Companion by Legion

Companion - Legion

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Notes: Companion is the sequel to Liegeman, set in an AU where Dragons called Elderkin rule the Americas.

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Determinedly keeping his gaze aimed upward, Blair dug into the tree bark with his toes and carefully reached up for the next branch. Thus far it had been an easy climb, almost as if the tree had been grown to be a ladder, but that didn't mean that he liked how far from the ground he'd gotten. Over and over he reassured himself that the limbs were sturdy, the trunk wasn't swaying in the slightest, and that Jim was immediately behind him, alert for any trouble.

Despite his mental litany of self encouragement, he couldn't help a gulp and deep breath when he finally eased over onto solid ground, ledge though it might be. Blair didn't linger to note how wide or deep it was, but went straight to the mouth of the cave that Jim had told him to expect to find. It was behind the copse of trees growing from the base of the cliff that housed it, invisible from the ground. Once inside the reassuring shelter of the stone, he turned to glance back for Jim, surprised that a thick wall of conifers blocked his view beyond the edge of the rock shelf.

Blair looked up at the sky, the only readily accessible path to this hidden place, nodding to himself in understanding. It wasn't likely that the great-toothed cats and cave bears who hunted, if rarely, in this part of the Cascades, could reach this cave, presuming they could find it. The rock face was too steep and the trees too dense for either to climb. Since they were the only predators in the Americas that would take on a full-grown gettle, the cave was a perfect nesting site for the Elderkin's little cousins.

"Go on in," Jim called up to him. "You won't disturb the parent on guard. They're accustomed to liegemen looking in on the hatchlings from time to time."

Brushing his hand along the brilliantly colored gettle-scale waistcoat he habitually wore as a reminder of his days as a wrangler for the beasts, Blair grinned in anticipation and made his way deeper into the cave. It was much brighter inside than he expected, and after studying the walls for a few moments, he realized that it was because they had been polished smooth in places to reflect the sunshine several times over. That didn’t seem like a gettle thing to do; maybe the liegemen had done it for their own convenience? Given their eyesight, that didn't make sense, either, and Blair consigned the question to his growing list of them for his next conversation with Incacha, the Elderkin clan leader who watched over this region.

With that happy thought, he continued his observation of the surroundings, not particularly surprised that the soil was soft and sandy underfoot, or that the air was comfortably cool despite the late spring sun. The spicy scent of gettles tickled his nose, though it was subtly different in a manner he couldn’t quite verbalize, even to himself. Blair was so taken with it that he failed to notice when the floor sloped sharply, and he found himself sliding willy-nilly on his backside into a bowl-shaped depression.

Reaching the bottom with more grace than he expected, given his method of locomotion, he contrived to stop himself before he bumped into the two shapes curled around each other in the center. Resting for a moment and absently noting that the surface beneath him was now exceedingly cushiony and comfortable, Blair stared at the nestlings, the dim light disguising their forms to the point he couldn't quite discern details. Slowly, though, his eyes adjusted until he was able to distinguish the differences between the infants and their much larger parents.

He supposed the most startling dissimilarity was the lack of wings and scales. Given they were youngsters, he'd expected them to be relatively small, and their bodies were about the size of a good-sized adult dog. So were their heads, attached by a stump of a neck that didn’t seem as if it could allow much in the way of mobility. The sharp spines that ran in pairs along the back of a full-grown gettle were mere stubs, as were the forelegs. Only the tail and rear legs bore a resemblance to the parents, if miniaturized, as did the large, dark eyes, currently covered with translucent lids as the hatchlings slumbered.

Inching forward, not wishing to awaken them, but unable to contain his curiosity, Blair gently stroked along the flank of the nearest, marveling at how supple and velvety its hide was. The hatchling mumbled in its sleep and snuggled into its sibling, who mumbled back dreamily. In that instant, ugly as the nestlings were, Blair was totally enchanted, finding them adorable if only for the helpless, innocent way the young of all species have.

"I find it difficult to imagine you transforming to the size of your parents," Blair murmured, using both hands to pet each of them, "though Nature decrees that is precisely what you will do."

"Eventually," Jim said, gracefully gliding down the side of the nest on one hip. "These beauties are about five years old, and will remain much as they are for at least another five, if the parents are able to provide them with enough sustenance. They spend most of their time sleeping, waiting for whichever parent is hunting to return with a meal. Food is all for the gettles, determining whether they survive each stage of their development, which is why liegemen see to them to ascertain their condition and provide assistance when possible."

"Isn't diet a critical factor for all species?" Blair asked, almost automatically, his mind more on committing the moment to memory.

"To a greater or lesser degree, I suppose. Humans, for instance, seem to thrive on rocks and thistles if nothing else is available. However gettles… well, it is doubtful both nestlings here will live to be fostered despite the extra care we give them, and less probable the survivor will reach breeding age," Jim said, the sadness underlying the words rousing Blair from his admiration of the beasts. Jim dug into the satchel he carried slung over his shoulder as he knee-walked to the nearest nestling.

It must have scented the bloody entrails as he pulled them out, for it blinked sleepily, then stretched all over. That woke its sibling, who repeated the performance, much to Blair's amusement, but added a pleading bleat that contained the universally understood complaint of hunger. Chuckling, Jim fed it the tidbit he held, palming the large tablet that he wanted it to consume so cleverly Blair barely saw it vanish into the meat.

More to provoke additional information than because he accepted the loss himself, Blair said, "Shouldn't you let nature take its course? Otherwise, given how long-lived the creatures are, we could be inundated by them."

"There are those who argue that, but as gettles go into heat only three or four times in their centuries long lives with only one or two offspring each breeding, I doubt it would become a problem quickly." Jim shared out the treats to the nestlings, deftly avoiding the instinctive snap of their many sharp teeth and crooning at them approvingly all the while.

Taking advantage of their distraction to continue pet them, Blair admitted, "I could not come down on that side of the debate myself. Not after seeing them like this, though I suppose I should practice discretion in voicing that opinion if it is a matter of contention among liegemen and their guides."

Eyes on what his hands were doing, Jim asked far too nonchalantly, "What would you consider the difference between discretion and deception?"

Not fooled by the tone, but baffled as to why Jim would ask, Blair answered warily, "Deception is to protect oneself; discretion is to protect another who presumably requires such prudence."

"Well said." Jim finished giving the nestlings their snack, and began to examine one, to its obvious pleasure. "The Elderkin do not practice censorship nor approve of societies that believe it is a ruling body's god-given right to withhold knowledge, wielding ignorance as if it were a weapon."

Barely hiding his eagerness at this tidbit about Dragon kind, Blair asked in the same assumed casual manner, "They prefer to trust in the power of discretion, then?"

"For the most part, yes. Liegemen are not necessarily sanguine regarding this philosophy. In fact, most of us are torn between being appalled at the amount of trust the Elderkin place in humanity in this area, and admiring them for their courage in doing so." Jim sounded as if he wavered between the two stands, himself, perhaps because he dealt so regularly with the worse people had to offer.

It was an issue that Blair could easily see from both sides, thanks to his experiences with the High Court last year. In his opinion the majority of people wanted to do the right thing, whatever it was, but one could not discount those who thought only of themselves and their wants. Yet many of the latter could be persuaded with enough social pressure and options slanted toward their self interest.

"You must have," Blair started, but stopped himself when Jim suddenly went on the alert, head cocked slightly to one side as he listened to something beyond Blair's ken.

Withdrawing the Henry rifle from the holster slung down his back, Jim handed the weapon to Blair. "We've been followed. I can think of no good reason why anyone should go to the trouble, which likely means it is trouble. Stay here, and for your own safety, shoot anyone who comes into the cave who is not me."

With no more than that Jim was gone, virtually leaping to the edge of the nest before running for the exit. Swallowing hard, Blair watched him go, hefting the rifle with one hand while soothing the nestlings with the other. It did not suit him to remain behind; not when Jim could become lost in one of his sentinel senses while spying on whoever was trailing them this deep in the wilderness. Nor did he think it a good tactical decision to remain at the bottom of the nest where he was an easy target, if, by some mishap, the interlopers were able to overcome Jim. Not to mention he was hardly certain he could fire on another living being without ascertaining for himself they meant foul play, though Jim had made certain he was competent enough a marksman with the rifle before they left Cascade on this journey to oversee gettle hatchlings.

Aware that he was persuading himself to follow Jim against his express wishes, but unable to passively wait for his fate, Blair gave a last pat to the nestlings and stood. He clambered to the rim of their home and peered over it cautiously before retracing his steps through the tunnel to the outside. His internal debate must not have taken as long as he thought; the branches were still swaying slightly from Jim's passage.

Creeping along as silently as he could, Blair made his way to the verge of the rock shelf, frustrated when he could not see more than a few feet down. For a moment he dithered on what to do next. He was not so much a woodsman he thought he could sneak up on anyone capable of tracking a sentinel through the wilds. Given Jim's range, however, it was unlikely they were close enough to hear or see Blair as yet.

That in mind, Blair hung the rifle over his shoulder by its strap and climbed down the nearest tree, looking for the best vantage point to stand guard while not being seen himself. Shortly he found the perfect perch; three branches so arranged that he could sit comfortably on one, hook his ankles over another to steady himself, and prop the rife on the third for a makeshift support. With an effort he could discern Jim moving about in a small clearing several yards from the base of the cliff. There was no sign of Blair's horse, Corvair, and mysteriously Jim's horse, Ften, was limping about as Jim led him back down the trail a ways.

Abruptly Jim turned to stare in Blair's direction, and caught, Blair murmured, "I thought it best not to be trapped in the nest or to wait for an enemy to come to me."

Jim was too distant for Blair to be sure, but he would still be willing to wager that the muscle in his jaw was beating madly, even as Jim gave a short nod of acceptance. Which was not the same as approval, and Blair silently sighed in resignation for the quarrel that would arrive on the heels of the resolution to their current problem. It was an issue that had reared its unsolvable head many times these past months as he'd served as Jim's aide-de-camp.

Pushing the personal problem aside, Blair focused on the barely-there path that Jim continuously scanned. Before much longer Jim dropped Ften's reins and stood in the middle of the clearing, hands on his hips. Radiating cold authority, Jim waited patiently until Blair could see three riders picking their way toward the sentinel, moving slowly, hands in plain sight, as if to assure him of their peaceful intentions.

When they were within earshot, Jim called, "Liegeman James Joseph Ellison, assigned to Cascade. Identify yourselves, please."

"Jimmy, I know it's been a few years, but surely you recognize me," the lead horseman returned, voice rich with warmth and informality.

To Blair's confusion, Jim contrived to become more aloof and rigid. "Master Stephen?"

The form of address Jim used told Blair a great deal about the well-dressed gentleman. He was the designated heir to a wealthy man, one who had airs of being on par with European aristocracy, and Jim did not trust him despite the man's assumed familiarity. It also explained the nature of the two men with him. One was a hired gun, most likely engaged to protect Master Stephen during his travels; the other had to be the frontiersman who had tracked Jim.

Twitchy with a hellish combination of curiosity and concern, Blair watched intently, surprised when Master Stephen gestured to his escorts to stay put. Dismounting, he walked toward Jim, apparently taking for granted that Jim would retreat a small distance for privacy. They stopped to face each other, practically under Blair's tree, making eavesdropping unavoidable, which may well have been Jim's intent.

"I confess," Stephen started, "that I had not expected to catch up with you quite so soon, nor alone. I take it that is thanks to your steed's difficulty with one of its hooves. I haven't quite got my courage up as much as I'd like, nor ordered my words as well as could be, either." He looked around, possibly to delay the upcoming confrontation as Jim was not at all welcoming. "Where is your, ah, companion?"

"I sent him on ahead. There was no way of knowing how lamed up Ften could become. It seemed advisable that the night's campsite be located before it grew much later."

Not quite a lie, Blair judged, but not quite the truth, either. Regardless, it seemed enough for Stephen. He said, "You trust him alone in the wilderness? I was under the impression he was an academic - a professorial student on his graduate sabbatical."

"He is," Jim said shortly. "He is also a very well-travelled young man with very competent skills for roughing it, when necessary."

"Still, he's with you in a temporary capacity only, yes? He'll return to the university sooner or late," Stephen said, clearly choosing his words with care.

"By the end of this year, though I fail to understand what concern it is of yours, sir," Jim said, voice icy.

Wondering the same thing, Blair leaned forward slightly, as if that would make it easier to listen to the conversation.

"You will be needing a replacement guide," Stephen blurted. "I had thought, that as your brother, I would be the best candidate."

Blair nearly fell off his branch. Jim had never mentioned that he had biological family, let alone that it was of society's cream.

"I have no brother, sir." Jim stepped back, shaking his head. "Your father declared you an only child; that his other offspring was dead to him and forever would be. I retained the name Ellison for my grandfather's sake. With the loss of so many of his brothers and uncles, it would have grieved him to no end for the unnecessary loss of another who could carry the heritage for him."

Heart aching for his friend, despite the disdain Jim projected, Blair put his forehead down on the rifle stock for a moment. Surely Stephen was here to make amends - but why not do so before now, and in the city where Jim was easily accessible?

Below, Stephen said eagerly, "Father has regretted those hasty words many times over the years, and for that reason among many others. He would be glad of your return, on whatever grounds you might wish to stand."

"I have no wish to return, nor any reason," Jim countered flatly. "And I do not consider you a suitable replacement for Student Sandburg when he is recalled to the University."

"Why ever not? Feud with Father aside, I'm blood, and I know you from old. Surely having me beside you is better than choosing a total stranger out of necessity." Arrogance seeped out through Stephen's words, but hurt in some measure, as well.

"As I recall," Jim said, returning condescension for haughtiness, "you were not displeased with becoming an only child, nor in the slightest bit regretful that it was your actions and deceit in regard to them that provoked your father's decision. Why would I choose to have a person without my best interests at heart to stand beside me?"

"For God's sake, I was a boy, little more than a child!" Stephen shot back.

Unperturbed, Jim said, "And the shade of the man is in the boy. Tell me, what have you done to prove that you are different from that callow youth who mocked me as I stood under the lashes that were not mine to suffer? You come to me with hirelings at your back, here in the wild where none may hear your apologies if you should choose to tender them, or stand witness to my rejection. Why not approach me on your own, in a place of my choosing and take your lumps like a man?

"You stand there in the clothes of a wealthy man - fine fabric, meticulously tailored, subtly embroidered, buttons of polished and carved precious stone - that could not be a reflection of your own wealth, not with the years you have to claim. Have you ever lived apart from your father, sought your own fortune and fate, voiced your own opinion, stood on your own feet at all?" Jim made a pushing away gesture and turned as if to leave.

"Mayhap you are entitled to your bitterness and bile," Stephen said hastily, half-reaching as if to stop him.

Spinning back around, Jim snarled, "Mayhap? Mayhap!" He stepped closer, almost nose-to-nose with Stephen. "Remember that a liegeman knows the truth when he hears it, then answer me this - are you here at your father's command so that he may traffic to his cronies his presumed influence with the Elderkin through me?"

There was a moment of dead silence that tore at Blair's heart more than the realization how ill-treated Jim had been by his own flesh and blood. He could not tell if Master Stephen tried to make some reply but was silenced by Jim's outrage, or if he were truly without honest words to answer the accusation. It seemed to make no difference in either case.

At some signal that Blair could not perceive, Ften snorted and whinnied, rearing to his hindquarters in blatant challenge to the other horses in the clearing. The animals wheeled in sudden panic, forcing their riders to fight for control. Ften rushed them, head down threateningly, and they bolted regardless of the wishes of the humans riding them. Almost simultaneously a gettle flew through the small space, bellowing as Blair knew they did only in the wild, further terrifying the horses - and every human save Jim.

As accustomed as Blair had become to liegeman artifices and cunning, he could not stop a flinch himself, but he didn't let his eye be drawn away from the sentinel. So it was he was the only one to see Jim deftly twist to one side to move behind the trunk of a tree and up it before anyone could think of anything besides their own imaginary peril. By the time Ften had thundered away and the gettle soared back to its heights, Jim was settled beside Blair, watching with stony eyes as Master Stephen and his men regained their composure.

They searched for Jim, of course, and for the trail signs that might lead them to him, but found nothing. It was one thing to seek a sentinel all unaware, and quite another to find one actively wishing not to be found. Eventually they opted to go after Ften's more obvious tracks, theorizing that in the end Ellison would be found on that path looking to retrieve his mount.

Jim watched and listened long after they left, and Blair silently bided his own time, well aware that Jim might hide from explanations behind the guise of caution indefinitely if he felt so inclined. Rather than badger him, as Blair might when he thought the situation called for it, Blair decided that patience would do better for the ache of old, old wounds torn afresh. The change in behavior had the benefit of leaving Jim with a fresh riddle to ponder, if nothing else.

At length Jim gestured that they descend, going first to guide Blair as needed through the interlacing branches of the trees. They reached the ground many yards from where Jim had last been seen by Master Stephen and his men, and hidden from view by a thick bramble of some sort. Unsurprisingly Ften was there waiting, standing on Corvair's reins as if to prevent him from wandering away to graze.

It was the last straw Blair's naturally effusive character could bear. Choosing the question he believed Jim would expect not at all, he said, "Ften's performance I can see. He's more clever than some men I have known. But how did you organize the gettle's appearance?"

Stopping mid-reach for his saddle horn, Jim looked back over his shoulder, lips twitching with the thought of a smile. "I cannot for the life of me decide if you ask to lull me into complacency before addressing your true curiosity or if the conversation is a distraction from my intent to comment on your inability to obey a command as simple as 'wait here.' Perhaps both?"

"It would be more efficient that way, would it not?" Blair asked cheekily.

With a single shake of his head, Jim gained his seat astride Ften. "Don't tarry. We have a hard ride ahead of us; I wish to reach our next destination without unwanted visitors on our heels. Ften hides the signs of his passage remarkably well, but he is a horse. His hoof marks will be found. It would be wise to have as great an advantage in distance as we can achieve."

"You think they'll follow, despite your very hostile response to their arrival?" Blair asked in some surprise, going to Corvair and mounting.

"Master Stephen will do a great deal to avoid his father's displeasure," Jim said grimly.

For a while it seemed he might add to that simple statement, but instead said lightly as he led the way higher into the mountains, "As for the gettle…. Any incident so close to its nest that can rouse a full grown horse is worthy of investigation, insofar as its need to protect its hatchlings. Once it saw that humans were involved, it had no reason to be concerned and went back to its watch."

"Blissfully unaware that said humans believed themselves in danger of becoming an afternoon's snack!" Blair looped the reins over his wrist and let Corvair do what he did best: placidly follow Jim's war horse. "As if gettles would do such a thing."

"People do not use enough limbs for walking for gettles to see them as food," Jim said distractedly. "People on horseback are even more confusing to them. And the Elderkin teach that there are other traits the gettles search for in their prey. They do not hunt predators, for instance."

"Ah! I have participated in very heated discussions with biologists on that very subject - prey identification, instinctive or learned," Blair said, willfully leading the discussion into harmless, hopefully entertaining areas. Jim responded as he always did - with the occasion encouraging sound and rare insightful question.

Miles and woods flowed by as they spoke, the horses climbing ever higher and maintaining a quick pace that in due course began to worry Blair. Twilight came upon them, and Jim gave no indication that he was ready to stop for the night. When Corvair became lathered, Blair bit his lips, but as he was ready to ask for a rest for the animal's sake, if nothing else, Jim dropped back until they rode side by side.

"Ften is good for some hours yet, even carrying double, and we'll be arriving at a cabin about moonrise. Will you ride with me to give Corvair respite?" The request was politely made, but there was something about Jim that belied courtesy.

"Of course." Blair dropped the reins, confident Corvair would plod along as before, and let Jim transfer him to the front of his saddle.

It was a familiar position to be in, and Blair settled into place, relaxing in increments as Jim's heat sank into muscles Blair hadn't really noticed had become chilled. The day's travel caught up with him in other ways, and he drowsed a bit, trusting without question that Jim would see to his safety. Darkness closed in around them, making Blair think of his sea voyages as a youth, the motion of the horse under them uncannily similar to the rocking of a ship on the waves. He said as much to Jim, thinking to share a bit of his past and half hoping his friend would do the same.

Jim remained quiet for so long that Blair thought his ploy had not worked and he began to drift off again. To his surprise Jim asked unexpectedly, "Did your mother's travels take her into the more noble houses in Europe?"

"And the Middle East and India and Asia," Blair said fondly. "Though she is as comfortable with a peasant on the street as with a queen on her throne. Naomi was born with a democratic heart, I think, and a genuine fondness and interest in every aspect of the human condition that endears her to all she meets."

"Did you witness any of the machinations that are common among the offspring of the ruling class? The oldest son and heir is all that matters, with his brothers attempting to depose or align themselves with him or his enemies? And god forbid a man of position have no sons at all; his daughters become nothing but vessels for the ambitions of others."

Curious as to the why behind the topic of their conversation, Blair said, "I saw such intrigues too many times. When I was younger, I was, on occasion, nearly drawn into them against my will."

"I suppose a Student of Man, such as yourself, can understand why the practice of designating an heir based on factors other than birth order is the rule in the Americas," Jim said reflectively.

Comprehension dawned, and Blair said carefully, "There are pitfalls to that custom, as well, though perhaps not with the same potential for deadly consequences."

"Not to the body, perhaps, but to the heart and soul?" Jim whispered, as if to himself.

Blair had no reply to that and, oddly, felt that he should not try to make one. Silence fell between them again, long enough for him to believe that Jim had no more to say on the matter. Despite that, he stayed more alert than his slumped posture and even breaths would suggest.

Eventually Jim murmured nearly into Blair's ear, "Master Stephen's father pitted us against one another almost from the time we were able to speak and reason on our own. At first it was to simply win his approval, but when our mother died, he made it plain that neither of us was guaranteed to be his heir. In a few remarkably short years Stephen went from following me around and begging for me to play with him to heaping scorn and malice on me at every opportunity."

"Ah, Jim…" Blair swallowed down the rest of the sympathetic words that sprang to his lips, all too aware that Jim would not find them comforting. Instead, he admitted, "I had wondered how you came to be trained as liegeman at such a late age. Most sentinels are identified and trained as small children, or so I've been told."

"I had no idea there was anything unusual about my senses until I left home at sixteen." Jim gave a silent sigh and tightened the arm wrapped around Blair's middle. "I had already made up my mind to leave when I was of legal age, though I had no clear idea what I wished to do with my life. My reasoning at the time was that the small bequest my mother had left me would support me until I gained enough experience away from Mr. Ellison's rather single-minded teachings to be able to determine a worthy goal."

When Jim fell silent again, Blair prompted very quietly, "What happened?"

"A magnificent example of horse flesh named Rajah." Jim gave a short laugh that had no humor in it. "When the obvious trappings of wealth must be eschewed for discretion's sake, rich men must needs find subtle ways to declaim their status. Owning a spirited, beautiful stallion while living in the city where one has no practical use was a fad among the self-styled elite for a time.

"My father took it into his head that breaking the animal to saddle himself would be even greater proof of his acumen and status. He honestly believed it no great task, as if being a horse master required no more than will and effort."

Blair could not stop a wince at the conceit of the man, and pity for the poor animal defenseless at his hands.

"Just so," Jim said in tired agreement. "Needless to say, when the horse did not respond adequately, Mr. Ellison blamed the beast and not his own incompetence. In the end he stabled it, unable to even find a buyer for a steed so poorly trained." Jim bent until his head it was nearly resting on Blair's shoulder. "One week I was in favor for some deed I do not even remember, and Stephen thought that if he were able to break the horse, he would displace me. During his attempt, Rajah was badly hurt trying to kick through the fences to escape. Stephen lied and said I was the one responsible, presenting fabricated evidence."

"And your father had you whipped on that alone?" Blair said, aghast, anger rising.

"Oh, no, that sort of thing was a private matter that he always tended to himself, and I think he hardly cared if I was guilty or not, just what lessons Stephen and I could gain from the incident," Jim said indifferently. "Not that it mattered to me, then or now. When I learned he was resolved to have Rajah put down, I slipped from the house with what pocket money I had and went to the stable to steal him. My reasoning was that my inheritance was more than adequate to cover the price of a horse that was 'ruined,' as Ellison put it."

Jim shrugged, an elegant motion against Blair's back. "With the typical ignorance of youth, I had thought to nurse Rajah back to health myself, and believing it best not to be where my father could locate me, led him into the wilderness with the notion that I would find a croft or farm where I might earn my keep and care for the horse. I promptly became lost, of course, and spend weeks wandering the wilds. My senses awoke during those long, hard, lonely days, and I honestly believe the only reason I did not fall prey to a fatal bout of being lost in one of them was because of the need to care for Rajah."

"Once you realized what had happened, did you approach the Elderkin and request training as a sentinel?" Blair couldn't help but ask, trying to push down his eagerness at learning more about the great Dragons and their liegemen. "How did you know what to do to contact them?"

Laughing, at last with true merriment, Jim straightened and brushed Blair's curls away from his face in fond gesture. "They found me, half-starved and nearly insensible, trying to persuade a gettle to share its kill with me!" He sobered, leaning ever so slightly into Blair's weight. "I don't remember the trip to the Settlement, nor much of the first months there."

Daringly petting the hand lying over his stomach, Blair said, "You have not said what condition yo… Mr. Ellison's discipline had left you in. That much pain, even with your senses dormant, could only have contributed to your state when the Elderkin took you in."

"I have, at times," Jim said slowly, almost unwillingly it seemed, "wondered if he would be insulted that the Elderkin removed all traces of him from my skin and worked nearly as diligently to do the same with his other teachings. Or if he would be relieved that the visible proof that remained of his cruelty to a child, now a man who could call him on his behavior, no longer remains."

With a gesture that Blair only sensed in the gloom, he added briskly. "No matter. We're nearing the portion of the track that requires all of my attention and your silence, I'm afraid. Even this late in the spring avalanche can be a danger high in the mountains."

Warned that his friend no longer wished to dwell on the past, Blair peered ahead, noting that there was a distinct change in the darkness, though it was by mere degrees. As they continued steadily onward, however, he began to make out an enormous white mass. The distinct bite of winter cold on the breeze was the only other clue Nature gave, but was adequate for him to grasp they were fast approaching a glacier.

Ften picked his way almost daintily through the boulders marking the leading edge of the enormous sheet of ice. Before long, Blair was longing for a better vocabulary to describe the great chunks of stone, as many of them were the size of small cottages or larger, and 'boulder' seemed inadequate. Fragments of the glacier, hardly smaller than the boulders, appeared here and there, strangely contoured and nearly shining in the weak light of the coming moon.

Looking about as best he could in the growing radiance, Blair frowned. They were in a very narrow gorge, dammed ahead by the glacier, and the ground was rocky and inhospitable appearing. Surely Jim wasn't planning on making camp here?

As he was about to resign himself to an uncomfortable night, Ften walked directly toward a huge stone, causing Blair to cringe back in expectation of an impact. Instead they went through the inky shadow and into a tunnel carved through the glacier itself. He couldn't help but wonder how even Jim could find his way in the most complete dark Blair had ever experienced, but Ften moved on as complacently as if it were as bright as noon.

A distant rumble rose from behind him, and Blair would have twisted to see what monster followed them in this frigid hell if Jim hadn't briefly squeezed his hand.

"The tunnel has a trigger for a snow slide built into it," Jim explained."If, by some miracle, our tracks are found leading to it, the logical assumption will be that we died in the fall. If our pursuers are the particularly skeptical sort, they will be unable to follow us in any case."

"I hate to ask…."

"I can feel and smell the flow of fresh air from the other entrance, and see a glimmer of light reflecting along the ice walls. We're not trapped." Apparently thinking more of an assurance was needed, Jim added, "Once we reach the valley on the other side, there are two exits, both well hidden, with alarms arranged to alert us if they are used while we are here. Incacha saw to it that the valley was deserted before we began our journey."

"The caution seems typical of your kind, but is it truly necessary?" Blair said, staring ahead in hopes of a glimpse of the opening. He had never found small places to be discomfiting, but the knowledge of the tons of ice overhead was somewhat unnerving.

"In this instance, yes," Jim said shortly and for no reason that Blair could fathom. "Now hush and let me listen to be sure of our steps."

Filing away the mysterious remark for later examination, Blair closed his eyes and concentrated on what his own senses told him as a diversion from his growing obsession with the confines of the tunnel. Because of that he actually felt and heard the moment they were free of the glacier, and he opened his eyes expecting to see a moon-drifted landscape spread before him. What he found was gray, dreary fog, closing in around them like another sort of tunnel, almost as claustrophobic as the icy passageway had been.

Sure-footed as ever, Ften ignored the weather and continued on as before, leaving Blair to wonder if the warhorse needed even Jim's guidance. He shivered and took a thimbrane from his pocket to cloak himself with, Jim absently aiding him in draping it for maximum warmth. Sinking in on himself mentally and physically to better endure the dreary mists, Blair tried to gauge how high the moon had risen, recalling that Jim had remarked that they should arrive as it did.

Just as he was about to slip away into dreams, Jim stirred. "There. It's not much from the outside, but we'll be cozy enough once inside."

Scrubbing his hand over his face, Blair stifled a yawn. "It may be hard to find dry tinder in this weather."

"I'll see to that, the saddle bags, and the other necessary domestic tasks, if you don't mind tending the horses," Jim said.

He sounded distant, distracted for some reason, and Blair frowned, but could find no reason to debate the allocation of chores. In truth, all he wanted was to fall into dry, warm blankets and leave housekeeping until after breakfast on the morrow. Which Jim, he realized, probably anticipated and had given him the horses to keep him motivated. Blair simply did not have a hard enough heart to put hard-used beasts to pasture without a modicum of proper care.

Totally exhausted by the time he'd finished giving them a perfunctory brushing and a few treats, Blair released them at Jim's instructions to let them find grazing on their own. He trudged toward the beacon of lights in the log cabin windows, debating if he could stay awake long enough to wash up. If he had been traveling with anyone else, he wouldn't have even considered the delay, but he had always tried to be considerate of Jim's greater sensitivities to such things.

As it was, the decision was taken from him as he walked through the door. A fire-warmed blanket was dropped over his shoulders and a hot mug pressed into his hands. He sipped gratefully at the thin gruel, sweetened with barely enough honey to make the bland taste bearable, and let Jim tend to him. After Jim guided him to a chair by the fire, he knelt in front of Blair to remove his damp clothes and boots.

Warmed inside and out, as much by the cosseting as the comfort of the cabin itself, Blair didn't object when Jim towed him upstairs to a loft bedroom. Too tired to notice details, he tumbled into the bed, sparing a split second to think, 'soft!' before curling into Jim's side. Even as he dropped into slumber, he hoped Jim would want to share more than the blankets, but that was the last clear thing he remembered until he woke the next day.

The transition from dreams to awareness was slow, pleasant, and filled with the sort of half-formed images and ideas that Blair loved to ponder until completely awake. It wasn't a state he was able to enjoy very often, given the demands on his life, and he lingered in his cozy burrow in the bedding, allowing himself to flow with his thoughts. By and by he opened his eyes with the hazy notion he should see how late it was, but the bed had a canopy and was hung with thick curtains, very effectively hiding the day's light.

A few inches away, Jim's features were soft charcoal lines against the pale swell of his pillow, and Blair was tempted to trace them with his fingertip, merely to marvel at the reality of flesh instead of imagination. But he stayed his hand as Jim was sprawled across the mattress in an abandon of repose that Blair had never seen him in before and was loathe to disturb. Worse, Jim looked as if he needed the sleep. Despite the long rest they'd already had, there were circles under his eyes, and he was unnaturally still, as if he could not spare the energy to toss or turn.

Blair had to admit that Jim had been keeping a schedule in Cascade that would have already reduced another man to nervous collapse. Between the many necessary tasks requiring his attention from the aftermath of the High Court and establishing himself as the Liegeman to Cascade, he often came home to the rooms he and Blair shared long after dinner, only to be up with the dawn to return to his duties. Of course, Blair was hardly less pressed to find hours enough for all the obligations he had willingly shouldered, but he found the multitude of people and their widely divergent needs and wants fascinating, and therefore invigorating.

Not that he had ever heard Jim complain or noticed the slightest hint of resentment or shirking from the man, but as the days had passed, Blair had seen less and less of Jim's sly, dry humor and the endearing playfulness that normally lay just under his veneer of liegeman formality. Blair sorely missed being privy to that part of his friend, almost more than he missed the physical intimacy that had gradually fallen by the wayside as their already scant free time was consumed by the needs of others. Already pressed for the opportunity to do so much as quietly share a meal, Blair had not complained at the lack of carnal affections even while scrambling after every prospect for them.

Jim, bless him, had always greeted such occasions with a glad smile and open arms, his joy in their union so obvious that Blair was always left confident of his standing with him - and eager for their next interlude. The only fly in that particular ointment was the restraint Jim exercised over his appetites so as to not compromise his oath to save certain activities for his sworn guide, and Blair could not begrudge him that. He was envious, perhaps, of the person who would take that role in his friend's life, and at times saddened at the coming loss of Jim's attentions, but as what lay between them was so satisfying and fulfilling, Blair refused to dwell on future sorrows.

Now if they could only find time and energy enough to do more in a bed than sleep! The neglected part of Blair stretched hungrily as the memories of other mornings, other beds flashed through his mind. Lest he be tempted to wake Jim, he reluctantly slid from under the down comforter, taking care to tuck it snugly around Jim's shoulders.

Once up, his bladder spoke to him of his long sleep and his skin prickled with the cool air, leaving him torn between needs of equal importance. Hoping to find a robe or one of Jim's shirts for warmth, Blair looked about the loft, vaguely surprised that the huge bed nearly filled the space, leaving only room enough for a well-made wardrobe and equally tasteful writing desk with matching chair. An investigation of the wardrobe produced a sinfully plush, long, oat-meal colored sweater that he didn't recognize as one of Jim's, and a pair of slippers that he quickly appropriated for himself.

Padding downstairs, Blair spared a moment to study what was to be his home for the next little while, pleased at the bright, open space of the place. The area immediately under the loft housed the fireplace on the far wall, two luxurious leather chairs, and a large chaise lounge perfectly situated for snuggling beside the fire with a paramour. Opposite that was a well-appointed kitchen, and he raised one eyebrow at the realization that it apparently had hot and cold running water, which seemed something of an extravagance for a mountain retreat.

Curiosity warring with practicality, he turned to the exit that he sincerely hoped led to the outhouse and that it was close, all the while admiring the bay windows with inbuilt padded seats on either side of the kitchen and the lacquered floor that caught and reflected the light from them. To his surprise a full modern bath lay on the other side of the door, complete with a tub and, wonder of wonders, a shower. After relieving himself, he tested the tap, delighted at what seemed to be an abundance of hot water.

He built up the fire to take the nip out of the rooms, and looked for toiletries and towels, finding them conveniently at hand before stepping into shower. By the time he'd bathed, washed his hair and shaved, he was famished, but too content with his wonderful state of well-being to complain on the delay of his breakfast. Given the rest of the cabin, the condition of the kitchen pantry was no surprise, though he could not help but wonder how it came to be so well supplied. He and Jim had carried only the most basic of provisions. Somehow he found it hard to believe that the Elderkin would trouble themselves with housekeeping chores.

Drawing aside the drapes over the bay windows, Blair looked out into the foggy morning before deciding on his morning meal. As dreary as it was, pancakes would provide a cheery start, and there were fresh strawberries in the ice box, along with real Vermont maple syrup in the pantry. He gathered the supplies he needed - pausing in confusion to examine the ice box more closely as it was unlike any he'd ever seen. Electricity seemed to provide the cold inside, and there was also an electric light in it.

Careful exploration revealed the cooking stove was powered by electricity as well, and he had at least heard of that particular convenience. The overhead lights and various lamps scattered through the cabin were electrical as well, responding almost magically to the flip of a miniature lever either on the wall or on the device itself. Resolving to determine the source for the power at a later date, Blair went back to the kitchen, driven by the nearly painful command of his stomach.

Of all the marvels of the cabin and its appointments, though, the one that impressed Blair the most was the discovery of a pound of real coffee beans and a slab of pressed chocolate powder while he searched for tea. Mouth watering, he wavered in his choice between the two treats, finally choosing coffee simply so that he could anticipate and plan what delicacy to concoct with the chocolate. Putting on a pot to brew, he made his breakfast, the task taking an unusual amount of concentration because of his unfamiliarity with the electric range.

Once the food was ready, he fell onto it with the single-mindedness of long denied appetite, not willing to spare his attention for other matters until he at last sat back, fresh cup of coffee in hand, hunger appeased for the moment. Only then did he let the question that had risen to the forefront of his mind during his investigation of his temporary home: why had the Elderkin gone to such extremes to create such a luxurious dwelling so far from civilization? Blair had been in palaces and mansions that were not as well equipped as this small shelter.

Rising to stand by a window and stare out at the fog slowly giving way to bright sunshine, he asked himself the next inevitable question, one he knew was not likely to be answered to his comprehension. Hot and cold running water with no boiler that he could find, electricity on demand, an ice box that needed no ice - how had they engineered the wonders here? And why keep such knowledge to themselves?

It was hardly the first time he'd encountered near miracles done by the Elderkin know-how, but those had always been small, easy to overlook or dismiss by the common man. He had gained the impression that the technology was difficult to come by, even for them, and they did not want to incite envy in humanity for what could not be made readily available to them. Yet they had created this sumptuous abode to be rarely used by a very few men, and apparently only then with permission.

Could it be a reward, of a sorts, to the sentinels? Blair mused. That didn't ring true, given both what he knew of the Elderkin and of the liegemen themselves. Neither were given to any display or act that proclaimed advantage or desire for recognition.

Despite that, Blair sensed the answer did lay with the requirements of the sentinels. He tried to focus on the intuition that hinted to the answers he sought, but the sun and wind chose that moment to finally whisk away the last of the fog. A beautiful verdant valley spread out before him, extending beyond the range of his vision, at least a mile wide before being hemmed in by mountains. A fast flowing stream bubbled down the closest side of it, dotted here and there by the only trees and shrubs in the grassy expanse. It looked untouched by man, serene and hushed.

Captivated by the panorama, Blair sat cross-legged on the window seat, cup perched half-forgotten, on his knee. The peace in the view soaked into him, thoughts spinning down into a murmur of appreciation. He could have sat like that indefinitely, but movement caught his eye, and he eagerly leaned forward to identify what creatures shared the landscape.

An eagle wheeled slowly from ridge to ridge in search of prey, and if he was not mistaken, several elk, or perhaps moose, it was difficult to tell from a distance, grazed here and there. Nose almost against the glass, he strained to recognize the large shapes lumbering through the water at a wide point in the stream, but couldn't quite make them out. Helpfully they turned in his direction, casually splashing toward him, and he abruptly sat up straighter, unintentionally toppling his cup to the floor.

Jim nimbly caught it before it could hit, and Blair turned to him in pure astonishment. "Wooly mammoths! There are wooly mammoths here."

"Twenty or so," Jim acknowledged, safely putting the cup on the table before returning to lean a robe-covered shoulder on the window frame, bare legs crossing at the ankle. He studied the small herd, obviously counting. "Make that twenty-two. There are new calves this spring."

Staring at them, Blair said, "I've heard of them, seen lithographs in books or paintings in museums, spoken to a naturalist or two who were allowed to follow the few left on the Great Plains, but never thought to see one myself."

Taking a sip from his own cup, Jim nodded. "There are also several wooly rhinoceros and those are ground sloths mixing with the horses coming up from the lake at the far end of the valley. The Elderkin brought them here and keep the herds small and manageable by allowing only females most of the time. The males have their own pastures in another location."

For a moment all Blair could do was scrutinize the mammoths, comparing them to the elephants he had seen in Africa when he was much younger. "Bigger," he murmured. "Small ears, tail's different, too. Clearly a member of the proboscides family, though."

"Later we can hike or ride out for a better look. Like gettles, the animals here don't see humans as threats; we can get quite close," Jim offered, almost lazily and clearly amused by Blair's fascination.

"Yes," Blair agreed, absently. "That would be good."

He continued his observations while Jim made his own breakfast, almost wishing he had brought pen and paper with him to make notes. Biology was not his specialty, nor even a particular interest, but all information was sacred to him, and he knew of others who would be eager for his first-hand account of the beasts. Not that it was an effort to watch the mammoth's ponderous grace or the frisky gamboling of the new calves. No wonder the Elderkin had forbidden the hunting of them, regardless of the value of ivory. They were close enough to extinct as it was without that….

A sudden thought occurred to Blair, and he turned to Jim. "This is a hunting reserve for the Elderkin," he accused sharply. "I daresay one of the woolies would make quite the meal for a hungry dragon, probably saved for special occasions because of the rarity of the meat. The horses would do in a pinch, I suppose, if the appetite was great enough."

Clearly startled, Jim looked up from the book he had been reading as he ate. "No. Just… no. The horses are the retired mounts of liegemen and companions; they are practically friends to the Elderkin, and special to all of us. Whatever gave you that idea?"

"Why else hide away a breeding stock of an animal that has been nearly wiped out?" The sincerity in Jim's protest caused Blair to moderate his voice, but the trouble the Elderkin had undergone to maintain the mammoths and other species concerned him.

Wiping his lips with a napkin, obviously giving himself time to choose his words, Jim hesitated, then rose from the table to sit on the opposite end of the window seat. "I cannot claim that the animals in the valley are never hunted, but I can say that it is rare, and usually done by gettles."

"Gettles?" Blair looked back out, this time at the sky.

"There are less than a hundred suitable nesting sites in the Americas," Jim said, bringing up his knees to rest his crossed wrists on them. "Only about a fourth of them are active at any given time, and three of those are an easy flight away from this location, which is why we made this journey to begin with, as you know. While the Elderkin technically claim this area as their own hunting territory, they won't challenge a gettle who slips in occasionally for a meal for itself and its offspring. It is a way to guarantee that there is always some game available to them. If they come here too often, then the Elderkin know that there is something amiss with their usual hunting grounds."

The explanation sounded reasonable, and exactly the sort of behavior that Blair had come to expect from the dragons. Regardless, he had to ask, "Then why are the numbers of the woolies so low in the Americas and nonexistent elsewhere in the world? Over hunting is usually the reason for the decline of a population, if disease is not an issue."

"The Elderkin say that the climate has changed too much for them to be able to thrive any longer. That is why this vale is so suitable for them: high, cool even in the summer thanks to the glacier, and seldom wet and rainy. "Jim shrugged."As to why preserve them - why not? They have a beauty of their own and the Elderkin have practiced conservation since before man climbed down from the trees."

Relieved, Blair found a grin and changed the subject. "Don't let the faithful hear you say that. Most would prefer to believe that the Elderkin lie shamelessly and that Darwin was their dupe, though he claimed it was his own observations that led him to his conclusions on evolution."

"As a student of man, perhaps you can explain to me why so many religions want to put humans at the center of the universe when he is so obviously not." Jim stood, stretching extravagantly. "Dragon kind is clearly better suited for that role, if it must be given to any sapient thing."

"Playing to the common fear that individual human life is inconsequential, I suspect," Blair said, returning his attention to the beasts wandering freely though the valley. "If you are made in God's image, you must be important and valuable in the scheme of things." He smiled distractedly, brushing his hair back from his face because of the sun's warmth. "It's one theory, at least. Another topic on which academics argue endlessly."

"And there are so many of them," Jim laughed. "And they debate so passionately."

He reached out and captured one of Blair's curls, winding it around his forefinger. Expression changing, he used the tendril to pull Blair a little closer, securing Blair's interest for himself. "So very, very passionately," Jim murmured.

Hastily relegating conversation on naturalism to another day all together, Blair let himself be coaxed across the small span of the window seat until he was half-sprawled over Jim's chest, legs tangled with his. Bracing himself on his forearms, he peered up through his lashes at Jim, drinking down the growing desire in Jim's eyes as if it were a draught to be relished. As always his body responded as if this were the first time for them; as if he had never known another lover.

Jim bent to kiss him, lips gliding lightly over Blair's, not as a penitent, unsure of his welcome, nor demandingly as though Blair were his to command, but as if holding him were a dear, much practiced art that he would always wish to follow. Why that always melted him into liquid compliance even as his maleness rose to full hardness, Blair would never know. He simply knew that forever after he would measure every bedmate by Jim's surety and sensuality. And always find them lacking, he was beginning to fear.

Stubbornly pushing that worry away, Blair gave himself to the pleasure of the moment. The sun was warm on his skin as Jim tugged the sweater over his head, breaking their kiss barely long enough to free him of it. Despite that, Jim's fingertips left tingling paths as they drifted over the muscles of Blair's back, then up his spine, then along his arms. He slid his tongue repeatedly along the seam of Blair's lips, delving ever deeper, until Blair sighed and opened to the gentle trespasser.

Oh, he tasted so good! Somehow the hint of strawberries and syrup accented Jim's natural flavor, and Blair reveled in it as Jim lovingly pummeled Blair's tongue with his own. Blair returned the caress with gentle kneading and strokes, need creeping in until his entire body throbbed and ached in time with Jim's rhythm. Without thought his fingertips found their way past the barrier of fabric to the small paps on Jim's chest to pet them teasingly, bringing them up to hard nubs.

With a soft cry, Jim tore away, shrugging off his robe, then using both hands on Blair's bottom to pull their members into better alignment. Head already wet from the slippery fluid from the eye, both skated along the length of the other, and Blair had no choice but to buck hard against Jim in search of satisfaction. It was, he realized distantly, not going to take long; not as deprived as they'd been.

To his surprise, Jim wrapped him up tightly in a hug to still him. "Hold," he muttered. "Please. Hold."

Struggling to obey, though his legs shifted restlessly, Blair juggled his weight to be able to push his hair away from his face. "What?"

"Turn head to toe with me?" Jim asked hopefully.

"Yes! Oh…"

Balancing precariously, Blair changed position, dropping small kisses here and there as he did, until his knees were on either side of Jim's head. Hips high but torso lying over Jim's, he propped his head up in one palm and took Jim's length in the other. The bench of the window seat was narrow, but between them, they managed to situate themselves so that they could easily pleasure each other with their mouths. Blair spared an instant to study the prize in front of him, the novelty of seeing it unimpeded in full daylight catching his imagination.

He could see sparkles of sunshine in the dark hair of Jim's groin, the shiny evidence of his desire seeping from the crown, the ruddy glow of blood just below the surface. Jim's skin was pale under the touch of the sun's rays, clearly limning the powerful muscles of his thighs and abdomen. It was a beautiful sight that anyone with good sense should appreciate, and it struck Blair that they were in a window, in full view of any who might happen by.

Impossible though that was under the circumstances, it was also a very thrilling in an odd way. Blair shivered at the idea of an audience, beaming at them in approval and inspired lust, then firmly put the image away. Regardless, it added a piquant note to the moment, and Blair slowly, deliberately licked away a trace of moisture from the tip of Jim's maleness.

Groaning, Jim did the same for Blair, effectively ending any contemplation in favor of making the most of what his incredible partner had to offer. He took Jim's prick down his throat in a single, swift move that ripped a muffled scream from him, only to draw back in leisurely increments, savoring the smooth, hard length of him. The feeling of hot, wet, good flowed over Blair's tool, toppling him into the mindless pursuit of relief.

The give and take of exquisite sensation went on for a lovely, lovely long time, gaining intensity with each retreat of the clinging lips on him, each return of the encircling pressure along his cock. Passively receiving the pleasure became impossible, and he pumped gingerly into Jim's mouth, allowing him to take him as well, which only added to his growing arousal. Soon even that was not enough to appease his hunger, and he rumbled in frustration, picking up speed as if that would grant him whatever stimulation it was he craved.

Shockingly, Jim released him with an obscene slurp, stretching to lave a wide swath over Blair's stones, then behind them to the tender flesh of his perineum. A sudden need for more air made Blair lose his mouthful, and he rested his cheek on Jim's stomach, panting desperately, but leaving his hand in place for Jim to use. When Jim continued his journey to Blair's opening, he moaned helplessly, unable to so much as widen his stance to encourage him.

The first swipe over his center made Blair whimper; the next stole all ability to make sound. After the third all he could do was quiver and pray Jim never ended his oral ravishment. When Jim finally breached him with a devilishly pointed tongue, Blair's stasis broke.

Taking Jim back into himself, he drove down hard on that steely shaft and thrust recklessly against the satin plane of Jim's chest, instinctively trusting Jim to prevent them from tumbling to the floor. Fingers wet from his suckling, he traced a nail along the swell of Jim's sac, intending to delve deeper, but, as always, Jim's thighs remained locked. Ignoring the vague disappointment of that, Blair turned his palm to fondle the delicate orbs in their fleshy package, relishing Jim's low groan of enjoyment.

The doubled stimulation was too much to bear for long, much as a part of Blair never wanted to finish. As abruptly and blindingly as lightning in the depths of night, his climax burst over his nerves, pulling his essence out of him in brilliant pulses of ecstasy. His strength left with his seed, and he collapsed onto Jim, writhing against him as his release robbed him of his senses.

When his reason returned, he was too overwhelmed with euphoria to do more than tighten his lips over the head of Jim's shaft to swallow his cream. The thick jets were accompanied by soft cries that stirred Blair's heart, and he tenderly coaxed Jim through the aftershocks of his finish. It was no great task to lie warm and sated in the sun like some great cat, idly drawing meaningless patterns over Jim's skin until his lover recovered himself.

When a sigh told him that Jim needed to find a more comfortable place to lie, Blair said cheekily. "What now? Retire to that magnificent feather bed and wait for the flesh to be as willing as the spirit most assuredly still is?"

With a laugh Jim sat up, helping Blair to his feet as he did. "We've time enough to linger here before we return to inspecting the rest of the gettle nests I've been assigned. What say you to packing a picnic, then meeting Rajah and a few of his descendents?

Blair bounded up the stairs, calling behind him, "Can we be back early enough to make a chocolate cake?"

***

Jim didn't look back as he led Blair out of the valley, telling himself it was to avoid triggering the booby-traps protecting the gorge they were using as an exit. In part, he didn't need to look; his senses were so sharp and focused he could have told Blair exactly where each of the woolies were if he'd asked. Mostly, though, he simply wanted to keep the memory of their days there sacrosanct, unmarred by the longing they'd return someday.

It was tempting to consider making the trip an annual event, perhaps using the gettles as an excuse to pry Blair away from the University. He could easily convince himself that it was the right thing to do, rationalizing that the tremendous relief from the sensory deluge of Cascade would win him precious months, perhaps even years of useful existence. There would likely be no difficulty in convincing Blair to return as he must have had a wonderful time, if the way he kept looking back was any indication.

That way lay desperation and despair. Of that, Jim had no doubt. Already Blair had enough information for his agile mind to put together the clues that a guide was more to a sentinel than company and convenience. If he ever deduced that the quality of Jim's days would suffer without him until the deterioration brought Jim down, Blair would swear whatever oath he felt necessary to spare Jim's life.

Jim had no doubts on that matter, either. All life was too dear to Blair not to do everything in his power to save one, and Jim understood his companion too well not to think that he would consider a liegeman's more valuable than his own ambitions and desires. Blair would make the choice that Jim wanted more than he had ever dared want anything, but not for the reason Jim needed him to make it.

Shaking his head at himself, Jim pushed everything out of his mind save immediate concerns. Incacha had told him that Master Stephen and his men had never picked up their trail, despite looking for several long, frustrating days. It was his opinion that Master Stephen had been reluctant to return to Cascade for reasons that had nothing to do with filial concern for Jim's whereabouts and safety, nor did he think his father had tried his only gambit.

"Back to duty so quickly?" Blair said, interrupting Jim's thoughts.

Stifling the impulse to snap, Jim said mildly enough, "The wilderness doesn't respect a holiday mood, I'm afraid. Inattention will kill you as quickly while traveling for recreation as for business."

"There is that," Blair returned, not at all abashed at the chastisement inherent in the words. "Well, then, perhaps you can tell me what you know of the area and satisfy that urge to be certain I am not lost in fond memories of the last weeks."

"While satisfying your nigh near insatiable curiosity." Jim snorted in amusement, but conceded that it was a useful way to spend the hours of riding to their next destination. And since Blair could make any conversation interesting and lively, a pleasant way as well, not that he had to concede that point aloud.

The next few days were nearly extensions of those spent in isolation in the valley. There was no particular reason to hurry, no schedule to keep and the weather held warm and sunny, perfect for camping. They spoke desultorily about everything and nothing, made love each night before sleeping curled into each other as if one being instead of two.

On the third day Jim was unceremoniously yanked back to the reality of who and what he was by the scent of death on the breeze. At first he dismissed it as the remnants of some animal's kill - a common enough smell in the woods. Too quickly, though, it became obvious that the odor was too strong for a single carcass. Within another half mile he began to wonder what catastrophe could have been behind such an overwhelming stench that Blair was beginning to catch whiffs.

That concern made him more cautious than usual, and he motioned for Blair to dismount with him, finger on his lips to ask for silence. The woods were too dense for Sight to be readily useful, and Jim extended his hearing, seeking for the unusual in hopes it would be associated with the strangeness of so much death in one place. He quickly detected a human heartbeat, and with one hand on Blair's shoulder for a reference point, paired Hearing with Sight to locate the source.

He couldn't see much more than the barrel of a rifle and brown eyes focusing behind it, but that was enough for him to withdraw back to himself, frowning. "One man," Jim said, looking at the ground and casually walking forward, letting the horses move to either side of them, shielding them from view. "Pointing a weapon at us, too far away for a good shot as yet."

"A mountain man, perhaps?" Blair asked, imitating Jim's nonchalant air, but flicking nervous glances at the forest ahead of them. "From what I know of them, they are misanthropic and solitary, usually paranoid to the extreme."

"I know the type," Jim said absently. "This one isn't acting as if that is his nature. He should have retreated deep into his own territory to avoid us or warned us off somehow. Instead he's utterly silent and motionless, as if he's hunting."

The wind brought another gust of stink, almost making Jim gag, despite having locked down Smell as much as he could. Blair turned down his face, curls veiling his expression, but his soft sound of disgust carried clearly to Jim's ears. The horses stirred restlessly, and Jim could sense the unease the odor was raising in them, though both were too well trained to spook as yet.

"If he's responsible for that stench, that's not in character for a mountain man, either," Blair murmured. "They live off the land and know all too well how important it is to husband resources. They wouldn't indulge in the sort of wanton killing that amount of decay is suggestive of."

Thoughtfully Jim said, "Should not be one in this area, either. There's a trapper licensed to range here, though." He pushed that line of thought away as inconsequential to the moment. "The real question is, what next? If we turn around, he'll likely infer we suspect his presence."

"If we go forward, he may fire, sooner or later. Or if we stay in place, as well," Blair pointed out worriedly.

"Then the best option is to control who and when he targets." Stopping Blair's automatic protest, Jim added, "By law I cannot act preemptively - he hasn't yet acted in a potentially lethal manner. But I can arrange for him to miss his first shot and honorably return fire. I won't miss."

"Can you guarantee that will be the case?"

Unsurprised Blair didn't have to be told who would become the quarry for their unknown marksman, Jim said, "The Elderkin drill their liegemen in exercises for eventualities such as this. While it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen, I assure you that I am quite skilled at reducing the risk to myself."

"There's no arguing you out of this, is there?" Blair muttered unhappily.

"I am willing to entertain other suggestions."

Taking Blair's compliance for granted, but well aware that the matter would be discussed vehemently later, Jim slowly drew ahead, leaving Blair between the horses. He turned his head this way and that, as if seeking landmarks for navigation, but kept the hunter in the periphery of his vision.

He never could quite explain, even to himself, precisely what it was he watched for, but he knew the moment the man pulled the trigger. With an automatic twist of his body to move away from the bullet, Jim drew his revolver, firing from the hip. As he'd intended, he hit the next round in the hunter's rifle, setting it off to both destroy the weapon and wound the attacker.

The instant he heard the double report of the backfire and a cry of pain, Jim ran, gun in hand, intent on capturing the hunter before he recovered from the detonation. To the man's credit, he didn't permit the pain and shock to overwhelm him. Within moments he was on his feet, hurrying away at the best speed his wounds would allow. Jim had thought that the hunter might have been blinded, at least temporarily, by the back flash of the discharge.

That obviously wasn't the case, and Jim didn't spare time to wonder how he'd avoided that particular injury. Following the hunter's blood trail, backed by the sounds of his passage, Jim pursued, quickly closing the distance between them. He could hear Blair hot on their heels, Ften and Corvair nickering uneasily behind them, but obeying the command to remain behind.

Despite his speed, he remained wary, well aware of how devious a predator could become when forced into the role of prey. In addition, the man knew the terrain and could very well be clever enough to use it to his advantage.

The theory proved itself true in very short order. A change in the quality of the air and the feel of the ground underfoot were the only warning Jim received, but it was enough for him to sense the gully appearing abruptly in front of them. They were literally on top of it with no room to stop, but they had just enough distance for an additional burst of speed.

"Jump - my footsteps!" Jim shouted, obeying his own command.

Blair did as well, landing nimbly behind him as he raced onward. A few yards later he rounded an outcropping and was blinded by a thousand flashes of brilliant light. With a grunt of pain he dropped his chin to his chest, hand over his eyes, still running and gave Hearing his full attention, letting it guide him. Blair went by, lightly touching his shoulder as he did, and Jim focused on his footfalls, trying to place his own steps exactly in them.

"Tin polished to mirrors, twisting in the breeze on strings," Blair panted, explaining the unexpected assault on Vision. "He was prepared to have a liegeman come after him."

With another grunt, this one of assent, Jim succeeded in clearing his vision, wary for another onslaught on his senses. The hunter didn't disappoint; a few steps later Jim saw a gap in the man's tracks as if he'd hurdled over an invisible barrier. Reaching out Jim snagged a pinecone from a tree, and sped past Blair.

"Do as I do!" Jim launched himself into air at the same point the hunter had, lighting in his footsteps. He spun on his heel as Blair reached him, and tossed the pinecone onto the ground they'd avoided. The impact released a spray of metal slivers and stinging nettles into the air, at about the right height to strike a man full in the face.

Catching Blair by the arm, Jim took up the chase again, demanding more speed from himself to make up the tiny delay. A moment later he realized it wasn't necessary; the path narrowed, then zigged through a dense growth of aspens. Intuition as well as senses told him that would be where the hunter would make his stand.

As Jim threaded through the copse, keeping Blair tucked close behind him, a knife slashed at him from left to right from a small pocket of space in the trees. Jim blocked the blow, forearm to forearm, stepped inside the arc, back to the hunter and kicked out at his knee, elbow driving into his gut. With a muffled yelp, the hunter sagged, but straightened almost immediately, going for a head butt into Jim's back over his kidneys.

It hurt, but Jim weathered the pain without hesitation, shoving the knife hand upward to turn under it, facing his attacker and jabbing him hard in the solar plexus with the barrel of his revolver. Gasping, the hunter staggered back and fell onto his rump, weakly waving his knife in Jim's direction.

Cocking the trigger of his gun, Jim said grimly, "I could have already fired; you could have already been dead. Is that your preference?"

The hunter didn't answer, but dropped his blade, hugging his right arm to his side with in his left hand. Jim got his first good look at him, noting almost absently the powder burn on the right side of his head, eye on that side swollen shut, and the odd angle of the arm. The shoulder was probably dislocated, not that the injuries cooled his murderous intent. That was plain on the expression of a plain face, thin and sallow, framed with lanky, dirty brown hair that topped a thin and wiry body that was likely only of medium height.

Giving him credit for both a modicum of intelligence and a great deal of stubborn, Jim added, "Will you let me treat your injuries?"

Almost seeing the hunter's mind whirl through the possibilities - take advantage of the liegeman being close for another, more deadly attack, wait for him to drop his guard later and be in better shape to fight, spit in his lizard-loving face and swear - Jim waited patiently. Blair, on the other hand, apparently had a statement he needed to make. With a casual air he took Jim's rifle from the back holster and held it at the ready, giving Jim an offhand nod to say that he was on guard.

With a sneer, the hunter met Blair's eyes, as if doubting that he had what it took to use the gun if necessary. Blair met his gaze levelly and with far more conviction than Jim believed he truly felt. Wishing he hadn't had to put his gentle friend in such a position - hardly the first time - he shrugged with his hands and made as if to walk away.

"Wait." The hunter's voice was rough, almost unintelligible, as if he hadn't spoken aloud in a very long time. "I've heard about your healing magic. Let's see it."

"Not magic," Jim said tiredly as he holstered his gun, He went to one knee in front of him, alert for trickery. "Just knowledge accumulated over more centuries than man has used fire."

Snorting, the hunter turned his head away. "Just do whatever you're going to do."

"That shoulder has to go back into the socket; it's going to hurt badly. Brace yourself." Jim bent over him, fingers tracing out where muscle and ligament were, then he lifted and shoved simultaneously, popping the joint back into place.

Though the hunter didn't scream, he lost what color he had, exhaling as if his breath were a shout. Wanting to tend to the more minor injury of the burn while the man was still dealing with the major pain, Jim leaned in toward him, intending to look for debris embedded in the flesh. A hint of scent, zesty and tantalizingly familiar, teased at his nose, and he froze in place, abruptly filled with the urgent need to identify it.

"Jim," Blair murmured worriedly at sentinel levels.

It was enough to draw him away from being lost in Scent. Without thinking Jim brought his senses to bear on Blair to steady himself, and once he had that fragrance in his head, he could easily identify the other. Because he had met Blair while he was still a wrangler, Jim would always associate the aroma of gettles with Blair's natural odor.

Mystified that this man would have the sort of close contact that could leave a lingering trace of gettle on him, Jim went deeper into the input - and leaped back, drawing his weapon again. The man didn't just smell of gettle, he smelled of gettle blood, pain and fear!

"So that's why you risked a Vengeance Hunt by trying to kill me," Jim snarled.

Lifting his chin defiantly, the hunter snarled back, "Maybe a man just likes his privacy."

"Then it will be my personal pleasure to deprive you of yours for a great long while. On your feet." When the hunter made no attempt to move, Jim reached in and jerked him to a stand, winning a shock of surprise from him at the strength behind the wrench. "I do not need your guidance, so walk or be dragged. It is of no consequence to me."

Feigning more infirmity than Jim was willing to accept as legitimate, the hunter obeyed, but not without grumbling. He led the way deeper into the stand of birch trees, once attempting to lead them astray, only to be pulled back on track with Jim's impatiently barked order. A lunge for escape into a thicket in which he likely believed he could lose pursuit was brought up short by a single tug at his collar. After that, though, Jim decided enough was enough, and stripped off the hunter's shirt, turning it backwards on him to use both as an improvised sling and a tether to prevent him from running.

Before too long they reached a small man-made clearing, hewn from the forest so that the canopy still covered the dilapidated cabin nudged up against the far ridge. The stench fouling the air was finally explained by the mounds of headless, limbless, skinless animals piled carelessly here and there on the naked earth. The discarded pieces of the carcasses were scattered everywhere, along with discarded, broken tools and other trash. As obscene as that was in Jim's eyes, the worst was the crumpled body of a fledgling gettle lying by the remnants of a large fire.

"Oh, my, god," Blair blurted, and charged for the beast to give whatever aid he could, adeptly passing the rifle back to Jim as he passed.

It wouldn't be much, Jim realized bleakly, holstering the Henry without thinking. The poor thing was on the verge of death, great heart beating far too weakly, occasionally stumbling as it fought for breath. Likely the cause was loss of blood as someone - most probably the soon-to-be-thoroughly, horribly miserable man in front of him - had ripped off most of its developing scales until nearly all there was left was bare hide. That had been burned, branded, cut, stabbed, flayed, and gouged, as if to cause the maximum amount of pain. As if all that had not caused enough agony, the fledgling's half-formed wings had been ripped to shreds, then near torn from its body. Blinded, probably the first injury to judge by the miniscule amount of healing in the sockets, teeth smashed out, it hadn't even been able to defend itself.

Blessedly, Jim's training took over, shoving his emotions down where they wouldn't get in the way of what had to be done. Dimly he wondered what price he would pay for the control later, but for now, he was only thankful that he could calmly nudge the hunter to a tree to secure him there with the sleeves of his own shirt. Willfully not listening to Blair's crooning reassurances to the fledgling, he crossed to them, putting a gentle palm on Blair's shoulder.

"She is beyond suffering," Jim assured him. "The vital part of her has already left. This is only the meat, and it too will soon be gone."

"Can't we do something?" Blair implored, anguish-filled eyes turned up to Jim.

"We are far too late, but perhaps we can help her sibling. Would you be willing to ride ahead to the nest and see if he's there and what condition he's in?" Jim asked persuasively. "We're only a few hours away by horseback, and you know the way. Remember we discussed the landmarks to navigate by to locate it?"

"I…" Blair looked down at the hand he had hovering over the gettle's head, unsure where to touch for all the wounds. He settled on a gentle stroke along her jaw, shuddering when a scale peeled off into his hand. "She's beyond the pain?"

"I swear." Jim bent and drew Blair to his feet with a palm under his elbow. "Go. We may be in time for the sibling. I need to know before I can determine our next course of action. In the meantime, I'll see to matters here. The parents were both fostered with humans. They should accept your presence without difficulty, especially if you take off your jacket so the motley underneath is obvious."

Flashing a fiery glance toward the hunter, Blair started to speak, then simply nodded, absently pocketing the dark red scale bud he held. Jim whistled sharply, calling Ften and Corvair to them, and walked with Blair to the edge of the clearing to meet the horses. In short order he was on the way on Ften, Henry rifle across the saddle in front of him, and Jim stretched his senses farther than he ever had before to be sure that no ambush waited for him.

When content that they were the only humans for many days travel, he turned back to his captive, clutching close the ice over his heart.

Squatting in front of the hunter, Jim said flatly, "You have two choices. Answer all my questions completely and honestly - and I will know if you lie - and I will take you to Roscoe for human judgment and its consequences. Remain silent or attempt to deceive me, and I will give you to the Elderkin for their justice."

"You'd give a human to them?" the hunter blurted, the first signs of fear showing in his scent and eyes, though he instantly covered it with bluster.

"Yes." Jim said the world bluntly, the pure honesty of it ringing like a bell against the background of the hunter's bristling. He was loathe to do so as the Elderkin tended to favor the punishment fitting the crime, which was time consuming and laborious. Most liegemen didn't think the humans they dealt with were worth the effort to try to rehabilitate.

Not that the hunter knew that, of course, and his fear deepened, almost to terror. "You wouldn't turn one of your own kind over to those, those, cold-blooded lizards! You wouldn't!"

Ruthlessly playing on his horror, Jim said, "I have no reason to love mankind." He pointedly looked around the clearing, leaving his gaze on the mutilated fledgling. "Especially after witnessing this. What possible reason could you have for this wanton waste and cruelty? And don't excuse yourself by saying they are just animals. Even animals don't deserve mistreatment this brutal."

The light of insanity went on behind the man's shuttered gaze, and Jim held down his disgust where it couldn't be seen. He'd found the key to freeing the man's tongue, vile though his tactics were. Later, much later, he'd worry about the taint on his own spirit left by using it. Sarcastically, willing it to be the last twist needed, Jim added, "Perhaps you were thinking to collect the bounty offered by the rulers in Europe for the head of one of the Elderkin; convince them the gettle was a young dragon."

With startling calmness, the hunter said, "Now that can't happen, can it? They dissolve within hours of death - just dust and gone."

Well, that was one secret that they had never expected to keep forever, Jim thought philosophically.

Either taking Jim's silence for granted or simply needing to speak finally, about what he'd learned, the hunter went on. "Which means the Elderkin probably do, too. Same with the scales; you pull 'em off, and they lose all that pretty color and go so brittle a breath can break 'em. I don't know how the wranglers keep the ones they use from doing it. Thought maybe they might know a way to stop the bones from dissolving, too, so I fooled around with them a little so see if I could find it. Couldn't be that hard, could it?"

The hunter shook his head at himself. "No luck. Maybe have to take a wrangler and ask him a few pointed questions."

"Not needed," Jim said blandly, not willing to take a chance with innocent lives over such a small thing. "You took the scale while it had a blood supply - it was still alive, so to speak. The ones the wranglers collect were shed, the blood supply weaned away gradually until they dropped. Then the wranglers dip them in a mixture of beeswax and gettle ichor to preserve them. That is, if they can stop the gettles from eating them for the nutrients in them. "

"Oh." The terror began to percolate through the hunter again, though Jim wasn't sure why.

Ignoring that for the moment, Jim gestured at the clearing. "So this was about money? That doesn't make sense. You couldn't have cured that many hides quickly enough to have done a decent job of it, and most had to be damaged from what you did to them while they were living. None of the furriers would take them, regardless of condition. They make their money off the rarity, so a sudden surplus would hurt their profit, which they'd have to cut into to bribe a ship to smuggle them, and a customs officer to 'overlook' them."

The hunter's expression turned sly. "Now, that was part of the plan, wasn't it? The hides don't have to be in a good shape, just enough of them to explain the money I get for taking down a gettle if anybody gets too nosy about my affairs. The bounty's near as good as one for a lizard head, but I only have to excuse away the bit I mean to spend. And, and, I figured that gettles probably learn to hunt the way other meat eaters do - mamma giving them wounded critters to hunt. So the smell and sounds from the injured animals might draw the young. It worked, too. "

With an effort Jim held onto the ice owning him. "You were paid to hunt a gettle and tear it apart?"

Nodding, eagerly, the hunter said, "You want to learn another way to kill men and don't have any on hand, you kill monkeys. You learn how to kill a gettle, maybe you learn how to kill the lizards."

"Why would you want to kill the Elderkin?"

"How can you serve them?" the hunter spat out.

"You wouldn't understand the answer to that." Ignoring the rising belligerence from the man, sure that it covered the fear owning him, Jim pressed his point. "Who would pay to learn to kill the Elderkin? Who paid you?"

"True patriots!" The hunter stared at Jim, as if expecting his answer to provoke him.

Not rising to the bait, Jim said levelly, "But you're in it for the money. What do you care who holds the reins in government? So it doesn't matter if you tell me who told you that you would be paid to hunt gettles."

"No reason why I can't get paid to get rid of the lizards and put men in charge, like they should be. Real men, not lizard loving fools like you. You and your kind, along with all your pretty boys and pretty women, should be roasted in the fires you worship." Again, the hunter studied Jim, clearly looking for a tender spot, a way to shake him from his detached control.

It had to be a ploy to get his defenses down for an attack, though Jim couldn't see how the man would be able to take advantage of a loss of temper. With the edge of pure panic underneath the hostility, it could have been a case of deciding he had nothing left to lose, but that didn't ring quite true for Jim. The hunter had proved himself to be too canny and persistent too waste any effort.

Eyeing him thoughtfully, Jim said, "Our bargain, such as it was, was clear that you would answer all my questions, honestly. Now, who paid you to hunt gettles?"

Cold sweat broke out along the man's hairline, and he tightened his jaw. He broke into a litany of cursing and irrational insults that Jim let wash over him like a burst of thunder from a storm. Waiting for the outburst to wear down, he was caught off guard when the hunter lunged at him, sleeves ripping away from the shirt as he tore loose from the tree. He caught Jim square on the chin, knocking him to the ground and landed on his chest to pin Jim's gun between them.

Bucking hard, Jim got his left hand free in time to get his fist against the man's chin, blocking a bite surely meant to tear out Jim's jugular. The movement was a diversion. While Jim struggled to keep the hunter's teeth from his neck, the hunter wormed his arms free of the shirt, though it must have hurt his shoulder beyond measure to do so. The hunter clawed at Jim's face, trying to gouge his eyes out, then went for his throat to strangle him.

Fending his fingers off, Jim got his feet flat on the ground and heaved, twisting at the same time, trying to reverse their positions to free his gun hand. Feeling the shift, the hunter threw his weight to one side to give them momentum, and they rolled dizzily over and over several times before the hunter dragged a foot to stop them.

He pushed away from Jim, trying to plant his knee in Jim's groin, then dived to one side to make a break for it. Jim caught him by the ankle and yanked up, knocking the hunter off balance. Tumbling awkwardly, the man still managed to kick Jim hard in the ribs before scrambling away on all fours.

Jim thrashed to his side, flinging out a hand to catch the hunter, but the panic ripening his scent had full command over him, giving him strength and speed to get beyond Jim's reach. Before Jim could get his feet back under him or bring his weapon to bear, the hunter snatched up a large metal hook with a sharp end, probably used to hang game to drain the blood from the carcasses. He turned back and rushed Jim, swinging the hook with deadly speed and accuracy.

Rolling toward him as the wicked point slashed at his face, Jim punched him behind the knee, knocking his legs out from under him. The hunter toppled, arms wheeling as he fought to keep his balance. Jim kept going, acting as an obstacle for the hunter to tumble over, and sprang upright as soon as he heard the thud of him hitting the ground. Whirling to face him and drawing a bead with his gun, Jim pulled himself up short when the hunter stayed down, gasping spasmodically.

Wary of trickery, Jim approached with care, the coppery tang of fresh human blood telling him that the new injury, at least, was genuine. Gun ready, he grabbed the hunter by the shoulder and pulled him to his back, just in time to hear the death rattle in his throat. A discarded ax head, so rusty and damaged it took a moment for Jim to identify it, penetrated his chest from under the ribcage. Somehow the hunter had fallen on it exactly right to drive it through to the heart.

Dropping to his backside, wrists dangling from his upraised knees, Jim shook his head in denial. He hadn't wanted the man's death, hadn't wanted anything more than the answers to his questions and a relatively uneventful trip back to civilization to present charges against him. Even as he'd used the man's fear against him, Jim had underestimated the depth of it, the pure unreasoning terror that had driven him.

It was beyond his understanding that anyone would be so horrified of the Elderkin, who, while ruthless in the protection of their home, had proven themselves a compassionate friend to humanity. And the man had spoken as if he were part of a larger conspiracy of people who felt the same. Not greedy, wicked men nor power hungry despots, but a group who truly felt that this land should be theirs and theirs alone.

Chin on his chest, Jim thought longingly of the valley and its simple pleasures, its simple life, and tried very hard to think of nothing else.

When Blair returned, making his way through the thicket as the sun's last rays were slanting determinedly through it, Jim was in much the same position. Letting the body, his own dirty and battered state, speak of events for him, Jim waited until he sat beside him, Blair's posture shouting sorrow and melancholy. They shared the growing gloom until the first stars came out, and a shiver from the twilight's chill ran through Blair.

Standing creakily, Jim said, "The nest was empty."

Blinking away moisture from his eyes, Blair nodded and stood as well. "The parents were on an outcrop nearby, draped over each other, hardly moving. I… I think they were mourning."

"They likely were. If we're very, very lucky, they've fed well this season and will go into heat again to replace their missing offspring." Jim brushed his hand through his hair, wearily bringing his mind back to the task at hand. "It's not much consolation, I know, but Nature does what's best for the species."

Pointedly not looking at the corpse, Blair said, "He killed them? Why?"

"I'd prefer to tell that tale only once," Jim said shortly. He gathered up the horses' reins and walked upwind of the clearing until he could get a fresh breath of air. "Gather wood for a fire, will you? And make tea? We'll need it when we're through talking to the Brotherhood."

Automatically obeying Jim by picking up tinder as they walked, Blair slanted a worried look at him. "They're coming here? To rule on your actions with the deceased?"

"In a manner of speaking. Now help me set up camp." Despite the worry in Blair's voice, there was also a hint of excitement, and Jim's spirits lifted in spite of himself. Blair was about to be given knowledge rarely shared outside of the community of liegemen and their shield companions. It was a small thing to do in apology for involving him in this horrible day, but it was something.

Once they were comfortably situated for the night, bed rolls ready and a warm meal eaten, Jim sat tailor fashion in front of Blair, who had his legs crossed in a way he called a 'lotus.' It looked painful, but Blair insisted that he could stay in the position for hours with no distress. Taking him at his word, though Jim was dubious that he'd still have the use of his limbs later, Jim ran his thumb over the blood-red opal Blair had worn in his ear since the High Court.

"You were told that this would allow the Elderkin to keep track of you, if they so wished. All liegemen and their guides have something similar." Jim brushed his fingertips over the crest on his uniform. "So they always know where we are and roughly what we're doing. And no, I have no idea how the gems work, save that I was taught that they serve as a focus and mirror for the energy the Elderkin create and send toward us."

Blair fingered the small stone himself. "They used it as a, well, a guide, too."

Tugging at his own ear, Jim managed a partial smile. "I'm familiar with the technique." Sobering, he took Blair's hands loosely in his. "The communication can work both ways, if the Elderkin are willing. Incacha is always 'listening' for me, and if I bespeak urgency clearly enough, he will call the Brotherhood together for me. Will you add your testimony to mine on the events of this day?"

"Of course. What do I need to do?" Blair tightened the grip they shared.

"Close your eyes and remember your first meeting with Incacha. Call every detail of his person to mind until you feel as if he stands in front of you again." Jim obeyed his own command, seeing his foster kin with almost no effort on his part, the act of summoning him was so commonplace for him.

For a while there was only the snap of the fire and the playful teasing of a breeze, but bit by bit, silence crept in and the feeling of a huge cavern built around him. A rustle of movement, the nearly silent pad of feet began to echo, and the dry, wintry spice of the Elderkin filled Jim's nose. Beside him, Blair sighed deeply, in obvious pleasure, and Jim knew that his guide experienced the same sensations that he did, with him even in this.

Hiding his pleasure in that, Jim opened his eyes, unsurprised that Blair did so at the same instant. Blair breathed, "Ohhhhh. It's like being in the middle of a treasure chest filled with gems." He managed to give the impression of giving a bow sitting down, and said directly to Minzimtah, "Including pearls."

"As cheeky as ever, I see, Student Sandburg."

Jim wished he could allow his friend the opportunity to simply soak in the circumstances and socialize, but there was a price to be paid for communicating with the Elderkin this way. He said quietly, "Incacha."

"Here, little brother. I brought the others with me in answer to the turmoil I perceive in you. The day has not gone well for you, has it?"

"No, I'm afraid it hasn't." Taking a deep breath though it was pointless to do so, Jim went straight to the point. "Gettles have been killed by a human who told me that a bounty has been put on them. A watch needs to be set over all the nests, now, and succor needs to be administered to Lit-lat and Pom-pom."

He rode out the hurricane sweep of sorrow, anger, disappointment, and, inevitably, because not all Elderkin approved of allowing humans in the Americas, self-righteousness. Regardless of personal opinion, though, within moments younger Elderkin had been dispatched to see to the gettles. Though Incacha settled in 'front' of Blair and Jim, it was Minzimtah who led the assembly.

Sitting on her haunches, head high, she said, "Tell us."

Beginning with the first whiff of decay, Jim recounted everything that had happened until the death of the hunter, ignoring the murmur of Elderkin voices in the background. As he spoke, a ghostly image of himself and Blair going through the actions of his account appeared in front of him, built from the memories and energy patterns the assembly pulled from him and Blair. It was odd, no matter how many times he'd experienced the doubling of himself, but nowhere as discomfiting as having every emotion and thought, no matter how hateful, petty or inconsequential, fall from his lips as if he were a small child with no idea of discretion. The only blessing was that he'd been so preoccupied with the necessities of the moment, none of the more private matters that were constantly in the back of his head made it to the forefront during his report.

On the other hand, it was blatantly clear that he had had no intention of ever seriously hurting the hunter, let alone killing him. It was a relief to know that even the deeper levels of his mind he'd truly wanted justice for the slain gettles. When he was finished, Jim waited for Minzimtah's verdict, unsurprised when she only shook her head in regret.

Ruffling her wings slightly, she said, "Student Sandburg, it is your turn to speak."

With a hard swallow, Blair did as told, and in another time and place, Jim would have been fascinated by the stream-of-thought that poured unexpurgated from him. Blair it seemed, noticed everything, related it instantly to a half-dozen other things, stored it for later retrieval, and went onto the next item or notion that caught his attention, all practically instantaneously. And his internal list of questions was much, much longer and often more frivolous than the ones he actually asked out loud.

Though his point of view for the events was markedly different, of course, and Blair's heartfelt reaction to the empty nest and mourning parents soul-rendering, he matched Jim's testimony on all the pertinent points. No expert at reading ground sign, he was knowledgeable enough that he was able to confirm Jim's version of the struggle between him and the hunter. More importantly, his confidence in his own understanding of Jim's reactions made him as sure of what happened as if he'd been there.

When he'd finished, Minzimtah thanked him formally, but before she could dismiss them, Jim said politely, "Madame, if you please, could you let Blair concentrate for a moment on the parents of the lost gettles? I believe he may have seen an important detail without comprehending that it was of significance."

"Ah… I understand. Very well, Student Sandburg?"

Quietly Jim said, "Chief, just like when we contacted Incacha - focus on the parents as you last saw them. Try to bring up every shade of color, every line of them, the rock they lay on, the way they fit together, everything."

Brow furrowed in concentration, Blair did as bid, and Jim studied the shadowy image the Assembly created of his memory. After a moment he released a breath that wasn't quite a sigh. "They're molting; see the scales lying loose along the flank?"

"That's notable?" Blair asked quietly.

"Yes, it means they are molting and will go into season again soon, though not necessarily together, instead of decades from now." Jim caught an approving nod from Minzimtah, and explained further before Blair could ask. "When a gettle is ready to reproduce, they leave their own territory looking for a mate, and it can be either the male or female who goes searching. Together they find a suitable nest and molt, eat heavily, molt, mate, eat heavily again, and molt for the third time. It's the only time a gettle molts until the end of their fertility."

Blinking, Blair said, "That's why the nests are so soft and cozy. It's made from layer after layer of old skin; generations worth, I'd wager."

"A mated pair won't necessarily use the same nest repeatedly, but yes. immature gettles instinctively avoid territories that are better used by parents," Minzimtah put in.

"New hatchlings are a small start to recover from this loss," Incacha said sadly, "but it is better than an empty nest and gettles that may never procreate again."

"I simply do not understand the why of this." Minzimtah lowered herself so that she could rest her chin in her palm, and her confusion was echoed by many of the Elderkin still present. "We have dealt with conspiracies before - loyal nobles immigrating at their ruler's command to infiltrate or undermine the authorities here with an eye toward coup d'état."

"Or those afflicted with Man's Curse, seeking to satisfy their greed and thirst for power by removing what they perceive as the major obstacle to their ambitions," Incacha added.

Obviously concerned at the reception of his words, Blair said slowly glancing at Jim for encouragement, "I do, to a certain extent. Not all of it - I've read Freud's work, and Jung's, along with those who have built on their premises since. Human psychology is a new science with few undisputed theories as yet, possibly because there are so very many factors to take into account during the formulation of a personality. Still, there are certain broad, sweeping commonalities that may apply here."

"Such as?" Minzimtah asked.

Uncertainly, Blair said, "Before I answer, may I ask the Assembly a question first?"

Unseen, Jim gave Blair's hands a gentle squeeze to tell him that he wasn't being forward, as he so obviously feared.

Without hesitation, Minzimtah said, "Yes."

"How do you see your relation with humanity now, and where would you like to see it in the future?"

Jim listened to the hum of voices as the Elderkin present conferred, then Minzimtah said for all of them, "In the future we wish to be friends and allies, sharing common goals and beliefs. For now, unfortunately, Man is a troublesome, rowdy tenant who is just learning to respect the value of our shared property."

"Ah," Blair said thoughtfully, eyes on where his fingers clung to Jim's. "I think if you asked a human that, you'd get a blank stare. Most of the immigrants who came here were fleeing terrible situations, and were simply grateful for the refuge, and think little about their landlords. The next generation was concerned with simply continuing whatever their parents had established here. And for a very long time, now, you've controlled the influx of population so that the majority of the inhabitants were either one or the other."

Minzimtah gestured with a free hand, as if dismissing the policies that had been worked out so laboriously with the original settlers. "So those who came first could hand down their customs and knowledge on how to live well and prosper in this country, as well as prevent undesirables from entering under the guise of being simply another refugee."

Blair nodded his acceptance - and admiring approval - of the method. "But now we've grown to the point that we have an abundance of people who have never known tyranny or oppression. To them, the miseries of the Old World are ancient history, not how most of the world's population lives. They hear stories, read the news about how royalty lives and think it's exciting, filled with beauty and prestige, special treatment and attention, and wish they could be princes or princesses.

He paused, took a deep breath, and added as gently as Jim had ever heard him, "And you have been the bogeyman for them ever since they were small children. 'Do this, don't do that, or the Dragons will come and punish us all.' Few have seen you in person and know your character for themselves, or worse, they have witnessed a burning without understanding the why behind it. Or their parents lied to them, or they were simply so terrified that they don't feel any reason is good enough to call down the fire."

"So we are monsters to them, and they feel justified in acting monstrously so that they can 'improve' the successful, peaceful government that has held sway here for so long," Minzimtah said doubtfully, over the renewed murmur from the Assembly.

"It's also envy," Jim said, surprising even himself by speaking up. "Why should you have all the rights and privileges? They feel themselves worthy of the authority they perceive you as having, and must debase you in their minds to justify their own longing to be the ones in command."

Before the murmur could grow into outrage, Blair said sharply, "Like with Man's Curse, this affliction only troubles a few, and for the most part, they are ineffectual, harmful only to themselves. By far and large, the majority of humans here have the good sense to appreciate the freedom they live under."

"Now that we know dissent is beginning to rear its troublesome head, the liegemen can be on guard to deter it before more harm can be done," Jim said. "I daresay that the movement will not have the popular, if circumspect, support that revolution has in many other countries. Most are well aware how much better their circumstances are in the Americas."

"If I may be so bold," Blair said, then went on without waiting for permission, eagerness vibrating in his words. "I would like to suggest that the best course may also include a stronger, more positive Elderkin presence, especially in the larger cities where there are more young men and women of the impressionable age and temperament to be recruited by whoever is behind this libertarian faction."

"Disabuse them of the monstrous image being painted of us?" Minzimtah said doubtfully.

"At the very least, make yourselves available to the school children, perhaps the various faith groups." Blair practically bounced in place with enthusiasm for a pet project that Jim knew he had held close to his heart since they'd toured the schools for the High Court. "If they've seen you, perhaps even touched you, you may be frightening still, but beautiful and impressive, as well. It is a much better image for a human child to have of you."

Very, very gently, Incacha said, "As I have said before on this topic, Blair, we are long-lived, but not immortal. We may be killed as any living thing with heart, lungs, brain may be killed. And there are so many more of Man than there are of us, it would be easy to overwhelm one of us while we are on the ground. The risk is simply not worthwhile in our minds."

Stubbornly, Blair shook his head. "Friendship always has risks associated with it, but they are generally worth it. A bit of boldness on your part might well spare more heartbreak and grief in the future. Also, there are ways to minimize any threats, if you but ask your liegemen what could be done."

With great reluctance, Minzimtah said, "We will take your recommendation under consideration, if only because we know you have both ours and humanity's best interests at heart."

"He is a Student of Man," Jim said sharply. "Learned enough in his subject that the City Council of Cascade regularly asks his advice - and takes it. You should factor that into your decision."

Minzimtah sat up slowly, but Jim could not find it within himself to apologize for his tone. As liegeman, he could readily see the danger of having the Elderkin available for social contact. As Blair's sentinel, sworn or not, he could not let his guide be dismissed without the respect due him.

"As I said, we will take his advice under consideration," Minzimtah bit out. "In the meantime, I believe you have a cadre to uncover and justice to administer for the death of our little cousins. Ones, I might add, you have personally known since they were eggs. I should think that would be motivation enough for you to see to your duties with more than due diligence."

"Thank you, Madame," Blair put in hastily, but Jim only inclined his head in acknowledgment of both the order and the chastisement underneath it.

With no more than that, he and Blair were back at their camp, the flames leaping merrily as if to show that they hadn't been absorbed in their communication for very long. Slumping to the ground, shivering violently, Jim gathered Blair into his arms, turning him so that he faced the fire, back to his chest. His guide was half insensible from exhaustion, for which Jim was extremely grateful.

He was appalled how much of his heart he had shown both to his foster family and to Blair, but he had not honestly admitted to himself until that moment that Blair was far more to him than duty and obligation ever could be. He was lucky, so very lucky that all parties concerned had a great deal more on their minds than one love-sick sentinel, or he would be sitting alone now, stripped of both rank and Blair's company. Realizing that might well be his fate regardless, Jim lapsed into near unconsciousness himself, too weak to fight the wave of anguish consuming him.

***

Blair had no idea how long he lay staring sightlessly, mindlessly, at the dancing sparks making their way heavenward, but the icy cold that had overwhelmed him had begun to abate somewhat when he finally stirred. Not that he was warm, precisely, but he could do more than simply shudder and wish for the fortitude to pull his bedroll around himself. The meaning behind the mugs of heavily sugared tea that Jim had wisely left close to hand penetrated into his lethargy, and he forced himself to reach for the closest, imagining the comfort of the liquid seeping into him.

Clumsily, he wrapped his fingers around the heated metal, sighing at how very nice it felt. When he tried to direct it to his mouth to get more of himself around that goodness, Jim helped him steady it on its journey, holding the mug in place as Blair sipped. Savoring the flow of warmth, he nudged the tea upwards, tilting his head back to be sure that Jim took a portion for himself. He did, expression empty, his manner forbidding despite how tenderly he held Blair's hand cupped in his palm.

Remembering the naked emotions and thought revealed during testimony, Blair said as nonchalantly as he could manage through chattering teeth, "The hunter thought you lied to him, you know. He believed that he would die at your hands no matter what he said or did, which was why he became so desperate."

Obviously blind-sided by Blair's deliberately oblique approach, Jim said in surprise, "For what crime? As far as he knew, he'd done nothing to merit execution."

Chuckling, Blair said into his cup, "You are a lawman through and through, aren't you?"

"Your point, Student Sandburg?"

"That it never occurred to you that he wouldn't take you at your word. When you answered his questions honestly because you saw no reason not to, he assumed that you did so because he wouldn't live to tell anyone else." Blair drank the last of the tea and put that cup aside, lifting the other for Jim to sip.

Thoughtfully Jim did so, then said, "But none of my answers were particularly important or revealing, known by others here and there. You were able to discover how to preserve gettle scales, for instance."

"Juniper Midgeman, one of the local beekeepers, came to me when she learned I'd become the new wrangler." Blair smiled at the memory of the crusty, misanthropic woman." She was experienced enough with Wilson that she assumed I knew next to nothing about the trade, and was willing to teach me what she knew, claiming it was to benefit her own business."

Growing serious again, Blair dragged his bedding over the both of them as best he could, relieved he finally felt less frozen. "On the other hand, it is privileged knowledge, is it not, that even nesting gettles have no fear or concerns about Men. That is why you wished to be sure I knew the value of discretion."

"If they were to be hunted for the beauty of the scales, the softness of their hides, or simply because they are favored by the Elderkin, they would be extinct in very short order," Jim said tiredly, tucking a blanket closer around Blair's shoulders. "But I didn't think the hunter had made that connection; he believed he'd found a way to trick them into his traps."

"Still, you could not help but be relieved that his knowledge died with him - and that is why you are so unsure of your own actions during the struggle with him. Add to that the guilt you feel for not protecting those fledglings…" Blair paused, and added in the most caring, positive voice he could muster, "You should not bear the burden of responsibility for that man's death. Mad as he was, he made his own choices. The loss of the fledglings is a tragedy, but what justice that could be done for them has been done, and you will protect their kin by seeing to the end of that very generous bounty on gettles."

Jim was silent for so long that Blair began to think he would simply go to sleep without ever rebutting Blair's argument. Finally, he said, "I am not really anticipating much difficulty in finishing that task. There are no nests that close to human settlements - the three we planned to see to are the only ones within a reasonable riding distance any human populations in this region. While many people hunt, even explore the wilderness on a regular basis, there are not many who venture too deep into the Elderkin territories without pressing reasons."

"And those few would could not have been easily or safely approached by just anyone," Blair said, following his line of reasoning and allowing the change of topic.

With a shift of his weight as if to get comfortable, Jim put down the now empty cup and stirred the fire with a convenient stick. "The nearest town is Roscoe. If the hunter is licensed, as I suspect he is, we will be able to find his identity, and who his family and business contacts are. The trail begins there. That will be our destination on the morrow."

Unable to conceal his disappointment, Blair asked, "What about the last nest we were to see to?"

"That pair is in the molting phase of their mating and likely we would not have approached them too closely in any case. They tend to be irritable when shedding their skin." Jim said, trying for a placating tone. "And I believe the Elderkin will prefer to see to all the nests themselves, for a time at least."

Before the temper that suddenly flared could take voice, Blair was silenced by surprise when Incacha said, "That is no condemnation of James' abilities; merely prudence on our part. Extreme, perhaps, but it will be difficult to bear another loss." The great Dragon filtered through the trees surrounding them, scarcely disturbing a leaf despite his size.

Blinking, Blair admitted to himself he had never expected anything that massive to move so silently. Aloud, he said, "And imminently understandable, under the circumstances." Biting his tongue, he watched more Elderkin materialize from the night, moving toward the hunter's cabin.

Carefully curling around them so that his underbelly provided a wonderfully toasty backrest, Incacha said, "You need not stifle yourself so, Blair. My kinsmen are here to search the possessions of the hunter for whatever useful information he left behind, and to cleanse the filth of his presence from our forest."

"By burning?" Blair blurted, suddenly much more alert.

A small stream of smoke escaped the side of Incacha's muzzle. "Yes, but only what we wish to burn will burn. Tomorrow the evidence of the hunter's insanity will be ash and gone; nothing else."

"It's true," Jim said sleepily, pulling Blair closer to fit their bodies together. "Remember when I appeared from flame in Cascade?"

"Ah… I don't suppose…." Blair turned to his back to be able to see both Jim and Incacha. Jim had pillowed his head on his arm, and Incacha had his head resting on his tail just above him.

"On the morrow, Blair," Incacha nearly purred. "Now is the time for rest, not questions."

"Need to save a regulation amount of the furs," Jim inserted, nonsensically, to Blair's mind.

Blair started to argue with Incacha, but Jim was already asleep, face reflecting a measure of the repose he had enjoyed while in the Mammoth Valley. Thinking that it was probably because Incacha stood guard over them, Blair yawned unexpectedly. For a moment he felt the distinct sensation of a large hand spread gently over the cap of his skull, like a father blessing a small child. It was such a soothing, caring feeling that Blair gave up his battle to stay awake just to be able to carry it with him into dreams.

The next morning when he woke, a hearty breakfast was waiting for him, and there was no sign of the Elderkin, not even an impression in the ground around their camp. He would have been willing to believe that he'd imagined the entire conversation, but the stink of decay was gone, replaced by a much stronger smell of wood smoke than their small fire warranted. Jim was less tense and withdrawn than Blair had expected, as well.

Proof positive, though, stood in the form of the sorriest, ugliest looking nag that he'd ever seen, loaded to capacity with equally unappealing furs. Ften and Corvair were both eyeing the animal with what Blair was willing to call pity, but the beast ignored them completely, blithely chewing on whatever greenery it could find. Wondering at its disposition, Blair scooped up a handful of the oats that had made that morning's meal to approach the newcomer, stopping in his tracks when it glared, actually glared at him balefully.

"I don't think it likes us," he said uncertainly.

Rubbing at a spot on his upper arm, Jim said, "I'm sure of it, though it may simply be in a temper still because of how the Elderkin corralled it until it was loaded. That or its former master chose it based on compatibility of character."

"What will we do with it?" Blair asked doubtfully, as he was fairly sure that selling it would not be an option.

"We look for the hunter's heirs, and it becomes their problem." Jim hefted a bag about the size of a ripe apple, making the coins inside it jingle. "Along with this, which was hidden in the cabin. Nothing else useful was found. No books, no papers, no portraits or mementos of any sort. The clothing found was all old, in poor repair, as were all the other goods in the place. The man's only indulgence seems to have been food; he had a good store of staples laid by. They've been cached for later retrieval, if desired."

Packing up his bedroll, Blair shook his head. "We're two days from Roscoe. I wouldn't think it would be worth the trouble. Why not bring it, instead of those poor excuses for furs?"

"The furs give us good reason to question those the hunter had business with," Jim said absently, tidying up the campsite in preparation for leaving. "I'll speak to the sheriff to give a report on the man's passing, then to the local bank manager - Roscoe is small, but they do have one - all in the guise of looking for the heirs."

"You should speak to the postmaster as well," Blair said, starting the process of saddling Corvair. "If the hunter has been in contact with anyone by post or the town's wireless, he or she would know. Given that he's deceased, the information shouldn't be considered confidential any longer. Somehow I doubt that this conspiracy has its roots in remote, rural towns like Roscoe, though. It would take the combined wealth of more than one family to provide that bounty, and the larger towns are home to such as those."

"That will be your task," Jim said, doing the same with Ften. "Along with the owner of the Trading Post. He has the most contact with teamsters, mountain men, other hunters - the sort of people who travel through on a regular basis."

"Whoever recruited the hunter has to have known him for some time." Blair examined his tack, resolving to give it a good oiling that evening. "Long enough to be certain that he was the sort who would not balk at hurting a gettle and possibly bringing down the wrath of the Elderkin on themselves."

"As the man was not quite sane," Jim mused. "it could be his recruiter played on that, but, yes, it's not a topic of conversation one introduces at a first meeting over brews and a meal." He shrugged. "Speculation is fairly useless; better to wait until we reach Roscoe and learn more about him."

Despite that decision, they couldn't help but return to the subject over and over during the ride to Roscoe, the un-named horse plodding along behind them at the very end of its lead, dragging its hooves every step of the way. Jim had difficulty accepting that people born and raised in the Americas would turn against the Elderkin for any reason except greed and lust for power. Somewhat surprisingly, he was not convinced the science of Psychology was as yet very useful.

They debated the topic hotly, entertainingly, as they did so many issues, and the miles accumulated steadily. When conversation lagged, a comfortable silence sat with them, giving rise to Blair's hope that Jim had forgiven himself for the self-perceived fault of failing the fledglings. It also gave birth to his own first honest, clear-eyed admission that the Elderkin could be as fallible as humanity. The use of Jim's guilt to lash him for standing up for Blair spoke more of their own grief at the loss than compassion for the person who had discovered it.

He didn’t want to look too clearly at why his heart had trembled in his chest when Jim had done so. Surely liegemen and Elderkin disagreed regularly, given how strong-willed both were. That was all it was - Jim voicing his own opinion, which happened to support Blair's stance. That's all.

The closer they were to Roscoe, the more Jim reverted back to the somber lawman most saw, and Blair slipped easily into his role of aid-de-camp. Jim told him what he knew of the inhabitants and the local politics, as well as the layout of the three thousand-plus town. Though they both went to the sheriff's office, Blair only stayed as long as the introductions took. They both wanted to outrun rumor and gossip before it could distort the facts.

Blair's visit to the post office netted a long, friendly conversation with the station mistress and the information that the hunter was, from the description, one Anderson Joilet and that he had never used her services. Tucking straggling locks back into her iron gray bun, she shared that the town didn't need the wireless that often, mostly to keep current on events, but that the mail service did steady business. After giving her his version of the High Court in Cascade, which she said had been the major news on the wireless, country-wide, since it happened, Blair made his way to the trading post, mildly bemused at being famous, after a fashion.

The owner of the store didn't seem to be surprised that Joilet had met his end violently; it was his opinion that he'd become more and more unhinged with each passing year. He did mention that Joilet had been in earlier than his usual for one of his three times a year visits - almost a month early, though he'd stayed his normal two days. As far as the shopkeeper knew, Joilet had no family, and no friends locally, though he did pay a call at the local bawdy house each time he was in town.

Anticipating Jim's dry reaction at being told they had to chat with the local ladies of the evening, Blair went back to the sheriff's office, only to stop beside the hitching post. If Joilet stayed at least a night, he'd have to put up his horse. The owner of the stable/blacksmith shop he had seen while walking through Roscoe might be another source of information about Joliet. And he could turn the care of the man's nag over to someone else. Not to mention, he had hopes of a roof and bed for the night for himself, so stabling all the horses was a good idea.

Pausing only long enough to tell the sheriff where he could be found, Blair headed to the stables, letting Ften and Corvair trail behind him, expecting to practically push Joilet's nag. Instead, once the animal saw where it was headed, it nearly dragged Blair the rest of the way to the barn. It no sooner cleared the doors when it whinnied a happy greeting and was met with a delighted cry of "Daisy!"

Once inside himself, Blair found the recalcitrant beast being fed an apple and petted by a massive man with the burly chest of a blacksmith, and a bush of unruly hair as red as if it came from his forge. He looked at Blair and said suspiciously, "How did you come by this horse?"

Giving him the simplified version of events that he and Jim had agreed upon as appropriate for public consumption, Blair finished with, "We're looking for his heirs, so we might need to stable - did you say her name was Daisy? - for the long term."

"Good riddance to bad rubbish," the smithy said. "Eric Lederstrom, by the way, and don't expect me to mourn that man." He nodded at the furs still stacked on Daisy. "Those are too shabby and damaged to be worth much, not that he cared. He just liked to kill. And don't you worry about Daisy, here. I'll take her and give market value to anyone who has claim."

Eyeing the way the horse leaned on him, not that he seemed to notice the extra weight at all, Blair lifted his hands in supplication. "Please, be my guest. She certainly seems more inclined toward your company than ours. I've been thinking that was a reflection of Joilet's personality."

"More a reflection of the ill treatment she's had all her life. Joilet got her from a teamster when she was too broken down to pull a wagon any longer. He paid so little for her, guess he figured that if she only lasted a year or two hauling his goods that he'd make his money back. Did, and then some." He stroked her nose lovingly. "Old girl is too stubborn to just give up and die."

Ears pricking at the mention of teamsters, Blair asked nonchalantly, "He was friendly with drivers? That's a fairly tight knit group."

Lederstrom snorted. "If that means they keep to themselves, yeah, but Joilet used to be one before he got fed up with people. 'Bout the only ones he could stand, too. I'd see him talking to the drivers once in a while in the camps they'd set up outside town to avoid paying stable fees for the teams. I'd go out to shoe this horse or that, or to fix a wheel rim."

There it was, Blair realized, trying not to show his excitement. If you want to send messages without going through official, noticeable channels, a teamster might carry a note for you without asking for much in return, if you were of the same breed. Forcefully bringing his attention back to the smithy, he said, "Speaking of business - can you store the hides, too, until a legal decision is made? They may not be worth much in that condition, but the dispersion of them is not in our hands."

"They'll do well enough in the tack room," Lederstrom said, giving Daisy a friendly shove toward a stall. "Putting up your horses, too?" He approached Ften, patting his flank admiringly. "Fantastic bit of horseflesh here."

"Yes, for at least one night. Please don't close the gate on him. Ften won't stray, but he will kick it down if you try to shut him in." Blair gave his own horse a stroke along the nose. "Corvair, here, on the other hand, is too placid to care one way or the other. He'll stay wherever you put him."

"Much as I don't mind getting my hands on quality beasts like this, it's extra for me to groom them," Lederstrom said with what sounded like honest regret.

"No, I'll do that and take care of our gear, too. Where do you want them?"

Before long Corvair had been given a clean stall in the back away from the drafts, with plenty of fresh straw. After a good brushing, Blair went to see to Ften, not that he felt he had to tend to Jim's steed for him, but because he honestly liked the horse. Besides, grooming was a very meditative activity, and Blair had a great deal to think about.

Teamsters might not only be a good way to send messages without attracting too much attention, Blair mused, hands busy with brushes, since deliveries were such a common sight in any community of any size. They may well also be a prime target for those wishing to sow dissention, as they are restricted in their routes by Elderkin laws on where to build roads and what areas are available for settling. Nor are they particularly fond of the competition given to them by the gettles, though in general gettles carry a different sort of freight entirely. Still, they could see the Elderkin's championing of their little cousins as a direct insult to their abilities and profession.

The theory rang well with what he knew of the rough, independent men who commonly spent weeks, even months on the roads between villages and towns. Yet he….

A man came into the stall, interrupting Blair's thoughts and for some inexplicable reason sending a frisson of alarm down his spine. Regardless, he put on a cheerful expression. "Yes, may I help you?"

"Student Sandburg, I've been looking forward to meeting you for some time," he said a fraction of a shade too heartily to Blair's ear. "I'm Garret Kincaid, and I own the freight line that services this part of the Northwest."

Removing the currying brush from his right hand, Blair leaned over barely enough to shake Kincaid's offered hand and immediately went back to tending Ften. "What can I do for you, sir?"

"Actually, it's what I would like to do for you that has had me searching for the opportunity to speak with you. You, sir, are a very popular man in Cascade. I haven't been able to create an opportunity to introduce myself, let alone schedule a meeting. Your open door policy is very laudable, but it does cause some difficulties for observing proper social amenities. There are always so many desperate, unhappy souls waiting at your offices."

Ften stirred restlessly during Kincaid's long speech, giving Blair an excuse to keep his eyes on the horse and let the sound wash over him. Though the tone and the words were innocuous enough, the content right for the overture of a new acquaintance, there was something under them that warned Blair what Kincaid's true attitude was. He was offended that he had not been given preferential treatment; that Blair had not been instantly and easily available at his convenience.

Blair had more than enough experience with people who thought themselves too important to be treated like everyone else to know better than to defend himself or the policies of the Liegeman's Office in Cascade. Instead he said mildly, "You're a resident of Cascade, then, sir?"

Clearly nonplused at the unexpected response, Kincaid said tightly, "Yes, I maintain a home there and in Thompson, the other terminus of my freight line." He recovered quickly, and added more charmingly, "I was there during the rather exciting events in Cascade last year."

"Do you have an injustice that needs addressed, then, and missed the opportunity during the Court?" Blair did his best to convey the impression that was the only reason anyone should need to seek him out. "In that case, it is most fortunate that we are both in Roscoe on business."

"Yes, yes it is." It was more difficult for Kincaid to return to his amiable air, this time, but he summoned a smile. "As you must have pressing duties, I will state my case simply. I represent a consortium of business men who are terribly impressed with the acumen and perception you used in the aid of establishing the new council in Cascade. The idea that every citizen should be able to make a suggestion on how to be governed, using their signature beside their name on the voting roles to prevent ballot box stuffing, was particularly inspired."

"The final solution of a rotating Council was well worth the headache of sorting through the suggestions and tallying them for the public referendum for the top three," Blair agreed noncommittally. It actually hadn't been his idea, but the Elderkin's, though he had been the one to propose it to the ad hoc committee.

"I'm sure most would agree with you." Again, Blair seemed to hear what Kincaid hadn't said, but thought - he wasn't one of those who did. "That is why our group would like to support you for one of the remaining Council seats. I'm aware there are several excellent contenders for it already, but we feel that you are the most suitable person for the position, and anticipate that will be the public opinion as well."

Dumbfounded, Blair stopped brushing Ften, automatically stepping deeper into the stall to put his back to a wall. The proposition that he run for office had been mentioned to him on more than one occasion - usually facetiously, always well-meant. No matter how genuine the intent, however, he had been sincere - and usually laughingly vocal - in his refusal to consider the notion. Politics was a game he played currently out of necessity, not choice, and not one he wanted to devote his life to. To this moment he'd believed that a five year old playing kick the can in the street would know that Student Sandburg had no goal but the good of the city and his professorial cap.

Nor was he fool enough to think that if he could be persuaded to take Kincaid's offer that it would come without conditions. Ones that he suspected wouldn't be revealed until he was too involved to refuse. Blair's unease at Kincaid's unexpected and all-too-timely appearance increased. Acting as if his withdrawal had been to consider the offer, he returned to currying Ften.

"I admit, that idea has been bandied about now and again by myself and my friends," he admitted with what he hoped appeared to be disarming honesty. "Often enough that I have considered what I might do if the opportunity seriously arose. For that reason, I can say without worry of later regret, thank you, but no. I find being in the public eye in the manner of a politician… tiresome. I have my own peccadilloes, my own private, ah, habits, that I do not wish to have held up to public scrutiny."

Kincaid started to speak, but Blair held up a brush-covered hand. "In addition, I have devoted a great deal of time and effort to obtaining my professorial cap, sir. To leave the task undone so close to completion would make a waste of those years of scholastic dedication, and disappoint the many people who aided and supported me in that endeavor. The work I have already submitted, preliminary though it is, has already met such great approval from my advisors and teachers that I am assured of my place at Rainier when I return."

Giving the impression that he was as astonished by Blair's refusal as Blair had been by his proposal, Kincaid said almost automatically, "I'm sure that your popularity is such that any small transgressions on your part will be easily forgiven." He regained his confidence as he spoke, and went on with more surety, "And those who were instrumental in assisting your pursuit of your education will understand that the best of opportunities arose for you. Indeed, if it had not been for your academic endeavors, you would have never come to the place where you are now."

"Perhaps." Blair met Kincaid's eyes squarely for the first time since introducing himself. "However, you are overlooking the heart of the matter. I do not wish to serve in public office. I want my degree, my studies, my classroom."

Blair had to give Kincaid credit. He had the sense to see when the battle was lost and the skill to retreat gracefully to consider other methods to win the war. Beaming at Blair charmingly, he said, "The consortium will be extremely disappointed, but I'm sure they will wish you all the best in your academic undertakings. Rest assured that I do so, myself. It is… admirable that you know your own mind so clearly and have the fortitude to hold to your convictions."

"Thank you. If your consortium still wishes to support a candidate, I can give a fairly comprehensive account of the particulars of all in the running," Blair offered graciously, though what he truly wished was for the man to be gone.

To his dismay, Kincaid stepped closer, almost into Blair's personal space, much to Ften's whinnied discomfort. Eyeing the horse warily, he said, "I have to admit to disappointment that we won't be able to share a working relationship. You strike me as being very pleasant and entertaining companion. Perhaps you would honor me by joining me for dinner this evening? The local salon is crude but provides a palatable fare."

The prickle of apprehension grew to a shudder that Blair forced himself to contain. Regardless, he said with a socially acceptable air of insincere regret, "I fear I have chores aplenty this day. Perhaps another time."

Dryly, Kincaid said, drawing a rustled snort from Ften, "So I see."

Without a trace of defensiveness, Blair said, "I am not required to see to Ften. I choose to do so because it is a task I take satisfaction in, and I like the animal. Admittedly my labors are so varied from day to day that I have surrendered any possibility of anticipating them, but this small thing is one that at least bears immediate and obvious results."

"Why is it that I think you enjoy the inconsistency, as well?" Kincaid inched closer. "Is that what pleases you about being a companion to Ellison? The unpredictability of what he may demand from you at any given time? Or is he as stolid and predictable in private matters as he is in his public role?"

Refusing to retreat, much as he wanted far more space between them, Blair held onto his level tone. "Our personal relationship is just that - personal. You are not well acquainted enough with me to be treading on such intimate grounds."

Kincaid looked him over with a boldness that belonged in the bathhouses or a dark alley, not broad daylight where any biddy might see. "I would like to become far better acquainted. Surely a little dalliance can't hurt. It's not as if you're Ellison's sworn guide."

Startled and dismayed by how much that reminder hurt, Blair shook his head. "No, I am not. Yet I am again forced to say thank you, but, no. I have given my word that I will aid the liegemen in all that he does until I am summoned back to Academia. It is a matter of trust and honor that he be the sole recipient of my attentions until that time."

With a smile that bordered on evil, Kincaid casually ran his hand over Blair's hair in the back. "How amusing to hear a bastard guttersnipe talk of honor and trust. As if Ellison expects anything of you except an available receptacle for his lusts."

Jerking away, Blair said with unfelt calm, "You overstep yourself, sir. Whatever my origins, which I have never made a secret of, if you think to use that as leverage against me, I know how to conduct myself like a gentleman. I will not be an oath breaker; certainly not for a tumble in the hay with one who has no respect for either my person or my position."

"Is that how you want to play it?" Kincaid said nastily. "I thought only women were fond of protesting their virtue so that they could have what they needed without taking responsibility for it." He crowded Blair against the wall, rubbing against him lewdly. "I am more than willing to oblige you. Shall I tell you what a dirty little slut you are as I use you?"

Caught with his arms between them, Blair jabbed up with the currying brushes, rapping Kincaid sharply on the chin. It couldn't have hurt that much, but it did startle him into moving back a step. Dropping the brushes, Blair snatched up a pitchfork that was propped in the corner and held it prongs up, near to his chest so that it couldn't be taken away without getting close enough to be punctured by it. Cursing, Kincaid punched at him, but Blair had enough room now to duck, though he had to resist the urge to stab at Kincaid to force him away.

With a loud whinny, Ften butted Kincaid in the shoulder, knocking him toward the opening to the stall. He put himself between Blair and Kincaid, snorting and pawing at the ground. Kincaid stumbled back, reaching for his gun.

"Easy, boy, easy," Blair said, patting Ften's flank. "He's not so stupid he'll hurt a war horse without witnesses to claim you weren't provoked into an attack."

The warning pulled Kincaid up short, mouth twisted in something between a snarl and a wince. Probably thinking he could intimidate the horse, Kincaid shouted and slapped at Ften. All that earned him was a massive hoof planted delicately on his foot and a look of what could only be described as disdain, amusing Blair to no end.

Yowling in pain, Kincaid reached for his gun again, but Jim said quietly, "I would not do that unless you want that foot crushed beyond repair." He elbowed past Kincaid, reaching for Ften's head to fondle his ears. "Good boy, good boy. You can let him go now."

Nickering in obvious pleasure, Ften shifted so that Jim could get past him, then planted his head in the middle of Kinchaid's chest and pushed him toward the stable door. Given the man's arrogance and belligerence, Blair was surprised when Kincaid left, not running, but moving as fast as his aching foot would let him. Jim slanted a look at his back as he went, frowning, but didn't say anything. He dug a maple sugar cube out of his belt pouch and fed it to Ften, murmuring at him approvingly.

Reaction set in, and Blair carefully put the pitchfork back where it belonged, leaning on the wall to steady himself. "Good boy, indeed, Ften. Thank you."

Giving the horse a last, loving pat, Jim gingerly took Blair by the arm and pulled him into a full-body hug. All Blair could do was hang on for dear life and shake, face buried against Jim's chest. It was not the first time a man larger and stronger than himself had attempted to take what should only be given willingly. And Blair had come away from this encounter none the worse for wear, which was more than he could say about a few when he had been younger.

It was the first time, however, that he had the luxury of protection while he confronted the horror that had nearly overtaken him. The first time he had the compassion of one who had been a victim himself, and knew the price paid for courage and resolve in the face of humanity's worst behavior. He had the safety needed to let the aftermath of terror drain from him without fear of censure or exposure. Until this moment he had never realized exactly how precious that security could be.

From far away he felt himself in motion, steps guided by Jim's arm over his shoulders. He would have pulled away, arranged his features to neutral civility to face his fellow pedestrians, but Jim kept him close, whispering that he would make certain their passage would be unseen. Blair stammered a thank you, ashamed that it came out in a half-sob, not that Jim seemed to notice or care.

To Blair's surprise, Jim led him away from the main street, toward the outskirts of town. Nightfall was rapidly approaching, drawing welcome shadows over both of them as the quiet hush of the back lanes replaced the bustle and clatter of Roscoe. Much as Blair had looked forward earlier to a proper bed and meal, he anticipated the solitude of a campsite with a great deal of relief.

Instead of walking deeper into the surrounding woods, however, Jim took him to a large Victorian style house set at the very end of a small cul-de-sac. Blair would have balked at entering, but Jim said quietly, "It's a small boarding house with a public bath attached. I've reserved a private bath for us, and we can go directly to our quarters by the back stairs without the need to enter the communal rooms at all."

"Oh, thank every holy thing," Blair said, picking up speed. "At the moment the prospect of washing away all traces of that, that fiend, is more heartening than a shot of strong brandy could be."

"I don't know; the brandy might put some color back in your face." Jim hesitated as they went up the back steps. "You defended yourself magnificently, but I worry that he was able to do more than offend you. Are you hurt?"

Finding a smile, wan though it was, Blair shook his head. "I'll not be needing your healing skills. Just what you've already provided so willingly - your kindness."

"You draw that from me quite effortlessly." Jim knocked and went in at the call to do so, not allowing Blair the opportunity to comment on his startling compliment.

He navigated them through the preliminaries, speaking with the woman who owned the establishment to confirm their particulars, arranging for towels, soap, laundering of their clothes, and other necessities. In remarkably short order Blair had scrubbed down from a basin before settling into a huge claw-footed tub, up to his chin in hot water, Jim behind him for a back support. A cold beer sat in a tall glass on a stool beside them on the right; a small brazier on the left held a pot with more hot water to freshen the bath if they wished.

It was, Blair decided, a much better ending to the day than he'd expected when Kincaid had invaded it. Before that memory could undo the magic of the hot soak, Jim took a small cup and scooped up some water to trickle over Blair's head. Though it would have been more efficient for Blair to simply duck under to wet his hair, Jim slowly, carefully washing it for him was far too sensuous and relaxing an experience to even suggest it. He melted against Jim, letting him move his head this way and that, eyes closed to savor the occasion.

After the last rinse, Jim reached for a small hand towel, folded it onto his chest for Blair to rest against, and took up his straight razor. He held it up questioningly, and Blair simply lifted his chin in answer. If the shampooing had left him boneless with repose, the shave lifted him into bliss. The slick foam of shaving soap, the hot glide of steel over cheek and jaw and throat, the sure touch of Jim's fingers as he guided the blade - it all combined to create an erotic moment that left him achingly ready for whatever Jim wished of him.

When Jim urged him into sitting up, Blair left the tub eagerly, using the hand towel to absorb what was left of the water in his hair. Tossing it aside, he commandeered the big bath sheet, intending to use it on Jim as enticingly as Jim had used the razor on him. Before he could, Jim cupped Blair's face in gentle palms, staring into his eyes.

"That's better," Jim murmured. "I didn't think that vile excuse for a man could do more than dent your spirit temporarily, but it seemed he had more of an impact than I expected when I heard him approach you."

"You listened to us?" Blair said in surprise.

"I listened for you," Jim corrected. "I always do. Not to your words; I would not invade your privacy in such a manner. But I cannot help but hear your voice and what is in it - wonder, pleasure, anger, fear. In this case, the tone was so wrong from the beginning, I cut short my conversation with the Senior City Council member to go to the stable."

"Oh." Blair considered that, twisting the hem of the towel as he wondered if he should be annoyed or discomfited by such close attention from a sentinel. It didn't feel like an intrusion, though. It felt like the touch of his mother's lips to his forehead; the firm clasp of Dr. Stoddard's hand in his when he achieved his journeyman status.

"Oh," Blair repeated, breathily. "That's…."

"I mean no harm by it," Jim apologized instantly, "I…."

Blair leaped onto him, trusting those quick reflexes and powerful muscles to catch him. "Fantastic," he finished before sealing his mouth to Jim's.

Arms tight around Jim's neck, legs wrapped around his waist, Blair plunged his tongue in to duel with Jim's in a lively battle that both won in pure joy and desire. With a soft cry deep in his throat, Jim cupped Blair's bottom to hold him in place and walked to their room, the gentle rocking motion from his steps tantalizing the heated lengths growing between them. Blair was barely aware of the door kicked, first open, then shut, and the forgotten towel clutched in one fist dropped from where Jim had draped it protectively around them for the brief journey to privacy.

Jim sat on the edge of the bed, giving Blair the freedom to do more than be carried. Blair bucked, hard, the moisture from their bath providing a slippery surface to ease the way as he blindly sought to pleasure them both. Tearing his lips away to give them breath, Jim murmured endearments and let him ride so that he set the pace and rhythm, but adding his own embellishments. A nip at the curve of Blair's shoulder, determined suckling of his earlobe, a lascivious lick over both nipples - all sent delightful pangs through Blair, centering in his groin to add to the pressure of his need for release.

As good as it was, Blair wanted more and toppled Jim onto his back so Jim could bring his hands into play while Blair braced himself on his knees and forearms, fingers holding Jim's head in place for more strong, penetrating kisses. With an abandon he didn't recognize in himself, Blair drove them both toward climax, glorying in Jim's uninhibited responses. He pinched and twisted the nubs on Blair's chest with just the right force to make them ache wonderfully, scratched lightly over his calves which sent fire along his nerves, and kneaded his ass cheeks, all the while whispering, 'good, so good,' between kisses.

Finally he slipped the forefingers of either hand along the cleft of Blair's backside, probing delicately at the rosy bud hidden in the center. "Jim! Oh… that's…"

"Yes, yes. Spend for me. Bring us, Blair. Now, now, now…."

With each chant of the word, Jim thrust into him with first one finger, then the other, in a maddening tempo that built until both were in him at once, filling him magnificently. Just as he thought that he could endure no more, Jim found the small nub buried in the wall of Blair's channel, massaging it with deft fingertips. Screaming, Blair did as commanded and finished, his urgency carrying Jim with him in hard spasms of muscle and shaft.

Body trembling, Jim held him close and scattered pecking kisses every where he could reach, but all Blair could do was cling to him, mind tossed about by the shocks of his release. They faded oh, so gradually, leaving him more at peace than he would have thought possible immediately after Kincaid had accosted him. Pushing that thought away, he clumsily helped Jim tidy them both up before crawling under the covers with him and curled along his side, head on Jim's shoulder.

Even the memory of Kincaid couldn't be pushed away that easily, however, and Blair sighed in exasperation at himself. He said as much to Jim, and ended, "I don't understand his persistence. First he attempted to seduce me away from you with status and money, then with charm and flattery, and finally tried to despoil me. To what purpose? It's not as if I'm required for you to function well as sentinel and liegeman."

"First," Jim said firmly, "He would not have 'despoiled' you, he would have hurt you, and for that alone, I would make him suffer. But you would have healed, and I would never disparage you for being grievously wounded. Secondly, if you did choose to pursue other interests, it could be made to reflect badly on myself and the Elderkin - as if you'd lost trust in us."

Before Blair could protest, Jim hugged him and kissed his forehead. "I know that you would never permit that view to be put forth. Finally, I think it may be a case of him taking any opportunity to forward his own interests. I tracked him with Hearing after he left the barn, and his first destination was the sheriff's office where he tried to convince the man that I murdered Joilet for his money."

Snorting in derision, Blair said, "Please tell me the sheriff had the good sense to ask why we would have bothered to inform him of the hunter's death if that were the case. It's not as if anyone would have ever known of his demise, given how deep in the wilderness Joilet lived."

"Not to mention we brought in his assets to be held for his heirs. Upon being informed of that, Kincaid immediately tried to press a claim on the funds, but was told that without a signed contract or similar proof, he would have to bring the matter before the judge. Given that unclaimed inheritances become property of the town and are placed in the accounts used for education, he would have to have exceptional documentation to convince the local court. Kincaid was not pleased."

Jim's voice turned thoughtful."According to those I spoke with, Kincaid is very nearly the only person that Joilet ever socialized with, however seldom and fleetingly."

"Of course!" Blair leaned up on an elbow to look down into Jim's face. "Teamsters! Kincaid runs a freight line." Quickly he told Jim about his earlier speculations.

Frowning, Jim brushed a stray lock of hair back behind Blair's ear. "That does place a different perspective on his behavior at the barn. If he could turn you to his cause, however superficially, many people who have come to respect your opinion could possibly be persuaded to listen to his blandishments upon learning of your association."

"So his strategy was to win me over or discredit me." Blair shook his head. "It disturbs me that he was that prepared for what was supposedly a chance encounter. Who besides the Elderkin and liegemen know your accustomed route for seeing to the gettle nesting sites?"

Expression distant, treating the last question as rhetorical, Jim said, "I believe we may have stumbled over more than a new variation on anti-government conspiracy here. What precisely, I am not sure, but Kincaid warrants a closer inspection. I overheard him make plans to leave for Cascade in the morning. Perhaps we should depart before him and discover who he meets with during his travels."

"And introduce ourselves to as many of the teamsters we encounter as we can," Blair added thoughtfully."To date, they have no reason to feel they have the ear of those who create policy. A few miles shared or perhaps an evening beside their campfire could provide the beginning of a new dialogue with them."

Tugging a blanket up over them, Jim shifted slightly, aligning Blair more perfectly along his side. "And here I was anticipating a long, leisurely trek back to Cascade with no company but yours."

"As was I." Blair grinned to himself. "Are you certain that you wish to spend our last private hours together for some weeks merely sleeping?"

Rising over him in a fascinatingly quick and graceful move, Jim said huskily, "You have, as always, determined the perfect question for the situation."

Any comment that Blair might have made to that observation was lost as Jim put his mouth to more pertinent uses.

As days passed while they ambled ahead of Kincaid, confident that it would never occur to the villain that a sentinel could track him as easily from the forefront as from the rear, Blair had reason to be very grateful they had that night alone. Once the word spread up and down the road that a liegeman, the liegeman of Cascade and his Student companion were seeing to the welfare and concerns of the teamsters, they were seldom without the companionship of others. While Jim's approach was hardly welcome, at first, his direct manner and honest appreciation of the hardships the freighters and couriers faced often broke the path for them. More than once a simple query about the bloodlines of their horses, or an off-hand comment on Ften's strengths in comparison to their draught animals served as an opening gambit for conversation.

Within the first week Blair was certain that they had discovered a festering problem and lanced it with the application of genuine interest in those involved. From Jim's reports of Kincaid's meetings along the way, however, Kincaid wasn't aware of the renewed allegiance to Elderkin laws and governing among the teamsters. Part of that was pure arrogance from the man, Blair thought, but most of it was that his cronies were dedicated to hatred and the belief of human superiority. The opinion of others outside their insular group was inconsequential, as far as they were concerned. The solution to Kincaid's form of patriotism, he and Jim soon realized, did not lie within educating or persuading the majority of drivers.

That did not mean they could turn their back on the needs of the hearty men and women who were the life blood of trade in America. Shockingly, once informed of their activities and the reasoning behind it, the Elderkin Brotherhood became actively involved in finding solutions for the teamster's difficulties. At a large gathering that accumulated when unexpectedly heavy rains for several days washed away a good section of road, Incacha himself entered the makeshift camp to participate in the discussion of what could be done to aid in emergencies such as the flood. In Blair's quietly held opinion, the positive, enthusiast response to the dragon's involvement proved his point that the Elderkin needed to be more visible in the governing of their 'tenants.'

Still, all in all, Blair could not help but be grateful when the skyline of Cascade appeared on the horizon. He was more than ready for the comfort of their rooms and the uninterrupted privacy they provided. Perhaps, if he were truly fortunate, their absence would have provided the motivation needed for others to be less dependent on their services, giving them more time to share with each other.

Within a few miles of the city limits, though, his enthusiasm for being home waned considerably. The wind was not with them, and the sheer, unadulterated stink of so many humans living in such close quarters hit his nose hard. Despite city sewage reclamation, composting, and all the other efforts to keep Cascade clean, the best Blair could do was remind himself that the stench wasn't as bad as say, London or Rome.

Wrapping a kerchief over his lower face, he looked at Jim. "How do you stand it?"

"Training," Jim said shortly, giving Blair a clear indication of how difficult the smell was for him.

That didn't stop Jim from nudging Ften into motion, as if his eagerness for hearth and home overrode his distaste for its current location. Unfortunately, as the stink increased, so did the noise, to the point that Blair would have happily ridden with his fingers in his ears if he could have managed. Jim's lips tightened into a white line, but he didn't tarry.

The combination made Blair long for the clean, quiet glacier valley, and the epiphany that set off all but unseated him from Corvair.

While in the valley Jim had been relaxed, happy, full of a vive le joie that was nearly contagious. Blair had attributed his healthy appetites for food and intimacy to the honeymoon-like solitude, but what if had been the valley itself? What if the valley was more than a sanctuary for endangered species? What if it were a sanctuary for sentinels?

Blair ran the tally through his mind quickly. The cabin had been well protected; no need to be on guard. Its appointments had been indulgently luxurious, despite the great labor it must have taken to accomplish that in such a remote location. Food had been focused on pleasant tastes, furnishings on agreeable textures, the natural surroundings would have provided only soothing sounds, the air clear and easy for eyes and nose. All five senses had been provided the best environment possible.

Stealing a quick glance at his companion, Blair understood finally how difficult man's civilization had to be for sentinels. On one level of his mind, he had always known that, of course. How could he not as he drew Jim away from being Lost in one sense or another, or aided him in coping with an overwhelming sensory assault? Now, though, he felt it to the bone of himself. More, he comprehended fully why the Elderkin had encouraged Jim to take on even a temporary guide rather than leave him to cope on his own with a city as large as Cascade.

That was why Jim's public persona held such stoic reserve and why Blair had seen more and more of it as the months accumulated after the court. Blair had spent so much effort on the concerns and problems of other people that he had not given enough attention to the man to whom he had originally promised his aid in the first place. And Jim, of course, had not complained as he believed duty to Cascade was all.

No more, Blair swore to himself. The citizens had many to oversee their needs. Jim had only Blair, with what small help Incacha and Ften could provide while he in was in the city proper.

With that promise firmly in mind, he reached across to where Jim's hand lay clenched on the pommel of his saddle. Thumb tracing small circles over the pulse point in the wrist, one of Jim's favorite caresses, Blair said with hastily summoned nonchalance, "Rather than try to find provisions to restock the kitchen when we arrive, why not dine at Malcom's this evening? The better produce and groceries are found early in the morning at the market, besides, and whatever trail supplies are left can do for breakfast tomorrow."

He grinned mischievously at the raised eyebrow Jim directed his way. "Why yes, I am plotting to get you alone as quickly as possible. I am thinking that the first edge of lust can be sated while we bath, and then a far more leisurely and thorough bout can serve as the perfect nightcap."

"Kincaid," Jim began.

"Is several hours behind us at this point, and he's already spoken to all the teamsters on the road between us and him. If he does not spend the night in one of their camps, he will arrive late enough that he will likely go directly to his own house. If you are truly worried, we can send a messenger to Simon to ask him to have a patrol watch for anyone late hour visitors. They would likely notice, in any case."

"Banks…."

"Is expecting us when he sees us. Any matter of serious import that he may have for us has waited this long; it can wait until tomorrow.

Bemusedly, Jim said, "Any point that I might raise in opposition, you already have an rationale to cover, do you not?"

"Well, there is one point in particular that I wish to have covered in a specific manner, but yes, that is likely," Blair shot back cheerfully.

"Is that the only… item you expressly wish tended to?" Jim said so mildly that Blair almost missed the flash of humor in his eyes.

"Now that you mention it, I believe that merely covering it may not be adequate to the need, but I trust you to be able to satisfy the specifics in the long term."

Laughing, Jim answered him with an equally innuendo-filled quip, starting them on a bawdy, teasing conversation lasted until they reached the stables, the reek and racket of Cascade obscured under their humor and camaraderie. Once the horses had been seen to, and the saddle bags carried upstairs, they both washed off the worst of the trail dust from their face and hands. Blair persuaded Jim to remove his uniform and don a casual suit, doing the same himself, in hopes that he could encourage an 'off duty' attitude for a while longer.

With that in mind, he approached the maitre de at Malcom's while Jim paid the cabby, requesting that Jim be granted the courtesies of a gentleman while they dined, and left in peace. Somewhat to his surprise, the maitre de was more than willing. Apparently Cascade's last liegeman had already informally established the custom of being addressed and treated as 'Sir,' when not in uniform. Making a mental note to speak with Incacha to find who else would have known the late liegemen well enough to provide for the particular needs of sentinels, Blair settled in for a pleasant evening.

The fare at Malcom's was plain, catering to those with an appetite as opposed to those who sought high cuisine and a social atmosphere. Despite that, many of those well-known in Cascade's elite circles were in the habit of frequenting the restaurant, and Blair wasn't especially surprised that he recognized several of the clientele. Nor did he think it odd they only nodded to Jim in acknowledgment before returning to their own meals. It was after all, why they were there.

For that reason he was caught off guard when a lovely red-headed woman approached them shortly after their meal had been served, a wide, delighted smile in place. "James Ellison, is that you?"

Donning his most formal air, which Blair had long since learned meant that he was covering strong emotion, Jim stood and gave her a half-bow. Decorum demanded Blair do the same, and Jim gestured toward him. "Student Blair Sandburg, this is the former Miss Carolyn Plummer."

"Mrs. Archibald Durwalt," she said, updating her status, smile dimming ever so slightly at Jim's rigidly polite introduction. "Madame Durwalt, now that Archie has met his reward."

"Madame Durwalt," Blair said, offering his hand and following Jim's lead by bowing over it with extreme correctness.

Forcing her smile back to its earlier brilliance, she said, "Heavens, Jimmy, I've known you since we were children. We were practically engaged. No need to be so proper."

"That was the desire of our parents, not ours," Jim said, not giving in the slightest. "As I recall, you were quite vocal in your preference for someone else, anyone else, and the belief that you could make an excellent match on your own."

The strain of holding her good cheer became obvious, Blair thought, and Madame Durwalt said with a bit of hidden poison, "I must admit, I hardly expected that you would reach the position you did. Perhaps I was a bit hasty in my judgment back then."

"I think not." Jim's tone became more distant. "I cannot see the Liegeman's Settlement as a proper environment for you."

"Ah, but you're the Liegeman to Cascade now," she corrected, lightly.

With a suggestion of a shrug, Jim shook his head once. "My posting has nothing to do with where my wife would have been expected to live, save for the fact that it is deemed much safer for family to be beyond the reach of those who might bear a grudge or grievance against a liegemen."

There was no denying, in Blair's opinion that Madame Durwalt's composure was considerably dented by that information. Regardless, she said gamely, "How tiresome for them."

"So I have heard. Undoubtedly one of the many reasons liegemen rarely marry." Jim's voice remained completely cordial and just as completely unyielding.

Blair noticed that their conversation had begun to attract the notice of their fellow diners, giving rise to a murmur of speculation that apparently penetrated Madame Durwalt's focus on Jim. Gathering what grace she could muster, she said, "That is certainly a topic for lively discourse over dinner."

"Not really." Jim ignored the gambit for an invitation to join him at their table, leaving them both at something of an impasse. Courtesy demanded that he and Blair remain standing in a lady's presence; it likewise demanded that she could not simply seat herself and expect her company to be welcome, especially when it was clear it was not.

There was no doubt in Blair's mind that Jim would not be the one to succumb to the awkwardness of the situation. While he found social strictures useful and he observed them for his own purpose, he was not above abandoning them all together when it suited him. Madame Durwalt, on the other hand, clearly did not appreciate being the center of a hum of negative comments.

With what was now a patently false smile, she said, "It was lovely seeing you again, Jimmy. Perhaps on another occasion we can have a long, lovely chat about old times." Not waiting to hear the refusal that was plain on Jim's face, she regally walked away as if she were European royalty who had just dismissed a peasant.

Jim didn't even bother to watch her go, but sat back down and picked up his fork.

Doing the same and well aware that Jim expected to be hounded for explanations, Blair said mildly, "I was worried that my food would grow cold before she admitted that her gambit at re-establishing a relationship with you was a lost cause."

He took a bite of the excellent steak waiting for him, raising a brow when Jim paused mid-cut of his own portion. With a hint of a smile, Blair said, "Can I not simply prefer to enjoy the meal and your undivided attention instead of hashing over a past that holds no joy for you?"

The rare but exquisite smile of unabashed delight that Jim graced him with was more than ample reward for relegating anything but Jim's comfort to another day. As if in reward for that decision, Jim said with unexpected frankness, "I wonder if I am being too cynical in seeing my father's hand behind her sudden interest in me. Perhaps being haunted by the problems of my youth such as her was why the Brotherhood did not want to train me as a liegeman."

Intrigued, Blair couldn't help but ask, "Wouldn't sentinel abilities make that a fore-gone conclusion?"

"Not at all." Jim ate a bit of steak, but took pity on Blair's begging expression as soon as he swallowed. "The senses do not make one a sentinel, any more than being a sentinel makes one a liegeman. There are other much needed occupations for sentinels in the Liegeman Settlement, such as medical services, and not everyone with the senses can bring them to bear at need. If they do not wish to remain, once they learn what control they can, they may go where they wish with the blessings of the Elderkin. Admittedly most prefer the Settlement, where their unique problems are understood."

Frowning at his dish, even as he cleared it, Blair said, "I know liegeman training is beyond rigorous. I suppose it had not occurred to me that there were those who fail, let alone those who would choose not to attempt it."

"There's no disgrace either way," Jim said gently. "For all that it seems the Elderkin see humanity only as one great mass of tribulation, they respect individuality. I think they understood before we did that is the source of our greatest art, our most impressive advances. It's one of the many reasons they have been encouraging the best minds in the Old World to immigrate to the Americas."

"I'm not sure humanity understands it still. I cannot imagine how Pasteur or Fermi would have survived Europe as it is now, let alone achieve what they did here."

For a few minutes he and Jim concentrated on the truly excellent cuts of beef in front of them, their earlier air of ease settling over them again. It was, Blair decided privately, an indication that he had been right to instigate his plan to buffer Jim from the more negative aspects of his gifts. As Jim caught his eye, licking his lips lasciviously as if tasting another kind of meat all together, Blair realized that it was most definitely to his own benefit that he do so.

***

Continued in Part 2