could explode into violence very quickly. They needed to talk.

He closed in on his guide in time to see the attractive, raven-haired girl from earlier waylay Blaer. Her face seemed to crumble and she turned away quickly under the caustic words of the guide as he strode by. Blaer pushed aside the tent cover with an angry movement and Jeme followed him in. He sat down near the entrance and watched his guide. The anger radiated from him in waves, and he muttered under his breath in the tongue of the ancients, the language of the scholars. Jeme could barely follow what he was saying, but the venom in his tone made the meaning clear. When that was exhausted, he changed into the tongue of the clans. Jeme had to hide a smile; young and cloistered his guide might have been, but his curses would have put a hide trader or mercenary to shame. They showed an active imagination, even if some of the suggestions were physically impossible.

He waited patiently. Soon his guide would have vented his anger; then they could talk. If there had been a betrayal of trust, it was his fault as much as Saemund's, and they would have to work through it.

Finally, Blaer stopped and looked at him. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I thought it was the way everyone celebrated the bonding. I have watched many bondings and all follow this tradition." He patted the sleeping platform. "Come, talk to me. Perhaps there is something we can do to reconcile this with your beliefs."

"You would do that?"

"Of course." Why, Jeme thought, did the youngling think that he wouldn't do what was needed to help him find peace and center himself? Then he understood. Blaer was afraid that a barbarian warrior would not understand the spiritual side to the Dark Arts, something that common folk more often associated with death than peace.

Jeme settled himself onto the platform. Blaer sat just out of his reach. But the pull was too great and slowly he inched forward, then allowed himself to be tugged into a comfortable position.

For a long moment, there was silence between them. "Sex is a sacred thing, Jeme. It is a way of bringing two people together in peace and harmony. The temple of the woman's body is perfection made by the gods. In worshipping there, men can be brought to the true gods. Not all disciples are chosen to follow the calling--only those who reach a state of grace, such as my mother. Those women last night are whores that lie with a man for gain and pleasure, not a higher calling."

Jeme exhaled slowly and pulled his guide closer. "Blaer, I thought you understood what Caro explained. They are not whores. They are women who believe that they can bring prosperity to their clan with a sentinel or guide child. The gifts--and they are gifts, not payments--are given to the clan as a gesture of respect. Only sentinel clans are allowed to participate--no feayr clans. This is to make the clans strong." Jeme sighed. "The mistake is mine, Blaer. If I had known that the customs of the temple were different, I would have explained it to you, and not allowed it to just happen."

"Would you have stopped it?" Blaer pulled himself up and looked Jeme straight in the eye.

"No. It is our way. But I would have told you about it first."

"You have done this before?"

Jeme chuckled. "Lain with a woman? I hate to break it to you, Blaer, but mercenaries are not known for their celibacy."

"You know what I mean!" Blaer batted his arm angrily.

"Yes. When we visit other clans for bondings, there are always girls who are willing to spend the time with me. I cannot deny I enjoy it. Once you are familiar with our ways, you may find that you do, too."

Blaer shook his head, unpersuaded. "How can you?" he spluttered. His sentinel seemed to be suppressing a smile as he answered. "If you have to ask that, you must have been doing it wrong." He recognized the older man's attempt to push him into a lighter mood but he was not ready yet

"In the temple, we undergo purification, with oils and incense, then we pray together before the joining of our bodies and minds," Blaer said earnestly. "But here, they just, well, they just...rut like animals." He came to a flustered halt.

Jeme gently tugged him closer. He reminded himself that Blaer was a product of his calling and his upbringing, and he willed himself to be serious and patient. He needed to succeed where Caro and Saemund had, apparently, failed. He had an advantage that the clan leaders had not… the sentinel/guide bond. Blaer would listen to him and hear him. "We appreciate the softness of a woman's body, her loving ways that warm the heart and the bed. There is nothing wrong with that, Blaer. It's as natural as the birds in the trees. It is our way, and you will"--there was steel in that word--" you will respect our ways and we will honor yours. All I ask is that you do not close your mind to our customs."

Blaer still did not seem convinced, but he looked as if he were considering the possibility which Jeme took as progress. He felt his guide slowly relax and asked quietly, "What shall we do now? What can we do to set things right?"

"I must rid myself of the taint of what happened. I must perform a purification ceremony. Will you help me?" There was a serious intent in the question and Jeme knew that his newly bonded guide was uncertain of his answer.

"What ever you need." Jeme did not believe the ceremony was necessary, but if it brought his guide some peace then he would do whatever was needed. He did not like the idea of his guide working some Dark Arts rite; memories of the summoning of his spirit guide haunted him still. He had mauled his guide, marking him with claws and teeth. But if Blaer needed this…

Jeme went on full alert as he shadowed his guide on his way to collect the herbs he needed. Wulfstein's tent was empty but it mattered not to the driven young man he followed. Blaer pushed past the flap and began to collect what he wanted, muttering away to himself. Jeme could not suppress a smile. In their short time together, he had learned that his young guide liked to talk. Once started, he could talk quicker than rain fell in a storm. His expressive hands flew around, illustrating his words and thoughts. Jeme could not help but wonder whether, if he tied his guide's hands together, Blaer could still talk. The expansive gestures seemed to be a necessary part of his way of speaking. Reluctantly he pulled himself back to the present as Blaer finished making his selections.

Blaer walked to the bank of the nearby river and sank to the ground. He cleared a space of grass and mounded up the dry herbs and kindling he had brought from Wulfstein's tent. Then he started a small fire from the torch Jeme carried. Although Jeme could see clearly, his guide would not be able to in the pitch darkness away from the camp. The young shaman sat cross-legged before the fire and carefully plaited the long herb stems into thick wands. As he did so, he whispered the incantations that would give the twigs their power. Finally, he reached up and cut several strands from his hair, wrapping them around each wand. Lighting the tips, he placed them on the ground before him, embedded in the earth and tilted over the fire. His breathing slowed and his hands moved from their resting place on his knees. Palms up, he circled both hands through the scented smoke toward him, continuing the pattern on every third circle as he inhaled the smoke. His head dropped forward and the chanting became louder as he called on the goddess to cleanse him of the impurity of the acts he had committed.

Following Blaer's lead, Jeme picked up the smoking wands and moved behind his guide, circling them three times so that the smoke wreathed his guide's head and shoulders. The smoke was pungent, and he had to suppress the urge to sneeze. As he completed the last circle and returned the wands to their position on the ground, Blaer lifted his head. Jeme was relieved to see a deep peace in the blue eyes. The purification had helped his guide-his friend-find his balance again. Blaer nodded, as if confirming Jeme's thoughts, then placed the wands into the fire and watched the flames consume them. Only then did he rise and put his hand out to his sentinel, saying softly, "It's time we rested." His voice was light, rejuvenated. There was only one thing that he still needed to do, he thought, looking toward the camp. And he could only do that alone.

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0

The sentinel woke from a sound sleep to see his guide sliding under the covers of his bed, pulling the blankets around him. Each blanket was a gift from the families of the Panther Clan, gifts for the sentinel and his new guide, to welcome him to his new home. The blankets had made up part of the bonding platform the night before. Pots of sweet food sat in the corner; the clan folk considered it lucky to give gifts to the newly bonded pair. What worried the sentinel was that he had not heard his guide leave. Judging from the warmth of his skin, and his lack of a cloak, he could not have been gone for long.

The sentinel propped himself up, caught the bedding of his guide, and pulled it against his pallet. He wrapped his arms around the younger man and pulled him closer, relaxing as he listened to his guide's heartbeat.

Blaer reached a hand out and soothed the worried sentinel. He would not admit that he had put him into a light zone out. He had just overloaded his senses, enough to make him sleep deeply. But he had had to do what he had done, and he could only do that alone.

The sound of screaming brought him to consciousness. Blaer grabbed for his weapon as the sentinel caught hold of his sword and they charged out of the tent. The Dark Guide moved back half a stride so that he could cover his sentinel's back. He brought his sword up ready to strike, then relaxed slightly as he recognized Alfric.

"Alfric, what's wrong?" Jeme demanded. "The whole camp is in an uproar."

"It's Saemund. He's been poisoned." Alfric hesitated. "Watch over your guide, Jeme. They say it is the work of a Dark Guide. Poison is their tool."

Jeme turned, and Blaer backed up. "I didn't do anything, Jeme."

"Where were you just now?" There was a cold challenge to the question that frightened Blaer.

"I went to the edge of the camp," he protested. "I needed to be alone to pray and to center myself. You can't think I would--"

"No." Jeme reached his hand out and, without hesitation, his guide leaned into his touch, knowing that the link would prove the truth of what he said.

"Come, Blaer, and see to Saemund. You may be able to help him. Please."

As they hurried toward Saemund's tent, Bryn and Hender appeared and blocked the way. "Jeme, you are Sentinel Prime, but we can't allow Blaer in there."

The sentinel bristled. "You think that my guide would poison his clan leader?"

"It's not what we think, it's what they think." Bryn indicated the rest of the Panther Clan who stood watching them. Already the feayr members of the clan had picked up their weapons. The sentinels and guides had moved to the opposite side, also armed. "If Saemund were to die, they would blame him. And if they try to take him, a bloody massacre will result, sentinel against feayr. The clan would be pulled apart."

"I did not poison him. If I had he would be dead," Blaer stated levelly. "Let me see him. I may be able to help him."

Hender shook his head. "Sorry, Blaer."

"My clan, my clan leader. Do you discard me already?" The Dark Guide felt anger at this slight to his reputation and skills. Jeme caught his arm, but Blaer pulled it away. "Jeme, they accuse me. I will prove them wrong. Now get out of the way," he said with the snarl of the Dark Guide. Hender backed away.

Caro appeared at the entrance of their tent, and she and Blaer exchanged a long look before she put her hand out. "Thank you for coming, Blaer," she said sincerely. "I have need of your skill." He accepted her hand and she drew him inside. Jeme settled himself outside the tent, his sword across his lap, ready to use it to protect his guide and his clan leader.

Inside, Wulfstein sat by Saemund's side. "I have tried all that I know and he will not come around. He will be dead by the morning if he does not come to his senses soon. You are a Dark Guide; you are skilled in these things. Saemund is a good man. Help him." Saemund tossed and turned. His skin was hot to the touch; he was burning up, and a mottled rash spread across his face and hands. "Hold his head, Wulfstein," Blaer said. He waited until the herbalist had a firm hold before he carefully prised open Saemund's mouth. He saw no discoloration of the tongue, no swelling. His slender hands moved down Saemund's throat. "You can lower his head. He has not been poisoned through his mouth which means that it could be something that he has touched." He picked up the right hand by the wrist, careful not to touch the skin, holding the cuff of the shirt and checking for puncture marks. He found one on the forefinger. "The poison was given to him through this wound." He glanced around the tent. "Caro, what was he doing when this happened?"

"He was looking at a scroll. That scroll over there is one of five he traded for yesterday, as a gift to you. Saemund cannot read or write but he is proud that the clan's Guide Prime can. He opened one to see the pictures on it and to show Daryl, our son." Blaer quickly checked the other scrolls, finding nothing wrong, before turning to the one Saemund had been studying before he was stricken. He approached that scroll as if it were a snake. He used his knife to hold one edge down and carefully peeled it back. He saw a trace of blood. He opened it and saw the quill, sticking out only by a nail-breadth, but enough to catch the hand of the unwary. Its tip was covered with blood. He extracted it with care and dropped in onto a cloth he pulled from the pile of those used to quiet the feverish leader. He sniffed it. His voice never rose as he said, "Jeme, I need you."

Caro jumped as the sentinel immediately came in. "I found the method they used. I need you to tell me what you can smell on the quill."

As Jeme reached for it, he snapped, "No, don't touch it. Just the cloth."

"It has a sharp, sour smell to it," Jeme said, "like milk that has gone off. But there is a flower scent as well."

"Wulfstein, keep Saemund cool. We are going to your tent to find the poison."

"But I did not--"

"I know, but you have the only ingredients we can use to identify it."

Caro watched them go, her mind going back to another time and place, when her husband had brought Jeme back to their tent after a battle against a band of mercenaries. Saemund had been impressed by the warrior's skill in battle and had kept a casual eye on him as the fighting allowed. In the midst of the battle, Saemund had seen him suddenly freeze as if turned to stone and he had known that he was looking at a sentinel unbonded. Caro wasn't sure what had brought her feayr husband to the defense of a sentinel but he had had no cause to regret it. Saemund had barely managed to deflect the killing blow, but Jeme had been badly hurt. By the time the men laid him on the furs in their tent, he was running a fever, his words made no sense, and he was thought to be dying. However, Wulfstein had saved him, and he had slowly grown stronger. Caro had found a friend is this powerful but quiet man. She had no fear of being alone with him; he treated her with respect and kindness. Saemund had given Jeme his life. Maybe his guide could give Saemund his. She moved to her husband's side, taking a sweaty hand and squeezed it, whispering, "Hold on, Saemund my love. Hold on."

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0

The sentinel moved from basket to basket filled with herbs. It took longer than they wanted but they had to do it in a methodical way. Finally, they had the three ingredients. "Blaer?" Jeme asked hopefully.

"The mixture is known from the Dark Arts, Jeme. I know this poison. Saemund can be saved. Leave me to my work."

Jeme took up his protective post outside the tent as he worked. The visiting clans had moved away. This was Panther Clan business. They would only get involved when, or if, Saemund died, in which case they would come together to salute the new leader. More than one Sentinel clan leader would welcome the opportunity to see Sentinel Prime Jeme elevated to clan leader as was his right.

Blaer appeared and Jeme could hear his elevated heartbeat. The young man was scared. His position was precarious and if Saemund died… Jeme shook his head; all he read through the link was Blaer's fear for Saemund. He had to stop taking Blaer's surface actions as proof of his inmost feelings. His guide might be combative and insolent at times but Jeme suspected it was to hide a too tender heart. Wide blue eyes looked up at him. "I have the cure, Jeme. If we are in time." The two men practically ran through the camp.

When they entered the tent, Jeme could tell that already Saemund had gotten worse. His heartbeat was slowing and his breath came in harsh pants as his throat began to swell.

Caro blocked their way. "Will this save my husband?"

"Without it he will die, Caro. With it he might live." Blaer's voice held his certainty.

She patted his shoulder. "Then try."

Daryl had been taken out of the tent when his father had become ill, but by now the whispers that his father was dying had brought him back. Seeing the man that he believed was behind his father's illness, he threw himself at the Dark Guide and yelled, "No, NO! He will kill him!"

Caro grabbed him around the waist. "Daryl, he's your father's only hope."

Jeme knelt and supported his friend's body and head against his chest, holding him still as Blaer moved closer, then holding the cup to his mouth as he forced him to drink down the antidote. Saemund began to retch and Jeme pushed the cup away. "No," Blaer said urgently, "he must drink it." Jeme's hand clapped around his mouth, forcing the semi-conscious man to swallow the liquid.

Saemund's body began to spasm, his body arching so sharply they feared he would break his spine. Then, suddenly, he lay still, his breath so faint that Blaer feared he was dead until he saw his sentinel's relieved smile. Saemund was alive. All through the night, Jeme and Blaer sat by his side. As the sun came up, Saemund's eyes finally opened. Bleary eyes focused on the sleeping form of the Dark Guide curled up by his side, his sentinel, ever the watchman, sitting by them.

"J-Jememm?" he rasped.

"Saemund, shall I wake Caro?"

"No. What happened?"

"Blaer saved your life, Saemund. You were poisoned by a quill in the scrolls."

Saemund reached a shaky hand and placed it on the curly head that rested near him. "The scrolls were a present for him. I bought them in trade from Frank of the Riverbend Clan. I opened one to see the pictures-birds, beautiful ones. The monks are very fine artists." He tried to sit up, only to be caught and held in place. "What if the poison was meant for him, Jeme? What if they wanted him dead and not me? No one else would have been able to cure him. He would have died."

Jeme went cold and the Dark Sentinel snarled. To challenge in battle was one thing, but this cowardly attack had nearly killed his friend, and could have been meant to kill his guide.

Blaer slowly came to and stuttered, "Jeme, how is he?"

"See for yourself, Blaer. Your patient is alive and well." Saemund's horse voice answered him.

Blaer's smile was brilliant. He put a hand out and ran it over Saemund's face. The fever was gone. A touch to his neck showed the swelling was down and the rash fading. "You are healing, Saemund. I will mix you another batch of the drink. That should help you."

He started to leave, then turned back and looked at Saemund thoughtfully. "If I were to kill you, Saemund, it would be with the sword, and to your face." He smiled, then was gone. Saemund shook his head. The Dark Guide's sense of humor was somewhat macabre. He asked with a smile, "Jeme, why do I think that was his way of saying we're friends again?"

"His mind, Saemund, is a frightening place to visit."

"You seem happy there, Jeme."

Jeme smiled wistfully. "To me it is home."

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0

Alfric and Jeme called on Frank of the Riverbend Clan at daybreak. He could shed no light on how the poison came to be on the scroll. "I was looking for a gift to give the guide. They told me he was educated, from the Temple, and these would be a good gift for him. I bought them from a scribe at the temple of Aphrodis."

"Didn't you smell the poison?" Jeme asked.

"To be honest, Jeme, the scent from the temple was so strong, I put them in the box and then left with them--after, of course I worshipped at their temple." He gave a leer. "Priestesses like that would make any man religious." Alfric grinned, then noticed that Jeme was not smiling; if anything he looked very thoughtful.

Jeme thought of his planned trip to the temple to reunite Blaer with his mother, if only for a short time, before their summer range took them further to the north. If the temple had something to do with an attempt on his guide's life… he had another reason to go there, the sooner the better. With that fixed in his mind, Jeme started back to collect his guide. The rising sun marked the third and final day of the celebration. Jeme only hoped it would prove more restful than the first two.

Simon set down the manuscript and stretched. He smiled as he thought of the words that he intended to have with his observer about his penchant for cliffhangers. He had been caught up in the tale… and had been rudely kicked out of the ancient world by its abrupt ending. There was something in this installment that had struck a chord… he couldn't quite make out what it was. Simon locked up the papers in his safe and made his way to bed. It was only as he was drinking a glass of water that he realized what had been niggling at his thoughts and he coughed as water went down the wrong way. Naomi and Saemund! Oh sweet lord! The police captain thought back over the story Blair had penned and nodded. Sandburg had obviously not understood the possibility in what he himself had reported… and Simon intended to keep it that way. He punched his pillows into a comfortable lump and settled down. A smile tugged at his lips... Saemund and Naomi... the timing was about right...

The end

To be continued…….

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