The Livingston was as sweet and fast a ship as Blair had ever berthed on, but it was nowhere near pleasant enough for him to wish to be on her a moment longer than necessary. Nor was she swift enough by far to finish her voyage and dock at Cascade soon enough to suit him. The initial three-day trip across the sound to Seattle on her had been drearily interminable, dragging him farther and farther from his home and Jim; the prospect of meeting Dr. Liam and carving a niche for himself at the university had not been the lift to his spirits that he had hoped. To be met as he disembarked with the news that the journey had been for naught, thanks to a meningitis epidemic at the school that had closed the doors until next term, had been cause for far more relief than disappointment.
Mercifully, the captain of the ship was only staying for a single night of liberty for his crew before returning to Cascade and was more than willing to keep Blair on as a passenger. After exchanging his original return ticket for passage the next day, Blair went to the nearest post office to send a wireless message to Jim to alert him of the change in plans. He sent similar messages to his dean and Chancellor Edwards, vaguely wondering what he would do with all the free time at the University that he suddenly had, as it was doubtful he'd be able to step back into his own classes. Short term contracts had been signed in some cases, and in others he didn't have the heart to deprive his substitute of much needed funds.
That done, determined to enjoy his own unanticipated leave and unusual solvency, he had made for the shops straggling away from the harbor. From experience Blair knew a wide variety of exotic or rare items could be found in many of them, bought from far-ranging sailors looking for a few coins for drink and women. Several thank-you gifts were called for, and he was in search of a holiday gift for Jim, as well. In addition, if one judged the clientele carefully so as to avoid hooligans, it was possible to find an eatery featuring dishes uncommon in the Americas.
That evening proved to be the best of the week. Rough seas and rougher weather had made the return trip difficult; most of the time all Blair could do was tuck himself into his bunk and hope the ship did not flounder. Still, that was not the reason he was the first off, juggling packages and luggage, the evening the gangway was lowered. He anxiously scanned the milling crowd of outbound travelers, their well-wishers, waiting friends and families of returnees, porters, stevedores, cabbies, street vendors, ragamuffins, and loitering sailors, but did not see a tall man with incredibly blue eyes, dressed in a black dragon-cast uniform.
Disappointment warred with worry. If Jim had been unable to be there himself, he should have sent Joel, or maybe Megan, along with apologies and an explanation as to why. Even if there was an emergency demanding the efforts of all of Major Crimes, a deputy should have been dispatched. What could have been so critical that no one could meet him at the dock?
Surveying his many bundles, he wearily decided the answer to that would have to wait. Gathering them up, he made for a cab, resolving to tip the driver handsomely if he were willing to assist Blair in carrying everything up the three flights of stairs to the loft. To his dismay, 852 Prospect was completely dark and deserted looking when they arrived. Any number of concerns raced through his mind as he climbed up to his home, using the carriage's running lantern to light the way, but the emptiness of the building gave fear the most fuel to grow. Even the driver looked uneasy, questioning Blair several times as to whether he was certain he had the correct address and if he truly wished to stay, if it was.
The fellow was a stout one, though, and in the end waited while Blair fumbled the key into the lock and edged into the rooms to find a lamp. That done, Blair turned in a small circle, light held high, swallowing hard against terror. The condition of the apartment was familiar. It had been closed up for a prolonged absence, making it cold, dusty, and exceedingly unwelcoming.
Regardless, Blair gave the waiting gentleman his fare plus the extra he'd mentally promised he would, reassuring him even as he gently shut the door against him. For a moment he stood with his back against it, parcels and bags scattered around him, wondering about his sanity, himself. He had other places he could stay the night, if he wished. Indeed, he had funds enough for a luxurious hotel room, complete with a hot bath and good meal. Or he could go to the station to discover what had transpired to prevent Jim from meeting the Livingston when she docked.
But instinct and intuition insisted he be home, so home he would stay. He had roughed it under much more difficult conditions, after all, and here he had the advantages of knowing the particulars of his surroundings. Encouraged, however mildly, Blair set about making himself comfortable. Fire first, he decided, and food. He and Jim always kept a few basic provisions on hand for returns like this.
Before too long he had established a cozy pallet by a small fire, blessing the rigid portion of Jim's nature that always insisted that he be prepared for any eventuality. Firewood enough for a long night without heat, if they should lose theirs for whatever reason, oatmeal and dried fruit in an insect-proof package, and a small, sealed keg of water provided the basic needs for life. A pillow from the bed he shared with Jim, still holding a hint of Jim's scent, supplied a tiny measure of ease for the empty ache inside him.
Just as he was congratulating himself on coping so well with adversity, a loud creak disturbed the hush of the night. Jerking upright from where he lounged in his bedding, waiting for his tea to seep, Blair listened with all he had, half convinced he had imagined the sound. A long, low moan nearly sent his heart into palpitations before he recognized it as the cry of the hinges from the entry at the end of the hallway to the loft. A second later, the thought occurred to him that simply because he had identified the noise, didn't mean it was a good thing to hear it when the building was so obviously abandoned.
Scourging his brain for a weapon, any weapon, he caught sight of the poker for the fire and snatched it up. As quietly as he could, he crept to the door and took up station on the far side of it. A moment later light and shadow flickered along the small crack marking the threshold, and the knob was twisted slightly, as if to test the latch. Literally holding his breath, Blair raised the poker over his head, determined to swing for a homerun if the lock were forced.
To his shock, a key was inserted and gently turned, as if the user did not wish to attract attention. That destroyed Blair's faint hope that it was Jim, or at least a friend, trying to gain entrance. Not wishing to consider what circumstances might have delivered the keys into a stranger's hand, he lifted up on his toes and hefted his makeshift bat as the door eased open an inch or two. A faint beam of light was the only intruder, though, and even that penetrated hesitantly, skittering over the haphazard stack of packages Blair had left at the door.
He hissed out a small stream of air, reassessing the need for attack, and a moment later a man called out, "Professor Sandburg?"
Recognizing the voice of the superintendent for the building, Sol Kracey, Blair stepped into view, foolishly hiding the poker by holding it behind his leg. "Yes? Is there some problem, Mr. Kracey?"
"Oh, mercy, you almost did me in with fright, sir. You're not supposed to be back for weeks yet, and with the other tenants gone, I thought sure there were burglars up here, or worse." Putting down his lantern, Mr. Kracey wiped a shaking hand over his craggy face and put a heavy plumber's wrench into a loop at his waist. The weight of it made his skinny frame list to one side, which, given the short, dark hair that stood straight out from his head and ears that did the same, gave him a falsely comical appearance that nearly had Blair chuckling despite himself.
Looking around as if uncertain that they were alone, Kracey said, "Almost called for the deputies, I did, but didn't want to look a fool if your mother had dropped by unexpectedly again, or if the Liegeman had returned early."
Much relieved, Blair gestured toward his makeshift camp at the fireplace. "Please, please come on in. Let me get you a hot tea, or perhaps something a bit more potent, to help you compose yourself. I must admit, you gave me quite a start, myself. Where is everyone?"
"Thank you, I believe I'll take you up on that offer. Tea, though I wouldn't mind if you strengthened it some." Taking up his lantern to extinguish it, Mr. Kracey went to sit in a chair by the fire. "I take it you just arrived."
"Only a few hours ago, in fact." After detouring to the kitchen for what he needed, Blair gave him the fortified beverage and sat cross-legged on his bedding, his own drink in hand. "You have no idea how disconcerting it was to find the building empty."
"I suppose since it's temporary, none thought it necessary to wire you." Chuckling, Kracey took a sip, and stared down into his mug. "And it's your liegeman that's at the heart of it!"
Hanging onto his patience with painful determination, Blair managed to raise an eyebrow to encourage him to tell his tale. "How so?"
"Well, and I don't mean to alarm you, first Little Miss took a turn for the worse, and the Elderkin decreed she be shipped elsewhere in hopes that experts might be able to see her back to health."
Kracey reached over and clumsily patted Blair's knee. "I know, I know, she's such a sweet thing. Fair near every person I've spoken to wish nothing but the best for her, but, for all that, most are not taking her departure well. They have the foolish notion that it means the Elderkin are likely to burn at the least little thing." He took a deep draught of his tea, taking Blair's pained silence for granted.
With a sigh, Kracey reached over for the kettle to refresh his drink. "Now, the Liegeman must have picked up on that nonsense, because he tells me that he is uncertain when he will return, so he wishes to pay the rent a year in advance. That pleased me more than a bit, I'll tell you, because I've been wanting to replace the furnace for a while; her filters and precipitators are forever needing repaired, and the thermostat isn't as reliable as it used to be."
"Of that, I am very aware," Blair said with a smile summoned from somewhere, while his mind tried to process 'uncertain when he will return.' Jim was gone? "It's been very nippy up here a time or two."
"Aye, and you're not alone in that complaint." With a wise nod, Kracey leaned forward, as if speaking to him confidentially. "Wanted to hook into the city steam lines, I did, rather than find a new methane burner. More economical and efficient, and I'm an old hand at handling the dangers in steam. The Liegeman knew that, of course. Never fails to amaze me what he gathers in from all the babble that must surround him. Anyway, he suggested that a year's rent from him would not be enough for the re-plumbing, but other tenants might be willing to contribute in advance as exchange for reduced or forgiven rent, depending on the amount they could put in."
Mentally reviewing the status of his neighbors, Blair nodded. "Most did, would be my guess."
"With the Liegeman signing notes for those who couldn't provide a lump sum unaided, arranging very reasonable terms." Kracey sat back and had another long drink. "The work is being done this week, and for safety reasons the residents were requested to find other quarters for the duration. Of course, the linemen are all talking about what's been done to the Liegeman's home, and the neighbors are talking about it, and the people at the banks are talking, and the circles keep spreading."
"Clever way to calm the rumors of impending doom and disaster," Blair chuckled, privately thinking he'd underestimated Jim's ability to perceive and ameliorate public concerns. "A person doesn't spend good cash on a long-term investment in their home if they expect it to go up in flames in the near future."
"You still get the occasional ninny whimpering, but as I hear it, the Liegemen did more than improve his residence. For instance, and forgive me for spoiling the surprise, but you've done as much yourself, already, in arriving unexpectedly, you're to have a big welcome home party at the University, planned and paid for in advance. And the Liegeman told me he'd placed funds in your account for a holiday feast for your lawmen associates, to give you a bit to do if you were at loose ends once you returned."
That news gave Blair pause. Was the spirit of the city so severely shaken that Jim felt it necessary to resort to such uncharacteristic behavior? Jim hated parties, much as he understood the purpose of them, from a detached, almost scholarly point of view. Or was the goal more to console Blair at discovering he was alone and would be for an indefinite period?
Either view was horribly disheartening, and Blair pushed both away, coaxing Kracey into sharing the news and gossip Blair had missed while on his fruitless voyage. The man was more than willing, chatting easily with him until the hour was late enough for both to want their beds. After he'd left for his basement apartment, Blair wrapped himself in his blankets to sleep, determined to find Simon first thing in the morning. Hopefully he would have the answers to the many questions that had bombarded him on his homecoming.
The trip into the station the next day added to the odd turn Blair's life seemed to have taken. All the riders on the trolley who recognized him greeted him with loud and happy exclamations, finding excuses to touch him along the way. Those who weren't acquaintances made a point of introducing themselves, obviously grateful when he gravely returned the courtesy with a handshake or polite air-kiss over the knuckles of the ladies. By the time he made his stop, he was overwhelmed by the persistent attention, and fled to the bullpen of Major Crimes in search of the casual, flippant manner the officers there generally used with him.
To his dismay, all his co-workers were as relieved to see him as the virtual strangers he'd met on his way in, though mercifully far more understated with it. And like everyone else, they made excuses to touch him - lightly, in passing, or as part of horseplay, but not a single person failed to make contact of some sort. It discomfited him enough that he escaped to Simon's office as soon as possible, collapsing into a chair and staring sightlessly out the window until his friend looked up from his paperwork.
Without a word Simon stood, took an envelope from his desk, and gave it to Blair on his way out on business of his own. The familiar handwriting on the outside had Blair hurriedly tearing the paper to gain access to the contents. Jim's letter was brief and short on personal information, and most of it Blair already knew from his conversation with Mr. Kracey and various comments made by the trolley passengers. The single item still left a mystery was precisely what had gone so wrong with Li-Li that she had to be given over to others more knowledgeable on gettles.
The only fresh intelligence was the temporary solution to Cascade's lack of a Wrangler. A retired liegeman had joined forces with Midgeman, the beekeeper, and Joel Taggart, to train up a Naturalist and a youngster obsessed with gettles, at least to the point that incoming gettles had a croft to nest in before their flight home. It wasn't until the last paragraphs that Jim touched on matters closer to Blair's heart than Li-Li's condition.
By now you know the extreme care the Elderkin take to protect their animal preserves, Jim wrote. Graytac, our present destination, is the most closely guarded of all, for reasons I cannot speak of in this missive. Blair, I will be honest with you. With Incacha's help, this is a perilous trek. Without it, as Li-Li will not tolerate his presence at all, I am not at all sure that I will be successful in my mission. If we do safely reach our objective, I must stay with my charge until she is capable of hunting on her own, at the very least, however long that may take.
The only good cheer I can provide for you is that you will not have to suffer in silence from me. Incacha will provide periodic updates, using the method that we have employed in the past to remain in contact with the Brotherhood. Remember the necessary preparations for these conversations, and try not to press them overmuch for news!
Forgive me for not being there on your return, and try to enjoy the holiday season. Be safe and be well, my love.
There was a faint mark underneath the last few words, as if Jim had considered adding more, but with his usual reticence had decided against it before signing his name. Surprisingly, that drew a slight smile from Blair. Jim had never been one for flowery words, in person or not. He expected that if Jim announced the end of the world to him, he'd follow it with only a firm hand clasp and steady gaze.
Folding the letter, Blair tucked it into his inside jacket pocket, and took a moment to compose himself. When Simon returned, he was ready for the gruff order to make himself useful. That was not a particularly difficult command to obey; as always, there was much to do. He was swept up into a new case with Megan almost instantly, and it, along with briefings on others that he had been forced to leave to others for his absence, quickly filled the day. As the hours passed, the odd sense of relief he felt in people faded away to their normal state, and he almost forgot how peculiar everyone had behaved earlier.
It was brought back to him, full force, when he left for the University at mid day to make an appearance there and to see about a return to his teaching duties. Initially uncertain of his reception at Rainier, he was at first appreciative of the quickly improvised 'surprise' party that the organizers claimed had to double as both his farewell and welcome home festivities, as there had been no opportunity for the former. Before, long, however, Blair sensed an edge of mania underneath the revelry, as though it were a catharsis for emotions long held and long hidden. After several hours of careful observation cloaked with amiable silliness, he discovered the same fear in his fellow academics that he'd encountered in the general populace. It seemed even the most stable and serious among the students and professors believed that it was possible that the Elderkin would pass judgment on Cascade again, this time without the leniency that Blair had cajoled from them previously.
Finally, in pure exasperation, well aware that Cassie was present and that her friendship with him would not prevent her from reporting anything newsworthy to the Cascade Press, he boldly, if lightheartedly, brought up the subject. Claiming that he believed the common atmosphere of the town warranted study for an academic paper, he not only drew out the basic cause behind the populace's worry from his peers, but laughingly dismissed it. It gave the party-goers the opportunity to honorably face their own disquiet and examine it in the guise of presenting arguments to him, allowing them to accept the truth that they were in no danger. The end result was an increase in the merriment, this time with a true calm beneath.
As soon as he could, though, given he was the guest of honor, Blair slipped away, eager for the loft, cold and desolate as it was. He shivered through the night, barely able to sleep and tormented with formless dreams filled with equally formless terror. When he finally quit his bed, exasperated with himself, he suffered through a chilly wash and decided to treat himself to a proper breakfast at his favorite restaurant.
He met Mr. Kracey on the way outside, stopping when the gentleman held up a hand as he approached. "Good news for you, Professor. We'll finish the connections later today, and you'll have both heat and light when you arrive home this evening. All that's left is a standard check of the chimneys and their filters. Oh, and I've a man in to collect ash for recycling, so your fireplace will be cleaned, as well."
"That is good news; the best in fact. Will the other tenants be returning tonight?"
"Oh, they'll trickle in one or two at a time, I believe. Mr. & Mrs. Roul, for instance, went to her sister's house. As the lady is in an expecting way, they may stay to help until the new one arrives. And Mr. Simpson is traveling back East on business." Grinning widely, Mr. Kracey took a rolled up newspaper from his back pocket and let it slip open to the front page. "I see you had a pleasant evening yesterday."
"Professor Sandburg feted at Rainier," Blair read aloud, not without some amusement. Cassie was very predictable, at times. "Proposes study on after effects of the burning of New York."
"Seems there's a fair number of ninnyhammers in academic circles, I see." Kracey chuckled. "Writer went so far as to print the Statutes, beginning with the Announcement of the crimes and running through all the way to the Evacuation before burning. Even makes a point of reminding everybody that the Dragons have never loosed the flame, even on invading foreign forces, without fair warning."
Taking the paper from him, Blair scanned the article. "She's good at what she does. I would wager she's sensed the same atmosphere in the city as we have and has been waiting for the excuse to address the issue."
"Now people'll be muttering about the Press being in the pocket of the Liegemen, or some such nonsense." Giving a long-suffering sigh, Kracey went on. "Don't understand the fuss, meself. From the very beginning, with the very first liegeman, the Elderkin made it clear what was expected from Man, though I think they could be more forthcoming on exactly what that act of beauty was. In me own opinion, of course."
"I've heard some very rude speculation on that," Blair murmured, only half-listening to Kracey. Was the answer to the swelling anxiety that simple? People simply needed to be reminded of what the Elderkin wanted of them? Why they allowed them in the Americas?
"Well, the man was stark naked in the middle of nowhere. Hard not to take that into account." Kracey abruptly spun on his heel. "Hey, there, now. You've not done the proper steps to be certain of your pressure."
Freed from the conversation, Blair wandered toward the trolley stop, nose in the paper to give him an excuse not to speak or make eye contact with the many people wishing him a good morning. The more he mulled over that possible explanation for the public's behavior, the more sense it made to him. After all, hadn't that been one of the first questions he asked himself, when given the opportunity? And hadn't he been, well, uplifted, at Minzimtah's answer?
Deep in his musings, Blair didn't truly notice the first tentative touch to his shoulder. As if his lack of reaction were permission of a sort, more pedestrians dared their own taps, pats, and strokes. By the time he was near the tiny shelter where he habitually waited for his ride, however, he was all too aware of how many strangers were laying hands on him and had no clue how to stop them without being decidedly more impolite than he suddenly felt was advisable. Fortunately the other regulars at his stop saw his dilemma and closed in around him, leaving a respectful space around him while blocking access from anyone else.
"I don't understand," Blair muttered to no one in particular. "It simply isn't done. Not here. Americans keep more personal space than any other culture I know of."
"It's a superstition, like," someone whispered, so faintly it was impossible to tell who it was who spoke. "Like kissing the blarney stone or being blessed with a holy relic."
"Touching me is good luck?" Much as he tried to keep the shock out of his voice, Blair couldn't quite stop a quaver of it.
"It's to show respect to the Dragons. A promise, sort of, to respect and listen to you, and through you, to them." Again, it was impossible to identify the speaker, but Blair could hear a depth of sincerity in the words that was truly frightening.
To test his theory on the cause behind the odd behavior, Blair made eye contact with each person close to him. "The Elderkin only want to encourage Man to grow, to create instead of destroy. We have so much potential in their eyes; more than we see in ourselves at times, I believe. Their laws say as much, if you read them correctly.
"I'm not special; it was only luck that brought me to their notice. Since then they've come to see the liegemen aren't enough to build the bridge between you and them, and as a Scholar of Man, I'm ideally suited for the role of intermediary. That's all. Touching me gives no more honor to them than you do by simply living a life that respects their laws."
He could almost feel the wave of tension release and ebb away, giving rise to a soft murmur of comments. The clang of the trolley announcing its arrival didn't put a stop to it as the group shifted to shield Blair as he boarded first. Fortunately, all the riders were familiar to him, and he did not have to suffer through another bout of groping. Instead he sat back and listened to his impromptu bodyguard repeat their version of his little speech, along with the surprising worry that others acting on the superstition could get out of hand if not curtailed.
Blair was uncertain as to what could happen, but found that he could not set aside his own concerns on the matter. His arrival at the station did not help; too many people were milling around in the area, all watching the trolleys as they made their rounds past. For a moment he dithered, thinking to ride past and come back on foot to the rear entrance, but Joel was waiting for him with several burly deputies in attendance.
Despite his relief at seeing them, he felt foolish. "Is this truly necessary?" he asked softly as he stepped to the sidewalk.
"Simon's orders, with which I agree completely," Joel said in return, just as quietly. "We've had far too many inquiries as to your hours and customary route. None seemed the unsavory sort, but a few… The desk sergeant didn't care for the fervor in their request to know your movements. He's says he's seen hysteria sweep through a community before and didn't know as you wouldn't accidentally set it off if the citizens became too anxious."
From the corner of his eye, Blair could see more than a few aborted reaches in his direction, and a subtle shifting of the throng, as if they were compasses, and he were true north. "I don't know how to diffuse this. One or two, even a small group, I'd just pull into one of the conference rooms for a chat. Standing on the steps to lecture these people on commonsense seems futile as I doubt they'd listen if all they care about is touching me. I do wish I knew what the source of this ridiculous rumor is; perhaps I could publicly discredit it."
"All I can tell you is that it started shortly after you left; heard it myself in a pub a few days ago. Offended a gentleman when I laughed outright. Still, let me send a few deputies out to learn what they can about the root of this, if you believe it will help." Joel escorted Blair through the front door and stationed his men on either side of it with a nod. "Please remain inside, today. Hire a runner for errands if you must, and save us all a great deal of worry."
Suppressing a shudder at the silent mass of humanity slowly converging on the building, Blair nodded. "At the moment, I am wondering how I will return home this evening."
"One step a time, Blair." With that as his farewell, Joel left, walking up to a gentleman he apparently knew well. The two fell into an earnest conversation, strolling away as if they had met for some specific purpose.
His hesitation to go straight up to his office caused a small surge toward the door, and Blair hurriedly went up the stairs to the bullpen. The day went well at first as he cleared his and Jim's desk of back-logged reports and updated case files. For once he was glad of the endless flow of paper that a bureaucracy ran on, and took his time to do it all just so.
Eventually a woman was shown to the seat he kept for visitors. Her case was a legitimate one: a group of bullies was demanding cash for access to the paths into the forest from those permitted to forage there for wood and other materials. But her manner was one of nervous agitation, and she could hardly keep her mind on her statement or Blair's questions for it.
Finally Blair asked in exasperation, "Ma'am, is there anything I can do for you personally that will ease your participation in this interview? And please do not request physical contact with me. If I grant you that privilege, I must do the same for any who wish it. Surely you can see that is an impossibility."
Flushing, she made hasty excuses and left nearly at a run. With a sigh, Blair made a notation to have a sheriff competent in woods craft investigate the allegations and went to Simon's office, knocking on the door and entering without invitation.
"I am at wit's end," he said without preamble, ignoring the customary glare from Simon for the lack of propriety between them while on duty. "Do you have any idea at all how to put an end to this nonsense?"
"None that wouldn't start a riot with that crowd on the other side of the walls, which has grown since your arrival." Simon pushed up his glasses and pinched at the bridge of his nose. "I had thought that very clever maneuver to put an article of your views in the daily paper would counteract at least a portion of it."
Hands in his hair and pulling as if that would dislodge an idea, Blair paced back and forth in front of Simon's desk. "Perhaps if we treat it as if it were a high court? Pass out counters, draw lots, and bring in small groups to lecture them on how foolish they're being?"
"Would they listen, or become angry at being denied what they crave? Could you simply shake their hand and pass them on to officers to be ushered out?" Simon's tone suggested that would cause as much trouble as Blair's proposal.
"And when the multitude becomes impatient with waiting their turn? Or if an entrepreneur decides to sell his winning lot?" Blair shook his head. "Perhaps a counter rumor? The touch has to be random, during the course of normal events, to be of use."
Spinning on his heel, he dropped into a chair. "No, that would take it out of the realm of possibility for the average man, and at the heart, isn't that what the fabrication is truly about? Having control, however imaginary, over what the Elderkin may or may not do. Somehow that is what we must address."
"We could bring in more of Major Crimes, see what they have to offer. After all, we accepted those officers into the department because of their intelligence and adaptability, among other reasons." It was clear Simon thought he had a useful suggestion, and Blair nodded, wits already racing away from it.
A dim, insubstantial notion flitted at the edge of his mind, and he tried his best to subdue his impatience and let it dart into full view. Something about a combination of approaches… The sight of Simon's people gathering, already anticipating the topic to be discussed and obviously relieved to be able to speak freely about it themselves, brought a scheme into focus, complete and plausible. Regardless, he stayed silent while Simon briefed everyone in the bullpen, and listened until their offerings ran dry.
At the end, he perched on a handy desk, hands locked on the edge of it to hide his nerves, Simon behind him at his shoulder. "So far the consensus seems to be that I address the crowd, trusting the authority and respect for the sheriffs to hold them back until I can persuade them of their error. Frankly, I would rather not risk the life and limb of so many. We all know what fear and desperation can do, despite opposing superior numbers and strength; I'd rather not see it demonstrated."
"You'll leave, then?" Rafe asked, as that was the next most commonly held opinion.
"That may actually shorten the fuse of the disaster we're attempting to avoid," Simon answered for him.
Taking advantage of the indecision he could see in the deputies, Blair looked down at the floor. "There is one plan that might succeed, though it will take a great deal of time and effort." He looked up and smiled. "On the other hand, it involves beer and visiting as many pubs and restaurants as possible."
Everyone snorted in humor, and shifted to be comfortable to hear what he had to say. Mentally casting his lots to Fate, Blair launched into his speech. "It's so ironic that people think to show respect for the Elderkin, they need to touch me. You see, the dragons have very little in the way of a sense of touch. Between their scales and the tough, leathery skin on their hands and feet, well, it's just not a very useful sense for them. Perhaps that's why they don't craft items."
Blair waved off the objections he could see forming on everyone's lips. "Yes, they know, more than we can ever imagine, but they don't often use it. For instance, they knew before there was Man that carbon, sulfur, and nitrates combined together will explosively combust when exposed to an ignition source. But it took a man to call it gunpowder and harness it to make a weapon."
"That's the biggest difference between us, isn't it?" Megan put in, glaring at the few who dared to chuckle at the notion that huge, flying Dragons might actually have anything in common with Man besides speech. "They don't create."
"And I've often wondered if there is a correlation between that and their lack of tactile capabilities. Or at least, in part, because of it. They do not draw, carve, weave, anything of that nature. Nor do they set down music or write plays or compose sonnets. In fact, the only artistic thing they do that I'm aware of is dance." Blair had to hide a smile when even Megan gaped at that.
"But only on two occasions in their lives," he went on. "On the day they declare to their kin that they have chosen a life-mate, the pair dance in front of friends and family, beginning on the ground and gradually becoming airborne, going ever higher as they become more absorbed in each other, forgetting their witnesses. Incacha told me it is the most glorious moment in an Elderkin's life. To watch is heartrending, and no Man has seen it in generations."
"And the second time?" Megan asked, sounding for all the world like a child who doesn't want the bedtime story to end.
"When one of the Elderkin dies, his clan celebrates his life, taking to the sky the moment he draws his last breath. They fashion intricate patterns of wing and body as they fly, leaving a space for the deceased in their formations, declaring in that way he is with them always. No man has ever seen that, not even their liegemen."
Blair waited a heartbeat, then in a soft, wondering tone of voice asked, "Do you understand? The only time dragon kind creates is when their emotions are overwhelming to them, and no other release is possible. So to them, Man's ability to take flour and yeast and casually bake a loaf of bread is amazing. Our theater, books, paintings, even our lullabies are magnificent to them, and though it took great courage and resolve on the part of a single human to finally persuade them, they were glad to provide a place where our arts, our creativity could safely flourish."
"Is that how they choose who immigrates to the Americas?" Simon looked around as if startled he'd asked, but it was clear the others in the room wished the solution to that puzzle as well. He stood taller, shoulders straightening, retreating back to the role of the Captain of the Sheriff's department again. "Except, of course, for people like my ancestors, who were rescued from slaver ships. They didn't know enough about the world to be able to tell the Elderkin where their home was located so they could be returned to it."
"Not likely," Megan drawled, exaggerating her Aussie accent. "I'm a botch in the kitchen, and sound like a dingo in pain when I sing."
"My grand da is a watchmaker, brought over from Germany." Rafe looked uneasy, but stood his ground. "The best there is; my da may be better, someday."
For a few minutes everyone in the room compared notes on the gifts and skills of their forebears, and Blair let the conversations run their course before speaking up again. "I don't think artistic abilities are the only reasons people are selected, and if I started asked about specifics on any one of you, to be fair I'd have to ask for any who wanted to know." He grinned broadly and spread his hands wide. "Incacha has strict limits on how many questions I can ask at any given time."
When the answering chuckles died down, he left his seat to pace. "What I would like you to do, to help me to lay to rest the superstition that touching me is an act of appeasement toward the Elderkin, is to gather friends and fellow officers this evening, go out in twos and threes to as many different restaurants, pubs, the green grocers, churches, social halls, anywhere that people congregate, as you can, and tell them what I just told you."
"That's where the beer comes in," Megan chirped up.
Again, Blair waited out the wave of humor. "Persuade as many people as you can to listen; try to draw them into seeing Man as the Elderkin see us. Make them feel so good about being human that they go out and share what you had to say with everyone they know. With a little luck, the end result will be a great many drunken singers serenading their neighborhoods and smirks at the entire idea that anybody needs to placate anyone."
Simon stepped forward, arms crossed. "As plans go, this one at least promises that no one will accidentally incite a riot. One more thing, as you leave here, talk loudly about 'meeting him at the pub' or wherever. Don't say who, don't say specifically where, but try to sound excited or pleased. That way we can't be accused of deceit. When it's clear that this department has shut down for the night, those loitering outside may disperse on their own, possibly seeking out the place where 'he' is. Now, out, and I don't want to hear about your hangovers tomorrow morning."
With a general buzz of plans being made, the officers did as ordered. Once most were out of earshot, Simon turned to stand face-to-face with Blair. "That leaves us with how to remove you from the premises and where you'll be spending the night."
Not hiding how weary and worn he was, Blair scrubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes. "Home, please. I realize the risk, but as my building is vacant due to construction, I will not be endangering others by being there."
"I agree." Simon rocked back on his heels, looking very self-satisfied. "In fact, I've had your residence checked periodically for unwanted visitors; the deputies reported that your landlord is being very loud and voluble about the absence of all his residents. As long as you use the black-out drapes Jim had installed for when he rests during daylight hours, I see no reason to keep you from your own bed. There will, of course, be a discreet sentry in place."
Relieved, Blair didn't argue the guard. "So that leaves only our means of retreat."
"Oddly, we can credit Ellison for that. Gather your things and join me at the stairwell as soon as you have." Simon went into his office, presumably to perform his own end-of-day rituals.
It wasn't until Simon led him into the basement that Blair understood. "Of course. The access tunnels for steam, water and what have you. Naturally you'd have the keys to those entries."
"Joel is waiting for us with a paddy wagon a few blocks away at the courthouse, where notice won't be paid to it, even this time of day. Jim and I explored the immediate vicinity expressly for situations such as this, where an unseen escape route might be needed." Simon lit a small candle set on a shelf besides an innocuous seeming door, and drew out a ring of keys.
Half laughing, Blair said, "I should have guessed he would have done that; I wouldn't be surprised if the entire reason Major Crimes is situated in this building is because of multiple exits, not all readily obvious as such."
"I had wondered at his insistence that my office be relocated. Now, if you please, conversation is a distraction when I'm trying to remember the proper path to take down here." Frowning in concentration, Simon picked his way carefully down the tunnel, pausing at each intersection.
Regardless, it wasn't long before they reached another basement and climbed to street level, approaching a side entrance with caution until they were certain Joel was the only person near. Simon bid them both a good evening, and took his leave, mentioning that a glass or two of beer sounded like just the thing. Muttering in return that he wouldn't mind one himself, Joel helped Blair into the back of the enclosed wagon and showed him how to latch it shut, promising he wouldn’t be locked in though it would look so from the outside.
As rides went, it was rough, not that Blair truly noticed, given all that he had on his mind. It would take time for the opposing rumor that he had planted to grow enough to cause people to consider twice before touching him. For a few days, at least, he had to avoid his usual haunts and go incognito when he went out. Even staying in the loft for more than a night did not seem wise. Though he and Jim did their best to keep their home address confidential, too many tradesmen now knew its whereabouts, and while they might otherwise keep their counsel, they could yield to the hysteria.
As he deliberated over where he might find lodgings without endangering others, Joel slowed the wagon and opened the spy hole. After a hasty confirmation that the alley in the rear of the building was currently empty and a hastier goodbye, he paused at the back entrance, barely stopping, and Blair jumped out and took two steps into the concealment of the vestibule. To his surprise, Kracey was waiting to quickly shut and lock the door behind him. With no more than a grumble at the idiocy of some folk, he tipped his hat to Blair and went into his own quarters.
Feeling foolish, Blair snuck down the hallway to the stairs, straining with eyes and ears to be certain he was alone, despite knowing full well that Kracey would have warned him if he wasn't. His sense of relief when he finally made it to the sanctuary of the loft was overwhelming, and without bothering with light, he threw himself on his pallet to curl up in a ball of misery. He buried his face in Jim's pillow, but the scent had faded until it was only memory.
Never had Blair needed or wanted someone so badly! Even when he had thought Jim lost to him during the months he'd succumbed to Kincaid's machinations, he had not been as miserable. And then he had not had years' worth of memories of loving and laughing to sustain him, as he did now. He reached for one of those to hide in, if only for a while, but, to his frustration, could not hold one entire in his mind. Fragments, images, half-heard whispers were all that came to him, only to flee away when he tried to grasp them to bring them into order. Finally, he gave the effort up as useless, and tossed to his side to gaze into the fire, hoping that he could at least meditate.
His state was such that it did not immediately occur to him that he had not started one, though it was likely that one had been laid when the hearth had been cleaned for him. When he made that realization, Blair sat bolt upright in fright, but a faint whisper of something just beyond the edge of his understanding reminded him that Dragons burned only what they wished to burn. Perhaps Incacha was trying to get his attention. Jim had said that his mentor would be contacting him, using the method that the Brotherhood employed to stay in touch with their Liegemen, and a faint tingle from his earring seemed to indicate he was correct in his thinking.
If that was the case…
Blair quickly set up a pot of tea, heavily sweetened and then sat cross-legged in front of the fire to close his eyes and focus on the image of Incacha, as if he stood in front of him. He had done this several times with Jim, marveling at what seemed like telepathy to him. Minzimtah, however, insisted they were simply reaching into another place, where energy was particularly malleable to the will, and shaping it into communication as impulses directly to the inner ear and optic nerve. She had tried to explain further, but cosmic membranes and alternate reality theories were very far beyond his basic understanding of physics.
Regardless of the how, he felt the boost of energy from Incacha and opened his eyes to see him waiting patiently for Blair to speak to him. With a yelp of pure pleasure, Blair jumped to his feet and ran to hug him. He caught a glimpse of the surprise in Incacha's eyes, but then he was enveloped in brawny arms and leathery wings, cradled so close to his friend that he could hear his heartbeat. Doing his best to thump hard enough to be felt, Blair nestled against him as long as he thought Incacha would tolerate, then a moment more.
Reluctantly he pulled away, hoping he wasn't imagining the answering reluctance on Incacha's part. "Jim?"
"Is doing as well as can be expected." Incacha looked to one side where a faint image of Jim formed.
Dressed in his daily uniform, he was leaning on the door frame of a box car, watching the landscape slip by, with Li-Li's head at his feet and Ften a vague shape in the background. No, not watching, Blair realized with a start. He was gone, one sense or another fixed on something beyond Blair's own perception.
Without thinking, Blair started for him, only to be blocked by Incacha's wing and gentle claws draped over his shoulder. "No, that would not be wise."
"Why not?" Blair demanded, straining to move past him but held in place by more than his friend's careful grip.
"For reasons that are too lengthy to discuss presently; we have much to speak about before your strength fades." Incacha's tone softened. "Please. I understand your need and would not deny you unless absolutely necessary.
It took a moment to beat his urgency down, but finally Blair let himself be turned. He began walking simply because Incacha was. Oddly, it was much easier than standing still - almost invigorating. Dismissing the sensation because it wasn't important at the moment, Blair fought for and found an even tone, well aware it concealed nothing from Incacha.
"How often does he fade away?"
"Far too frequently. Li-Li rests a great deal, and though James does his best to keep himself occupied, there is only so much that can be done while traveling. Add the stress of constantly coping with strangers in close quarters, some openly hostile, and his control has rarely been more tested." Incacha sounded worried - worried and something else that Blair couldn't quite discern.
Rather than question him about it directly, Blair bided his time and made the next obvious inquiry. "She's sleeping that much? What exactly is wrong with her, and please give me details that I can share. I'm not the only person fond of her and very concerned."
Incacha hesitated, clearly choosing his words. "We are not certain why she is not more active, but it may have to do with the cause behind not developing new scales to cover the scarring on her chest, as she should. It is possible that, metabolically speaking, she is caught between adolescence and adulthood. You know that fostered gettles shed scales haphazardly, with no harm, yes? They often eat them when they do for the trace elements that went into the growing of them."
Absently Blair stroked over the preserved scale that adorned his jacket pocket. "Which is probably why evolution ensured they'd be so brittle after they're lost."
Incacha rumbled an approving noise and went on. "Adults, however, molt. They lose all their scales at once, which usually crumble into dust almost immediately, before their old skin is sloughed off. The nutrients from them are captured in the material of their nests, where they are both inhaled and consumed as detritus on their food."
A flash of insight hit Blair, and he bounced a step or two. "That's why they use the same nesting sites over and over. Not only do they recycle the nutrients in the scales for themselves, but their offspring gain a portion of them the same way."
"Very good." Incacha nodded at another image as it formed, showing Li-Li taking a demijohn of honey from Jim, holding it gingerly between her teeth and exerting enough pressure to barely puncture it. She licked the resultant flow with obvious pleasure, much like a human child enjoying a candy jawbreaker. When the last was gone, she chewed on the leather, taking her time to get the remnants of the flavor from it.
Blair laughed, and a small stream of smoke escaped from Incacha's jaw showing his own amusement before he went on. "Now, while Li-Li has gone into heat and gained her adult voice and other such mature characteristics, she has never molted. For some reason, her body will not now do so, but neither will it grow new scales to replace the ones lost, the way a youngling will. We are supposing that she may not have adequate resources to do so."
"At the moment she is being fed the trace minerals required in the honey she loves, and when she reaches her destination, which is naturally rich in those elements, we will encourage her to gorge herself on the local game. If that does not trigger the scale buds to develop, we will attempt to force her into a molt."
"Will that be dangerous for her?" Blair frowned, trying to imagine what could go wrong with a biological process like that.
"I will not attempt to downplay the difficulties, not the least of which is that the Elderkin must be physically present to initiate the changes in her body. She will see us as invaders into her territory and attempt to fight or flee, leaving us no choice but to restrain her. It is almost inevitable that she will be hurt, perhaps mortally, when we do so."
"You couldn't just leave her be, with the wound healed and scarred over with skin?"
Again, Incacha paused, as if uncertain what to say. "Perhaps, if she was not currently so given to slumber… While being torpid after a heavy meal is not unusual, she is simply spending far too much time in that condition, indicating a problem we cannot diagnose at distance. We are very concerned that she may slip into the state and remain there until her death from starvation. That has been known to happen, on occasion, after a serious injury."
Brushing his hair away from his face, Blair glumly considered the news he'd been given. "Do you have nothing positive for me to report to the citizens of Cascade? They are working themselves up into a frenzy, and I desperately need a tool to bring them back to their senses."
"Blair, why are you in Cascade and not Seattle? I must admit it was very disconcerting to discover you where not where you were expected to be."
"Ahhhh…" Blair stopped and turned to face Incacha, hands waving as he told him everything, including the events of the past few days. At the periphery of his vision he could see ghostly figures recreating the past, as though an observer had somehow recorded it all. Familiar with the phenomena, he tried his best to ignore it and focus on the details.
To say that Incacha was thunderstruck was an understatement worthy of Jim Ellison. He sat so straight and tall, arms crossed over his chest, that the base of his tail must have ached with the weight. "They see you as a talisman, a token of luck and protection from the judgment of the Elderkin?"
"Well, I do try to intercede on Man's behalf with the Brotherhood as a matter of course in my dealings with you, so it's not as far-fetched as you might think. In typical human fashion, some people are carrying the notion to extremes, that's all."
"I cannot understand this."
"Oh, I do. Mostly." Blair waved a dismissive hand. "You know, humans have an expression, 'power corrupts,' and when it comes to our leaders, that's the rule and not the exception. The more wealth and power the government has, be it a monarchy, theocracy or dictatorship, the more likely those in authority will abuse, debase, and deprive those under them. Men worry that Dragonkind will do the same simply because they can and have no reason not to do so, and that fear drives them to superstitious behavior, among other things."
Clearly outraged, Incacha said, "Despite the many years we have lived in strict accordance to the laws we mutually agreed upon? Despite the great care we took in aiding the creation of a legal structure that is as straightforward and compassionate as we could conceive?"
"As you pointed out yourself not that long ago, this is still your land. Man is an unruly tenant who doesn't know how to behave any better and lives with the constant dread that he'll be peremptorily evicted. But we are learning, Incacha. Believe it or not, this latest folly is only another step in that direction. People are reaching for a tool to help them trust, instead of a weapon to flail about with indiscriminately. "
"As I have so often since we met, I will take you at your word that you comprehend the issue better than I am capable." Not completely mollified but apparently willing to let his ire pass, Incacha relaxed, returning to all fours. "Which leaves us with the quandary of finding a charm they will accept as a substitute for your touch. I should not like attempting to explain to James how you came to be trampled by people who only wished the best for you."
"No, that would not be a pleasant conversation." Blair brushed his hair away from his face, and admitted, "I'm at something of a loss as to what might suffice."
"As it happens, I may have a solution. Would a gettle of their own for a new croft be a sound, visible pledge that Cascade is currently in the Elderkin's good graces? Tim-Tam is on route from the East Coast even as we speak, in the company of Liegeman Lynn Hamrick and her companion, Elias Shulte, scheduled to arrive in the late spring. They are nearing retirement age and have consented to lend aid in Cascade, both as assistant gettle wrangler and to take on a portion of James' duties for now, before making their way to the Settlement or Graytac."
"Yes! Oh, absolutely, yes! That is a perfect solution. The local businesses have really felt the pinch of not having gettles available for transport of cash and other valuables. The news will be cause for celebra…"
A thought hit Blair hard, causing him to verbally stumble to a stop. "Not a celebration, a, a festival. City wide. Concerts, juried art contest, plays, craft shows, parades, carnival rides, speeches, utilizing all the things we do that you admire and respect. I'll talk to the mayor, but I'm sure he'll go along with it, and I'll have to speak with Chancellor Edwards at Rainier, this is perfect for the arts students. Who else? The press of course. Food, drink, have to arrange vendors. Speak at the various civic organizations, it would be a perfect fund-raiser for many of them."
Head whirling with ideas and plans, Blair was hardly aware of Incacha lying on his stomach to curl around him, smoke heavy in the air. A loud harrumph got through to him, however, and he forcibly choked himself into silence. "Your pardon. I didn't mean to babble."
"No need for apology. It was fascinating watching your mind work: imagining, accepting or eliminating, bouncing to another concept almost instantly. It is particularly impressive that you can conceive of the entire scope, along with major difficulties and rewards in the split second before launching off onto the next portion. No wonder James despairs of ever keeping ahead of you."
Given the opening he had been waiting for, Blair did not hesitate to use it. "Which is why you should be consulting with me on how to prevent him from fading so often; perhaps even allow me to speak to him through you, as he does with Ften."
"Your persistence is another trait that he is not certain is a blessing or trial," Incacha said dryly, the end of his tail flicking. "I cannot advise that course of action, Blair. Once the path in this domain is created, it persists as long as both sources remain alive, which is why I merely receive the communication from James to convey to Ften, and visa versa, not tie them together directly. I have no doubt that James would not appreciate being distracted by Ften's irritation at being harassed by flies any more than the warhorse could endure the bombardment of concepts he cannot understand. And before you ask, it is not possible for me to be a passive transmitter between two sapient minds without damaging all concerned. I may meet either of you or any other here, and that is the limit on all who travel through this realm."
"Then take me to him, physically." Blair hadn't meant to ask, but his need spoke for itself. "A dirigible is capable of out-distancing an express train. One could be directed to Cascade. I know we have no port for it, but something could surely be improvised."
"It could not possibly reach Rimfire before James will, and once there, he will immediately proceed on horseback through terrain that only another sentinel could even hope to follow a trail through." Incacha draped a wing over Blair like a cloak. "I am very sorry; he is simply too far away."
"Proceed where?" Blair pressed.
Incacha did something Blair had never seen him do - he spread his wings wide, a tremor running through the membranes, then furled them so tightly they nearly vanished against his body. What emotion provoked the response Blair could not begin to guess, and he would not have been surprised if Incacha refused to answer the question at all. However, head turned to one side, chin low, Incacha said, "To Graytac valley in the Dawnfire Mountains."
"Dawnfir…. You're sending him into an active volcano range."
"He has been there before, as all current sentinels have. Unlike the first trip, he now knows the path and the dangers, a decided advantage, and while I may not be at his side, as we both wish, Blair, as we both wish, I or another of the Brothers stay as close as we dare. I will not lie and say that he is completely safe, but he is as protected as we can manage under the circumstances." Incacha bent until he could gently bump his forehead against Blair's chest. "I know he longs for you to be with him, as well, but he also takes comfort from knowing you are out of harm's way, presumably happily occupied with the profession you love."
Blair half-turned away to hide his sorrow at the painfully unhelpful reassurance and growing fear, even though his emotions would still be obvious to Incacha. He couldn't help but feel that there was several things within their entire conversation that he needed to grasp tightly and study. Somehow, he sensed the answer to the urgency to do more than see a nebulous vision of Jim was hidden in the words, if he could only parse it out. Even as he struggled to clutch the meaning of them, however, they slid away into a gray, gray exhaustion that was a cold that went to the core of him. Chasing after his prize, he was caught up in the same iciness, and a hard shiver from it jolted him back into the reality of the loft and still leaping fire.
With shaking hands, Blair managed to cup his mug and bring it up for a long sip. He had a great deal to mull over and a great many plans to make, but all he could see in his mind's eye was Jim, leaning on the train car door frame, lost to everything and everyone.
Sleep came unexpectedly that night, dropping him into restful depths until well after dawn, and Blair woke fresh and clear-minded, already certain of what he had to do. Though Mr. Kracey was mildly scandalized, he helped secure a pair of workman's overalls and cap for Blair. Bundled in a scarf against the cold and to obscure his features, he then proceeded to slip out of the building right under the noses of those watching for him.
His first stop was the newspaper and Cassie, where he shared the good news of Tim-Tam's arrival in the late spring and the proposed festivities to mark the day. After that he visited the Mayor's office to lay the foundation for all the necessary arrangements for the event, keeping the conversation as brief as possible to prevent his whereabouts from becoming common knowledge. That was the way he spent the entire day - quickly moving from location to location, meeting to meeting - delegating, recruiting, and bluntly shanghaiing the personnel necessary to organize and run Tim-Tam's welcoming party. For once he was not going to be the well-spring of the proceedings; he had far more pressing business on an express train heading south.
Along the way most of the people he met were polite enough, though it was obvious many wanted a touch from him. Those bold enough to actually attempt an approach he pleasantly, firmly rebuffed. To his relief, others present supported his refusal, usually providing the information that Blair had had disseminated and emphasized by Major Crimes. In another day or so, he conjectured, any poor soul still thinking him to be a talisman would be shamed into not acting on the belief, at least in public. The news of the spring festival would help, as well, he was certain.
That evening he returned to the loft as stealthily as he could, relieved that no one was loitering outside the building. After setting a fire for the comfort of it as the heating was working very well, he surveying the meager contents of his cupboard and hoped the next morning would see the return to relative anonymity for him. If nothing else, he needed to shop for groceries and see to other normal chores. Just in case, he planned to continue to avoid Major Crimes and the University for another day and thought he might see how the new gettle croft was progressing.
Lingering exhaustion from the night before and the harried pace of his busy hours caught up with Blair before he could finish his skimpy dinner, and he tumbled into his pallet with no thought of going upstairs to bed. Next morning, having slept later than he'd planned, he scrambled through his morning wash and shave before donning his disguise again. To his surprise, Mr. Kracey intercepted him on the stairs and hustled him down toward the basement and rear exit.
A bit breathlessly, Kracey said, "A street corner preacher, likely seeking to line his own coffers, is stirring folk up with talk of Dragonkind being agents of evil, and that looking to you as a savior is idolatry that will be punished sooner rather than later by God's own fire. Last night a group of his followers had words with, well, for lack of better description, a few of your supporters, and the resultant donnybrook is still being cleaned up."
If Blair had been in private, he would have pounded his head against the nearest hard surface in pure frustration. "Please tell me no one was injured."
"Just the usual bumps and bruises from a fist fight," Kracey assured him. "Sad to say, since then I've laid eyes on a stranger or two giving too much heed to the comings and goings of the place, and it's common knowledge by now that the construction work is finished and the tenants are returning. I've a friend waiting with a closed delivery wagon who'll take you wherever you wish to go."
"I don't know how to…"
"Personally I see it as a debt settled with no call for thanks, and I'll tell you about that another day. For now…" Kracey poked his head out the door, looked both ways, and then held the door so that it shielded Blair from view as he hopped into the wagon, positioned so it would do the same. "Be safe." With that, Kracey shut him in.
"Where to, Professor?"
Blair looked around for the source of the whisper, could not see it, but answered regardless. "The new gettle croft."
"Best hang onto the lashings inside; it'll be bumpity."
'Bumpity' was a poor description; being knocked about like dice in a cup would have been far more accurate, in Blair's opinion. By the time he was let out onto the grass of the fields near the stockyard, he would have been willing to face an armed hooligan before getting back into the wagon. Fortunately, all he could see in the meadow were a handful of workers at the far end, putting up a large, round stone structure.
To his disappointment, Joel Taggart wasn't there, and Juniper Midgeman quickly informed him that he had been called to duty because of 'that nonsense in the city.' With a stern eye, she informed everyone present that she wouldn't tolerate any of it on her jobsite, either. She didn't bother to listen to the chorus of 'yes ma'am' before putting Blair to work carrying stones and mortar.
As he moved back and forth with his loads, the labor keeping him warm, she worked beside him to share the gossip about their mutual friends and acquaintances. It was a taste of normalcy that Blair hadn't had since Li-Li dropped so precipitously into his life, and he cherished both it and the heavy labor that let his too-busy brain rest. During his lunch break he chatted with the naturalist student, Harvey Wells and the official wrangler apprentice, Clarisse Somners, about their training, allowing his teaching persona to come out for a bit, as well. Both spoke of the retired liegeman/wrangler and his companion with great respect, but no affection. Surprisingly, Juniper echoed their attitude, shrugging when Blair asked her about it in private, as if unwilling to explain herself for some reason.
On reflection, it made a certain amount of sense to Blair that that Jonston and Hillman would be even more reserved than Jim. After all, they had served their entire lives as a liegeman and companion and had known little from the average man save suspicion and fear. Perhaps after they had settled into Cascade and become familiar to the populace, a bit of the cordial ease that Jim enjoyed would become their due, as well, especially if Blair could smooth the way a bit for them.
Occupied with the hard work and pleasant thoughts, the afternoon came quickly, and with it a gettle circling over the stockyard at various altitudes, as if uncertain if it should land. Eyes shaded with a hand, Juniper muttered, "Jonston and Hillman warned us this might happen. That should be Nik-Not, who has flown to Cascade many times from Tacoma, and he's likely looking for the original croft or signs of fellow nestlings."
"How are we supposed to coax him down, then?" Blair copied Juniper's posture, straining to make out details of the beast overhead.
"That is not your concern, sir," a rich, vibrant voice announced.
Startled, Blair turned to meet the eyes of a tall, lanky black man, dressed in a liegeman's uniform. Beside, but slightly behind, was an equally tall, slender woman whose position and attitude made her guide status clear. Both wore their gray frosted hair close cropped to the skull, and both had fascinating tribal tattoos of chevrons and dots over their cheekbones. Blair would have liked to ask about them, but the disdain and scorn in the dark eyes over them forbade it.
In the face of that, Blair pulled rigid formality over himself like a cloak. "Your pardon, sir, but is it not the purpose of the apprentice and student to learn wrangler craft? How can that be done without asking questions? And as Companion to Cascade's Liegeman, it is my responsibility to see that they are properly taught."
"Attend then." Liegeman Jonston turned on his heel and strode away, his lady Hillman with him
After curtly dismissing the workmen for the day, they unburdened their warhorses and removed the saddles and tack, giving the animals a treat before releasing them into the field. To Blair's surprise, the horses began to cavort and frolic, much as if they were young colts, going to far as to roll in a patch of sand, all four limbs in the air. Their antics put a small panic in the other stock grazing in the common, sending them scurrying hither and yon. To make the moment even stranger, Hillman drew a long string with a flat piece of wood attached from her bag and went to stand in a corner of the paddock.
The instant she began to swing the wood in a circle, Blair recognized the instrument as a bullroarer and nodded when it began to make a low, throbbing sound. Jonston leaned on the fence not far from her, gazing into the sky, lips moving as if coaxing the gettle into landing. Why all the activity drew Nik-Not to them, Blair had no idea, but the gettle circled once more before alighting a few yards from the half-constructed croft. Murmuring too quietly to be heard, Jonston approached the beast and walked with it while it stalked around the structure, apparently inspecting it.
"Somners, Wells! Pay attention." The liegemen summoned the naturalist and apprentice without so much as looking at them, and promptly launched into a lecture that identified the external anatomy of the gettle, pointing to each portion as he spoke. Blair and Juniper trailed behind, out of curiosity as much as anything else.
Without so much as pausing for a breath, Jonston demanded, "Did you place the folded canvas for the pavilion used for Li-Li in the building this morning, as instructed? As well as a few of the toys commissioned for her?" At the affirmative he was off again, this time explaining the sensory attributes of the beast.
Appalled at his teaching method and apparent lack of interest in establishing a relationship between the gettle and his trainee wranglers, Blair butted in firmly. "May I introduce myself and the others to Nik-Not? He may be more amenable to our attentions if we are passing familiar to him."
Not waiting for a yes, no, or directions to take an unholy route, Blair planted himself in front of Nik-Not and slowly reached to pet along his lip line, murmuring nonsense reassurances as he did. With a croon of pleasure, the gettle dropped his head and leaned it into Blair's chest, clearly disconcerting the liegeman. Ignoring that, Blair summoned the others with a gesture and stepped back so they could take their turn at petting Nik-Not, noting the tone and ease they used in establishing contact.
"A word, Professor Sandburg." Jonston's tone was pure ice, with only the slightest hint of sarcastic emphasis on Blair's title.
Refusing to take offense at it, Blair followed the liegeman until they were on the edge of the forest. Johnston spun to glare at him, hands clenched at his side. It was a good glare, Blair admitted privately, but not as intimidating as Jim's, never mind Simon's when he was well and truly put upon. Meeting it without effort, he waited until Jonston tired of attempting to intimidate him by that means, idly speculating on what tactic the man would use next.
A flash of something that Blair did not have time to read came and went in Jonston's expression before he barked, "You are no longer a wrangler, Professor Sandburg."
"That is true," Blair said cheerily. "Which does not preclude a deep and passionate interest in the profession. It did, after all, bring me to my current station."
"That and your willingness to prostitute yourself however necessary to bring you into favor with a liegeman and his mentor." Jonston took a step forward, shoulders a tight line proclaiming pent-in anger despite the cold, hard words.
Standing his ground, Blair shook his head. "That insult is beneath you, as it goes more to Ellison's character, not to mention Incacha's, than to mine, belittling both. If you truly believe that slander, I would have to surmise you have never met either on equal footing, which does say a great deal about your own quality."
Expression twisting into a snarl, Jonston did his best to loom threateningly, but Blair was far too accustomed to being the shortest person in any confrontation to be unduly impressed. For all his posturing, Jonston would hardly have been in the service of the Elderkin for so long if he were given to unprovoked violence. Blair could only surmise that there was a reason behind the attempt at bullying, and dug down for the patience to wait the man out.
After a few moments, Jonston subsided to glare at him, but this time it was an elegant female hand in the crook of his elbow that ended the impasse with Blair. Hillman nudged her liegeman and mate to one side. "We did not expect you to be what you are, Blair. To be truthful, we had thought that Ellison had found himself besotted with some local youth, lovely and of far passing charm, and persuaded Incacha to accept him as guide. Which he might have done, fond as he is of Ellison."
"That he might be," Blair said, ire finally rising. "But not to the point where he would allow Jim to endanger himself by placing him in the hands of one who could not see to him properly."
This time Jonston's confusion was easier to see as he snapped, "Then why aren't you with him?"
Blair yanked off his cap so he could pull at the curls under it. "I want to be, need to be, but Incacha says there's no catching up with him."
"No," Hillman said gently. "We mean, why were you apart from him in the first place?"
"Because what we're doing, what I'm doing, in Cascade is an experiment the Elderkin think worthy of attempting, and that responsibility separated us at the worst possible time." Blair turned in a small circle, looking for a place to sit, suddenly too weary to have this conversation while standing. Spotting a likely log, he dropped onto it.
Jonston and Hillman gave him a moment to compose himself, sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of him. Encouraged, Blair said, "If we want the arts to flourish, for our culture here in the Americas to grow stronger and more independent from the policing that you and the Elderkin must needs now provide, Man requires cities the size of Cascade or Windy Town or Wide River's End. They're needed for an economy and a populace prosperous enough to support livelihoods above and beyond merely supplying food and tools. The fact that they have often been burned means the traditional methods to regulate them have to be modified, perhaps added upon in small ways for them to thrive. Will you agree with me on that much, at least?"
The liegeman and his guide exchanged a glance that tore at Blair's heart springs. It held so much, both in the way of communication and emotion, and was so similar to ones that he and Jim commonly shared, that his longing for his sentinel suddenly took on the shape of sharp agony. Shockingly, Hill gingerly took his hand between hers, sympathy plain in her expression.
"We concede the importance of your duty to Cascade, Blair." She turned their joined hands this way and that, as if to read something in the contrast between light and dark, slender and sturdy. "But who sees to Ellison? Who lightens the unique burdens of a sentinel and stands as his touchstone when the city demands you represent it?"
"Many could take up that banner, or share it with you," Jonston ground out. "None but you can be Ellison's companion, if you are truly his choice. Again, I ask you, why are you not with him, Blair Sandburg?"
Hillman rocked to one side until she could rest her head on her mate's shoulder. "Elias."
Blair had no idea what she managed to say in that one, softly spoken word that he could not hear, but Jonston all but melted, the stiffness flowing away until he curled an arm around Hillman's waist to hold her closer. The love shining from them, along with the sense that there was more to the contact than he could perceive, was more than he could bear.
In the face of the union that he craved so desperately himself, Blair broke and ran. Without conscious intent or direction, he scrambled up from his seat and put as much distance between himself and the couple as he could. A sliver of self-preservation directed him into the city instead of the woods, and onto paths that he knew best. Much later, when the turmoil in his mind calmed a bit, and the pain diminished to bearable levels, he found himself not far from the station and Major Crimes, in sight of a seldom used side door.
Despite that, his footsteps were echoed by others hurrying to catch up to him. Certain that turning his head to see how many and who would only encourage his pursuers, Blair walked faster, unwilling to run as yet. Mercifully, two mounted officers appeared from either side of the building and moved to intercept him. They dismounted, and using their horses as barriers, escorted him to the entrance, then waited for two deputies to appear to take him up the stairs to his desk. His profuse thanks were met by small smiles and a touch to their caps before they left to resume their patrol.
Once seated. Blair opened several files, simply to look busy, and put his head in his hands. The entire situation of being an idol to the populace was getting farther and farther out of hand, and he had no idea how to put an end to it. Worse, he didn't want to devote any more time and energy to it than he already had. The need to get to Jim had become a screaming urgency in his heart and mind that he could no longer ignore. Mentally creating scheme after scheme, dismissing most quickly as the flaws in each became apparent, he nevertheless could not stop the effort.
He was so caught up in his impossible task that he thought nothing of the first small tremors in the floor, they were so common in the Pacific Northwest. When they evolved to hard shudders, though, Blair instinctively looked about to see if all was secure, bracing himself with one hand on the desk and the other on the back of his chair. The faces around him expressed more annoyance than concern, but the hard jolt that seemed to fling everything and everybody up several inches into the air changed that in an instant.
Diving under his desk, Blair rode out the following severe shocks, then waited a few minutes after them to be sure that Mother Nature had ceased her small tantrum. Cautiously crawling out, he surveyed the damage, pleased that it was minor - a few cracked windows, the door hung oddly on its hinges, and Rhonda's desk had been mysteriously upended. His own was barely disturbed, and he sat back in his chair to take up where he left off, as did the rest of the earthquake veterans in the room.
Simon looked out his door. "Any injuries?" When he heard the variety of responses that tallied up to none, he added, "Well, people, you know the drill. Patrols should be reporting their status, along with any major problems in their part of the city. Be prepared to provide support."
As his charge during emergencies was to ride with Jim as he applied his talents wherever needed, Blair sighed and decided to brew fresh pots of coffee. Likely most of the deputies would work well past their normal shift and would appreciate the boost from the hot drink. Automatically checking the time, Blair frowned and looked out the nearest window. It was later than he'd thought; winter's early twilight had already fallen.
Rushing to Simon's door, Blair let himself in after a perfunctory knock. "Simon - the hour. Gas lamps and stoves, cooking fires, and candles have been lit all over Cascade."
"Taken into account, Sandburg," Simon said absently, not even looking up from his paperwork. "Fires are so routine after quakes that the brigades usually don't even wait until the shaking has ended before suiting up."
Planting his fists on Simon's desk, Blair leaned down until he was almost nose to nose with him. "Under normal circumstances, most residents are prepared for that possibility. For weeks now, unfortunately, most residents have also been dreading a different sort of fire entirely. I do not need a crystal ball to predict that a few will see flames and not attribute them to the natural consequences of the quake. Widespread panic is a very strong probability."
Closing his eyes, Simon swore inaudibly before standing and going to the bullpen, already barking orders. Blair left to find a window that would give him the best view of the streets below. He was uncertain precisely how people would act if their alarm overtook their good sense, but he knew that their fright would be highly contagious. It was also extremely likely that he would become the focus of the resultant mob; whether for good or ill, only the future could know.
Nor was he the only person to foresee that eventuality. Already uniformed officers were taking up position at the bottom of the wide, sweeping stairs that led to the main entrance. Undoubtedly the other doors had been barricaded, having been made to withstand battle assault. The courthouse across the way had been similarly built, as well as the fairly new Administration building counter-corner to it. The lessons taught during Jim's High Court a few years ago had been well learned by the City Council, though it never could have predicted this eventuality.
Unless good fortune smiled on Cascade, a great many people were going to be hurt this evening, and Blair could not help but hold himself responsible. Jim would undoubtedly argue with that, he knew, but Jonston and Hillman would surely demand that Blair be made accountable. He was, after all, the one to defy tradition and centuries of experience, always striving for change that he could only hope was for the better.
Part of him wanted to give himself up to the rabble when it arrived, but the greater part, given with promises and love to Jim, refused to accept such a useless act of suicide. All Blair could do was wait and see how events played themselves out, alert for any that could be twisted to his use.
To his great surprise, when the first people arrived at the steps, they were calm and unhurried, more than willing to speak cordially to the deputies on duty. Simon was summoned, and Blair watched as he consulted with the visitors. After a hasty conversation, a man ran inside, came back out quickly with a spool of cord used to repair damaged insignia on sheriff uniforms. Short lengths were tied around the upper arms of the newcomers, obviously marking them as allies in the cause of law as they stood with the uniformed men and women.
Sudden tears choked Blair. When this night was all said and done, he could only hope that the Elderkin would see those brave volunteers as the good of Man coming forward against the weak-minded and the evil ones who wished to use the circumstances. And that the first far outweighed the latter, no matter the discrepancy in actual numbers. Not that those figures were unimpressive, he realized with pleased surprise, seeing the line of defenders double, then triple in strength.
Again he contemplated going downstairs, this time to give encouragement, support, and his gratitude for the protection. Simon must have anticipated he might do something of that nature. Megan appeared behind him, subtly blocking any move he might make.
"This is not on you, Sandy," she murmured as the streets around the station began to fill with swirling masses of bodies and spikes of shouting voices. "I've heard of the various forms of hysteria that can sweep through a town for no particular reason. Remember Salem and its witch hunts? Or Newburg and its mass suicide? As unfortunate as it is, the climate in Cascade was such that if you had not been the catalyst, something else would have been."
Blair could have and would have argued the point, but Simon chose that moment to step out onto the terrace at the top of the stairs. Without hesitation he moved among the wall of defenders, apparently speaking to many of them, and leaving a wake of straightened spines and proud expressions behind him. Whatever directions he had given, when the first of the roiling crowd reached the living barricade, it came to a sudden stop and milled about in confusion. Nudging Blair to one side so he would not be seen, Megan threw up the sash so that the noise of the confrontation could be heard, carried with startling clarity on the chill night air.
Despite that, Blair could only make out a word here, a phrase there, but it seemed to him that the front of the line was treating the invaders with neighborly friendliness, calling by name those they recognized or genially asking their business at the station after hours. The lack of belligerence to match their own left the mob without an immediate confrontation and no clear course of action to take. That, Blair knew, would not last long; one of the impromptu leaders would rally them soon enough.
Before that happened, Simon asked from the top step, his deep tones penetrating the surrounding chatter with ease, "Why are you not helping your neighbors and families with the fires from the earthquake?"
"Don't lie to us!" someone shouted. "Those damned lizards are burning us out!"
"Then where are they?" Simon did not bellow in return, though he pitched his voice so that it could be heard to the ends of the square. "I see no wings in the sky, hear no orders to leave or meet the flame. Where is the great conflagration that should light up the world with consuming red? The heat and roar and smoke? The liegemen marching before, herding all to the shore?"
The crowd had no answers to that but a ragged eruption of words that made no sense, likely even to itself.
Not allowing them to regroup, Simon asked, "If Cascade does burn, why are you here? Again, I say, why are you not with your family and neighbors giving what aid you can?"
"We want Sandburg, Sandburg, sandburg, sandburg…!" Blair's last name echoed through the mass in varying tones of hope, fear, fury, and scorn.
Hands on his hips, Simon cocked his head to one side. "Whatever on earth for?"
In Blair's opinion, Simon pitched the question perfectly: utter surprise mixed with just enough derision to penetrate the thickest hide. Even from his high vantage point Blair could see a wave of uncomfortable shuffling of feet and ducking heads.
Not giving the throng a chance to answer, Simon went on, now pacing a few yards back and forth. "To battle the flame with you? To organize shelter for the homeless, food and water for the firefighters, as he is wont to do in times of crisis? To beseech the Elderkin for assistance? If the latter, he will not be of much use to you with Ellison gone with Li-Li to the south."
At some unseen signal, the tripled line of defenders took one step forward as Simon went down one, subtly pressing the crowd back. "What is so important about one person that you will batter your way through unarmed men and women to reach him?"
"This is his fault!" The people tried to roar, but it was a pitiful attempt at force and power as guilt and reason began to surface.
"He brought the earthquake? Knocked over the lamps and candles that started the fires?" Simon had them, knew he had them as he and his followers took another step, forcing back the throng a few feet. Many of those at the edges and rear, faded away into the dark, reducing the size of the mob by almost half.
Those that remained, however, were the angriest - and most terrified. "Give us Sandburg!"
"Again I ask, why?" Spreading his arms wide, palms up, Simon changed his tone so that his question beseeched. "What has he done that he must face you with no defense save the goodwill of those standing against you?"
"He didn't protect us!" one determined soul proclaimed.
"From what? Mother Nature? Dragonkind? Did he ever promise he would? Claim that he could?" Sitting where he was, Simon met the gaze of as many as would allow. "I know the man well. All he has ever done for Man, for Cascade, is his best to be an intermediary, a translator if you will, to allow each species to understand the other. I do not think he should be turned over to an angry mob to be torn to bits for thinking the best of his fellow man. If you are looking for a scapegoat, perhaps you should look among yourselves. This ridiculous notion to punish Sandburg for your own foolish superstitions must have come from somewhere."
Blair could hear an underlying mutter and mumble of the sort a man makes when he's in the wrong, but uncertain how to retreat without damaging his pride. Hopefully Simon had thought of that when he'd formulated his plans. Mayhap he would cease being reasonable and take on the mantle of authority he held as Captain of the Sheriffs and snap out orders too reasonable not to obey.
He leaned forward, scanning in all directions to look for some clue as to what Simon might have in mind, and caught sight of a tight knot of thugs shoving their way through the crowd toward the front. It took a moment's concentration, but then he recognized the bloodied prisoner they held in their midst - Joel Taggart.
Spinning on his heel, Blair raced out, catching Megan off-guard, as she had been as spellbound by the confrontation between Simon and the mob as Blair had been. Before he had truly considered the consequences of his actions, he burst out the main doors of the station at almost the same moment as the brutes threw Joel down on the stairs in front of the mob. For some reason Blair had no doubt that retribution against some long-held grudge, not fear or worry, was behind taking Joel as prisoner to trade for Blair. Good sense would not hold sway, and once the first blow was given, the rest would follow in kind for no other reason than because their blood lust had been loosed.
If an exchange had been the ruffian's plan, it was thwarted when the crowd caught sight of Blair. They mindlessly surged forward, and the weight and pressure from so many attempting to reach the same goal in so small a space caused many to tumble. Even as Blair reached Joel through the startled line of defenders, dropping to his knees beside him, people stumbled and fell over him, covering him with their bodies. He barely had time to curl to his side around Joel's head before he was crushed to the point he could not draw breath.
Distantly, dimly he heard a magnificent roar that struck almost like another earthquake. "What have you foolish people done?"
Even beneath the punishing weight, Blair could heard the startled silence, then, very oddly, the words were repeated as if they were a winter's gale, slicing with freezing force that penetrated even down to him. "What have you done?"
Amazingly, the press of bodies was lifted, bit by bit, but very fast, as if Blair were being dug out. As he found himself able to breathe again, he was gingerly lifted in massive claws, then airborne so quickly he caught only a glimpse of fallen and prostrate people in a circle around where he'd been. Confused, he twisted his head to look up at Incacha as they landed on the roof of the station and he was gently set on his feet, still protectively encased in claws. The Elderkin did not show much expression on their features, but Blair had learned to read the emotion by the way they held their limbs and tail, by the tension and placement of their wings. Incacha was well and truly incensed.
A loud thump beside them drew Blair's attention away before he could formulate a way to calm his friend, and he found himself meeting the eyes of another, much younger dragon, if he went by size as he knew he should. The unknown Elderkin nodded gravely at him, and turned to loose a blast of freezing air, as another dragon might breathe fire. It was aimed at the crowd below, and Blair watched in shock as ice formed around the feet of anyone standing below the steps of the station. Those running away suffered a coating of frost on their backs, but nothing worse, and Simon's people not even that much.
"Fools!" Incacha repeated, drawing the gaze of all beneath him. "Fate granted you a great treasure; a Man who only wished to act as liaison for your kind and mine, to guide us on paths of peace and cooperation. And you would squander that gift because you do not have the courage to trust that we will obey our own laws, that we will keep our word to you as have we have done for over three hundred years! You do not deserve Blair Sandburg's dedication."
Incacha spread his wings wide and tightened his hold on Blair. "I do not know what laws of Man you have broken this night, but you have laid violent hands on the Companion of your Liegeman. You know the penalty for that; your only cause for reprieve is that he is not injured. I say again, you do not deserve the services of this man, and the loss of them shall be your punishment!"
With no more than that, Incacha launched himself into the sky, his attendant matching him wing stroke for wing stroke. He did not fly far. The Elderkin did not carry their prey, as a general rule, Blair knew; the muscles of their legs and arms were not strong enough for a long flight with a burden. It was far enough through the dark, though, that it would look as if they had disappeared from Cascade. In reality, they set down in the commons, near the new croft, using it as a screen from sight.
"Incacha," Blair started, as soon as he was on solid ground.
"For once," Incacha said, lowering his head down to Blair's level, "I am doing what my heart says is right, regardless of rules, custom, and propriety. You belong with James, and I am going to take you to him, no matter the risk."
Almost dropping from knees weak with relief, Blair leaned his forehead into Incacha's. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
"Brother, this will cause no end of trouble with the Council." The unknown dragon crouched on his stomach, as if expecting the turmoil to begin immediately.
"My responsibility, Yazmenha. They will expect nothing more from you than you can provide - wise counsel and a truthful report of events."
"Thank you for your timely assistance. I didn't know an Elderkin could breathe ice," Blair said, standing straight and bushing his curls from his face. "That was incredible."
"It is a rare and much valued talent." Incacha straightened, as well, a tiny tendril of smoke escaping from the side of his mouth. "And his use of it was unplanned and very effective. Yazmenha, this is Blair Sandburg, as you may have surmised. Blair, Yazmenha, one of the younger members of the Brotherhood."
"Pleased to meet you, Companion Sandburg." Yazmenha inclined his head in formal greeting. "Incacha, I will take responsibility for my own actions. I happen to agree with you on this."
"As do we," Hillman said as she and Jonston appeared from the darkness at Yazmenha's side, leaning into him in greeting and marking him as their guardian/mentor. "If the brotherhood had bothered to ask any of the liegemen, we would have been firm in our reply that Ellison should not be alone, especially for this journey."
"So how will we accomplish a reunion?" Blair peered up anxiously at Incacha, fearful of the answer, but anxious to hear it, regardless.
"With a great deal of discomfort, I'm afraid." Taking a package from Jonston as he removed it from a saddlebag, Incacha unfolded a great length of dragon cast fabric. "Have you seen the carriers that some women fashion to hold their infants to their breast for them while leaving their hands free? That is the best method we have at this time. You will be snug against my chest as I fly, and when I tire, Yazmenha will take you while I rest a bit."
"Oh." Blair swallowed, hard. "Now? With only the clothes on my back?"
"Provisions can be obtained at Rimfire, though that had not been my plan when I flew here to fetch you."
Though Incacha's tone was very solemn, Blair could sense a thread of humor under it that did nothing to calm his agitation at the notion of flying with Incacha with only a bit of cloth between him and a fall to his death. Hands describing odd circles and ellipses, he said, "Ahhhh… I have a great many very silly questions springing to mind, but won't insult you with asking them, as I'm aware the dragon-cast will keep me warm and very snug, indeed. Nor am I seriously worried about, well, the weight of me causing you to fall from the sky, but I must admit, I am completely terrified about the entire concept, so you should bundle me up now before my nerve is quite lost."
Blair said the last very, very quickly, blurring the words together and ignoring the small chuckle from Hillman. He closed his eyes and hugged himself, managing to hold his yelp down to a tiny, tiny 'eep' as he was picked up and wrapped in the fabric. Before long he was airborne again and listening to the faint calls of farewell from Jonston and Hillman, the troubles of Cascade already obscured by the storm of worry caused by Incacha's sudden decision to take him to Jim.
Willfully holding in a grunt of pain, Jim completed another sit-up, but allowed himself to rest before moving to do pushups. His muscles hardly needed another round of exercise, but the forced activity, especially when already sore from overuse, helped stop him from fading away into one of his senses. He could only hope that when they arrived at Rimfire in two days and began their march into the mountains, that that the severe demands of the trail would be enough to keep the fugue states at bay or he was doomed before he left the rails.
Drying the rapidly cooling sweat from his face with the rags of an old undershirt, he looked over at Li-Li and smiled despite it all. She was enjoying one of her last demijohns of honey and looked perfectly blissful as she licked away at the slow leak she'd made with her teeth. Holding the container between her fore claws, nose practically out of one open door as always and tail tip curling lazily in the other, she was the perfect picture of contentment. At times Jim wondered if she wouldn't be happy to have the train car as her permanent home and worried how he would persuade her to trek into the wilderness.
He had no doubt she would be more than reluctant to give up the companionship she had found thus far on her journey. Though she often had to struggle to stay awake, she clearly enjoyed entertaining her many admirers, especially at the layover to recharge the engines and have passengers board or disembark. News reports and the wireless had flown well ahead of the train, express or not, and she had been greeted at the stop after Olympia with a small crowd of curiosity seekers and well-wishers. Like before, he had indulged her with a prolonged play period with the eagerly awaiting mob of children, leaving her in the care of the local liegeman and companion while he exercised Ften.
With the warning of the first layover branded in his mind, Jim took care to stay close to the train, using methods from his early days as an untried liegeman to attempt to remain focused. Though he was only partially successful, he at least did not slip so far as to require Incacha's intervention, which he regretted, despite the guilt it roused in him when he longed for the surcease. What he would not give for the luxury of being lost in sense memory of Blair, if only for a few minutes!
Tucking that temptation aside, Jim stood and wiped down his bare torso, shivering in the icy chill of the car, but he did not cross to where his uniform tunic and gloves lay as he enjoyed the invigorating cold. Though the train was near the coast, it was well into its long climb up the range to the plateau where Rimfire stood sentry over the high, sharp cliffs that marked the beginning of the string of active volcanoes that extended down almost to Landbridge, the isthmus that connected the Americas. The altitude, as much as the season, had given rise to the hard nip in the air, and a light blanket of snow enchanted the landscape into a realm of unexpected beauty.
The last stop before Rimfire was but an hour or less ahead. If there were no children - probable, given the hour, Jim thought - he'd have to see about initiating a snowball fight with Li-Li. While she had undoubtedly seen snow before, she had probably never seen anyone sport in it for amusement. If she were entertained by his antics, perhaps she would not be overly disappointed at her lack of playmates. The activity would surely be of aid in stimulating him, though he certainly hoped not to have an audience.
Again, it was more than possible he would be unobserved. Their layover most likely would go unremarked by the local citizens, who certainly had better things to do on a cold night than visit a gettle, however celebrated it was. The few remaining passengers onboard had already had their daily visit, save the one that he was uncertain would call. Madam Mills always came to the vestibule of Li-Li's car in the evening, but she did not always find the courage to enter.
As if summoned by his thoughts, Jim heard her leave the sleeper car in front of Li-Li's, and he stepped into the shadowed corners untouched by the kerosene lamp, as he always did when she ventured inside. Pulling on a loose work shirt for propriety's sake, he waited to see what she would do, silently encouraging her to cross those last few feet. Li-Li looked up from her treat as if sensing Madam Mills herself, and seeing her hovering at the threshold, carefully put the demijohn to one side, punctures topmost so as not to spill the honey. Cautiously, to avoid rocking the car, she arranged her bedding for comfort and curled around the chair, head up in anticipation and forepaws crossed as if holding herself in place less she startle her guest by being too eager.
Madam Mills glanced toward Jim, who feigned great interest in seeing that Ften was well covered against the cold, blanket adjusted just so. Ften nickered, the noise a welcoming sound against the whoosh of air past the doors and the rhythm of the train tracks. Against all expectations, Li-Li crooned in echo, as if greeting Madam Mills herself, which was entirely possible in Jim's opinion, as the gettle had taken an uncommon interest in the woman.
That drew Madam Mills in, a smile on her face despite the hesitation in her steps. Against her common custom, she did not wear a veil, which, in Jim's estimation, would save a great deal of wear and tear on the delicate fabrics as Li-Li was fascinated by them. Invariably, against all the cautions and scoldings Jim and Madam Mills gave her, she would attempt to claim a veil to play with as if it were one of her feathers.
Perching on the very edge of the chair, Madam Mills stroked along Li-Li's lip line. "And how are you today, lovely lass? Wound no better, I see. At least it does not seem to pain you very much."
As he always did when she called, Jim murmured barely loud enough for her to hear, head down as if addressing Ften, "It aches something fierce for her when she stretches her wings, which I must insist she do regularly to keep them healthy, but it does not tear open."
Maintaining the pretense, Madam Mills said to Li-Li with mock severity, "And have you eaten anything but sweets, you greedy thing?"
"She will not require a meal for a few more days, and then I will hunt with her to be certain she does not go hungry. I will employ the same technique her mother used when teaching her to fend for herself, so it will be a familiar experience for her. "Jim felt along Ften's withers, simply to look busy, not that the warhorse objected to the extra attention.
"Such a gentle thing. Hard to imagine you rending and tearing into a living animal." To Jim's surprise, she crouched in front of Li-Li, hands smoothing over her chest where the scar tissue was thickest. "How naked you are without your scales. Surely it's not safe to be in the wild so exposed."
Li-Li sat back on her haunches to accommodate Madam Mill's exploration, curiously staring down at the touch. Madam Mills stood with her and rubbed her thumb over one of the small nubs at the edge where the missing scales began, frowning a little, as if uncertain of what she found. Moving with great care, Li-Li closed her forepaw over those inquisitive fingers, likely to nudge them away.
Despite the gettle's great caution, Madam Mills was startled and yanked back, causing Li-Li to do the same, accidentally scoring her vulnerable hide with her own claws as she did. With a little keen of distress, she unfurled her wings and clenched her forepaws, frightening Madam Mills even worse. Jim instinctively leaped forward, taking Li-Li's claws into his palms, heedless of the damage they might do on his ungloved hands.
"Shhhh, Little Miss, shhhh." Switching to the High Tongue, he crooned, It hurts, it's not good, I know, I know, but all will be well in a moment, I promise. Jim kept up the litany of reassurances and soothing noises until he felt the tension under his grip release, and Li-Li settled her wings against her back.
Madam Mills did not move at all from the time it took for Jim to reach them and calm Li-Li down. She had fallen to her knees, hands pressed together at breast level as if in prayer, eyes filled with terror and fixed on Jim. Sinking down slowly to bent knee, he cupped the air under her elbows, afraid to touch as yet. With the same tone of voice, he murmured promises the same as he had with Li-Li - everything was fine, Li-Li would never hurt her or any human, she was safe, all was well.
Eventually Madam Mills shuddered, took in a deep breath, and looked away. "I was nine when Newville was burned; my parents thought their home with its nursery and herb gardens safe from the fire. It was on a long cul-de-sac, so far away from the main streets of the town, surely beyond the boundaries of the edict. They stayed, prepared, they thought, with the water from the irrigation system for the nursery, to battle the flames if they came too close. They stayed, with my two older brothers, myself, a younger sister, and the new baby. My grandparents on both sides stayed, as well, all defying with what arms they could find the Liegemen who came to send them on their way."
"You and Mr. Sanders were the only survivors?" Jim stroked the air along her upper arms in hopes the motion would serve as the comforting contact she truly needed.
As if not hearing the question, she went on. "They argued so fiercely with the tall, tall men and women, all dressed in black, all so stern and rigid. I'd never seen a liegeman before, not even in passing during a visit to the town. I was afraid of them, as much because my family was terrified as because they seemed so, so, dangerous. I held the baby in my arms and hid behind my mother, and wanted the strangers gone so we could go back to the normal things we should have been doing: weeding, seeing to the cuttings, carrying debris to the compost."
"The liegemen did not attempt to relocate them by force," Jim stated rather than asked. Regulations were strict on the procedures for evacuating for a cleansing, and he knew them well despite having never employed them. The liegemen in the area gathered at the center of town and radiated outward - warning, assisting the local lawmen in controlling the flow of traffic, giving aid in emergency situations, such as an elder person with no transportation or family to provide it. If an adult chose to defy the orders to vacate, an attempt at persuasion was the only recourse given, and that attempt could only be made for a very limited time.
"I thought there would be a fight, a battle, and was braced for that," Madam Mills answered indirectly. "When the scary people left, I thought the problem solved, and did as my mother told me, taking the baby and my sister to the kitchen to make a snack for them. We had a big window there that overlooked the gardens with the nursery at one side and the small stand of trees on the land between us and the town."
She took another breath, then another with a promise of a sob in it, but she bore down, eyes slipping closed. "Looking back, I think my parents were expecting a fire like those used to clear fields - a few feet high, slow-moving, easy to block with a fire break of a few yards of turned earth, sparks put out with a back-carried water tank. What came was an enormous wall, racing as if it was a storm over a lake, and I saw it coming. Saw it and screamed for my parents. I snatched up Willie and caught Neddie's hand and ran for my family, but was turned back by the heat before I even reached the far side of the house. And then I just ran as best as I could with the baby in my arms, dragging Neddie along with me.
"I lost her, you know. Her hand just slipped from mine, and before I could tell my feet to stop and turn, it was too late. Ash, smoke, hot, hot air - I couldn't see her, and I looked, I really did, but I couldn't find her. Something hit me, and I fell, my face hurting so bad, and then I was scooped up by a liegeman and carried away. He wouldn't go back for Neddie no matter how much I screamed and fought."
Jim finally gave into need and gently laid his hands on her shoulders. "He would have known if she were close - and alive."
Nodding her understanding, Madam Mills still refused to look directly at him. "So I was told, but I blamed him rather than myself, and after a while, I blamed all liegemen for all of it, though my common sense certainly knew better. Convincing the heart is all together a different thing, isn't it?"
At Jim's answering nod of acceptance, she sighed. "Willie and I went to a sister of my grandmother, who had had her fill of raising children and did little more than put a roof over our head and food in the kitchen. I was an unpaid servant in that loveless house, for all practical purposes, though I did my best to shelter my brother from that abuse. The wicked old thing died and left not a cent to us, so I married a much older man who simply wanted an efficient housekeeper and an uncomplaining body for his occasional use in the bed, and was willing to accept my brother with me."
Chin up, she met Jim's gaze at last. "I made damned certain he left his estate to me, and now Willie and I go to Rimfire to tend a vinery that makes a lovely cabernet, and though we certainly don't need to work the soil to provide our bread, we've both a mind to turn our hand to the earth. And I tell you all this so you know why I cowered at your feet instead of attempting to calm Li-Li myself. I have pride enough to want you think that much good of me, at least. But for that spare moment I was a small child again, staring up at the long, hard body of the man dressed in black who took everything away from me."
Thumbs working the knots of fear under his fingers, Jim considered what to say, but in the end listened to the memory of Blair's voice telling him truth was best when the spirit was at risk. "From what I am told, with every burning, there are a few who think they are clever enough or strong enough to defeat the flames. Most perish. It seems only those of us who have survived them understand their true power."
At her skeptical look, he gave a twisted smile. "It is a test that all liegemen must pass as well, Madam, for what use are we if the fear of fire is stronger than our trust of the Elderkin? Few of us escape mentally unscathed, if physically unscarred by that trial. I personally cannot abide the taste and feel of ash; it always brings to mind the feeling of utter helplessness that comes as the fire sweeps over all in sight.
"Nor did I think you a coward, though I admit I believed your hesitation born of the wisdom of respecting a beast as powerful as a gettle. As it happens, you did precisely the right thing to be certain you did not accidentally incite greater difficulties."
"I assure you, it was entirely unintentional."
"That does not change the favorable outcome."
For a moment she stared at him, but then her lips twitched, firmed, twitched again. She surrendered and laughed, the first time Jim had ever heard such a merry sound from her, and he could not help but grin in return.
"This is who you cavort with, you whore? Him?" The bellow of rage cut with a brittle edge through the momentary peace of shared humor.
Jim twisted to see Madam Mills' brother, Wilson Sanders, stalking for them, knife in hand. He flung a wad of cloth at them, shaking so badly it missed the mark by a wide margin. "You slip out every night, face bared as if uncaring who saw the horror of what monsters like him did to you, so you can be with this, this perversion of humanity?"
"Oh, Willie," Madam Mills said in the tones of a long-suffering older sister.
It was, Jim saw instantly, precisely the wrong tack to take. The rage in Sanders leaped high, and Jim could tell that she had not sheltered him half so well as she had thought. Sanders raised the blade over his head and flung himself at them, and such was his madness that Jim was uncertain if he was the target - or if it was Madam Mills.
Training and instinct took Jim over, sharpening his senses and slowing every second until each was razor-bright with five sensory dimensions that he could examine at will. He smoothly uncoiled from his crouch to step in front of Madam Mills, forearms crossing and lifting to catch Sander's wrist on the downward thrust. Behind him Li-Li stood and roared a challenge, whether because Sanders was unknown to her or because Jim was not reacting as he usually did with visitors, he did not bother to consider for the moment. Madam Mills shouted a no and her brother's name, adding a scream when it was obvious he was beyond listening to her.
Jim watched his eyes, his mouth, the tension in his arm as he prepared to use his weapon, scented his unreasoning anger, tasted the bitterness of it, heard the reckless pounding of his heart. The sum of it was that there would be no quarter given, and once Sanders killed one of them, he would kill the other, and any who ventured onto his path before sanity came again. In some small corner of his mind, Jim deeply regretted that a liegeman would take from Madam Mills the only source of constancy she had known in her unhappy life, completing her hatred of them, and perhaps all men, forever.
There was no help for it. Sanders was berserk and unlikely to stop if not rendered unconscious, at the very least. That would be a difficult task as his speed would be bolstered by his emotion, and the same would protect him from pain that might otherwise incapacitate him.
Decisions made, Jim gave slightly with the force of the strike as it landed on his arms, knife barely skimming past his skin. He jammed his knee upwards, aiming for Sander's crotch, but madness had not made him stupid. Prepared for that blow, he twisted, and Jim used his momentum to hook an ankle over one of his to trip him. Sanders fell, but snagged Jim by the belt on the way down with his free hand to take Jim with him.
Rather than avoid the tumble, Jim deliberately fell on him, hoping to use his superior size and weight to pin him. It worked, if barely, and while the man writhed to get away, Jim shoved his arm up over his head to batter his fist against the floor to force him to release the knife. Howling in fury, Sanders refused to drop his weapon and began clawing at Jim's face with his free hand to push him away.
For all that he was struggling not to lose an eye, Jim still heard and felt Li-Li roar again, and the rock of the car beneath them as she paced back and forth in indecision on how to react to the fight. That was beyond dangerous for all of them, but Jim could not spare a breath to command her to stillness, not that she would have heard him over her own distress. A shout came from the caboose - Rouchland investigating the ruckus. Madam Mills uselessly yelled at him to 'stop them, stop them, for God's sake,' but from the sound of things, Rouchland retreated. A hard jerk of the emergency brake on the caboose followed straight away, informing Jim why.
Sanders succeeded in getting a leg between them and shoved Jim back enough to free his knife. They scrambled to their feet and circled one another, seeking an opening in their defenses. Surprisingly, Sanders didn't swipe at Jim with the blade, which would have actually been a mistake that Jim could have capitalized on, stepping in closer on the outside of the sweep. It showed that the man knew more about how to use it in a fight than one would expect from a genteel background and upbringing. His anger must have been the only reason his initial attack had been so unskilled. With that in mind, Jim feinted as if Sanders were about to make a slicing pass, and the man took the opportunity to jump, stabbing at him backhanded.
In retrospect, Jim would know that it was at that point Rouchland dashed past, and that the floor beneath them tilted steeply to one side then the other. A door opened, closed, and another hard jerk sent him and Sanders staggering. The emergency brake for the next car, Jim realized distantly, but kept his attention on his opponent. Another, milder yank followed immediately: the circus car had been uncoupled from the train.
Understanding immediately what that meant, Jim shouted mentally and aloud, "Li-Li. Ften. Out! Now!"
Li-Li screamed in defiance, but Jim spared the energy to follow up the command with a jab of compulsion. That and Ften's bolt for the door on the side away from the rock face sent Li-Li into a low glide powered by the mighty muscles of her hind legs. That shove for flight was the last straw for the stability of the car.
Vibration shimmied over Jim's skin from his toes to the crown of his head, announcing that the wheels had lost their grip on the track barely before the first hard lurch. Battle clarity allowed him to analyze his current position, what direction he would be thrown, and how to recover from it well enough to ride out the car's roll as it left the rails. While it felt as if he had forever to choose what to do, it reality he didn't even have seconds.
Instinctively closing down Hearing to protect it against the cacophony of the crash, Jim threw himself down to one hip, feet in the direction of the spin, and slid into the wall as it became a floor. Loose objects rained around him, including Sanders, and he took a scant instant to stomp on his fingers and kick the knife out the door. The lamp went out, leaving them at the mercy of what moonlight made it through the cloud cover.
A half-dozen hard bumps threw him up repeatedly as the car caromed across the track embankment, but not so much so he couldn't immediately regain his balance when he landed. He felt another tip and tried to run into it as the ceiling whirled into its new location, but the wall moved too fast and wasn't level. Stumbling, he skidded to his knees, then to his back as he worked to stay with the momentum.
A flash of fabric went by him; Madam Mills trying to reach her brother, regardless of the chaos tossing them all about. The extreme danger must have cooled Sander's rage. Even as he slewed this way and that, he reached for her, though to no avail.
Scent warned that oil from the lamp must have spilled over the bits and pieces of Li-Li's nest and the hay from Ften's stall as they were pitched through the air. Miraculously nothing burned as yet; the latches holding the table and lamp in place against the normal motion of the train must have held. The smallest spark from the derailment, however, would set everything afire.
Ignoring the pain from his hard crash into an end wall as the car slid on its roof for a moment, Jim located the nearest door and twisted in hopes that the force of the next spin would send him through the opening. The glimpse of outside showed an alpine meadow with evergreens edging it, promising the chance of a survivable landing. Another glimpse of black had him snatching for a fist full of skirt and pulling with all he had.
The next instant he was airborne, doing his best to curl into a protective ball, and the one after that a stab of agony in his head dropped him into blackness.
He didn't want to return to consciousness. The dark was quiet, peaceful, without obligation or duty or impossible demands. With the willfulness of a small, tired child, he stayed within it, refusing the summons of pain and fear.
In the end, it took the impossible to shock him out of his refuge: Blair, the scent, sound, feel of him cuddled close. He even had the taste of him, just a hint, as if Blair had kissed him, reaching past lips barely deep enough to touch his tongue. Given the severity of the headache Jim could sense lying in wait, he was willing to wager he was having one hell of a hallucination. Blair was safe, in Seattle, after all.
Regardless, he couldn’t and wouldn't deny the opportunity to hold Blair again, even in a delusion. With a stifled groan of pain, Jim opened his eyes, blinked, and accepted he had to be awake because he had no reason to imagine being sheltered by a gettle's wing. The sound and scent of freezing rain hitting the membrane jolted him into automatically placing a fist into the hollow below the shoulder joint for the sail.
Li-Li's blood thrummed warmly against his skin, and she radiated heat under his back and sides where he was cradled against her body in the rear crook of her fore leg. Jim sagged back in relief. No sign of hypothermia, and training spoke up without prompting to remind him that was good news - very good news indeed. She was drawing on other sources for energy besides the food she consumed, a trick not all gettles learned before being drawn to Graytac.
Definitely not a phantasm, Jim decided, looking down into the curve of his arm where Blair lay alongside him. He could have never imagined him looking so incredibly beautiful while being so completely disheveled, annoyed, worried, and relieved. Blair's damp curls hung in his face, he needed a shave, his glasses were askew on his face, and it seemed all the color to be had in the world was in his blue eyes and the red opal in his ear. For all that, he seemed more alert than Jim felt.
"Jim!" Twisting, Blair cupped Jim's cheek in his palm. "Do you know what happened?"
The gentle contact sent a thrill through Jim's heart, and he leaned into it, eyelids dropping to half-mast in pure pleasure. "Blair. Blair. Blair…." He covered the hand on his face with one of his own. "You're real; you're here."
Gaze softening with love, Blair agreed, "I'm real; I'm here. And I missed you so terribly much. I knew before the ship was a day out that I'd made a mistake in leaving you."
"I should have never let you go." Jim nuzzled against Blair's temple, soaking in his scent. "Nothing's been right, nothing's been good, no matter how right or good it was in truth."
Turning into the caress, Blair breathed against his jaw, "Cold and dark has been my world." He managed a watery chuckle. "Now it's just damp and soggy."
"Blair." Tightening his hold, Jim brushed the lightest of kisses over his mouth. "Chief." He dipped in for a deeper taste. "My love."
"Mine," Blair said more firmly, then claimed Jim's mouth with a surety that had both of them hard and ready within a heartbeat.
Grinding his erection against Blair's, Jim gloried in the lively, lovely energy that was his mate, the first snap of orgasm already gripping his insides. He wanted that explosive release, but only so he could have lust out of the way while he loved Blair limp-boned and senseless.
The only warning he had of the interruption was a harsh sweep of cold air, then Li-Li had her head practically on his shoulder, crooning worriedly. With a curse, Jim tore himself away from Blair's lips and tucked Blair's head down under his chin so he wouldn't be tempted to resume devouring him. He tried to glare at Li-Li, but she was too close for it to be effective. Not to mention the concern she was radiating roused a layer of self-reproach in him.
"Liegeman Ellison?" Rouchland called out uncertainly. "Professor Sandburg?"
"We're fine, sir," Blair called back, his voice thick with both frustration and amusement. "Or rather, the liegeman is awake, and I am attempting to ascertain his condition. Give me a bit more time, please?"
"Of course. It's just that we are all so worried."
"Li-Li wouldn’t let anyone close, including the physician," Blair explained, drawing back with a grimace of reluctance. He dug a thumbnail into the vein line under her chin, and she huffed at him in pleasure before retreating. "Not even the liegeman who had been waiting for you at Clowdin. All we could be certain of was that you had a head wound. Now, I need to know, do you have a concussion?"
Jim took a moment to consider himself, following the flow of blood from his heart to his extremities and back again. Fingers on his skull, he probed carefully at the large bump there, but found no sign of cracks in the bone or bleeding on the inside. He frowned, wondering why everyone had raised such an uproar, but then realized that dawn was nearly upon them. He must have been down for hours.
"No blurred vision, no ringing in the ears, one terrible headache, two cracked ribs, a wrenched shoulder and elbow," Jim reported, not really thinking about it. The probable cause of the latter brought the entire train wreck and its cause to the forefront of his mind. "Ften!" Jim sat up, taking Blair with him and pushing down the need to remain as they were. "He had to jump from the train. Please tell me he wasn't put down for a broken leg. The Elderkin can fix it, if he did. He'll be retired, but he's earned that."
Patting Jim's chest, Blair said, "He's uninjured. Well, save for two sets of bruises just at his hips, front and back, from where Li-Li caught and carried him long enough to control his descent."
"And Madam Mills?"
"Much worse - arm broken in two places, leg on the same side, foot almost torn off. Her brother has two broken legs, a shattered hip, and internal injuries. Both have been seen to as best as possible here and transported to a hospital. We've had the story from them - seemingly a fairly honest account, as it dovetails with what Rouchland reported." Blair lifted the edge of Li-Li's wing and gestured out.
In the distance Jim could see the caboose sitting by itself, unharmed, and the wreckage of the circus car at the far edge of the field, burnt almost past recognition. Another car had derailed with it, but the train must have had time to slow before it did. The sleeper car was upright, if badly canted, and only a few feet from its proper place on the tracks.
"Engine called ahead regarding the accident," Blair pointed to a variety of people milling around under an improvised canopy raised against the rain, while the passengers looked on from the train car windows. "Help was here by way of hand cars fairly quickly, not that much was needed by the time they arrived. The conductor and stewards had the situation well in hand. As soon as the lawmen finish their investigation, the train will back up to the caboose, connect it, and go on to Rimfire. A special train has been dispatched to see to the derailed car."
"The case will be a lively one, given that the gettle was the cause of the accident, but she was provoked by an attack on your person," an unknown voice added, and Jim looked over his shoulder at a stocky liegeman he was not acquainted with, standing just beyond Li-Li's reach. "Miles Grafton, my Companion, William DeFroi."
Assuming his name was already known, Jim nodded at the introduction. "I will not be seeking satisfaction against Mr. Sanders, but will testify to any complaint made by the railroad. There were… extenuating circumstances, I believe. His emotional condition should be taken into account in any verdict."
The blond merely raised an eyebrow, but didn't question Jim's decision. Instead he lifted a palm to show a jewel resting there. "I would see to your injuries, if I may. Amachtah tells me you must needs be trail ready this day." His gaze fixed on Li-Li, and Jim did the same to read the message Grafton was attempting to convey with the look.
Though she had her wing close around him, leg keeping him secure against her side, Li-Li's attention wasn't on him. Head up, she stared into the distant mountains, almost unnaturally still, as if listening to a thrilling song only she could hear. A hint of, well, eagerness was in her posture, in her eyes, that said she wished to be off but was held back by duty.
Incacha had told Jim he would recognize when Li-Li felt the call, and Jim flicked a look to the other liegeman to see if he knew it as well. Grafton nodded, and crooned a reassurance to Li-Li in the Old Tongue, promising that she could be on her way shortly, but let him do what he could for her friends first. The hum of the language from an unexpected source pulled her interest back to him, for the moment anyway, and Jim added his own encouragement in the same speech.
It was enough that she allowed the pair to approach, and Jim set his will to the impossible task of setting Blair away, yet again. Before he could, a thought occurred to him, and he blurted, "Blair, I am pleased beyond belief that you are here, but how? Why?"
Blair made a face so comical Jim could not suppress a smile and moved away so that Grafton could treat Jim. "Incacha seems to agree strongly I should make this journey with you. He and Yazmenha brought me here by sling; hand to heaven, I pray that I will never have to travel so again."
"There are better ways to cover the miles." Jim studied him, head tilted to one side, not at all deceived by Blair's nonchalant explanation. "Now tell me what sort of trouble you've gotten yourself into, this time."
The tale, especially as Blair would try to dismiss or casually pass over important details, causing Jim to question him until he clarified, took some telling. Jim had been treated, Li-Li inspected for new injury or worsening of the old, his intact possessions returned to him by Rouchland, Ften seen to with great praise and treats, and most of the rescue workers sent on their way with warm gratitude before Blair finished his explanation for his departure from Cascade. More than once Grafton, or DeFroi or both looked askance at him, but Jim took the story in stride. While extreme, and there would be a great deal of teasing once the shock and fear from it wore off, it all made a certain perverse sense to Jim.
Once they were alone under the tent and before Grafton could burst into whatever indignation or exasperation it was that colored his expression, Jim asked, "How did Rimfire's citizens handle the news of New York's burning? Or was Cascade's anxiety unusual because of the city's size?"
As Jim had hoped, that put the man back on professional footing, and he frowned in thought. "We happened to be with Amachtah when we learned of that tragedy. She warned us that it was possible people would become irrationally fearful for a time, having experienced the phenomena with one of her liegemen some generations ago. We did see a rise in tension that expressed itself as bar fights, domestic issues, that sort of thing, but before it came to a head, the Shaolin monastery on the outskirts of town opened its door for a celebration. I am uncertain precisely how it happened, but a friendly competition arose between the local vineries - we have three - a brew master, and the priests about whose beverage was the best. The end result was a tasting contest with the residents as the judge."
"That," Blair said with great satisfaction, "must have been one massive, merry, and drunken party. I'd wager, hangovers aside, the next morning the mood of the town was back to normal. The Shaolin have always been very clever about that sort of thing."
Grafton and his companion stared at Blair, and then DeFroi slowly removed a pack he'd carried all during Blair's discourse on his return to Jim's side. He stared down at it, juggling it from hand to hand. "You may not know, Sandburg, but every liegeman pair has a different relationship with their Elderkin mentor, ranging from cool professionalism to the deepest friendship. For all that, I have no doubts that all of us have had long, long discussions about your unique service to the Brotherhood. I have been told that not all Companions favor your efforts to guide a city as well as your sentinel, but the majority does agree that the endeavor should be attempted by someone.
"Our greatest concern, I think, is that Ellison would suffer from neglect. I was prepared to dislike you simply for leaving him on his own for a journey such as the one to Graytac. Worse, even to blame you for the train wreck, for it is likely the situation with Mr. Sanders would not have reached the conclusion it did if you had been there to diffuse it."
As Blair flushed with guilt and doubt, Jim pulled himself to his full height, ready to lambast DeFroi for daring to pass judgment on his guide. Before he could loose his wrath, DeFroi shook his head, the multiple dark braids adorning it swinging and chiming with the sound of the metal beads woven into it. For all that he was as slender as a reed and a half a head shorter than Jim, he did not back down at his anger.
Silencing Jim with a single, sorrowful look, DeFroi gave Blair the pack he held. "Now I fear that you are the one neglected, by the Elderkin and your brothers-in-arms, and for reasons that shame me to consider. The contents of this were given to me by Incacha and do not begin to assuage that disregard, but they most certainly a step on the correct path."
"Perhaps neglect isn't the precise description," Grafton put in as Blair studied the buckles on the bag, obviously baffled at being the recipient of it. "But you most certainly have not been given the tools you deserve, even need, in order to accomplish your duties."
Carefully, daringly, DeFroi put his hands on Blair's shoulders and turned him toward the train. "Go, wash up, change into the gear in the pack, find a bit to eat. You'll be warmer and much more comfortable. You've a long hike ahead of you."
For once speechless, perhaps because he'd never been on the receiving end of a trained guide's empathy, Blair did as told, glancing back repeatedly over his shoulder to be certain that he should. Jim urged him on with a look, a smile, or gesture each time he did, desiring both a private word with Grafton and for Blair to have the opportunity to get clean and warm. It would be the last chance he would have for it until they reached Graytac.
Once he was out of sight, Jim stared at the other sentinel. "I am at something of a loss for this sudden change of heart regarding having any but dedicated liegemen and their companions ever see the valley."
Grafton stared back. "Incacha goes against the will of the Brotherhood in this. Much as I agree with his decision, you should remember that he is the one who will bear the brunt of their ire if we are wrong as to how extraordinary your companion is."
"Besides," DeFroi put in with a bright cheerfulness that was grating under the circumstances, "it saves losing the pair of you at a bad juncture because of whatever reckless scheme Blair would have concocted in order to rejoin you. He is, in that respect at least, all guide."
In blatant disregard for Jim's lingering irritation, he gave him a gentle push. "Now, we have supplies to load, along with repairs to make to your equipment, and I do not know how much more patience Li-Li has."
At hearing her name, Li-Li gave a mournful keen, and Jim hastened to make ready, putting aside all questions and concerns as being too unwieldy to tackle for the moment. Grafton and DeFroi were invaluable in replacing from their own gear what had been destroyed of his, though miraculously he had not lost much that he valued, save his Henry rifle. He was ready to go, attaching and adjusting the hood for his cloak, when Blair returned.
The sight of him stopped Jim in his tracks, heart thumping and need storming through him as if to take his mind prisoner. The dragon-cast uniform Blair wore was unlike any Jim had ever seen, but suited him so perfectly that Jim could not begin to imagine him in any other. Unlike the black attire of other guides, Blair's was the silver gray color of the false dawn and had blue-white flames made of gems spiraling around the wrist. The only other insignia was the familiar purple cracked gettle scale on the breast that he always wore to denote his station. He had a waist-length jacket with a high collar instead of a tunic, with a white sweater underneath, and his trousers were a looser fit, though not so much so they gave a sloppy appearance as they fit into the boots that stopped just shy of his knees.
Hefting the satchel he carried so the strap lay flat across his chest, Blair stomped his feet. "The fit is just incredible. These boots feel like I've worn them for years instead of a few minutes. How did they do that? Never mind, I wouldn't understand the answer, anyway, would I?"
With a hard internal shake, Jim came out of his daze, ignoring the smirks from Grafton and DeFroi. "Likely not. I've presumed to pack for you, such as is possible. Is there anything left to do? If not, let us be on our way."
"Now? Surely our departure can wait until the weather turns. And there are many who will wish to bid Li-Li farewell. I've just discovered from the many inquiries on her well-being how doting the passengers have become of her."
Silently cursing himself for not being permitted to explain better, Jim took Ften's reins and pointed at Li-Li. "She needs to hunt, and since we must take our leave for that, we may as well continue on our way to Graytac. Rimfire was only ever a launching place for the walking portion of our journey, as that path would have been easiest for Li-Li."
Grafton peered into the distance, forestalling whatever comment Blair might have made to Jim's explanation. "You know the western route?"
"It was my approach the first time I travelled to the valley. I favored it because it is the shortest of the three." Jim permitted himself a small, wry smile. "I have not forgotten the way."
"I chose the southern access." Grafton returned that smile, adding a twist of pain. "In the end, it matters not."
At Jim's grim nod, he and DeFroi summoned their horses, mounted and departed without another word, leaving Blair gaping after them. He turned to Jim, likely to make some acerbic comment, but Jim stopped him by taking the cloak he had hanging on Ften's saddle and whisking it over Blair's shoulders, adjusting the hood over his curls. "It is considered bad luck to wish us well for this particular trail. As for the train passengers and crew…."
He stopped, giving serious thought on how to handle the matter, remembering how well Li-LI had been treated by all, but unwilling to tarry for the length of time it would take to give a personal adieu to each who wished one. She was practically rocking in place in her eagerness to be gone, and Jim knew that all that kept her on the ground was her affection for him, Blair, and Ften. In compromise he lifted a hand in farewell to those watching.
In the Old Tongue he said, Li-Li, give voice, please. Let them hear you in full throat.
She slowly turned her head and said, shocking him thoroughly with her accurate reasoning, Say goodbye? Like Man does?
Recovering quickly, Jim said, Yes, please. Then you may fly, but not so far that we cannot catch up with you, if you would.
Then we hunt?
Moving from under the canopy, Li-Li sat back on her haunches and roared a territorial challenge, possibly choosing that call because it was the loudest she produced. Blair half reached for her, but Jim caught his hand and held it as Li-Li waited until every eye was on her before repeating her bellow. She leaped into the air, all grace and speed and beauty, and sailed over the train, giving a last call before gliding toward the mountains. Fingers still entwined in Blair's, Jim followed, Ften obediently trailing behind them. He waved again as he crossed up and over the tracks, making for a dale between two ridges. Blair waved as well, shouting answers to a few yelled questions from the passengers.
Regardless, in very short order they were surrounded by wilderness on all sides, moving over ice- and rain-slick terrain with care. As Blair accepted Jim's help over a tall rock blocking the way Jim had chosen, he said, "That was a very good idea; to let them witness Li-Li in flight. At times I forget how few people see a gettle on wing at close quarters. It will be a memory they cherish, even moreso than if we could have spared the delay for more private farewells. How did you get her to do it?"
"I told her to hunt," Jim said with perfect truthfulness that still bore the sting of guilt. "In unfamiliar territory, a challenge cry is more or less instinctive."
Clearly startled, Blair looked back at him. "She's strong enough for that?"
"No. I doubt she'll be able to stay aloft for more than a mile or so, especially in this weather, with no thermals to help her gain altitude. She'll land and wait for us, is my guess. Liegemen or wranglers have flushed game to her before, I'm certain, while she was in service. In any case, it is how her parents taught her to hunt; it is my hope that some knowledge of that remains."
Jim surveyed the area and found a stand of larch trees, wearing their golden winter needles, clumped tightly together not five hundred feet ahead. Picking up speed, he aimed for the spot, with a gesture sending Ften ahead of them to Li-Li. "Before we take up that task, there is another that urgently needs seen to."
The grin Blair gave him was nearly feral and he picked up his pace to match Jim's. "I believe I see your mind in this."
"I thought you might."
It was impossible to run, given both the weather and the terrain, but they made it to the copse at the best speed possible, pushing through the thick branches to reach the center. Protected by the dense growth of the trees, the small space was nearly dry and surprisingly warm. Jim swirled off his cloak to drop it to the ground at the same moment he reached for Blair, pulling him into the improvised bed.
Their mouths met with a ferocity that neither wished to tame, and they shoved and tugged at clothing, pushing it aside rather than waste time undressing. Already erect, aching with hunger, Jim found Blair in the same condition as he dipped past his waistband and stroked his member from root to crown to bring a sparkling drop to the tip. Curling around him, he lapped way the dewy liquid, barely noticing Blair pull his maleness from his trousers.
Of one mind, they dove down onto the shafts to take them into their throats, each groaning with the exquisite pleasure of giving and receiving at once. Blair's thrusts were short and jerky, not that Jim had any difficulty meeting them, and he could find no rhythm of his own, either. In the end, all he could do was ride out the shocks of sensation, each sending him closer to his finish. All too quickly ecstasy claimed him, but he carried the satisfaction of Blair's release with him, automatically swallowing his offering.
His head cleared, and he drew Blair up level to him for a series of long, loving kisses. Savoring their combined tastes, Jim finger-combed Blair's curls away from his face, sighing at their complicated, twisty grip on his fingertips. "I would have more from you than that hasty bit of relief."
"Oil in my inside pocket," Blair murmured dreamily. "Be inside me, please."
"I'll not last, despite what you have already so generously given." The proof of that was a sharp twist of lust in his belly and a thrum through his manhood at the very idea of possessing him.
"That does not matter. What matters is having you, deeply, thoroughly." Blair nuzzled against Jim's cheek, jaw, neck. "I've been so hollow and cold; you will remedy that if all you do is give me your seed."
All Jim could do was kiss him yet again, and take the proffered oil. Given their location, he did not dare strip him, much as he longed for skin against skin. Instead he worked Blair's pants down past his bottom and sternly reined himself in from giving it the thorough petting it deserved. Urgency rose in him, but he held that in check as well, taking his time to prepare his lover properly.
Though reluctant to lose Blair's luscious mouth, Jim coaxed him into turning so they could spoon together, Blair's backside snug into his lap. Taking himself in hand, Jim aimed for the portal to Blair's body, but only lightly brushed over that tender place. "You wish to be taken; take instead. Work yourself onto me and ride, hard or fast as pleases you."
Smiling over his shoulder at him, Blair said, "And if I wish to be wanton and claim that great length at once?"
"Then I just might send you to your knees and act the stallion with a willing mare."
There was no mistaking the hard shudder of desire his words sent through Blair, but when he would have turned to bring that image to life, Jim held him in place. "Damn me, I should know better than to provoke you when we are both so needful. Much as I would wish otherwise, this is not the time or place to risk damage, love."
"Then you had best not free me," Blair gritted out, trying his best to rear back and ram himself onto Jim's prick.
To Jim's surprise, the tussle to keep that lively ass from reckless action made him want possession of it that much more. And made the sweet grip of it surrounding his cock that much better when he relented barely enough for Blair to give them what they both yearned for. In pure contrariness, he locked his hands over Blair's thighs to prevent his withdrawal, grinding in small circles because he had to move, at least a little. Blair's frustrated little whimpers were exquisite to hear, and the flex of his muscles as he fought for the freedom to thrust was a pure joy.
Again Jim yielded enough for one stroke before securing Blair snug to his groin. The bubble of urgency in him burned and ached, but he could not surrender their erotic contest. Blair's writhing, cursing, panting, and insistent struggles were that good, that thrilling.
Finally Jim could endure no more and had to plunge into him properly, his finish roaring through him as soon as he moved. Blair screamed, fist beating at Jim's hip, and climaxed with him, passage tightening almost brutally around Jim's prick. Eyes rolled up into his head, Jim lost himself in a maelstrom of ecstasy where Blair was his only reality.
From there he drifted lazily into the generous cuddling Blair was bestowing upon him, as if to make up for weeks of deprivation with his leisurely caresses. Jim returned them, content to do nothing more for the rest of his life and well aware Blair felt the same.
In the end, an echoing, plaintive cry from Li-Li roused them both from their post-coital lethargy, and they pulled each other's clothes into place, trading hasty kisses as they did. A rain-dampened handkerchief served for a quick clean up for both bodies and cloaks before they ventured forth from their tiny shelter, still hand-in-hand. They remained that way as much as possible during the day's travel, which was not often, given the steep and rocky climb.
Fortunately Li-Li had managed to hunt on her own, possibly because Jim and Blair had not even attempted to remain quiet during their interlude, frightening the game out of hiding in every direction around them. In addition, Jim pitched stones into thickets while searching for her, backing the assault with a yell and sending several deer - once an elk - into fleeing. By whatever method her meal was sent her way, Li-Li had been feeding on a nice buck when they caught up to her.
Jim didn't want her sated; an edge of hunger would help keep her moving, and it was imperative they be on the march. Winter was creeping up on them, and in these high ranges, even a small storm could mean their deaths. He and Blair made a hasty meal while she ate, then he set their rag-tailed party on their way. Though grateful for the willingness of the others, he was certain Li-Li only walked with them because they were headed toward the summons she alone could hear.
Freezing rain returned that evening after they made camp, making for a miserable night, despite the cover that Jim was able to find for them under a rock ledge. The only comfort was in being able to hold Blair while they tried to find a few hours rest. The single positive note when they readied to break camp the next morning was Li-Li cheerfully shrugging off a layer of ice when she got to her feet, obviously amused at the crystal shroud.
They were still some hours away from stopping for the day when the inevitable - in Jim's opinion anyway - happened. Jim had pressed his charges into making the best time they could in the cold rain, making only short stops for food and water. Blair had begun grumbling under his breath at the weather, gradually growing louder and more vehement in his protest to whatever deity might deign to listen to his complaints.
"Is it so much to ask," Blair said to the heavens, blinking against the drops falling from the branches overhead, "That you make up your mind? Rain snow, ice, mist, even a few feeble rays of sunshine, all since noon. At least if presented with one condition or the other, one might be able to make internal adjustments to endure the torment. But, no, just as ice becomes a familiar thing to walk through, it vanishes into a fog worthy of old London, herself. Not all of us are as sure-footed as Ften, are we, Li-Li?"
The question was plainly rhetorical in Blair's mind. Li-Li chose to answer it honestly - in English. "Feet hurt."
"Of course they do, dear. Your kind is not given to walking overmuch, nor should you be, given those lovely wings. Not that they would do any good in this; well, perhaps if you glided downhill until you had momentum enough to get away from…."
Blair stopped dead in his tracks, mouth open. Jim stopped as well, leaning on Ften to wait for the explosion.
"You spoke," Blair blurted to Li-Li.
"Yes. You asked."
Turning slowly on his heel, Blair stared at Jim. "She talked."
"Gettles do, if they get old enough." Taking him by the arm, Jim tugged him back into walking, relieved they could walk side-by-side for a bit, well aware of Li-Li's intense interest in their conversation.
As if mentally reviewing any number of memories, Blair said slowly, "You've been talking to her for a while."
"Since she arrived. Today was the first time she's spoken in English, though. In fact, it may be the first time any gettle has." Jim bestowed a small smile on her that he hoped showed his hearty approval.
Taking a deep breath, as if to shout or scream, Blair exhaled it slowly instead, shooting Jim a dark look. "In what language, then?"
"The Elderkin Old Tongue." Jim demonstrated by repeating the phrase in that language and adding praise for Li-Li for being so very clever and learning English.
"I've heard you do that hundreds of times, always to gettles." Pushing back his hood, Blair dug his hands into his hair in exasperation. "It never occurred to me it was anything but nonsense noise, and you are not the kind to make nonsense noises to anybody, even a gettle. Why didn't I question that? Why?"
He shoved those questions away and went back to the main topic. "Is that how they learn it? From the liegemen who tend them?"
"They've heard it all their lives, from the time they were merely eggs. The Elderkin speak to them the way they do to us, but with far less effort, in the hopes that the day will come that they begin to use language for themselves."
Li-Li dropped her head to their level, pausing mid-stride. "You know who speaks in here?" She pointed to her brow with a claw.
"Yes, we're going to them now. They can see to it that the wound on your chest heals properly." For the moment he gave her all of his attention, hoping Blair would be fascinated enough by their discussion to let him speak without interruption.
Her wings unfurled, tips quivering. "Where? Where? Now?"
Catching her ear ridges in a strong grip to calm her, Jim shook his head. "A long walk from here. Many days."
"Short for wings."
"Hard for wings, very hard."
"Where, where, where…" She gave him a gentle bump with her muzzle, her tone perfect in its pleading.
With a sigh, Jim accepted she couldn't be held back; not now. "Listen. Listen hard." Using his flattened hands, he mimed touching the mountains to the left and to the right of them. "Mountain, mountain." He slowly brought them together. "Closer, closer, closer - higher, higher, higher." Touching his fingertips together, he reached up as far as he could. "Mountains almost meet. Between is too narrow for wings; to go over, very high.
"You tell me, now, Li-Li."
She sat back on her haunches and used abbreviated gestures to mimic Jim. "Mountain, mountain, closer, closer, higher, higher, almost touch. Over very high."
"Good, very good. But walk with us, Miss, for a while longer. Heal. Hunt."
"I know. Walk anyway."
"Home. Jimmmmmm, they say home."
Argument was useless, and he nodded. "Go, then. We will follow. If you need us, look for us on this side of the valley, heading for your home."
"This side, going up." Li-Li dropped down to all fours and crouched to rest her forehead in the center of his chest. "Come quick." She did the same to Blair, keening unhappily. "Come soon, Blair." In clear imitation of humans, she created a sigh and pulled away.
Judging her surroundings cautiously she sprang atop a huge boulder, then a taller one, then a stone outcropping, moving farther and farther up until she had a good height for a leap into the sky. Jim watched her fly, frowning at her slow gain of altitude and the heavy beat of her wings. It wasn't good, but she had been warm under the ice that morning. If she could draw on the Other planes of reality for that, perhaps she would think to use the same skill to support her weight in flight as the Elderkin did.
He turned back to the disappointment and anger Blair had waiting for him. "Thank you for permitting me to devote my energies to persuading her to remain with us. Pointless as the attempt was, I had to try."
"You're welcome; I could see it was for the best. Now, tell me why I am only now learning of this wonder."
At Ften's impatient neigh, Jim resumed their hike. "Remember our discussion a few years ago about the difference between discretion and deception? In this instance, the Elderkin insist upon discretion to the point that not even all liegemen know that gettles may grow into reason and speech."
Clearly taken aback, Blair drew his hood back over his head, frowning as he did. "Their liegemen, Jim?"
Eyes on his feet, Jim did not meet Blair's gaze. "You know their preferred teaching method is allowing the student, so to speak, to observe and question on his own. That was what DeFroi was referring to when he said you had not been given the tools you require. As you have never been to the Settlement, you have never had the experiences or been in circumstances that would lead you to questions on certain subjects."
"It has not been a liability before."
"If anything, it has been an asset." Jim made sure the pride and pleasure he felt at Blair's accomplishments was clear in his voice as he dared not show his face as yet. "You are not trapped by ingrained habit or blinded by tradition, which has allowed you to see your way clear to new methods and ideas that have not only saved my sanity, but my life. But in this one instance, the lack of conventional training is making itself known."
Somewhat grimly, Blair asked, "Are there are other gaps that I should be aware of?"
"Unfortunately, yes. Even more unfortunately, I am not at liberty to apprise you of them. It was part of the bargain you struck with Incacha and the Brotherhood when you chose to pave your own way rather than follow custom. You were warned there were pitfalls in the path you preferred, Chief, and the evolving sapience of the gettles is, at least, one with little or no impact on the careers of most liegemen. None have ever found themselves in the position of shepherding one to Graytac."
"Because most gettles who hear the call are capable of making it there on their own, I take it." Blair hesitated, but apparently was unwilling to trust Jim's current course; not without reason, in Jim's opinion. "Why have we not turned back? Surely Li-Li is miles beyond whatever aid we could render now."
"Gaining entry into Graytac is a trial, which, though she may well not succeed in it, does not mean she is refused admittance." Jim studied the sky, well aware he couldn't follow her flight that far, despite his wishes otherwise. "We will be needed in that instance. If she accomplishes her goal, she still must hunt, and hunt well before she is forced into a molt, and, again, our assistance will be required."
Blair considered that before finally nodding to himself. "Simply knowing that we are on our way to join her may encourage her to endure any difficulties she might encounter. The test isn't her ability to fly, obviously. May I know what it is?"
"Would you like to work out on your own how she might find access?" At the sudden intent distraction in Blair's eyes, Jim knew he'd hit on the right diversion to prevent Blair from asking questions he was not prepared to answer at present.
His ploy worked a bit too well. After Blair correctly deduced that if he, Jim and Ften were planning on simply walking into Graytac, then all Li-Li had to do was realize that fact and walk in herself, he focused on Jim's time at the Settlement. In his mind, if life there provided clues to information the Elderkin wished sentinels and guides to infer on their own, then he perhaps could do the same by becoming well acquainted with the daily minutiae of the inhabitants. For the next few days, whenever the environment and breath permitted, he had Jim describe as much of the town and his years there as he could coax, pry or tease from him.
Unfortunately, the details only frustrated him, as much of what Jim did after those initial months in the stables was follow after other sentinels as they went about their duties. For the most part, little was said that wasn't specific to the task at hand and how the senses were utilized, such as when Jim worked in the hospital to gain what medical skills he could. Free time was spent reading for his own pleasure in the enormous library (it took Jim most of a day to describe that treasure to Blair's blatantly envious satisfaction) or listening to other people in the common rooms of the boarding house he resided in discuss their own lessons and past adventures.
In the end Jim found a way to tactfully - for him - mention that most of what he learned that was kept circumspect by the Elderkin he had discovered after taking up the uniform. He pointed out the visits to Li-Li by other liegemen on her train ride as an example, and Blair withdrew into himself to mull that over for the better part of an afternoon.
After that the landscape grew increasingly treacherous, requiring more and more of Jim's attention and gifts to safely navigate. High, sharp ridges intruded into the valley, deep gullies cut through it, and what plant life survived the harsh climate was short and twisted until it was almost as impenetrable as rock itself. Blessedly the weather turned relatively dry, if cold as a miser's heart, lessening the chances of a misstep on the stony ground.
For all that, food was still fairly easy to come by: wild goats and sheep thrived in the area, and there were rabbits and game birds of various sorts. Some of the vegetation was suitable for Jim and Blair as well, and they literally hunted and foraged along the way, barely needing to stop to scoop up a kill or snag roots, nuts, and stalks. Ften grazed well, coming and going as he wished while they hiked ever higher into the mountains. If it weren't for the nearly incessant longing for a hot bath and soft bed, the trip would almost have been pleasant.
Unexpectedly, while they stopped by a small rivulet to fill their water bags and catch their breath before tacking a particularly steep incline, Blair plopped down on a thick patch of moss and lay back, staring into the clouds. "I believe it is possible I have just had the sort of epiphany the Elderkin are so fond of evoking in their people."
"Yes," Jim asked, cautiously.
"If Li-Li is being summoned to Graytac, and if she will fight any Elderkin who may be there for hunting rights in her new territory, which is why Incacha and the others have kept their distance on this strange journey, then who is it that can safely issue the call? And can you hear it? Why can't I, though it seems it is the same method we've employed ourselves to contact the Brotherhood? You and Grafton both said you've made this trip before, and your tone implied that it was not a good experience, yet you also said that it was required of you. But not to escort a gettle, as, again, you have said that is a new occurrence."
"That must have been a fairly sizeable insight, with a great deal of impact," Jim said, trying for a light tone. When Blair snorted, he added more seriously, "Include what else you know a sentinel must do to become a liegeman, and why Graytac is the best environment for Li-Li if she must be forced into a molt."
While Blair thought that through, Jim lay beside him, willing to rest a bit and enjoy his company. Most nights they barely stayed awake long enough to pitch their tent and eat before falling into the sleep of the exhausted. He half-drowsed, enjoyed the bit of sunshine captured in the small gulch, and waited.
Before very long, though, Blair leaned upon up an elbow, resting a hand in the center of Jim's chest as if to hold him in place. "You must guide an Elderkin through a molt, a very dangerous task from what you've said. Graytac is rich in minerals needed to replace scales. The dragons must go there to shed their skin, at least on occasion, which is why so much secrecy shrouds the valley. They are so very vulnerable while undergoing the process, based on what little you've shared with me, that Li-Li might not see them as a threat to her hunting rights."
"There's more." Jim chose his words very carefully, unwilling either to lie or sully his oaths. "What else do you know about the molt of an Elderkin?"
"They must undergo the process if they wish to grow." At Jim's encouraging nod, Blair went on. "And they continue to grow as long…." His voice trailed off as he considered the implications of that.
It did not take him very long to reach the logical conclusion. "How large may they become? Surely there must be an upper limit. Otherwise the amount of food necessary to sustain their bulk would be enormous. A few could literally strip the plains of their herds in a short time. Well, short for them, at least."
"Another good question is how long can the torpor of a well-fed dragon last?" Jim did not need to provide an answer to that; Blair's eyes went wide as he assessed all the facts he had at his disposal.
Before he could frame a reply, Jim sat bolt upright, mind ringing with a beautiful mix of joy, relief, and surprise. "Li-Li made it! Somehow she sussed out the secret to the passage!"
To his delight and concern, Blair wore an expression of shocked pleasure. "I know! I felt…. Oh, mercy, what a pitiful word that is for such a complex thing… but I felt it! But how?"
"I'm uncertain if she was guided by instinct or has learned how to respond to the voices she hears, but that is the method she employed to announce her success." Reluctantly Jim stood. "Come, we must be on our way. I have no doubt that the Elderkin arranged for a meal to be waiting for her on her arrival, but that will not hold her for long. She will be aching to gorge herself, especially once she perceives how protected the valley is and how abundant the game."
"How far?" Blair bounced to his feet, clearly eager for the knowledge he hoped he would find at the end of their expedition.
"Three more days, and the hardest we have traveled so far. We're almost above the tree line, so food will have to come from our packs. Have you ever been at an altitude great enough for the air to be thin?" Jim led the way, listening for Ften, who had meandered on ahead of them.
"It makes exertion more strenuous and can cause some to fall ill."
"Be certain to drink more water than you are accustomed to as you need more in the arid conditions as we go higher. It will be less available, as well, so we must take advantage of every source we locate as we climb." Still giving warnings and advice, Jim began the long climb, leaving uncertain topics behind for a while.
Weather was with them for a change, and they made good time, putting the threshold to the valley just shy of two days ahead when Mother Nature found a new obstacle to throw at them. They were both exhausted enough that the white powder trickling down from the sky made no particular impression at first. Fortunately, Blair lost his footing, skidding back a step or two, and he sat in the shale for a moment to regain his composure.
He caught a flake in his palm and sighed. "Well, I had hoped we would miss more foul weather until we were closer to shelter, but at least this snow is light."
"Damn." Jim brushed at his arm, then looked at his glove. Immediately he reached over and tugged at Blair's hood to snug it tight around his face. "Not snow, Chief. Ash. One of the volcanoes must be erupting again." From the edge of Blair's cloak he drew out the face mask concealed along the collar and adhered it to the edges of the hood to form a seal. "You must not breathe it, whatever you do; it can cause dreadful damage to the lungs. This will filter it out when you inhale, so do not remove it, ever, until we are clear of the fall. Even kicking it up as you walk can suffice to do harm."
Before Blair could protest, Jim saw to his own protection and took out an odd fabric sheath to fit over Ften's nose to afford him defense against the ash, or so the Elderkin promised. Jim had not brought the horse with him the last time, and was uncertain Ften would tolerate the covering. Indeed, he shook his head, fighting the material and the constriction of it, but surrendered eventually with much coaxing. Jim didn't have the heart to blame him; the mask made him feel claustrophobic as well, despite the easy flow of air through it. It took Blair a bit to acclimate as well. He fidgeted with the edge where it crossed his cheeks, as if to adjust the fit, though it lay smoothly against his skin.
The fall became so thick it was difficult to see more than a few feet ahead, and Jim had to rely heavily on other senses to be sure of their path. With speech muffled to the point of annoying them both, Blair used touch to keep him focused, a dangerous method at the moment because of the uneven footing. The ash even followed them into the tent that night, regardless of all their precautions, necessitating leaving their cloaks on as they slept. After hours of restless dreams of smothering - or oddly, drowning - they both were relieved to be on their way at first light.
Occasionally a whiff of fresh, cleaner air swept over them, encouraging Jim that they would be beyond the ash fall by dark and certainly when they reached Graytac. The valley had its own defenses against such things, and he took the time to make that promise to Blair to hearten him through the long, gray hours. By mutual accord they skipped food, unwilling to eat anything exposed to the fall, as much to avoid the gritty contamination as the flavor itself. The sips of water they had to take were bad enough.
Even when the light began to fade, Jim pushed on. They had nowhere to go any longer, save up, and the mountains were so close on either side that they could lean on them for support when their ankles and knees protested their abuse. Blair walked behind him, clinging to his belt and trusting him to steer him past whatever obstacles they encountered. Finally, as a sliver of moon attempted to brighten their steps, a dead end reared up out of the night to block them.
The sound Blair made as the presence of the barrier made it through the fog of his fatigue tore at Jim, and he risked peeling away a corner of his mask to speak against Blair's temple. "The mountains almost touch, remember? We are where Li-Li sat not so very long ago. Be patient."
His sense memory of his previous trip served them well when they resumed their climb. Within the hour a subtle change in the direction of the wind, a fragment of sound almost too faint for even his hearing, and a tiny difference in the color of the rock face warned him they'd reached their destination at last. He walked toward the threshold, only to nearly stumble to his knees when Blair pulled him back hard.
"Trompe L'oeil," Jim shouted to him. "Illusion. There is an opening there."
He turned to take Blair's hand in his and towed him gently forward. They stepped into a gap only seven or eight feet wide, seemingly blocked by another ridge that blended perfectly into the one in front of it. Turning sharply to their left, Jim moved forward a few yards, stopping just shy of another rock face and turned again, back to the right to follow a twisting passage until it broke free of the mountain. Moonlight held more sway over the landscape they emerged into than in the one they'd just left, sparkling against the black sand, but Jim was beyond caring.
Barely staying upright, he stumbled toward the sheltered campsite he prayed had been left for them as was custom, taking off his ash-encrusted cloak as he did and letting it fall where it might. With a heartfelt 'thank mercy,' Blair did the same. As they approached, a fire started for them, and Jim somehow stopped himself short of entering the camp.
"Undress, down to your undergarments, here." At Blair's half-stifled moan of protest, he added, "To be free of the ash. There's water heating over the fire; use it to wash your face - carefully, so as to not scratch your skin. We won't use the tent tonight, or empty the saddle bags and packs. In fact, leave them, your clothes, everything outside the camp and downwind. I'll see to Ften."
It seemed to take an eternity to remove their gear from the horse and free him from his tack and covering, but Jim stubbornly kept to it. Before he dropped the mask, he studied it and the thick coating of ash on it. There seemed to be too much and the edges of the fabric were frayed where Ften had worried at it with his teeth. That was troublesome, but as he could not discern any change in the horse's breathing or other natural noises, Jim tiredly let the matter go. With as much care as he could muster, he brushed the worst of the fall off Ften and out of his mane, staying upwind as the wind whisked the dust away.
With a last affectionate pat to the horse's rump, Jim sent him to find grazing and the small herd of females that roamed the valley. Only then did he allow himself to rip away his uniform. He never remembered reaching the fire or cleaning up, though he had one instance of clarity as Blair took a thimbrane from a small basket by the hearth to drape over him and pushed him back onto another. The edges sealed to make a warm cocoon, but Jim was asleep before he had time to appreciate it.
Hours later he surfaced from deep slumber to find fresh water and a small pile of fruit inches from his nose. Taking the hint, he folded down their improvised bedding to indulge in both food and drink, jostling Blair barely awake enough to do the same. They curled back around each other, not noticing how high the sun was, and it had gone back down before other bodily functions dragged Jim back awake. Again he nagged Blair into joining him in another sketchy meal, this time actually tasting the fruit. They exchanged a few desultory comments but soon crawled back into their bed roll.
The rising sun enticed Jim into awareness the next morning, but for a while he simply lay where he was, savoring the peace. At some point during his rest a voice had told him that Li-Li was sleeping as well, and that there was no urgent reason to start the day as yet. There was no need to be on guard in the valley, hunger had not made itself known so far, and laundry was the only task at hand. He shifted to dig a better hollow for himself in the black sand cradling him and waited for Blair to wake.
After a bit, his patience wore thin, and the thought occurred to him that Blair had appreciated having his rest disturbed for food and other necessities. Perhaps he would not object to having his slumber interrupted for other, ahhh… physical requirements. Jim considered that possibility, weighing it against Blair's potential irritation at not being allowed to sleep in on a morning where the most pressing chore awaiting them was a bath. One they sorely needed, and Jim mentally tried that as an excuse, though his nose had shut down in pure self-defense the moment he'd removed his uniform.
In the end, Blair mumbled something unintelligible even to Jim's ears and snuggled against Jim's side, pressing a considerable morning erection against his thigh. All rationalizations vanished from Jim's mind, and he rolled so that he was tummy to tummy with him, his own manhood rapidly hardening. With a sigh he pushed gently along the heated length awaiting him, marveling at the wonder of soft over hard, smooth surrounded by tight curls.
Without Blair's quiet cries or arousing fragrance to heighten his pleasure, Jim found himself focusing on Touch as he never had before. Purposefully closing his eyes to the always wondrous sight of his lover, he drank in all that his skin granted him, quickly lost in the myriad of textures that made up his mate. His hands wandered at will, finding a downy sweep of backside, a baby-tender ear lobe, a muscular curve of arm. Bone close to the skin's surface gave it a different, stronger feel; a dusting of hair added to the sensuality of a long, gliding caress.
Through it all Jim rocked against Blair, the moisture leaking from the head of his prick to slick the way. By and by Blair's hips moved in automatic response to Jim's attentions, and he murmured nonsensically even as he slipped away from the land of dreams. Clutching at Jim's upper arm, he held him near as they thrust harder, legs tangling as they sought to be closer to each other.
Despite that, there was a dreamy quality to their lovemaking, as if they had been in motion for hours and could go on for hours more. That, Jim acknowledged in the back of his mind, suited him perfectly. He was tired to death of hasty encounters and quick relief. He wanted a surfeit of ecstasy; wanted to finally have his fill of Blair's body, if that were humanly possible, which he doubted but wished to discover for himself.
Even as he admitted the need to himself, his long-denied flesh made its demands on him, and he gave into the urge to bear down harder, create more sensation, more delight for Blair and himself. Blair was with him, as always, crying out a command for faster, gods, faster, Jim. Obeying, he drove against him, palms cupping his ass to give them both leverage for their frenzy. Panting, Jim rode higher and higher on bursts of feeling that brought him ever closer to the final peak of passion.
He found it unexpectedly, almost as if he dove from a great height into a perfect pool of euphoria, vaguely disturbed by the power of the spasms that gave him his release. Blair echoed his shout of relief, sounding as astounded as Jim by the strength of it. It took long, exquisite moments for the last throbs of their finish to ebb, leaving them cuddled together and desultorily trading sleepy, lazy kisses.
Finally, Blair's stomach gurgled loudly, startling a laugh from them, and they finally rose from their bedding. "I don't suppose another meal will be provided for us?" Blair asked, half-seriously and half-facetiously, wrapping a breech cloth around himself before pulling on the slippers Jim wove for him from thimbrane.
"Why should they?" With an effort Jim kept his expression bland and beckoned for Blair to come with him.
Stepping around the outcropping that protected them from wind and captured the sunshine, he gestured expansively at the wide valley spread below. Even Blair could see the wealth of berries, nuts, and various fruit trees a short distance from their camp, seemingly stretching to the mountains in the distance. The often flowered foliage was so dense that the small lakes scattered here and there were barely visible through it, and the canopy was alive with a wide variety of birds, promising eggs and fowl for meals without too much difficulty.
"It's very reminiscent of the African jungle," Blair murmured, taking in the vista.
"Closer to the South American ones, or so I'm told, with one very important difference - no predators. No crocodiles in the water, no snakes in the grass, no big cats or bears in the woods, no poisonous plants or frogs, not even mosquitoes in the swampy areas. This is as close to paradise as Man can find on Earth, and Man is the only thing that hunts here." Absently scratching at his scalp, as if speaking of the insects reminded him of itching, Jim felt several layers of caution and habitual vigilance fade away. The Great Ones had their own watch over this place; there was no call for a sentinel or sentinel abilities.
Capturing Jim's hand, Blair nevertheless dug into his own hair. "None of that; dirty as you are, you'll give yourself an infection. I see both blossoms and fruits. How is that possible?"
"No seasons, so the plants adapted, flowering erratically in competition for the pollinators since there's seldom much of a breeze down there. What little there is, blows down from the cliffs behind us." Rather than retake possession of his fingers, Jim drew Blair along with him along the base of the cliff. "And I believe there may be something we both value more than food at the moment."
"More? Already?" Blair's tone was mock serious, telling Jim that he wasn't against an encore so soon if that was what he truly wished, but, at the same time, he truly was hungry.
Because of that, Jim detoured along a trail that would allow them to pick strawberries as they walked. Though he gaped at finding them here, Blair indulged himself, exclaiming over the size and sweetness. They only sought out enough to take the edge off their appetite, but Blair didn't complain when Jim led him to a hot spring.
They lazed away more than a few hours bathing and swimming, occasionally venturing out to find a tidbit or two to hold off hunger before returning to the water. Eventually Jim's body demanded more substantial sustenance, forcing them to reluctantly leave the pool and return to camp. Along the way he brought down two fat grouse with well-aimed stones and later roasted them over the fire as they strung a line and hung out their uniforms to be blown free of lingering ash. Warm as it was, clothes didn't seem necessary, and they decided breech cloths were the best choice while they washed up their things. Afterwards they went through their packs to take measure of what supplies they had left, chatting desultorily about nothing and everything.
That was the most serious work they did for nearly a week. The only event of note happened shortly after awakening on the next morning. As Blair stirred the embers to build up the fire to make breakfast, Jim casually stood and took a post at the edge of their site, arms crossed over his chest. His stance was protective, but not threatening, just as it should be for a sentinel with a companion to guard.
"We have company; one of the local tribe still cautious enough to wish to be certain we should be here." Jim spoke at a normal level as he had nothing to hide from their watcher.
Blair froze for a moment, but then casually went on with his task. "You did say Man hunted here. Somehow I thought we were the only examples of that species on hand."
"No, this is a refuge for damaged sentinels, ones whose minds have broken under the weight of their gifts, and retired ones who have seen enough of Man and the consequences of his Curse to last them the rest of their lives." Jim didn't try to make contact with the woman eyeing them from the dense bush; custom said she should be the one to approach if she wished to meet.
"They have a village? I've seen no signs of one during our wanderings." Lifting a bowl, Blair silently asked if he should prepare enough for a guest.
Jim answered with a shake of his head. "We've stayed close to the edge, as we have business here, but I employed the term 'tribe' lightly. For the most part they are solitary people, though they do maintain a central meeting place, probably at the insistence of their guides - those who have them." The woman nodded at him and faded away, another ghosting after her with a faint limp. Both were badly scarred, telling Jim some disaster had overtaken them, accounting for their presence in the valley and their continued interest in being guardians.
"Those who have them? Ahhhh, I rather thought they were mandatory and that you were more than exceptional in your lack of one."
Habit had Jim hesitating, but somewhere between having Blair miraculously returned to him and arriving at Graytac, his mind and heart had apparently decided that once here, he would tell Blair everything from that point on. Not just when asked, but always, and he would create the opportunity to bring up every avoided subject that lay between them. Regardless, he began carefully, giving the first lesson that most guides learned in the Settlement, to give Blair the opportunity to absorb the impact of his new knowledge.
"Those who do not find a companion to share their lives often cannot function normally without them. If they cannot lay their gifts to rest, as Alice Bannister had, this may become their home because there is no place safer to be when lost in one sense or another. The few, very few, who survive the passing of their guide frequently retreat to Graytac for much the same reason."
Seeing, but choosing not to comment on Blair's shock, Jim took his seat across from him to finish his explanation. "There is no turning of seasons, hardly any weather to speak of, game is easy to come by - one day flows into the next with hardly a ripple of them touching the mind. It becomes possible to endure the endless passage of time spent always alone if there is no time to speak of. It was a lure I nearly succumbed to, myself, my first visit."
"Surely your kind is not so fragile as that!" Blair stood and began pacing. "You functioned as a liegeman for how many years before meeting me. And Bannister…."
"Was Quieted, as I have said, and from Bruckner's testimony, once awakened, began to slip ever more quickly into insanity, as could have been predicted by any who truly knows sentinels. You have no idea, Blair, how much there is in the world to see, hear, and so forth. Or how overwhelming it all may be. Even simply ignoring the stimulus takes a toll on strength that will eventually break the strongest of us."
Jim shrugged. "My days of active duty were already numbered when I rode into Cascade the first time as liegeman, and I was not then functioning close to my full potential. The hope of locating a companion was why I was assigned there to begin with instead of riding my usual rounds of tiny villages in remote areas. Most of my hours until that day were spent on the trail and in a different sort of timeless existence than can be had here, but one all the same."
Wheeling around to stare at him, Blair blurted, "That is unfathomable. A total waste of training and skills. Surely there is a technique, an over-looked factor not taken into account, which would salvage unpaired sentinels."
"The Elderkin have sought it, as have our best researchers, since we came into their service. That, and the natural dormancy that cushions some children such as myself, is how Quieting was discovered. It has been theorized that the simplicity of primitive life is what allowed us to evolve in the first place, and the discovery of guides is why the genome is not extinct. As it is, sentinels are rare elsewhere, almost never seen in Europe or the Middle East at all now, and not more often in Africa or Asia."
"It doesn't help that the few who do emerge die from some despot's attempt to bend their instincts and humanity," Blair muttered.
"That doesn't happen as often as you'd think, thanks to Elderkin agents on the alert for exactly those circumstances. Nor do we consider ourselves fragile, thank you very much. In earlier millennium I would have been dead from old age before my lack of a guide would have become threatening to my sanity."
"You speak very calmly of your own downfall."
"It didn't happen, did it? Pondering 'what might have been' is as sure a way to madness as the senses left unchecked. You found me, accepted me, and I have blessed my fate since then."
That was the end of the conversation, as far as Jim was concerned, though Blair did not let the subject rest until well after dark. In his mind, the loss of a useful, productive existence due to the lack of proper companionship was completely unacceptable. He railed and ranted, berating, not for the first time, the pragmatic philosophy of sentinel and Elderkin alike. Because of that, Jim let his resolution to inform him of all hidden matters slip, just a bit, despite the beginning he had made. He eased his conscience by assuring himself that Blair would ask, sooner rather than late, if he planned on retiring to Graytac if he should survive him. Or he would wonder how badly a sentinel could suffer without a companion.
In addition, he wished to enjoy a few idyllic days before returning to duty or suffering through Blair's full blown rampage when he discovered how much had been kept from him. It did not seem like such a great thing to ask of the universe, and for once the universe seemed inclined to indulge him.
In the end, some innate awareness of Li-Li's presence in the valley warned him that she would be rousing soon, hungry as if she hadn't fed for months, called him back to duty. Though he could have gone straight to the area she chose for her 'nesting' site, he decided to take a roundabout route. If their holiday was at an end, then Blair's education on Elderkin ways should resume, as well. With that in mind, he threw on a light undershirt and the loose slacks he'd used as sleep wear on the train, along with the slippers he'd cobbled together that first morning.
Dressing, however casually, seemed to alert Blair that a change had come, and he clothed himself in similar attire, going so far as to have Jim carefully braid back his hair for him. "Time to see Li-Li?"
"And to pay a courtesy call to the Great Ones." Jim took a moment to orient himself before unhurriedly walking along the cliff base. "They may or may not notice us, depending on how aware they are of their surroundings at the time, or if they don't wish to be distracted from some knotty problem they are pondering."
"Will this be like meeting the Brotherhood?" Blair asked, worry clear in his voice.
"A great deal less formal, and they tend to be, well, more serene about most matters. Incacha says he has never seen one riled." The ground underfoot grew less sandy and more uneven, and Jim slowed to let Blair draw ahead of him slightly in case he should stumble. "In my experience, they are also more playful, prone to teasing and puns."
"Somehow, I find that difficult to imagine." Blair shot an amused glance back over his shoulder. "Perhaps it is a trait one learns with great age. There may be hope for you, yet, if you should live so long."
"If you are referring, yet again, to the incident with the oatmeal, I will remind you that you did not find it so comical at the time. Though I must admit your retaliation on Deputy Brown was singularly entertaining and well worth earning Simon's wrath."
"To be honest, I thought I would have difficulty in persuading him to believe me when I proposed my opening gambit."
Listening to Blair's happy re-telling of that particular prank with only half an ear, Jim concentrated on finding the entrance to the maze of lava tunnels that had become the dens for the Great Ones. Its shape had been changed once again, for what purpose he could not begin to fathom. Perhaps the dragons had done it only for entertainment's sake, which would not have surprised him in the least.
When he found it, he slowed to be sure he was correct and that the passageway did not dead end a few hundred yards inside. Blair studied the tiny seam dubiously, but followed Jim in willingly enough. Once their eyes adapted to the faint lighting from the phosphorescent lichen, the trek was pleasant - cool, fragrant, and punctuated by fascinating formations in the stone. By and by the echoes changed, and Jim knew they were close to the gigantic honeycomb of lairs and nests for the oldest of the Elderkin. To prepare Blair for the sight of the gigantic beasts in their snug cells, he detoured around the back to enter the one he knew best.
"Oh. Oh, oh, oh… mercy! He's huge - seventy feet long, at least, not counting tail. And he looks like he's made of hammered silver." Blair reached out to stroke along an enormous flank, wonder shining from his face.
Before he could touch, Jim stopped him. "Tamlinshinas may be colossal, but he's fragile. Over the centuries he's cannibalized his physical self to support his life functions here. Mentally, he spends most of his existence in the Other, using energy flowing from there to here to fuel his brain processes. And no, Chief, I have no idea exactly how that's done or even precisely what it means. Just that is how all Great Ones live when they become too huge to be able to eat enough to survive without devastating the ecology.
"They don't eat?" Incredulous, Blair backed off a step. "What happens when they use up their mass?"
From all around them a soft voice said, "Our body shivers into dust, but that is hardly the end of us." Tamlinshinas chuckled. "Most don't even notice unless some circumstance calls our attention to the loss. Physical form is, after all, hardly useful to us one we begin this phase of our lives."
"Then you don't die?" Blair was beyond incredulous now, backing away from the still, still form.
"Of course we do. As I believe Incacha has told you - we're long-lived, not immortal. It simply becomes more a choice than a happenstance."
"Tamlinshinas remembers the last Ice Age, Chief." Jim winced at volunteering the information, but Blair had to make an informed decision, not one based on nearly instinctive reaction to finally understanding how truly old Dragon kind was. "He personally watched Man begin the climb from discovering how to make fire to what is generally called civilization these days. He has a fascination with evolving sapience."
"One of the last things I did before retiring here was to add my voice to those who wished to allow Man to immigrate to the Americas." Tamlinshinas tone turned nostalgic. "Ah, that was an epic day and an epic debate."
"You were there?" Blair froze in place, hands going to his hair to tug at it as if that would settle his thoughts. "You were actually there?"
"Yes; would you like to live my memory of it?"
"Chief…." Jim began as Blair crept forward, just a bit.
No, Enquiri. You know 'tis best done quickly, for both your sakes. Even as Incacha's words whispered silently in his ear, power wrapped around Jim, holding him in place.
Clearly not hearing his name from Jim, Blair gathered his courage and walked around to be face to face with Tamlinshinas, a courtesy he apparently deduced for himself. "That's possible?" He lit up with insight. "It's another way to use the Other, isn't it? Like when we speak with the Brotherhood and see shadows of what we remember. More real, since you said 'live' your memory of it."
"That is correct." Tamlinshinas sounded truly pleased. "I have heard a great deal in regards to the young man who finally captured our James; that you were as extraordinary as he is, not that I expected any less from his choice."
Blair flicked a look Jim's way, showing surprise that he hadn't joined him to speak with Tamlinshinas. "I wouldn't say I captured him so much as we collided and found ourselves in the same orbit."
"A very erratic one, from all accounts. Perhaps you'll be willing to share a memory or two with me along the way." Taking on a coaxing tone, Tamlinshinas added the final enticement that likely wrecked any notion Blair might have had about refusing his offer. "I have several questions about the techniques you developed for James - your process in arriving at them, any refinements you might have considered but have not had the time to develop."
As Blair visually checked with him again to see if he had any objections or comments, Jim forced himself to keep his expression bland and uninformative. It hurt - a knife thrust to the heart that took his breath - when Blair simply turned away and dropped to sit cross-legged in front of Tamlinshinas, taking Jim's agreement for granted. Rather than watch and listen to what would happen next, Jim fought to leave.
Unsurprisingly, Incacha let him go, remaining silent about Blair's choice. Not that it was one, really, Jim thought tiredly, heading for the surface. All along he'd known that he'd never been more than another needy soul for Blair to succor. Oh, one that he loved; Jim had never doubted that. But as much as Blair needed to be needed, like all guides, he craved knowledge more and always had. Jim had felt from the first that Blair's attraction to him was fueled far more by the challenge he presented to that quicksilver mind than by what little Jim had to offer a spouse.
Not pausing to let his eyes adapt back to sunshine, Jim left the caverns and aimed himself toward Li-Li's nest, blaming the pain from the light for the wetness on his cheeks. He'd known of the lure the Great Ones set for the Companions to try their loyalty to their Liegemen. It was difficult not to with the human bones scattered throughout the Enclave. More, he had suspected Blair would succumb because of his thirst for learning. He just hadn't thought it would be so quickly offered and taken, before he had a chance to bind Blair to him more strongly.
The enticement for the Liegemen was slow and subtle, one that he felt the tug of despite having resisted the peace and changeless hours of the valley once before. Thinking about it now, he should have realized before he and Blair had ever reached Graytac that guides would be tempted as soon as possible to leave the sentinel vulnerable to the gentle pull. The Great Ones had no reason to change their strategy merely because they had come to them under unusual circumstances. If anything, as Jim did know the nature of the trial, they had to act even more quickly lest he let slip some clue that might alert Blair.
A croon of pure happiness yanked Jim out of his self-castigation, and he braced himself for impact as Li-Li bounded over to him. Though she stopped short of bowling him over, she did wrap him in her wings and tumble them both in the sand, trying to say his name and failing utterly because of her delight in seeing him. Despite it all, Jim couldn't stop a watery chuckle, and he reached up to dig his thumb into the vein-line under her chin. She permitted the caress, but then sat up on her haunches, looking around, wings drooping.
"Blair?" She dropped back to all fours to crouch and look into Jim's face. "Blair?"
Her disappointment was too much for Jim, and he rested his forehead against hers, tears leaking for all that he put his will into denying them. "With the Great Ones."
"Talking?" Li-Li lifted a claw to point to her head to indicate the kind of speech she meant.
"Talking," Jim affirmed. Hastily he pulled himself together, shoving down every emotion save duty. "Hungry?"
Wing tips fluttering uneasily, Li-Li looked over her shoulder at the cliffs. "Yes. Wait?"
"No. Hunt." Though he was reasonably familiar with the territory, Jim took a moment to survey the region closest to them. "There. See the clearing between the two lakes? I'll scare game into it for you."
"Pounce." Bushing at her injury, now scarred over with tight, twisting ridges of flesh with no sign of developing scales, she said, "Not dive. Not fly."
"It will get better, Little Miss, I promise. Now wait until you see me, then glide down to the clearing."
"Wait. Glide. Pounce."
"As plans go, simple, but those can be the most effective." With a last thump to her shoulder to encourage her, Jim left, breaking into an easy trot.
It didn't take long to locate and startle a deer into Li-Li's waiting claws, but it was a relatively small animal, as most were in the valley. Already resigned to repeating the operation, each time with more difficulty because game would have run farther and be harder to herd back toward her, Jim was surprised to hear other people in the jungle driving the animals with him. In very short order, Li-Li was well fed and surrounded by the resident sentinels and guides, all petting and praising her lavishly.
She preened and cooed under the attention, but the sentinel, especially the solitary ones, seemed more than glad to give it to her. Jim understood that, given how touch-deprived a sentinel could be in this environment, regardless of their guides' best efforts. Examining her, admiring her wings and claws, testing her scales for strength and blood flow gave them all a plethora of tactile sensations and served a useful purpose, as well. They consulted with each other at levels she couldn't hear about the damage to the flight muscles in her chest, marveling that she'd made it to Graytac. Because he was curious himself, Jim asked her how she'd managed.
Very matter-of-factly, Li-Li said, "Fly, walk, fly, walk, fly, walk. Reach wall. Stop long time. Decide if Jim and Blair will walk in, Li-Li can too. Found hole."
It was her longest statement yet, sharp in its brevity, but informative for all that. And her deadpan delivery was so perfect, if unintentional, that half the people with her broke into laughter. The reminder of Blair was too much for Jim, though, and he drifted to the edge of the group, intending to fade into the forest. Before he could, a tall woman, the one he'd seen scrutinizing him and Blair, stepped in front of him.
Head high, despite the mutilation marring the right side of her face, she studied him, mouth twisted in a sneer. "What you had with him - it isn't worth fighting for?"
With no more than that, she melted away into the wood herself, her guide silently following behind. The smaller woman sent him a small smile, but didn't speak. From the scars on her throat and chest, Jim had to wonder if she could, but the speculation was only a diversion, a way to hold off the shock of the solid blow the sentinel had landed on him.
Was he surrendering without a fight worthy of Blair's love? Or was it love to stand back and allow Blair to have what he desired most, no matter the cost personally?
Suddenly confused, Jim walked back to their camp, certain now that Li-Li would not lack for care and company. At the Settlement, everyone spoke of Graytac as an assessment of the devotion and dedication of liegemen and their companions, without ever specifying how that was evaluated, of course. The Elderkin, being Elderkin, would seek to eradicate multiple avian individuals with single mineral aggregates. Maybe the valley wasn't just for the individuals; maybe it was an evaluation of the pairing as well.
Jim knew that some sentinel and guide relationships didn't survive the first year in the wild as apprentices. Some, once back in civilization, managed to limp along well enough for them to prosper, as long as they kept a working association, only. Rarely the pairing was a complete failure, leading to the death of both partners. To Jim's mind, that possibility made it even more likely the Elderkin would find a way to be certain of their people before they committed to a lifetime of relying almost exclusively on one another.
Reaching their campsite, Jim stood in the middle of it, staring sightlessly at the fire pit and realized it didn't matter, anyway. Blair had fought, and fought hard for what he wanted, winning the unprecedented position of guiding a sentinel and his city. Selfish though it might be, Jim could do no less than to battle even harder to keep his unorthodox companion. Jaw tightening until he could almost hear the muscle in it protesting aloud, he stirred up the embers of the fire. For now he should be able to rouse Blair from his communion with Tamlinshinas, at least long enough to get food in him. If the scent of cooking meat didn't kick straight into Blair's innate will to survive, well, Jim could hand feed him, couldn't he?
He waited until sunset before returning to the caverns to fetch Blair, and did so by the simple expediency of hoisting him up over his shoulder and carrying him out. Blair hung limply, muttering against his back until they were almost outside, when the cool air blowing in seemed to revive him somewhat. Struggling to be put down, he almost over-balanced both of them, forcing Jim to put him on his feet, one arm looped around his waist to keep him steady.
Blair stared at him blearily. "What… Jim… are… did you…. I mean… it was… you don't…."
"I know, Chief. It's an overwhelming experience, from all accounts. Time for you to digest it a bit, and perhaps a bit of dinner as well." Jim pulled him along, literally, as Blair couldn't seem to coordinate his feet well enough to walk alone, and he kept looking longingly back the way they came.
As Jim had hoped, however, once the fragrance of cooking food hit him, Blair hurried toward their camp, with a fast side trip into the bushes to answer Nature's call. He fell on the meal, nearly gobbling it down, but still trying to communicate all he'd seen and felt since that morning. It came out too garbled to be intelligible, not that Blair detected the lack of communication. Once he was full, he stood as if to go back to Tamlinshinas' den, but Jim tugged him into their bed roll and tucked him against his side. If Blair had protests, the sound never made it to his lips. Instead he snored softly, snuggling into Jim as if eager for his warmth.
In the small hours of the night, Blair woke and slipped out of bed after dropping a light kiss on Jim's forehead. Jim didn't try to stop him or worry that he would become lost in the maze of lava tunnels and burrows. Like Blair, he had heard Tamlinshinas' call in his dreams, though it held none of the beguilement for him that he suspected it had for Blair. Admitting he wouldn't be able to rest any longer, Jim got up as well, and started his day.
That was how matters stood for a good while. During daylight hours, Jim would try to find small things, such as repairing his tack, to occupy himself, often becoming lost in one sense or the other as he fought to accomplish those simple tasks, reminding him all too much of the journey on the train. As the sun began to go down, he would prepare a meal, the tastiest and most nutritious he could manage with what was on hand and go into the caverns to bring Blair back to eat. After a mostly silent dinner - Blair stopped attempting to talk when he finally realized he was more or less incoherent - they would fall into bed and deep sleep. Hours later Blair would sneak off and start the entire cycle over again.
The only variation was when Li-Li needed Jim to hunt with her. Though he believed the other sentinels would have been happy to manage that undertaking entirely, she stubbornly insisted he lead the effort. She was ebullient in her response to the participation of the others, though, which gave Jim an idea on how to express his gratitude to them for their assistance without causing undue embarrassment on his part or theirs.
When he'd learned that he'd be returning to Graytac, he'd taken the precaution of packing a few items that he'd thought to use as tools against the lure of the valley. As his worry for Blair was thoroughly overshadowing that pull, he removed those articles from the bottom of his saddle bags and presented them as gifts from Li-Li to her helpers. Li-Li loved the concept of giving presents, and it healed sore places in Jim's mind to see the pleasure a few simple treasures gave his colleagues. Silk scarves, small pieces of chocolate, scented oil for lovers, a tiny kaleidoscope, a small music box with several changeable drums - all represented the parts of civilization he'd missed, and he was certain they would be traded around until everyone had a chance to enjoy them.
Not long afterwards, the first evening Jim wasn't able to waken Blair at all, he went to the small cave used to store common supplies for the inhabitants of the valley, which led to another revelation. He inventoried the salt, flour, coffee, soap, steel knives, medicines and other necessities, and sat back on his heels, unsurprised that the Elderkin had provided nothing more than that. It would never occur to them that humans, even damaged ones, might require more than the basics of life. The sentinels, of course, would never think to ask, and if the guides had, they had not acted on their concern for some reason.
While he had no doubt that the Elderkin would be willing to supply a few more indulgent items, he wasn't at all sure who he should ask for the change. He also wasn't certain he wished to talk with any of them, not even Incacha. Blair's condition wasn't their responsibility, precisely, but the very notion of going begging to them when what he needed and wanted most was fading away a breath at a time, irked him past all reasoning.
Maybe that was why no one had asked for better provisions.
Taking what was required to make a rich broth and sugared herbal tea, Jim returned to the campsite and packed up everything that might be called for. No point in carrying Blair back and forth, now. It would be far easier to tend him where he was and it would eliminate the possibility of Blair hurting himself attempting to answer Tamlinshinas' summons when he could hardly stand. The important thing was to get enough food and water into him that his body wouldn't waste away to dust while his mind wandered the Other with Tamlinshinas.
That created a new routine for Jim: a much harder one. It took extreme patience to feed Blair the smallest amounts of sustenance, and he resisted when Jim manipulated his body to maintain muscle tone and avoid bedsores. About the only part he seemed to enjoy was when Jim shaved him, and he didn't care at all for being changed and washed after he'd soiled himself.
Neither the tedium of the care nor Blair's opposition to it mattered in the least to Jim. He sank into the rhythm of it, silent for the most part because Blair would never be able to hear his voice over the ones echoing through his mind. Touch was his best option to call Blair back to him. It was a language they shared, one with its own private, intimate nuances that none knew save them. Jim had to believe that in some small, hidden part of Blair's psyche, he knew who tended him and that it mattered to him.
In the end, it was neither Li-Li's impending forced molt nor Blair's physical passing that jolted Jim from the timeless monotony of caring for him. Ften called, projecting his distress across miles and through Jim's willful impassivity, to the one human he trusted the most. For a second, Jim was torn, but Ften relied on him as Blair never had done. Jim couldn't turn a blind eye to him, not even for Blair - not and live with himself after.
After placing water bags close to Blair, merely to be cautious, Jim ran for where he could hear Ften waiting for him. He didn't sound right to Jim's ears, in ways that he couldn't quite verbalize, and he put on a painful burst of speed to get to him faster. All along he'd kept a distant watch over Ften, confident he was thriving in the valley, running with the other warhorses he'd found the first night of their arrival and enjoying the benefits of being a stallion among a herd of mares. Jim couldn't imagine what problem Ften had run afoul of in such a safe place, let alone one that could distress him so completely.
Reaching him in a small meadow near the stream not far from their campsite, Jim stumbled in his shock at the sight of his first true friend. Ften's head hung almost to the ground, and his front knees were knocked together to keep him upright. Even as Jim watched, his forelegs gave way, and he fell chest first, rolling to his side immediately. Not hearing his own shout of denial, Jim dropped beside him, hands already out-stretched to look for injury. Finding none, he concentrated on his other senses, quickly discovering that Ften's lungs were filled with fluid and he couldn't breathe. From the sound and feel of his stomach, he hadn't been able to eat well because of it, and he no longer had the strength to continue.
For the moment truly baffled at what had caused the problem, Jim examined Ften's muzzle, sniffing his exhalations and gingerly probing at his nostrils. He found the remnants of bloody foam - and ash. Shocked, Jim sat back on his heels, thinking back to their trek through the volcanic fall, frowning because he couldn't remember how many times he'd made certain Ften's protective mask was secure. He had noticed that it was heavily crusted when he'd removed it once they'd reached the valley, and that it had been tattered along the edge, as well, as he recalled.
Because there was nothing else he could do, Jim did his best to relax his body even as he shouted with all he had for Incacha's attention. Thankfully his mentor responded instantly, and Jim quickly reported the situation, unashamedly pleading for aid for Ften. The name of a medicine flashed across his hearing, and he leaped up to run for the supply cavern. After a few minutes of desperate searching, he found the right bottle, read the directions on it, and raced back to Ften.
To his surprise, he found Incacha and Minzimtah on either side of him, holding him upright and nickering to him softly as they massaged his torso with long, even strokes. It didn't take very long for them to produce a hard, harsh cough from him that sent out long spumes of foulness from deep inside. Minzimtah nodded at Jim, and he quickly gave her the medicine. It took the three of them to get it into Ften, but his breathing was noticeably clearer once they accomplished it.
It only took a few words for them to decide to create a sling to keep Ften on his feet while his lungs healed. With a flurry of activity involving the younger members of the Brotherhood and the resident tribe, it was constructed in a remarkably short period of time. Ften took it all stoically, too far gone in exhaustion to do more than that. He didn’t even have the strength to eat, though Jim did his best to make it easier by cooking up a gruel of grains and honey. In the end, Jim had to force feed him a cup or two of it, trying very hard all along not to think of how he'd been performing the same service for Blair.
Within hours Ften's lungs filled again, and his sides heaved as he wheezed and fought for air. Incacha and Minzimtah did their best, but when the coughs they induced ended, Ften improved only slightly. Regardless, Jim held onto his hope, as the sputum was clear, indicating that the medicine was working to repair damaged tissues. Surprisingly, Ften ate a bit, as well, while he could, before sagging into the support of the sling to rest.
Jim curled up on the earth near him to do the same, sparing only a moment's hope that Blair could endure on his own for a while longer. He woke in the darkest hours of the night for another struggle to drain more fluid from Ften, with even less satisfactory results. By dawn Minzimtah gave up on overtly physical effort to improve Ften's breathing and literally cradled the warhorse in her arms as she did something that forced out the corruption in a nearly steady stream for a frighteningly long time.
When she settled Ften back into the sling, though, he snorted at her in exasperation, shaking his head, however feebly. He settled his chin onto Jim's shoulder for several long minutes before doing his best to eat more of the gruel. Jim wasn't heartened by the show of spirit; his senses told him all too plainly the strain the great heart was under. If they couldn't give Ften more than a few hours respite, it would prove fatal before the day's was out.
That didn't stop them from trying with all they had, but, finally, as the moon rose, Jim cut Ften down from the supports and let him lie peacefully, head in Jim's lap. Stroking his forelock and rubbing his ears, Jim murmured nonsense to him until Ften went still and cold.
When the sun came back up, he rose stiffly from his watch and stared down at his friend and companion for so many long, empty miles, uncertain what to say or do next. Incacha, who had stayed near, ventured to wrap Jim in a wing, but he automatically stepped clear. Once in motion, his next steps seemed obvious, and he went back to the campsite to gather up everything left there - saddle, tack, blanket, bags - all of it, including his uniforms and weapons. All that he kept were his gloves, his boot knife which he stuck in his breechcloth, and a longer one that he strapped to his bare thigh.
Piling all of his possessions around Ften's remains, Jim bent to flick off the largest gems from the crest on his tunic. He set them here and there in the improvised funeral pyre, activating them as he did, until the entire mass was glowing with light from the inside out. The radiance brightened until it rivaled the sun's rays, before simply fading away in a single blink.
Jaw muscle throbbing, Jim bent to touch the bare spot, as if to capture an instant of warmth, but there was none. As should be, he decided abruptly. Ultimately, no matter how brave the fight or how courageous the heart, there was only cold ground and empty space left behind, and nothing any living thing could do would ever change that. That was the true lesson of Graytac, and he was damned tired of denying it.
Wearing only a breechcloth, gloves, and the two knives, Jim walked into the forest, turning his back on the lives he no longer believed he could serve.
On to Part 3