Rating: kid safe
Spoilers: none ‘cos it’s part of the Chronicles of Acharn Universe (AU fantasy).
Beta: appallingly, I can’t remember. I don’t think that I could find one.
Indulgent, kid ficcy stuff.
Sect of the Sentinel.
“You’re going to be twenty one, aren’t you, Jim?” Prince Blair clambered onto the stable stall wall and perched.
“Yes.” Laird Jamie continued to groom his warhorse, Pern, only sparing a fragment of his attention on the tiny prince. “Why the interest?”
“‘Cause it’s special, isn’t it?” Blair said guilelessly, his big blue eyes wide.
focused on Pern and concentrated on grooming his
horse to shiny perfection. “Not really, the Heir to the
thought that you were already a sentinel?” Blair asked, confused. His round
face scrunched up and his thoughts scrolled across his face for all to read.
The laird had saved the prince when the royal family had been threatened by the
Goblin Queen years earlier. In response to that dire threat menacing the
“See,” Jamie easily followed Blair’s thoughts, “it isn’t any different to any other birthday. I’m already a sentinel.”
“Humph,” Blair grumbled, and Jamie finally looked at him. The prince was all prepared to help him in the stables; he wore his oldest, most threadbare clothes. He held a curry brush in his hands and twisted it miserably.
“What?” Jamie set Pern’s comb aside and moseyed over to lean next to Blair’s perch.
“If I hadn’t got into trouble, this would have been special for you, wouldn’t it,” he said miserably.
“It wasn’t you. It was the Goblin Queen,” Jamie countered immediately.
“So,” Blair began with all the guile that a nearly nine year old could possess. “The Goblin Queen made your birthday not special? Oh dear, that’s not fair.”
Laird Jamie raised a chastising eyebrow. Blair wriggled caught halfway between laughing and blushing.
“Who told you to say that?” Jamie glared at him piercingly.
Blair batted his eyelashes. “It’s our cunning plan,” he declaimed.
“Rafe?” Jamie hazarded, the Royal Assassin of Acharn had a sick sense of humour.
“Nope,” Blair said gleefully. “Yep. But Mama also said that it’s your special day since you become a proper sentinel. It’s like a party in your honour. Even more so ‘cause you’ve been a sentinel for awhile. But Uncle Simon sez that you are ‘introverted’ so we have to convince you that you are special. And your grandfather said that you’d say you like it quiet, but you really wouldn’t mind if we did it properly for you. And Rafe says ‘any excuse for a party’ and Henri smacked him over the top of the head when he said that. And your grandfather said we had to convince you. And I might be the ‘one to do it’ if I made you feel guilty.”
The prince had an uncanny ability to remember everything he heard, and his tendency to repeat it in his own personal way, could be very disconcerting.
“Are we having a party now?” Blair asked innocently. “I like parties. And I don’t think it’s fair you don’t just because of the Goblin Queen.”
“You’re an evil little brat, do you know that?” Jamie said affectionately.
Blair smiled, completely unaffected by the words, reading the true emotions. “What do you want as a birthday present?”
With a yell, Jamie launched himself at the prince, bowling him into a pile of straw. Flailing arms and legs, they wrestled in the stall. Jamie’s tickled the prince. Screaming delightedly, Blair wriggled completely defenceless. Jamie caught the squirming Blair, restraining him on the floor and gently sat astride his chest. He caught Blair’s wrists and pinned them above his head.
“Nonononononononono,” Blair begged, laughing hysterically.
Jamie let go of Blair’s wrists and ran his sensitive fingers up his ribcage. Blair’s breath came in frantic little ‘hees’ as he wriggled. The Prince flailed ineffectively laughing too hard and too clumsy to tickle back.
Jamie paused letting Blair get his breath before launching another tickle-attack. But sensing his charge had had enough; Jamie rolled to the side bringing Blair up to sit on his chest.
Blair flopped and wheezed against him.
Jamie picked straw from Blair’s tumbled curls as he waited patiently for the prince to get his breath back.
“You really want to have a party, Blair?” he asked softly.
“Yep. I fink we should.”
“We?” Jamie mused. The ceremony inducted the heir to the Sentinel in
the mystery. On his twenty-first birthday the seed of his gifts was supposed to
be allowed to blossom. But he wasn’t supposed to wield the gifts until the true
Sentinel of Acharn passed on. However, Acharn now had two sentinels: his grandfather, Lord Ellison,
Blair sat up, sitting comfortably on Jamie’s stomach. The laird hoisted himself on his elbows; it was a good thing that Blair seemed to taking after the smaller members of the family. In fact Blair’s lack of statue was the subject of much discussion. It had been postulated that the elfish strand in the House of Sandburg-Bran was breeding true in the young prince. In the late night hours of the longest council meetings the topic had meandered on the prince’s paternity. Her Royal Majesty Queen refused to be drawn.
“What are you thinking about, runt?”
“A party. I like parties. We can find out more about sentinels. Do guides have special parties when they get to be twenty one? That’s years to go?”
“Just a few. I don’t know if guides have parties. Maybe your mother will know. You should though…”
“P’rhaps it’s a secret,” Blair muttered, perturbed. “If a party’s bad, why do I have to have one when you don’t?”
“Argggh!” Jamie grabbed Blair and gave him a little shake. “You win. We’ll have a proper celebration and the ceremony.”
“Presents,” Blair exulted, his mood changing mercurially. He gave a little bounce. “What do you want? A sword? I know can we go out the Citadel? Can we go out and visit Bruncladhic? Can we go to your island home, Eilean Ellis? I want to see a proper mountain. Can I ride with you on Pern?”
Blair was brilliant with anticipation, his chestnut curls glowing with an amber light.
“The ceremony has to be carried out on Clan ground so that means Eilean Ellis. But a visit isn’t a present.”
“Isn’t it?” Blair’s face scrunched up. “Oh, I’ll think of a good present for you. A proper present.”
“A hug will do,” Jamie said sagely.
“A hug?” Blair glowed. “I can do that now.” He flung his arms around Jamie’s neck. The laird folded him in. He owed his fealty to the Queen but Blair had claimed his soul. The prince nestled in contentedly, secure at his young age, to display such affection.
Jamie let Blair sit for a moment, then gave him a gentle poke in the ribs.
“Don’t tickle, I gotta pee.”
“Pee?” Jamie lifted Blair onto his feet. “Go, run, you’re not peeing on me.”
Sniggering, Blair darted out of reach, and then joggled from side to side, evidently containing himself.
“Go,” Jamie directed, “before you have an accident. And cadge me a flagon of cider from the kitchens.”
“Yes, Jim.” Blair ran.
Blair trotted across the outer ward to the stables. The cobblestones made his progress unstable, his tongue poked between his teeth as he held Jim’s cider, securely.
Blair continued on his mission to give Jim his cider. Perhaps after they had finished in the stables, the laird would take him out of the castle to ride around the Citadel. Blair liked riding on Pern, sitting in front of Jamie. Occasionally, Jamie let him hold the reins, even though Blair knew that Pern knew more about riding then he did. The sun was shining and it was too nice to stay in and muck out stables. They could head out the back gate and onto the southern facing moors of their mountain, Goodrich. If they asked very nicely, the cook would give them a picnic to take on their ride.
Jamie promised that he could have his own pony when he grew another thumb width higher. Blair wanted a shaggy highland pony.
Blair stopped with a heavy sigh. Some cider slopped over his hands and he had tried so hard to carry it without spilling. Blair glowered up at two – judging by their thoroughbred mounts – lords. The man on the shiny black wore the rich jewel colours that Jamie favoured. The lord was all prickly, his aura was spiky and sharp. Blair squinted trying to see closely. The colours were muted, but the feelings were horribly thorny.
“Stable boy, take these horse to the stable, they need a cool down, a thorough groom…”
“I’m not the stable boy,” Blair said simply and stepped back. He didn’t like the man, he made him feel … Blair couldn’t put it into words. He would have to think about it and maybe ask Jamie.
“Brat, our mounts have been ridden hard; you will give them good hot mash and some water.” The lord dismounted sweeping his cloak aside in a deliberate motion. His spurs hitting the cobbles sent sparks into the air. They matched his inner light.
“Lind will know what to do if they’re tired. He’s the stable master. ” Blair turned away.
A heavy hand caught his shoulder and spun him around. Jamie’s cider fell, splattering. Blair huffed angrily as he watched the golden liquid seep between the cobbles.
“You do it, boy; we’ve had a long ride and I have to report to my grandfather, immediately.” The man shook him.
The last person to lay a hand in anger on the Royal Prince had been the Goblin Queen. Blair sank his teeth into the shiny lord’s wrist.
“Little bastard.” The lord wrenched his hand free and Blair fell back onto the cobbles.
“Someone should teach you a lesson.” The man stood over him, his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword.
Blair’s temper went incandescent. Between one heartbeat and the next the cider beneath him boiled. A watery figure was brought forth. Tall, sinuous, it was as clear as amber crystal. It grinned frenziedly. At the prince’s bidding the water elemental rose holding him and then gently set him on his feet.
The lord’s spiky aura flattened with shock, disappearing as if a smothered candle.
“Show him what it’s like.” Blair pointed straight at the chevalier.
The elemental rushed forward bowling the lord over. The man fell hard on the cobbles and the being flowed over him, ruining his prissy clothes. The fey elemental giggled merrily and coated the lord from head to toe.
“Demon child!” The lord’s older companion jumped down from his horse, his sword drawn. Elementals didn’t like iron forged broadswords; it would leave. Blair knew better than stay near someone with a sword when he was alone.
“Jim!” Blair shrieked and ran. He slipped and slid over the uneven paving stones.
The laird was running across the outer ward to intercept them. He was weaving magick as he ran and golden lights coalesced at the pulse points at his head, throat and wrists.
“Down!” Laird Jamie ordered, hands outstretched. Blair ducked under the visible arc of magick. The spell enfolded the struggling lord in a sheaf of dazzling radiance. A happy squeal echoed through the outer ward as the merry elemental rushed back to the otherside.
“He hit me, Jamie.” Blair rushed toward Jamie and the laird swung him up onto his hip. Blair latched onto his protector.
“Demon!” The man came to a screeching halt, brandishing his sword.
“Beaumaris?” Jamie asked incredulously.
“Laird Jamie?” Beaumaris countered.
“He hit me, Jim. He hit me, Jim. He hit me and he pushed me on the ground.”
The lord coughed and struggled into a sitting position; he looked like a drowned cat. His impeccable clothes were ruined. The fine silk tabard was stinking with cider.
“Stephen?” Jamie demanded.
“He hit me, Jim. He hit me, Jim.”
“Sshhh. Are you hurt?” Jamie’s nostrils flared, sniffing out blood, and he gently patted Blair’s arms and chest.
Blair pouted sullenly and then shook his head.
“Jamie, that little brat just tried to kill me with cider…” Stephen began. “Cider?”
“You really hit Prince Blair?” Jamie demanded drowning out his words.
“Prince Blair?” Stephen went from being red with anger to a shocky, pasty white.
Safe and secure in Jamie’s grasp, Blair stuck out his tongue. “He pushed me over, Jim.”
“I didn’t realise that he was the prince.”
“That’s supposed to make a difference? He’s eight years old, For Acharn’s Sake,” Jamie snapped.
“Almost nine!” Blair inserted indignantly.
“Chief,” Jamie said quellingly.
Blair lapsed into silence, for the moment.
“We’ve been riding for days,” Stephen began. “We were tired, I thought he was the stable boy and he refused to help. He was a …,” the younger laird left the word unspoken, “very unhelpful.”
“That’s no reason to hit,” Blair yelled.
“You’re right; I apologise, Prince Blair.” The man bowed precisely.
Blair slumped against Jamie, he’d decided that he didn’t like this Lord Stephen. He didn’t want his apology.
“Blair,” Jamie said seriously. “Did you call up an elemental on purpose?”
Blair dropped his head on Jamie’s shoulder. “Wasn’t a nasty – it was clever and bubbly. It only wanted to play tricks.” He glanced sideways at Lord Stephen. “Serves him right.”
“We’ve talked about this, Blair. You’re not supposed to command elementals.”
“Didn’t really. I was ‘nnoyed. It came but it wasn’t bad.” Blair muttered. “It just got him sticky and wet.”
Jamie exhaled noisily. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson, Stephen. Next time you pick on a page they might just turn round and bite your head off. And--” he finished pithily, “--your behaviour was not becoming of an Ellison. I will discuss this matter with Grandfather and find you later.”
Blair sniggered. When Jamie used that tone of voice you were in trouble.
“And you, Prince Blair, we will not be going out riding today. When you have a problem, you come to me. That even includes my brother.”
“Brother?” Blair sat ramrod straight in Jamie’s arms. “Brother? He’s your brother?” he said aghast.
Stephen’s aura flared a sickly olive and the spiky edges made Blair shudder to his toes. Was this Stephen like Lord William Ellison, Jamie’s father? Was he inhabited by evil?
“Yes, he’s my little brother,” Jamie explained.
“No,” Blair said his voice ripe with disbelief. “You’re mine; not his. Mine.” He glowered at all and sundry, daring them to come closer.
“Blair,” Jamie said evenly, and joggled him. “Stephen’s my brother of my body and you’re the brother of my soul. There’s room enough in my heart for both of you.”
Blair fixed his piercing sapphire gaze on Stephen, and with every iota of little being he cried war.
Stephen looked away first. “I should go get changed; grandfather is expecting me.”
“Stephen,” Jamie said before he could move.
“Yes?” he said suspiciously.
“It’s good to see you.”
“Oh, it’s good to see you, too,” he said ungraciously. Lips pursed, he nodded curtly at the prince. “Beaumaris come with me.”
“Yes, Lord Stephen.” The ghillie bowed to Jamie and the prince and took his leave.
“Blair?” Jamie craned his head to look in the prince’s eyes.
Blair tucked his head against Jamie’s neck refusing to look at the Sentinel. “I’m all sticky, he pushed me in the cider. He made me drop your cider.”
“That’s okay, Chief. We’ll get some more. Come on let’s get you clean. Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“Yes,” Blair said sullenly. “Bad Stephen.”
The hubbub of the diners at the grand table made Laird Jamie’s ears ache. The Highborn were in residence for the summer solstice council. There were as many conversations ringing around the table as there were people. Ancient Lord Malú on his left side was discussing the grain harvest and Countess Beth was chatting with Mistress Doyle on the riveting subject of embroidery on the other side. Jamie let his hearing drift over the table. Blair was at the head of the table with his mother, Queen Naomi. The prince was half on his mother’s lap and half on his own chair. He was sipping on the Queen’s goblet of wine while she was distracted talking to the Wizard Sultan, Simon. Blair’s cheeky face screwed up in disgust and spat the wine back into the goblet.
Jamie signalled a server to take the goblet and set a fresh one in its place. Blair pounced on his own goblet of goat’s milk. The prince glugged mouthfuls washing away the foul taste of the wine; evidently he had learnt his lesson. Bored again, Blair looked around. Queen Naomi gathered him against her side, leaning down to whisper in his ear.
child was displaying a streak of jealousy as wide as the
Could it be because he had a guide in the Royal Prince? Could it be that he had become a sentinel without even passing the trials? Since he was confirmed as the next sentinel his younger brother would never hold the gifts.
It wasn’t Jamie’s fault that he had been born first. But he didn’t regret his gifts or his guide, who at this moment was sitting on his mama’s knee face smeared with honey.
Blair certainly was a great responsibility
Icy footsteps raced up his backbone; Stephen was glowering at him. Jealousy on both sides assailed him. The scary fact was that choosing between the two would be nigh on impossible.
Blair’s chiming laugh resounded through the hall. “Yes, mama, Jamie wants a proper party. Don’t you, Jim?” He smiled luminously at his fellow diners.
Jamie blushed as all heads turned to regard him. “Yes,” he said tersely. “I’ll undertake the ceremony.”
His grandfather smiled proudly and his brother scowled.
Why was this his life?
“Party!” Blair cheered.
Close to , Jamie slipped into Blair bedchamber. Moonlight limned the room in gentle light, but it was more than enough for a sentinel. The room was elegant; no one on first sight would have would have said that it belonged to a small boy. Jamie thought it a pity, but at least Blair had learned to spread out his toys over the nursery. His last nanny had ruled his life with a rod of iron and Blair still obeyed those rules despite the fact that the nanny was long since buried. A four poster bed dominated the room. Royal purple curtains draped each of the corners. A mess of pillows and blankets made a warm nest. The child was hunched in a ball in the centre of his four poster bed. Piled high with quilts he was almost indistinguishable. Jamie didn’t know how he could breathe. Practised, he reached under the blankets to tug the sleeping child up to rest on the pillow. His fingers met short, tufty fur. He wrenched back the blankets to reveal a mess of cuddly toys dominated by Blair’s favourite toy wolf. Beady glass eyes winked at him. There was no boy curled up in the centre of the bed.
For a heartbeat fear rocked him, then he realised that he was probably exploring the castle’s secret passages.
‘He’s going to be cleaning out the stables until the end of time.’
Jamie spun on his heel. A swirl of blue velvet skirts heralded the entrance of the Countess Elizabeth, Prince Blair’s latest nanny. She ducked her head acknowledging the prince’s sentinel.
“Prince Blair is with his mother, the queen,” she announced, before Jamie could ask.
“What?” Jamie looked back to the bed.
“Her Majesty came in to kiss Prince Blair goodnight, but he was awake and playing with his toy soldiers. She took him to her rooms for warm milk and honey. He was quite excited at the prospect; I doubt that he will be asleep very soon.”
Jamie simply shrugged, getting Blair to go to bed could be a time consuming affair. Countess Beth smiled, as she followed his thoughts.
“Ah, well, I’m to bed, then.”
“Good night, Lord James.”
“Sleep well, milady.”
The guttering torchlight in the stone dressed corridor sent ghostly shadows dancing along the walls. By force of habit, Jamie monitored the world around him as he skirted the wall. The scent of sage drifted before him. The young sentinel knew its source.
The queen was ahead and she was – Jamie determined with a simple sniff – without bodyguards. The sentinel stepped into the centre of the corridor. The queen drifted, in her own inimitable way, down the corridor. She was singing lightly under her breath to her son. Blair was draped against her shoulder, limp in sleep.
Jamie,” she whispered, “the chancellor needed me to speak to the diplomat from
“Shall I take him, ma’am?”
The Queen wrinkled her nose at her son and kissed the child’s downy cheek. “Yes.”
she passed Blair into Jamie’s arms. The child was warm, vulnerable and
defenceless. And despite a mischievous streak as wide as the mountain
“Isn’t he gorgeous.”
Jim declined to comment.
“Good night, Your Majesty.”
“Oh, Jamie.” Queen Naomi patted his cheek. “You’re such a serious boy, I’m glad you have Blair as a guide.”
“Nothing, I will see you both at breakfast. I think you should join us at the head of the table. It will keep Blair in his chair, rather than running back and forwards.” With that final comment she sauntered back down towards the central chambers, leaving a confused and dumbfounded sentinel standing in the centre of the corridor.
Blair was one step away from bursting and scattering pieces of exuberant prince over the courtyard. He ran back and forth between the royal carriage and the royal legion’s warhorses. Jamie winced as a particularly high squeal reverberated around the Citadel’s spiral towers. He had decided to allow the prince to run wild for just a little while to let him bleed off his excess liveliness. Rafe, the Royal Assassin, swooped down and snatched Blair up to swing him around in a circle. The young sentinel watched with a hawk-like eye. Pern, his warhorse, craned his neck and wickered, ruffling Jamie’s golden hair. Jamie bestowed an absent pat on his horse’s velvet nose. Bestowing one final swing, Rafe set Blair on his feet. He had barely touched the ground, and he was off running.
“Jamie. Jamie. Jamie, can I go down the spiral tower? Can I?” Blair screeched to a halt.
“No, you’ll be in the carriage.”
Blair stiffened and vented, “No, I want out. I want to touch.”
Jamie’s brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of that fervent demand. “Touch what?”
“Outside. Outside the Citadel, outside the castle. The ground on the bottom of the mountain.”
“Why?” Jamie asked perplexed.
That threw the young prince. He stopped, vibrating with tension as he pondered. He made quite the figure decked in his royal blue tunic and hose, with the lace collar and cuffs, hands clasped between his back and his head bowed. It was his thinking position.
“I dunno… don’t know,” he admitted. He cocked his head in a listening position and Jamie could see the glimmer of air elementals whipping around his chestnut curls. “I can feel it in the air, but I don’t know what it is. It’s going to be good, though.”
Jamie flashed a curious look at Her Majesty, who was overseeing the preparations from the conservatory.
Queen shrugged, and called out. “Blair’s been out of the Citadel. As a small
baby, I took him to the
Blair was suddenly at his hip, staring up at him his eyes filled with wise secrets. “Can we go now? Down the spiral? Not down the tunnel. Please.”
The Royal Legion was ready and waiting for instruction. The men stood beside their mounts resplendent in their black and gold livery. An occasional hoof pawed the ground but for the most part they were silent, well trained, so well trained that a child could run beneath their legs without danger.
Laird Jamie clicked his fingers directing the first troop to hand their reins to their comrades. The stage, five warriors, marched towards him. The leader, a young highlander Sean, of the House of Fraser, grinned at him gamely through a spray of ginger freckles.
“Yes, Laird Jamie?”
“We will go down through the portcullis and the spiral tower and wait for the rest of the party to join us.”
“Yes!” Blair bounced and thrust his fists in the air. Before he could run off, Jamie grabbed his collar.
“Together.” He controlled the squirming child with ease.
“No.” Blair stamped his heel on the top of Jamie’s foot. “No manhandling.”
Jamie released him instantly. He dropped to his knees to look at the prince straight in his eyes. “Together,” he repeated. “We go together.”
Blair glowered at him mulishly.
“You know that you can’t just run off. You know that there are rules.”
“Always talking, Always doing the right thing. Always good,” Blair shrieked. “Now, touch.”
The air elementals that always circled the prince wherever he went were dancing in anticipation. One in particular was playing with his curls, tweaking them. Jamie extended his hypersenses, expanding his sixth sense to see the otherworld sharing their land. He saw the elements of air easily because of the bond he shared with his prince. Seeing the other elementals took effort.
“Now?” Blair asked, breaking his concentration.
Jamie grimaced and abruptly forced it into a smile. Blair was a canny little beast, he seemed to pick up on the mores of the people around him with gleeful abandon. But for once he was concerned with his own little world.
Blair wrapped his fingers in the fabric of Jamie’s tunic and tugged. “Come on. Please”
Jamie growled audibly. Swooped down and plucked Blair up to swing over his shoulder. “You win, Chief.”
Blair mock screamed and wriggled, forcing Jamie to reach up and grab the prince around the waist. “I’ll toss you off the parapet.” The threat had no effect; Blair knew him too well.
“Down on the ground.” Blair demanded.
“Ha, I’ll carry you down and put you straight in the coach.”
“Noooo, that’s not fair.”
Laughing Jamie trooped across the drawbridge his cadre of chosen guards in tow. He acknowledged Sean’s grin with an answering smile. Blair was very popular with the Royal Legions, few could resist his ebullience. The guards at the end of the drawbridge saluted, and moved away from the entrance to the spiral tower which was one of the few egresses from the Citadel. Carved from the face of the mountain Goodrich during the last ice age, stone masons had hewn a spiral staircase in the centre of the tower during the time of Prince Blair’s great-great-great-great- great-great grandfather.
Blair had the presence of mind to freeze as Jamie turned the first step. Flight after flight after flight, Jamie picked his way carefully down the staircase. By the time they reached the bottom, common sense had been overtaken and Blair was quivering in anticipation again.
Jamie stepped out of the portcullis at the base of the tower into brilliant sunlight.
“Down, down, down,” Blair chimed.
Jamie twisted him around nimbly. Hands tucked under the prince’s armpits he held him so they were eye to eye.
“You be good; no running off.”
“No running,” Blair affirmed. “I won’t.”
Jamie set the prince on his feet with a thump. Blair’s mouth opened in a soundless exclamation of delight. He dropped into a crouch and planted his hands face down on the soil.
“Earth!” he crowed.
The soil beneath their feet rippled. Jim saw a long gangly arm rise and skim the surface, as if a figure fathoms deep in the earth, swam through soil as if water. The earth around Blair’s hands teamed with fat, fecund figures as short as Blair’s fingers. A hummock rose at their side. Soil moved, opening a rent in which an amazingly deep blue eye gleamed. She winked and then the hummock dropped away leaving flat soil in her wake.
tiny figures paying homage to Blair swan dived back into the soil. Green shoots
peaked through the newly tilled soil. Shoots budded into leaves. At the tops of
the stalks flowers bloomed.
“Heh heh,” Blair chortled, in an unconscious imitation of his Blessed Protector. He dug his fingers in the brown soil and gently freed a single daisy.
“What’s that for?” Jamie concentrated on the prosaic.
“For mama, the Lady said.”
“You’re going to need a pot,” Jamie could only mutter amazed.
End Chapter I
Sect of the Sentinel Chapter II
If there was anyone not made for travelling in a carriage – even a royal carriage– it was Prince Blair Nechtan Finn of the House of Sandburg-Bran. He drove his nurse Countess Beth to distraction as he bounced from window to window, port and starboard, so he would miss nothing.
“Your Highness, you’ll make me sick.”
Blair paid her little heed as he pointed out everything and asked questions in a piping voice.
The heather covered rolling plain on either side of the King’s Road was stark and seemingly without boundary. But over each rise there was a new cairn, small yellow flower or bubbling brook to be commented upon.
Blair leaned deeply out of the carriage and Countess Beth caught the back of his hose for the hundredth time and hauled him back.
“I can still see Goodrich!” Blair proclaimed.
mountain, which housed the
can’t see the forest anymore, there must be a rise.” Blair turned and looked
along the King’s Road. “I can still see the
Jamie kneed his war horse forward. “Get back in the coach, Blair.”
“Because hanging out of that window isn’t safe.”
“Can I ride with you then?”
“Can I ride on the top of the carriage like Fraser?” Blair leaned out further, oblivious to the mashing wheels and pointed at the red-headed highlander perched on the back of the carriage resplendent in the Royal black and gold.
“You never let me do anything,” Blair protested.
“I’m letting you ride in your mother’s coach,” Jamie retorted.
Blair’s brow furrowed as he digested that statement. “But…” he began.
“Get back in and sit down before I join you in there,” Jamie said sharply.
“Will you?” Blair beamed.
Jamie shook his head, foiled. “Not at the moment, Chief. Though the land stretches as far as the eye can see, it hides furrows and dips to harbour the unseelie.”
Pern pranced to the side at his words, and Jamie spent an uncommon moment bringing him to stride.
“Dhu sidhe?” Blair’s blue gaze turned inwards. His finger pointed out unerringly towards a tussock of tall spindly grass. “There’s a Bhog Garalapin in the marshes over there.”
“What?” Jamie rose up on his stirrups looking for the peat and moss covered bog monster.
A sudden hoot rolled across the open landscape, and only a sentinel could see a beastie dive into a noisome, black midden with barely a ripple.
“How did you know that that was there?”
“Mama said,” Blair said absently and squinted at the rolling wet hillocks.
As far as Jamie was aware, they had left Her Majesty at Goodrich after a tearful goodbye and pointed instruction on the care and attention of daisy husbandry.
“Anything else?” Jamie ventured.
“Lots of things.” Blair reached for the carriage door handle.
“Stay in there.”
“Tis alive.” Blair waved his arm. “It’s all alive. Lots of things; little and big.”
“Anything with big teeth and a taste for flesh?” Sean Fraser asked tightly.
Blair shot a shocked glance at his guardian. “Jim?”
“Sean’s just teasing you.” Laird Jamie quelled the younger man’s scaremongering with an icy glare.
Blair had lapsed into silence, knuckles white as he gripped the top of the carriage door. His head cocked to the side and he appeared to listen.
“Your Highness?” Countess Beth laid a narrow hand on his shoulder.
The sapphire eyes that looked at Jamie were filled with knowledge, but tinged with a degree of vexation. Blair glowered.
Jamie reached down and plucked him from the coach, setting him easily astride Pern’s back. Blair leaned into him, twisting to the side.
“It’s big,” he began. “Tiny lives. Food for the big lives and in turn they’re food, but the other little lives eat the big lives. Even the buzzin’ flies are important.” Blair shrugged. “Lots of teeth.”
Even Blair’s enthusiasm flagged with the setting sun. He drooped against his blessed protector, turning his face into the twist of tartan over the laird’s chest. Easily Jamie swung the small child’s legs over his worn breech covered thigh.
Fraser – his face a white beacon in the drizzling gloom – grinned down at them from the roof of the coach.
“Aye,” Jamie said, a fond grin turning his lips.
“We’re coming to the Hangman’s fork; do we go to Eilean Ellis by the Dragon’s Passage or the sea route?”
The decision had been made days past. Both route had their advantages and disadvantages, but the former allowed the laird to check the lay of the Land and introduce its heir to both the people and the earth.
“We go via the Dragon’s Pass,” Jamie confirmed.
Fraser grinned, “So then we’ll be stayin’ with the Taliskers at Aberfen?”
“Oh, aye?” Jamie asked drolly. “You’ve an eye on the Talisker’s daughter?”
Fraser grinned openly. “Oh, she’s a bonny lassie, tall as the sidhe and her russet brown hair falls in those glorious locks.”
“You should have been a bard.”
Fraser chuckled. “I may set my eyes on the Lady Carolyn but I don’t think I can scale her heights.”
“Sean Fraser,” a ringing voice came from within the Royal Carriage. “I’ll thank you not to talk of a lady in that manner.”
A blush to match his hair blossomed over Fraser’s cheeks. “I beg your pardon, me lady.” The young highlander ducked back on his perch and resumed his watch.
softly, Jamie cast his senses ahead. He could see the crossroad that spoke of
Rafe’s home – Jamie cast a glance at the dapper assassin riding at
the back of the train – lay in the mist wreathed Western Isles. Jamie’s own
home was to the north east, tucked on the coast of the sea loch of à Bheallaich Donne protected by
the mountain range of Sgurr na Bannachdich, Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh and Sgurr Deary. His heart called to
“They’re here, Mama. They’re here, Mama.” A light shone welcoming from an open doorway as the train marched sedately through the double walled gates into the courtyard of Aberfen. The seat of the Taliskers was tucked in the first solid lee of the edge of a fast flowing river that fed into the Goodrich Fens. Dampness hung in the air and even the mansion, which stood several storeys high to protect against flooding, couldn’t rise above it.
“Tis a lovely family but I wouldnae want to live here with the midges,” Fraser uttered softly.
Jamie could only nod as he smushed yet another biting fly against his skin. One landed on Blair’s sleeping cheek and he gently brushed it away.
“Come inside,” their host exhorted, “the beasties are fair thirsty tonight.”
At his words retainers tumbled out of the house to direct the Royal Legion to their bunks and stables. Ellis Ellison swung down from his war horse and greeted his old friend with the kiss of peace. They hugged once, gripping each other shoulders and releasing.
“I’ve brought some uisge-beatha to ward off that chill, old man.”
“Old man yerself,” Talisker coughed and drew the Queen’s Sentinel into the beckoning light. Stephen paused at the doorway indecisively before following his grandfather into the house.
Jamie cocked one leg over his saddle and slipped nimbly off his war horse onto the cobblestones. The great horse stood patiently waiting for directions from his master.
“Sire?” A tiny lad screeched to a halt at Jamie’s heels. “I am Sainsbury, the stable lad. My master asked me to tend to you.”
Jamie cast an assessing glance at the mite.
“Tell your master that I will speak to him later. Sean Fraser will see to my mount.”
Pern nickered a soft question and then a velvety soft nose brushed the hairs over his ear.
“Go with Sean, Pern, and remember your station.”
The stallion snorted. Jamie shook his head, the horse’s exhale sounded like a summer storm in his ears.
Fraser took Pern’s bridle with a gentle hand, the other hand he lay on the stable boy’s shoulder turning him to his hip away from Pern’s hooves. “I’ll show you the best way to look after a High King such as Pern.”
“Lord James?” a soft voice caught his attention.
Jamie turned slowly, conscious of the sleeping weight in his arms.
Lady Carolyn bobbed in a lowland curtsey, the hem of her skirt brushing against the damp stones.
“Milady.” Jamie ducked his head in a curtailed bow.
“Rooms have been set aside for the Prince. It is best that you come inside where the candles and peat fires drive away the midges.”
“That is--” Jamie said as another took a pint from his neck, “--a good idea.”
Lady Carolyn was as much as Jamie remembered from the winter solstice ceilidh. Tall, elegant and refined, many a highland lad was smitten by her.
“Is that the prince?” A small girl, a relative judging by the shared russet brown hair, piped up. She clung to Lady Carolyn’s long skirts. She craned her head trying to see who was held. On her tiptoes she could just make out ringlets, corkscrewing wildly in the damp air, cascading over Jamie’s arm.
“Shouldn’t he be blond? You’re blond; are you the prince?”
“Be quiet, Shauna. Let them inside.” Carolyn waved them into her home.
Jamie breathed a sigh of relief as the door closed behind him. A short corridor led to a hall. The fire at the far end of the hall did little to stave off the night’s damp chill.
“Conduct me to the prince’s rooms,” Jamie ordered.
“The prince’s rooms are above.”
Jamie allowed his sentinel senses to quest forth as he was led through the Taliskers’ home. He was finally led through one set of rooms into another suite, making them doubly secure. A fire roared in the corner. A suite of evergreen scented candles burned on the windowsill driving off any biting flies. Jamie scanned the room fully before venturing further. A singularly plush bed dominated the room bedecked with sumptuously tasselled pillows. Jamie raised his eyes towards the ceiling; few folk knew how to treat a prince, who also happened to be a young boy.
“When we saw your lanterns across the fen I had my maid draw baths for the royal party.” She gestured to a room adjoining the bedroom.
Jim deposited Blair in the centre of the cushions. The boy yawned, his eyes opening to half-mast as he sunk down to become half obscured by the pillows. Carolyn sniggered inelegantly and Jamie grinned.
“He looks like a doll propped up on satin cushions. There’s far too many.”
“He’s fairly used to it,” Jamie said thinking of Blair’s inappropriately appointed bedroom.
“Has he brought any toys with him? Does he have a bedtime toy?”
“Ah, yes.” Jamie reached down and snagged a couple of pillows and pulled them off the bed. Blair glowered at him, turning to burrow under the remaining cushions.
“Jammy?” Blair reached out sleepily, fumbling to find his beloved toy.
“The countess has Jammy,” Jamie said evenly.
The prince’s nanny slipped into the room behind them. “You called?” She carried a small trunk and a rag tag cuddly toy.
“Ah, Countess Beth.”
“I heard mention of a bath?” she asked.
“Yes,” Carolyn gestured once again to the en-suite.
“A quick bath I think and a glass of warm wheat milk and then straight to bed,” Countess Beth decided.
Blair was as pliable as chewed taffy as she drew him into a sitting position and scooped him up. Jamie poked his head into the bathroom, but all was as it should be and he left the Countess to nanny the prince.
He found a welcoming sitting room, where he judged the centre of the mansion lay. Rafe already lounged beside a roaring fire as he sipped on the contents of a ceramic mug. The assassin nodded amiably indicating that he had checked the Taliskers’ residence. Jamie stood directly in front of the fire turning to warm his behind.
“Your grandfather’s in Talisker’s study quaffing on firewater.”
“They have some bizarre competition going on, something about finding the best of the worst gut rot.”
“Who can supply the most lethal drink?”
“Pretty much so. I remember Talisker visiting when I was a wee bairn. They actually sang.”
“Sea shanties from your western isles, I recall.”
“Eeek.” Rafe set his mug of mulled wine on the table beside his chaise longue.
A soft “Brother,” interrupted them.
“Stephen,” Jamie acknowledged.
The adolescent slinked into the room. He nodded once to Rafe as he settled gingerly on the plush couch opposite the assassin.
Jim plastered a smile on his face, he was profoundly uncomfortable and he hated that he felt that way. Once he and Stephen couldn’t have been separated by rampaging marauders, but now being in Stephen’s presence was akin to being poked with tiny hot needles.
“Where’s your guide?” Stephen asked flatly.
“Blair?” Jamie was kind of surprised by the question. “He’s with his nanny.”
“Countess Beth--” Jamie cocked his head to the side, “--is putting him down now.”
“You know that?” It wasn’t really a question.
“Well, yes; she’s telling him a story about a cat in a well. I haven’t heard it before. He’s pretty much asleep now.”
“You’re that aware of him?”
“The same way I know that your dinner that you ate while on the road isn’t settling on your stomach.” Jamie crossed to liquor table and poured a tot of fine, clear spirits into a shot glass. “This will help.”
Stephen accepted it with some grace. “I won’t become a sentinel, will I?”
Rafe stood at his words, bowed once, and then exited the room. Jamie raised an eyebrow at his abrupt departure. His senses told him that the Royal Assassin hovered outside the drawing room listening to their conversation. But Stephen believed that they were alone.
“Probably not, Stevie. I mean--” Jamie shrugged, “it could happen, if I die or Grandfather passes on and I need a heir. I can’t see the future but it’s not impossible. Has Grandfather said anything to you about become Heir to the Gifts?”
“No, he won’t be drawn on the subject.”
“You know that Grandfather isn’t the font of all knowledge about the Sect of the Sentinel. I wasn’t supposed to become a sentinel until I was chosen and initiated and then I wasn’t supposed to wield the gifts until father died. Yet, when Grandfather thought that if he played the waiting game...” Jamie cast a stricken glance at his younger brother.
“Grandfather thought that the Queen would become father’s guide?” Stephen supplied softly.
Jamie nodded sadly. “I became His Highness’ sentinel. There’s more to the sentinel than the rules. I think if Danu needed you to become a sentinel you would become one.”
Stephen looked at him properly for the first time since entering the room. “I read in the chronicles that two sentinels should hate each other.”
“I don’t hate grandfather, so I don’t see why I should hate you, if you become a sentinel.”
Stephen tossed down the liquor in one gulp. “How do I become a sentinel?”
Jamie turned away from his brother’s piercing gaze to the log fire and the dancing flames. “I really don’t know. I think… I was always a sentinel.”
Stephen snorted. “What came first? The sentinel or the sect?”
“That’s easy. The sentinel came first. The sect is about control.”
The day started as much as any other with Blair refusing to eat porridge and holding out for egg fried bread. Jamie had had a very disturbed night, dwelling on his brother. They had had a very dissatisfying conversation about sentinels until Stephen had made his excuses and traipsed off to bed. In all honesty, Jamie did not think that his brother held the gifts, nor did he have the desire to wield the gifts. Stephen coveted the benefits but would hate the disadvantages.
Jim. Do you want my cloudberries?” Blair generously piled the rare preserve
onto Jamie’s plate. Harvesting tiny white berries that grew sparsely in the
“Thank you, Blair.”
Blair grinned showing a wobbly bottom tooth.
“You’re going to lose that tooth.”
Blair wiggled it with his tongue. Jamie’s stomach flipped as it rocked back and forth. “It feels weird, like salty rubber. If I pull it hard will it fall out?”
Jamie pondered, “I think so. Best leave it until it’s ready. Is there another beneath?”
Blair tongued his tooth deliberately and then shrugged before popping a finger-full of eggy toast into his mouth. He chewed gamely, watching the other diners on the mansion’s high table. Jamie could practically read his thoughts. Blair’s attention rested on Stephen who was speaking lowly to Lady Talisker. A shudder of icy wind arrowed through the hall and Jamie saw a sharp toothed fey at its heart trailing ribbons of hoarfrost. It dissipated before he could call Blair’s attention to the visitor. Ellis watched it disperse and then flashed a warding gesture in its wake. Shaking his head he glanced at the prince before resuming his conversation with Talisker.
Jamie ruffled the prince’s curls setting them at odds.
“Jim.” Blair pushed his hands away.
moving on towards the
The most sceptical expression to ever grace an eight year olds face was his reward.
“I guess you want to ride with me?”
“Can I? Can I?”
Jamie stroked his chin carefully and with great deliberation. “How about for the first few leagues and then you keep Countess Beth company for awhile?”
“And after break you can ride with me a while.”
“Yes!” Blair punched the air and graced the other diners with the contents of his mouth.
The prince subsided immediately, but was only quashed for a moment. “May I be excused?”
“Where are you going?”
“Exploring.” Blair slipped off his chair.
He froze at the doorway. “Yeth?”
“You do not leave the ward. I will know if you do and you will travel until we reach Standings Soft in the coach.”
Blair rocked from foot to foot. “Promise.” And then he was gone.
“And no prying!”
Jaime tuned into happy chortling echoing through the Taliskers’ home. Blair would scour the building from head to toe before they had set the Royal Train for departure.
“Since when is riding in the royal carriage considered a punishment?” Lord Talisker asked.
“For Blair,” Rafe explained, “it is a fate worse than death.”
“Why?” The old lord looked in askance at the Queen’s Sentinel.
Lord Ellison grimaced. “The child is somewhat high strung.”
“He is not,” Jamie said absently as he listened to his prince. “He is merely… busy finding out everything about everything.”
“You indulge him, Grandson. He would benefit from a firm hand.”
“That is the last thing he would tolerate. What an Ellison of the House of d’Ellison would tolerate would have him calling the werefey upon your head. I will not abuse his trust.”
The older Lord Ellison leaned back in his chair. His aquiline brows drew together. “What?”
“Blair responds to a reasoned argument. He will not abide being smacked. And,” he focused on his Grandfather, “I recommend that you do not try.”
Jamie could tell that the message had neither been received nor understood. But help came from an unexpected corner.
“Grandfather,” Stephen said hesitantly, “Prince Blair… uhm.”
“Out with it, son,” Ellison rapped.
“The prince listens and accepts Jamie’s discipline. I smacked the prince and the Land’s elemental forces rose up in response.”
“What!” Ellison’s eyes narrowed, coupled with his drawn brows he was beginning to resemble a snowy eagle.
“Nothing happened,” Jamie informed. “The elemental merely ruined Stephen’s tabard and Blair was sent to bed early.”
“I do not know about this…” Ellison huffed concerned.
Jamie sighed inwardly. The diners around the Talisker table were all well known except for the house’s Lord. But in retrospect he no longer knew his blood brother. “Grandfather, he is the prince. The Land protects him.”
“If he misbehaves…”
“If he misbehaves,” Jamie said evenly, “he is punished. What he had done wrong is explained to him, thoroughly. Then he scrubs out stables or performs another chore. Do not worry.”
Lord Talisker aimlessly rolled the stem of his goblet between his fingers. “He is eight?”
“Yes?” Jamie wondered why the lord asked such an obvious question.
“And only now his baby teeth are loosening? My granddaughter is his age and her teeth fell out when she was six.” Lord Talisker flicked a glance at his old friend.
Lord Ellis ground his teeth together. “The Bran comes through in the boy—“
Jamie listened intrigued, but Talisker’s mouth fell open in a soundless ‘ah’ and Lord Ellis refused to continue his rationalisation. Somewhat frustrated, Jim checked on his prince, canting his head to the side and listening closely. Blair was talking to someone.
Hello, my name is Blair.
There was a pause as someone, or something Jamie could not hear, spoke.
Really, that’s a nice name. Oooh, I haven’t met a brownie before. I’ve read about brownies. Shall I go and ask for a bowl of milk for you. You don’t like milk? It makes Jamie cough. Jamie? He’s mine. No, he doesn’t belong to anyone else. He’s all mine, Danu says so.
Jamie bit his bottom lip. It wasn’t as if he minded Blair being possessive, but he hoped that he wouldn’t become too clingy. Perhaps a short separation was called for? Yet, he was the prince’s protector and that entailed being his bodyguard.
It was a tad disturbing that Blair still felt – almost three years after the Goblin Queen’s defeat – that he had hold onto his sentinel with mind, body and soul.
Where’s Jamie? He’s having his breakfast. Noooo. A chiming laugh tickled the hairs growing on Jim’s arms. We don’t do everything together. He’s big; he does boring stuff like patrols.
Jamie almost thought that he heard a tiny high pitched voice.
Yes, he’s listening to us. Aren’t you, Jamie.
Jamie shook his head. ‘Little brat,’ he thought affectionately.
Blair laughed loudly and gleefully. So -- He turned his attention back to the brownie, -- If you don’t like milk what do you want the cook to leave you to eat?
Jamie wondered what the Taliskers’ cook would think of a formally bedecked prince coming into the kitchen and informing her that the resident brownie preferred…?
Really? Blair asked sounding confused. I’ll tell her.
Small footsteps padded across the marsh rushes strewn on the floors.
“James?” Lord Ellison asked for what was probably the fourth or fifth time judging by his tone.
“I merely wondered where you were?” He held two fingers up to his temple, silently asking Jamie if he had needed succour with the Goddess.
“I was listening to the prince. He is going to speak with your cook, Lord Talisker.”
“To what end?” the man asked confused.
“Apparently your kitchen spirit has gone off milk.”
“And?” the lord looked quite befuddled.
Jamie took pity on the man; he had just risen. “Blair has an affinity for elementals. Your brownie has asked him to intercede with the cook. I’m not too sure what the brownie wants instead.”
He stood and took his leave of the group. Best check on the prince before he got into trouble with the staff.
Hello. Blair was speaking to the house cook. My name’s Blair.
Hello, bonny lad, what can I do for you? Jamie could imagine a rotund, red cheeked man leaning down to look the prince in his eye.
Maabe has asked me to speak to you.
Maabe? Did he come with the Royal Raide?
No… Maabe belongs here. He looks after your kitchen when you’ve gone to bed.
Yes. The whisper of shaking curls filled Jamie’s ears. Maabe the Brownie doesn’t like milk -- he likes ale.
Ale! An extremely high pitched voice demanded.
Preferably, the dark brown one with a head. But if you don’t have that brewed he’ll accept a stout. Blair said smoothly.
Brownies don’t drink ale. They drink milk, the cook said.
Maabe does. Anyway, he just asked me to tell you. You know, he really hates milk. I mean you can talk to him and all, but he’s not going to help if you keep giving him milk.
House spirits don’t not help, the man said indignantly.
Maabe says that his aunt by marriage has an opening with the Taliskers of Mashhead so he wouldn’t be leaving the House.
A brownie can’t leave…
A sudden crash punctuated the cook’s words.
Huh, I guess you’ve lost your helper.
Jamie strode into the kitchen. A typically rotund, rosy cheeked cook towered over the prince. He wielded a dough encrusted spoon. A fine mist of flour hung in the air, slowly settling.
“Blair.” Jamie cocked a finger.
The grin on the prince’s face was purposely cheeky. Blair knew fine well that Jamie knew that the brownie had toppled a bag of strong flour and he was not in any trouble. With a skip, Blair bounced away from the cook.
“Look at you, you’re covered in flour.” Blair’s chestnut curls and upturned nose were dusted white making him look like a gamin snow elf.
“Maabe is really, really, really fed up with milk.”
“I can’t give our House Brownie ale,” the cook protested as he brushed the flour from his hair. “Brownies are notoriously bad when they get into the ale. Even if he did flit to Mashhead I’ll bet you my last token that the cook won’t give him ale.”
Jamie scanned the kitchen, the flour was settling on the floor, undisturbed except for Blair’s small footprints, a shuffle where the cook shifted from side to side and a small cloud danced where the brownie moved.
Jamie crouched, concentrated on hearing the small being.
“Ale!” it demanded.
“Has he got in the ale before?” Jamie asked the cook.
“Not in my kitchen,” the cook said indignantly. “‘Though he could have got into the slops.”
“Yuck,” Blair gagged.
“Maabe? You know a spoonful of ale every now and again, probably isn’t going to do any harm. But all the time? No.”
“No!” Maabe squeaked.
Blair leaned trustingly against Jamie’s shoulder as he crouched before the tiny nut brown brownie.
“Think Maabe,” Jamie continued. “Those bowls of milk are pretty big, if you’re going to drink a bowl of beer you’ll make yourself sick. I mean if I drunk a bowl of stout as big as my head, I’d be as sick as a dog.”
There was a tiny little, “Oh.”
“How’s about a thimble?” Blair offered.
“A thimble?” the cook echoed.
“Yes,” Blair gleamed under the sprinkling of flour. “I really get sick of porridge and I only get that a couple of times a week. Humf, I do like eggy bread, though. I could eat that every day.”
“I think that Blair means a bit of variety in Maabe’s supper would be a good idea,” Jamie offered as Maabe nodded fervently, sending puffs of flour into the air.
“I can do that. You didn’t have to throw the flour on the floor, Brownie Maabe,” the cook said pointedly. “We could have spoke.”
Mabbe spoke fast and angrily, far too high pitched to understand.
“I guess he tried.” Blair rocked onto the balls onto his feet. He exuded satisfaction.
“Nice to see that you’re learning the fine art of negotiation.” Jamie couldn’t resist grabbing the prince and swinging him up over his shoulder. “Back in the bath.”
“No!” Blair drummed his fists against Jamie’s back.
Still carrying the prince, Jamie nodded slightly to the cook. “Good luck. I guess a small plate of fare from the kitchen table wouldn't go amiss.”
The cook rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “We’ll have brownies emigrating from Hannahanna.”
Snorting, Jamie took his leave of the cook.
“I don’t want to have a bath,” Blair announced.
“You’re covered in flour; you’re having a bath.”
“You’re covered in flour too,” Blair countered. “You have to have a bath.” He ran his flour covered fingers over the drape of Jamie’s House plaid.
“Enjoying yourselves, boys?”
Jamie spun to face his grandfather. The elder Ellison leaned, arms crossed, against the plaster wall outside the kitchen.
“Hey, I can’t see.”
Jamie slipped Blair off his shoulder and down onto the cool cobbled floor.
“Oh.” Blair had been none too impressed with Jamie’s grandfather since he had rightly realised that the Lord held the power of seniority over the younger sentinel and could and had separated them.
Ellis met his obvious hostility with an expression of blank incomprehension, not acknowledging the child’s feelings.
Jamie pulled Blair against his hip and tangled his fingers in his curls.
“We were just returning to the suite to clean up before we head out.”
“Sensible,” Ellis said dryly. “But a word, son, if I may.”
Jamie nodded. “Go find Countess Beth, Blair.” He disengaged his fingers from the riotous curls.
Blair gazed up at him mutely, his eyes saying everything that needed to be said. The stubbornness in them touched Jamie to the quick. To be this prized was a heavy weight.
“Go on. Nothing will be wrong.”
“You sure?” Blair said mulishly.
“Yes,” Jamie pushed him away, turning him from his hip and sending him on his way with a firm pat.
Blair looked back once, then fixed his gaze on the older Laird. The fact that the prince distrusted the Queen’s Sentinel to such an extent had to be addressed.
“Blair,” Jim prodded.
With a final scowl, Blair trotted off.
Jim waited until he was along with the older sentinel. “Yes, Grandfather?”
“Walk with me.” Ellis pushed away from the wall and strode, long limbed down the corridor.
Jamie hurried to his side, before relaxing into his stride. They walked quietly, patrolling the quiet house. Most of the servants had vacated the premises leaving room for the Royal Legion and a skeleton staff to take care of their needs.
“The Bran?” Jamie said into their silence.
“What of it?”
“Don’t, Grandfather,” Jamie growled, “if there’s something going on with Blair, I need to know.”
Lord Ellison folded his hands behind his back and picked up the pace. “The Bran came from across the sea to help our forefathers against the Mage Brack a millennia ago. The eldest daughter of the Bran married the first King of Acharn and bore him a son. He took his mother’s nature, being slow to growth and strong in the gifts…”
“The Bran were of the sidhe?” Jamie interrupted.
“From across the western seas rather than the mounds and lakes, but essentially, yes.” Ellis sighed so very quietly and sadly only another sentinel would have picked it up. “Blair is so much like his grandfather.”
Jamie did not pursue the subject, the pain emanating from his grandfather was palpable, he could hardly bear to even imagine how the older sentinel felt without his guide. Blair was safe, yet even now he feared that he would fail to protect the prince.
“The Lady Carolyn?” the lord said out of the blue.
“What of her, Grandfather?” Jamie asked curiously, welcoming the change in subject.
“What do you think of the young woman?”
“Uhm…” Jamie quickly scanned up and down the corridor. Even though they were on their fifth circuit of the house, they had garnered no interest. “She is a Lady. I do not dwell on a Lady.”
“So diplomatic, Grandson. There is no one within earshot, you can be honest.”
Jamie couldn’t help but check. “She is very beautiful, milord.”
“Is that all your thoughts on the Taliskers’ jewel?”
Jamie had not been born yesterday, he was fairly sure where this conversation was leading. He was more surprised that they had not broached the conversation years earlier.
“And what are Lord Talisker’s thoughts on the match?”
Ellis snorted. “You always surprise me, son. As you have guessed Marsh Talisker approves wholeheartedly of the marriage.”
“You’re a conniving old sod.”
“True,” Ellis said, unrepentant. “You are perfect for each other: of the same station; our families have not bred in living memory, nor the sages’ recall, so no union will be born weak and feeble. Talisker accepts that Carolyn will reside at Bruncladhic and any offspring will be tested for entry to the Sect before they join the House of Talisker – if that becomes necessary. Although, given that Carolyn has an older sister who has born two healthy girls, I doubt that will become necessary.”
Jamie shrugged. “We knew each other as children when I was page to the Queen and she the Queen’s maid. We did not fight. Rafe liked teasing her, and I rescued a toad from her bed one night.”
“So you are amenable?”
Jamie spoke loudly with the shift of his shoulders. “I would speak with Lady Carolyn. Maybe she prefers another and her father is … uhm…”
“I did not intend to run you to the Queen and marry you tomorrow.”
Ellis coughed. “First you will be betrothed and then after the appropriate length of time you will join. It is much more preferable to marry a friend rather than a lover.”
“Oh.” Jamie blushed to the roots of his fair hair.
“Don’t worry, Grandson.” Ellis patted Jamie’s back. “You can marry not this year but the next year or the year after.”
“Oh,” Jamie said weakly.
“Your duty to the Clan is to furnish a child of your body.”
Lord Ellison’s cough sounded suspiciously like a laugh. “Go talk to your soon-to-be-betrothed.”
Jamie wandered off, his head in the clouds. The Lady Carolyn! Blair was slow to grow due to family’s blood. But Lady Carolyn! How in the name of Danu had that come about? Although he knew that she was the obvious choice. He had seen the genealogy charts in the Castle Library and his House’s line. Family choice would have pointed him to the marsh Taliskers as the politic choice; to bind the lowest lowland with the highest highland. What would the cultured Lady Carolyn think of the edge of Acharn?
“Ooo er.” Jamie saw storm clouds on the horizon.
He found a maid cleaning out the fire in the sitting room.
“Where might I find the Lady Carolyn?”
She stared at him, her mouth hanging open.
“Your lady? I would speak to her?”
“Milord. The lady will still be abed at this time.”
“Still?” Jamie glanced through the sugar glass windows to the bright sunshine. The fen was steaming in the early summer heat, mists rising and hanging at hip height.
“The Lady Carolyn will not rise until nearly mid-day.”
“Ah…” Jamie scanned the room. A writing table was tucked under the window, in the natural sunlight. He made several false starts at the letter. It seemed wildly inappropriate to leave a message for his betrothed, yet if they were to reach the edge of the fens by evening they had to leave very soon.
He gnawed at the end of the feather pen. Was the letter a tad cold? If he had had a day and a night he may have had a better idea of what to write. Sighing deeply, he folded the parchment and dripped sealing wax on the edges. He placed the pommel of his Sgian Dubh in the wax, embedding a reverse of the Wolf rampant dancing with the Cat sejant on either side of an escutcheon with cinquefoil charges.
“When the Lady awakes, give this to her.”
“Yes, milord.” The maid curtsied deeply.
Somewhat dissatisfied, he went to ensure that the prince was getting ready. Blair was changed and freshly scrubbed.
The prince laughed outright at the sentinel as he entered. “You’ve got flour all over you.”
“What?” He had been walking with his grandfather around the mansion with flour over his plaid. He dropped the feileadh mhor on the floor. Clad in only in his knee length ghillie shirt, he quickly got and pulled on his riding breeches, lacing them up at the waist. Blair played happily on the floor as Jamie hunted around his adjoining room for his leather jacket.
“I don’t like it here,” Blair announced, his high voice drifting through the open door.
“What?” Jamie dodged back into the prince’s suite.
“I don’t like it here,” Blair repeated.
Jamie stopped dead. “Why?”
Blair clambered up on his bed so he could see Jamie eye to eye. “It’s wet and sticky.”
“Oh, I was thinking one of the brownies had said something. Has someone said something?” Jamie asked casually.
“No. It’s wet and horrible.”
“The word you’re hunting for, Chief, is damp. It’s due to the fens. There’s a big river here at Aberfen which spreads out and makes the fens.”
“How does a river make a fen?”
I understand it, if my hand’s Acharn--” Jamie’s
curled fingers were the
“Does Danu like it like that? ‘cause it’s icky.”
“I expect she does. The Goodrich Moors are part of Danu.”
“So a moor is a fen?” Blair was becoming confused.
to be honest the Goodrich Moors aren’t really moors. You’ll see proper moors
when we get into the
“So why do they call them moors?” Blair asked indignantly.
Jamie laughed at his ire.
“Don’t laugh! Tell me why they call them moors.”
“I think since they look like moors. You see, moors are wet and have no trees just like here. But they’re usually up north. I’m sorry, some things just don’t make sense, Blair. Maybe Danu or Robyn will know?”
“Huh!” Blair jumped off the bed and snatched up Jammy. “We’re almost ready to go. I’m going to see Rafe.”
Jamie shook his head, fondly as Blair stomped away. Dressed, he tossed his great kilt into his adjoining suite for his gillie to pack before they left.
The Legion was bustling in the inner courtyard preparing for the next step of the Royal Progress. Blair was standing next to the assassin, Rafe, who firmly held him as folk ran back and forth. Jamie was appalled at his Legion’s poor showing. They were called on to protect the Land. He expected them to do better. There would be a few training manoeuvres when they reached Eilean Ellis. He could see that his Grandfather was none too impressed. The fact that they were part of the Royal Train should have meant that they should be on alert. Jamie made a mental note to speak to his men when they finished. They were to ensure the prince’s safety not to gallivant through Acharn.
Blair twisted his shoulder free from Rafe’s grasp and joined Jamie.
“What’s the matter?”
Knowing eyes weighed his words and knew that he was fudging with the truth.
Jamie sighed deeply. “We are taking too long to get ready. It is important that the Royal Legion can be ready to ride in a heartbeat.”
“Are you going to tell them off?” Blair asked gleefully.
“Chief,” Jamie said quellingly.
Blair huffed loudly. Jamie kept a firm hand on his shoulder, knowing that he would be more than likely to run off. The shift of a wafting curtain against the slight current of air rising off the fens caught Jamie’s attention.
His sight focussed on her like an arrow hitting the bullseye. The Lady Carolyn hid behind the curtain peering out into the courtyard. She obviously didn’t want to be seen. There was as tiny furrow between her brows that spoke of consternation.
“You see the window up above the entrance?” Jamie deliberately didn’t look up.
Blair looked immediately to the sugar glass window. “Yes?”
“Do you see any aura bleeding out the window?”
Intrigued, Blair rose up on his tiptoes. His small form quivered. “Uh uh.”
Jamie continued to watch his men prepare to leave. “What do you see?”
“Tis silvery and cold.”
Blair’s eyes narrowed, almost squinting. “I haven’t seen that colour in an aura before.”
“Nooo,” Blair sighed at the obtuseness of adults, even if they were his sentinel. “Silvery is when you don’t want folk to see your aura. Rafe can do it. Uncle Simon can make his change colour. I haven’t figured out how he does that.”
“So what’s the colour?” Jamie asked patiently.
“Pink?” Jamie echoed, as he resisted the temptation to look up.
“Yes….” Blair said lowly, his voice dropping an octave deeper. It was tinged with humour that no mere child should know.
Jamie forgot about the watching woman, and concentrated on his charge. Abuse at the hands of his nanny and the Goblin Queen, had allowed Blair to tap the weight of ages. Old eyes – eyes that he had seen in the Sandburg-Bran Hall of portraits – laughed at him. But the laugh wasn’t of mockery, but of an adult enjoying the intrigues of youth.
“Blair, what does pink mean?” Jamie managed to say.
“The blush of a blooming rose,” he answered cryptically.
“What does that mean?”
Blair shuffled happily and grinned, suddenly once more a child. “I dunno.”
The silver ringing of Pern’s hooves striking cobbles broke the moment. The magnificent beast preened proudly as he came to a halt in front of his lord and master. The tiny stable lad ran after the large horse.
“Pern.” Fearless, Blair reached up and stroked the horse’s velvet nose.
“Milord.” The stable boy struggled along with Pern’s saddle clasped against his chest, stirrups striking the cobbles.
Jamie was fairly impressed, the child had managed to wrestle the bit over Pern’s great head. He must have clambered up on a stock or bail of hay to reach the stallion.
Blair watched curiously as Jamie relieved the child of the weight of the saddle.
“The horsie got away from me. He’s bewitched.”
“Pern has his own way of doing things,” Jamie mollified. The horse stood stock-still, not even inhaling – his favourite trick – as Jim saddled him.
Blair was rocking back on his heels, his hands held firmly at the small of his back. There were deep thoughts churning under that curly top. No doubt once he had finished pondering he would broach whatever was on his mind with Jim.
“What did you do wrong?” Blair asked Sainsbury, his high pitched voice ringing across the courtyard.
“I ain’t done anything wrong,” Sainsbury retorted coming to a halt in front of the velvet decked prince. He looked down at the smaller prince down a long nose. Blair met his stare one-on-one. Scrap faced jewel.
“I meant,” Blair said pointedly, rising to an aloof level, “what did you do wrong so you had to look after Pern?”
“I didn’t do anything wrong – it’s ma job.”
Abruptly losing his air of superiority, since he no longer understood the older boy, Blair glanced automatically at Jamie for an explanation.
“It’s Sainsbury’s post within the House to look after horses at his master’s discretion,” Jamie supplied.
“Aye, it’s my job and when am big I’ll be stable master like ma Da.”
Blair rocked back on his heels, his hands still held firmly at the small of his back. He was thinking so loudly that Jamie could almost hear his thoughts. He was wondering what his post was in the great scheme of things.
“You are the prince of the realm. Your role is to learn to be King of Acharn,” said Jamie candidly.
Sainsbury’s mouth dropped open and then with a gasp he ran back to the stable. There was a quick glimpse of the tail of his long baggy tunic as he darted out of sight.
“Why did he run away?” Blair asked indignantly. “I was asking him questions.”
Jamie secured Pern’s girth. “I guess he didn’t know you were the prince.”
“How?” Blair stamped his foot. “You’ve got me wearing princey clothes. They’re so people know who I am, aren’t they?”
“Well, we could stencil it on your forehead,” Jamie said as he set the stirrups.
“Why did he run away because I’m the prince?”
“‘Cause he thinks you’re an important person instead of a boy who has a lot to learn.” Jamie hooked Blair up, hands under his armpits, and placed him on Pern’s back.
Blair slumped on his seat in flabbergasted dismay. “What did I do wrong? Why are you upset? You’ve gone all spiky.”
Jamie patted Pern’s flank as the war horse snorted crossly. “I’m not upset. I just didn’t realise that you hadn’t met… your people.”
“When will I meet people?”
“This is part and parcel why we chose to travel to Ellis Donan by horse. You will see the Land that you will inherit.”
“Take Jammy.” Blair thrust the cuddly toy into Jamie’s face.
“I’ll give him to Countess Beth.”
“So who are we going to see today?” Gripping with his knees, Blair rose up. The walls of the courtyard were head and shoulders above any stretch he could make.
“We will make our way through the fens.”
The young laird walked the length of the train. Jamie passed the toy along to Countess Beth who was settled in the coach. All were present and correct. His grandfather swung nimbly onto his great war horse, Dyan, Pern’s sire. Rafe, perched on the coach, saluted the young sentinel with two fingers against his temple. At his signal, Jamie returned to his prince, swinging up behind the prince. Blair jiggled, happy to be back on his adventure.
At a great fanfare, the gates to the Talisker homestead swung open. Early morning mist wreathed luscious fens. As one the procession moved forwards.
End Chapter II
Sect of the Sentinel Chapter III
They marched down the King’s Road as the sun rose and burnt off the mist. The prince grinned delightedly, and Jamie saw more than one highland warrior smile at his glee. The laird settled his prince between his thighs; Blair knew the rules – too much bouncing and he would be in the coach before he could protest.
Jamie watched the Land through his prince’s eyes. Seeing it anew he could appreciate its wet grandeur. Normally, he considered the Goodrich Fens as a necessary evil en route to his beloved highlands. By nightfall they would be at the edge of the fens and the next day they would venture in to the low land beech forests.
took in everything, his head bobbing back and forth as he took in the sights.
Perforce, because he was carrying the prince, Jamie rode in the centre of the
twenty strong Legion. The Sentinel looked back along
the detachment of horse guards. Riding two abreast, wearing the colours of the
Royal Family of Acharn, they were an impressive
sight. Trollem bringing up the rear was a tad out of step
with his mate Gains. Their riders,
Firmly clasping Blair against his chest, he allowed his senses to expand forth. His sphere of perception grew until not even the whisper of a cricket escaped him. Blair lay still and silent, lightly stroking the back of Jamie’s hand. Imagining that sphere contracting, Jamie pulled his senses back to his heart. The art of sphere sensing was physically demanding – best tried only when rested and in contact with a guide. If he had extended his senses another hairsbreadth he probably would have spent the rest of the day in the bottom of the coach with a damp cloth over his eyes. But he had determined that no threat was within half a days ride.
“Copper for your thoughts?” Rafe called down from the top of the coach where he lazed in the early morning sun.
“Needs more than a copper,” Jamie growled.
Fraser sat straight at his post, evidently reading his captain’s body language.
“We’ll be drilling tonight, Fraser.”
wheeled Pern about, the great war
horse cantered back down the road.
“Move up,” Jamie ordered. “You are not to guard the rear of the train until I say otherwise.”
Flushed with embarrassment both Clan highlanders moved up. Orbison and Anacaster fell back to take their place, both women appearing impossibly alert.
At a rising trot – Blair well practised at moving with him – Jamie moved back along the train. As he had expected, his legion had realised their error and rode as a team rather than on an outing. Slackers would not be countenanced.
Rafe who hadn’t changed his relaxed pose by an inch waved at them languidly as they trotted past. Jamie did not entertain for one moment that Rafe was not fully aware of the Land around him. Rafe’s role was, however, to watch those close to the prince.
Lord Ellison lifted a wintry eyebrow in greeting as Stephen moved his mount over to make room.
“We will be drilling tonight, Grandfather. Would you wish to join us?”
Ellison smiled and the very air seemed to lighten. “I would not miss it.”
“What are you planning?” Stephen asked curiously.
“We will drill; that is practise manoeuvres until the sun sets. Then a game of fox and hounds is called for.”
Ellis’ smile turned positively feral.
“Two against twenty? Is that fair?” Stephen asked.
Jim bared his teeth wolfishly. “I think that legion needs a good shaking up.”
“What are you going to do, Jim?” Blair piped.
Lord Ellison looked at him disapprovingly. “His Highness should be in the coach.”
“Am where I should be,” Blair countered, “with my sentinel.”
Ellis was resolute. “It would be safer in the coach.”
“Jim’s checked,” Blair snapped. “It’s as safe as the eye can see.”
Jamie shrugged. “There’s nobody on the road.”
“And what of the unseelie?” Ellis countered.
“The unseelie come when the unseelie come,” Jamie said fatalistically. “Anything around, Chief?”
Blair pushed up on the saddle and, his lips pursed and brow furrowed, scanned the fens. “Yep.” He pointed with a stubby finger at the noisome, black midden beside the road.
Both sentinels scowled at the pit. A tiny black tar coated imp glared balefully back at them.
“Ack, it’s only an imp.”
Mortally offended, the imp slapped the tar. Imps could be dangerous to the unwary, and it probably would have revelled in throwing stones at the Legion, but now that they had seen it, abuse would the only thing that it would hurl. Blair listened to the imp, grinning at the insults. A particularly vile cuss prompted Lord Ellison to action.
“Begone.” He conjured a fire elemental with a click of his fingers and a tiny pinch of sulphur. The bird, its wings made of trailing smoke and fire, dove at the being. As the jet-black imp burrowed into the pitch the fire bird snatched it up and both exploded in a ball of flame. Fire shot skywards, the imp shrieking all the way.
Blair watched with his mouth wide open. With a final coruscating burst imp and fire bird disappeared with only trails of smoke marking their passage.
“Do it again,” Blair demanded thoroughly impressed. “Do it again.”
Ellis shook his head at the prince. “That was interesting.”
“I think,” Stephen said slowly, “the black tar burnt.”
“I will ask the apothecary, she will know,” Ellis mused slowly.
Blair tried to click his fingers together, but he lacked both the dexterity and sulphur. Even so, Jamie gently enfolded his smaller hand in his own.
“Don’t, Chief, they’re not toys.”
Air elementals freewheeled happily around the prince. Who knew what would happen if the prince, beloved by air elementals, called up a fire elemental. At the very least, Jamie guessed that it would be impressive.
“But,” Blair protested.
“No. When your tutors reach that part of your schooling, you, Kelson, Wolfe and I are going to talk.”
Blair turned in his seat and grimaced, showing his waggly bottom tooth. “It will be good won’t it?”
“I’m sure that it will be very exciting.” Jamie felt Blair’s fingers wriggle. He lifted his hand and nibbled on his fingertips. Blair giggled. “No fire, Chief.”
“No fire,” Blair agreed, he pulled his hand free and twisted on his seat, to settle back against Jim and knot his fingers in Pern’s mane.
The expression on Lord Ellis’ face plainly said, ‘You indulge him.’
“Don’t call up elementals in front of the prince,” Jamie mouthed, “don’t give him ideas.”
‘Blair with fire and air elementals – what a combination.’ He shook his head.
The fens of Acharn gave way to the lowland birch forests. The silver bark trees grew sparsely, their wide range roots harvesting every last nutrient in the acid soil at their feet. The canopy above the train’s head was thick; light was muted. The lack of undergrowth with the thin spindly trucks rising up to the closed canopy gave the whole setting a lifeless feel. The hoot of the cover owls hunting was the only sound over the clop of the Legion’s hooves.
Blair had pronounced it ‘different’ and ‘kinda quiet’ and had only made a token protest when Countess Beth had called him into the carriage for lessons. The birch forest clung to the edge of the fens and as the elevation increased gave way to the forests with which Jim was familiar. The sentinel relaxed into the scents and sounds from a hodgepodge of different trees, the canopy broken by lightning and storm felled trees. Saplings and bushes vied to grow in the sun speckles. The aura was more vibrant and alive than the trees of the morning gloom. Expanding sentinel senses, Jamie could hear the forest folk harvesting the woods. He licked his lips, he was very partial to roasted acorns.
They were approaching Standings Soft, the largest town in Acharn. Blair was used to the castle and the Citadel on the western slope of Goodrich. He wondered what the prince would make of the environment. He could clearly hear Blair arguing over his mathematics lesson with Countess Beth. Fractions were not making any impression on the child. Blair worked best with examples, and there were little or no tools in the carriage to offer as models. No doubt Countess Beth would be dividing up any pies slated for evening meal into various quarters and eighths. Jamie let his hearing range further. There was some kind of event occurring in the township.
The cheers and fanfare were loud enough for the mundanes in the party to hear long before they turned off the King’s Road to spend the night in the town. Blair poked his head out the coach, but all he could see was the tangle of green trees.
“What’s that, Jim?”
“Don’t know, Chief. But not the Solstice Celebrations. Party?”
“It’s louder than a party,” Ellis said sardonically. The Sentinel of Acharn’s expression became abstracted and then he snorted, “This could be fun.”
“What is it?” Blair demanded. “How come Jim couldn’t tell? Jim?”
Jamie shrugged with one shoulder; it kind of rankled – his grandfather didn’t even have a real guide. The unfamiliar flare of jealousy took him by surprise; who knew he was so competitive. Ellis lifted a snow-white eyebrow in dark humour evidently knowing what he was thinking.
“Mama,” Blair suddenly blurted and then looked surprised.
Ellis smiled widely, a slow easy smile that charmed. Blair grinned back at him, his smile animated and warming. Then Ellis remembered that he was the Sentinel of Acharn and Blair was the Princely Heir and there were certain protocols to be followed.
Jamie shook his head and tried to remember what his grandfather had been like when King Blair, Queen Naomi’s father and Ellis’ guide had been alive. He was fairly sure that his grandfather had been pretty restrained but who knew what King Blair and Ellis of Ellison had got up to.
was definitely a celebration of sorts going on at Standings Soft. The blare of
horns and the howls of a crowd were audible to all. They entered the town and
not a single person observed their passage. Their intention was to spend the
night at the
Jamie’s “Chief,” stopped him dead. The prince shuffled his feet, mulishly. Jim swung down from his mount in a flawlessly easy motion. Fraser leapt forwards to take the reins.
“Countess Beth, please see to our accommodation,“ Ellis directed. The lord strode off towards the noise.
Blair rocked from foot to foot with impatience, every jot of him aching to chase after the sentinel. Jamie caught him by the hand.
“Come on then.”
“Yes.” Blair ran ahead dragging Jamie after him. They cut through the cobbled streets and down a side road between wooden houses. They crossed square in front of the town hall, circling around the flowing fountain, down the lane to emerge behind a crowd of people. They were all cheering and shouting. Whistles cut through the air making Jamie wince. All Blair could see were people’s backs.
“What’s happening?” Blair demanded.
“I’m not too sure. Some kind of game. Make way,” the Laird ordered.
“What?” a heavyset man turned. His girth was held back by a blacksmith’s leather waistcoat. He crossed his arms and looked down a bulbous nose at the two smaller figures.
Rafe, always a splendid figure in his black velvet, appeared almost as if by magic at their side. The assassin simply stood.
“Sorry, milords.” The blacksmith bowed.
Ellis had walked ahead, he had not needed to ask for the crowd to make way, they just had.
“What is it?” Blair pulled ahead, stretching their arms out, tugging Jamie along.
The crowd parted to reveal a rectangular playing field.
“Ah, shynty,” Jamie said knowledgeably.
“What’s shynty?” Blair asked looking down a white painted line on the grass.
“It’s a ball game, Chief.”
Two teams, one dressed in red and the other in yellow, vied for possession of a white air filled bladder. An almighty crack filled the air and one player fell on the grass holding his broken nose. The rest of the scrumble raced, their sticks waving in the air, towards the northern goal.
“He’s hurt!” Blair shrieked above the roar of the crowd.
“It’s okay.” Jamie pointed to a pair of healers running across to the downed man.
“What is this?” Blair demanded. “It’s horrible.”
“It’s Standings Soft verses
“He’s hurt; this isn’t fun,” Blair said to the ancient.
“Don’t worry, Chief. He’s not hurt badly.”
Blair looked at him with an expression close to repulsion. A goal galvanised a cheer, and Blair shivered from the top of his tumbled curls to his toes. He backed against Jamie’s legs. The young sentinel placed his free hand on Blair’s shoulder. With a simple invocation, he shielded them both. Blair relaxed instantly; no doubt the child had been disturbed by the throbbing, passionate emotions in the crowd.
“Shield, Blair,” he murmured.
Blair raised his head to regard his sentinel. “I don’t like this.”
“Shield, Chief. Come on, I taught you how. Imagine the silver sphere, it encloses you and it glows whitely. It’s flexible – reflecting anything that comes to you back to whence it came. Breathe with me.” Jamie inhaled slowly through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. The sentinel could feel Rafe at his back, watching the crowd with assessing eyes. The whispers increased around them as folk took note of the small boy decked in Royal Purple. Even if Blair’s actual status wasn’t known, Jamie’s black leather tunic bore a shield, a reverse of the House of Sandburg, where the Cat rampant guardian stood over the Wolf couchant on a tincture of pure argent, on his right sleeve. The only interpretation when coupled with the distinctive plaid of the Clan Ellison was that the Sentinel of Acharn was present. Which was something of a personal joke since he wasn’t Acharn’s Sentinel – his grandfather had that honour – he was the Prince’s Sentinel.
Jamie scanned the crowd, focussing on his grandfather. The older sentinel was on the Lord and Ladies’ tier cheering the home team to victory. Knowing that he was observed, Ellis pointed to the free seats on his left, in invitation. The Mayor of Standings Soft was standing next to Lord Ellison with a fixed stare of terror on his jowly face. Jamie wondered what shenanigans the man was up to. That level of fear meant that the man was committing acts against the Queen or Danu.
“Jamie?” Rafe asked, gesturing to the high platform.
“Come on, Chief.” Jamie kept a hold of Blair but he seemed to show no inclination to run off, which was his normal wont. The crowd parted before them. Now that he was shielded, Blair was interested in everything. One man in particular grabbed Blair’s attention. He held a standard of blue and white and was waving it frantically. He had taken off his tunic displaying his bare belly and had painted it wode blue and chalk white. A spindly youth screamed abuse at the playing field, his language so appalling that Blair didn’t react not understanding a word that he hurled. Blair was used to the Royal Court and the celebrations, but for the most part the participants were restrained. This crowd was anything but reserved.
“What’s that?” Blair pointed at a young woman selling caramel-coated apples from a tray balanced on her pregnant stomach. She was so near delivering time that Jamie was surprised that she was working.
It only took Jamie an instant to decide. “Do you want one, Rafe?”
“No.” The dapper assassin shuddered.
“You used to be really fond of sweets.”
“Uhm.” Rafe grimaced, “a mentor allowed me to pig myself sick on fudge, I’ve never enjoyed sweets since.”
Pausing in front of the expectant mother, Jamie handed out a bronze chit. “Two, please.”
“No charge, milords,” she whispered.
“I insist,” and in the face of her obstinate air, Jamie said, “for the little one.”
“Babies,” Blair chirped from his position right next to her fecund tummy. “Two babies.”
“Twins, Chief?” Jamie smiled at the woman. “Congratulations.”
“Twins?” the soon-to-be mother echoed. “Two?”
Blair placed a small hand on her apron and his eyes drifted shut. His mouth opened in a soundless exclamation of delight. “They love you.” He grinned showing his wobbly tooth.
“Thank you,” she stuttered, “Sire.”
“Am not a ‘Sire’,” Blair said suddenly sullen. “I’m a ‘Highness’ and I’m not a ‘Sire’ until mama dies. I don’t want to be a ‘Sire’.”
“Don’t worry, Blair.” Jamie tugged the prince against his hip. “It won’t happen for a very long time.”
“Your mama loves you too,” the mother blurted. “She’ll do her best never to leave. Danu holds her in Her heart.”
Blair’s pure pleasure at her words was visible as his aura flared brightly enough to impinge on the real world. Jamie reinforced their protection, blurring the manifestation of Blair’s emotive ability from casual view.
“For both your babies.” Jamie gifted the woman with another chit.
She curtsied as Jamie drew Blair away. The sentinel was aware of the open mouthed interest around them. He rose above it; he was a Highland Laird.
“I never got my sweets,” Blair grumbled.
Blair watched Jamie cheer as yet another ball was thrown into the back of the square net on the far side of the grassy field. The players almost hooted louder than the crowd. The man that had thrust the bladder in the net ran away from everyone else until a woman wearing the same colours caught him. Lots of hugging and more cheering ensued. Blair thought it very confusing and deciding that his protector was thoroughly occupied, he opted to explore rather than watch the game. He carefully undid the silk ruff around his neck and then slipped out of his velvet doublet. Since Jamie was screaming at the new man that had the ball, Blair was unobserved. The prince contemplated them for a moment and then left both in a heap under his seat. As Blair slipped away he pulled his white shirt out of his pants bottoms and allowed the tails to hang over the distinctive purple. A lady decked in fur raised her hand about to comment. Blair crossed his legs and pointed furtively to the back of the wooden enclave.
“Do you need any help?” she asked circumspectly.
“No,” Blair said affronted, he was eight.
Yet another roar from the playing field distracted the woman, and Blair beetled away. He skipped down the wooden steps at the back of the viewing platform and into the crowd. His first port of call was the apple seller.
“Can I have my apple now?” he asked, his clear voice carrying over the crowd.
The woman’s eyes widened in astonishment. “Milord!”
“Shush,” Blair hissed and held out his hand.
Clearly concerned, the woman looked around. “Where is the other lord?”
Blair jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Watching that. Can I have my apple, please?”
“Of course.” She handed across an especially glossy one.
“Thank you.” Blair crunched on the apple and was promptly surprised by the hard coating. “Ow.”
“What’s the matter?” the woman squeaked.
“My tooth.” Blair held up the apple. A single white baby tooth was wedged in the caramel.
“Oh, by the grace of Danu.” The woman backed away. “I am so sorry, milord. I didn’t mean any harm.”
“Alisa.” A woman, whose raven black hair was streaked with fine white lines, joined them. “Children lose teeth all the time. You’re all right, aren’t you, son?” She was an older version of the soon-to-be mother.
“Mother, you don’t understand.”
Blair held still as she squatted, caught him by the chin and tipped his head back.
“Ah, it came out clean; it was ready to fall out. Where’s your mama, son?”
“Back at the…,” Blair began to answer. “Over there.” He waved in the direction where he thought the Citadel stood.
“Go find her and tell her that your tooth came out, she’ll give you a sovereign.” She sent Blair on his way with a pat on his bottom. Apple clutched to his chest, Blair ran off to explore. He dodged between people’s legs, avoiding the occasional grasp at his shoulder. The crowd thinned out the further he ran. He wasn’t too sure that he liked the crowd. It was too – Blair came to an abrupt halt to contemplate. The mishmash of colours emanating from the excited people made him sick to his stomach. They were happy, angry, furious, so many different emotions that he could feel them scurrying over his skin. There was a dull roar between his ears, which made the noise from the crowd echo in his head.
Blair rubbed his nose with his shirtsleeve as he squinted up at the Royal Assassin. “I was exploring, Rafe.”
“I think it would be better if you explored Lady Calum’s mansion. Less people.”
“They’re so loud,” Blair winced.
“You know how to shield,” Rafe directed.
“Yes.” He hung his head and concentrated. The sphere deadened the cacophony of passions.
“Ready to go back?” Rafe asked carefully. The assassin pointed to the apple. ”What’s that?”
“My tooth.” Blair held it up and let Rafe take it.
“It’s about time you started losing your bottom teeth. The tooth elf will bring you a gold sovereign tonight.”
“Really?” he asked intrigued. “That’s just a fable for littles, isn’t it?”
“No, when you lose you teeth the tooth elf brings goodies. Perhaps you can buy something at the market tomorrow.”
“I’ve never bought anything before.” Blair bounced happily along at Rafe’s side. “What shall I buy? Something for mama?”
“It’s customary to treat yourself.”
“Huh.” Blair mused intrigued. A treat for himself. He couldn’t really think of anything. “Sweets?”
“You know, if you eat too many sweeties you’ll become fat.”
“No, I won’t,” Blair refuted. “My tutor says that magic comes from within and needs fuel. I can eat sweets and cast spells. He said that Mage Wizards of Hannahanna had tried casting spells and not eating and they starved to death. It was,” he finished seriously, “an experiment.”
“Well, Blair, all I can say is that women will hate you.”
Standings Soft stood on the edge of the Highland Mountains that formed the first barrier on the edge of the north of Acharn. Ancient geological forces had twisted the landscape, rucking the land like a pleated skirt. The further north that one travelled the higher and more impassable the mountains became. Sgurr na Bannachdich, Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh and Sgurr Deary formed the highest mountain range and they guarded the north east lochs which were the home of the Clan Ellison. The town of Standings Soft was the main waystation before venturing in the Highlands, a place to refuel, find guides, wait out the rolling storms and buy equipment.
The town stood soft upon the body of Danu. When she turned over in her sleep the town quivered, but the gently constructed paper houses simply shuddered. If they fell the hurts were small. The hot springs welling from the crevasses weaving through the town were famed throughout Acharn and the lands beyond her borders. Danu’s tears were judged to possess healing qualities and bathing in the warm pools cured many ills.
The grating of Danu’s bones made Jamie’s teeth ache and he knew that the sooner they moved into the granite mountains the better he would feel. Blair had weathered a minor event over breakfast with a wide eyed expression and pronounced that Mother now felt better. Jamie had thought that his grandfather was going to pass an egg at Blair’s words.
The Laird cast a weather eye down the Legion; they were on top form, still chastised from their trouncing. On the moonless night, four nights past, Laird Jamie and Lord Ellison had subjected their men to manoeuvres, and taught them the error of inattention and laziness. Jamie had enjoyed himself thoroughly.
Now they were about to enter the Highlands. Jamie contained an uncharacteristic shiver of anticipation; he was a Sentinel, sentinels were calm, controlled and remote.
“Hey, Jim.” Blair appeared his side and flung his arms around his hips. “It’s an adventure!”
Jamie looked down at the face smiling up at him. “Chief,” he said fondly, “are you enjoying yourself?”
Blair nodded, his corkscrew curls falling in his eyes. “You know, I like arriving in a new place. I like exploring a new place and I like leaving to travel somewhere new. I really like travelling.” He then proclaimed, “When mama was eighteen she went to Hannahanna. I think I want to go farther.”
“Aye, well, we’ll see about that.”
“Mama did it.”
“And? As I said we’ll see.”
“You do promise?”
“Blair, we’re not travelling down this road…”
“We are,” Blair interrupted and released his hold on Jamie long enough to indicate the path that they were about embark upon.
“It’s a metaphor, a phrase to say that I don’t want to talk about it just yet.”
“When?” Blair asked tenaciously.
“When you’re,” Jamie pondered, “seventeen.”
“Seventeen?” he echoed, aghast. “Seventeen? That’s in forever.”
Jamie caught the round face between his sword callused hands. “You’ll be surprised; it will come very quickly.”
“Do you promise?” Blair continued earnestly.
Jamie gave the request the consideration that it deserved. “I promise.”
“Yes, I believe you.” Blair smiled a gap toothed smile.
“Get thyself into the coach for your lessons, we’ll be riding into the Gateway Mountains by sunset.”
Blair laughed and ducked away as Jamie’s reached out to gently clip him round the ear. “I cannae do me lessons,” he said in a passable Highland accent.
“And why’s that?” Jamie’s eyebrow rose.
“Countess Beth has tae gan to her mam.”
“What?” Jamie shook his head, he was going to curb the time that the prince spent with Fraser.
“Countess Beth received a message from carrier pigeon today. Her sister’s baby is likely to come early and she has to go witness the--” Blair cocked his head to the side as he recounted, “--continuation of the matrilineal line.”
“Oh.” If Jim remembered correctly, and he normally did, the House of Connolly followed the mother’s line rather than the most responsible child of the parents’ loins regardless of gender. “Who’s going to do your lessons?”
“Hmm.” Blair clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels. “I was a thinkin’ that I deserved a holiday.”
Blair nodded seriously. “A holiday.”
“A holiday is it?” Jamie said with a glint of humour in his eye.
“You’re not going to let me are you,” Blair said sagely.
“Nope.” Jim turned on his heel. “I’m going to go talk with Countess Beth and ask her about your lessons.”
“Aw, Jim.” Blair chased after him. “I don’t want to do fractions.”
End Chapter III
Sect of the Sentinel Chapter IV
Blair sat half on Jamie’s lap and half on Pern’s saddle. The sentinel kept one arm firmly wrapped around his charge’s waist. Blair was as happy a larch hen, chirping with delight, as they trotted along the high trail, bordered on either side by the mixed forest of oak and coniferous trees, the cadence of Blair’s chirping was Why? Why? Why? What? What?
The forest seethed with life, green verdant, filled with animals. Blair made a determined effort to wriggle out of Jamie’s grasp at every interesting sound.
“Chief, I’m going to ask Rafe for his whip and use it to tie you to Pern’s neck.”
“Ooh, kinky,” Rafe whispered light enough for only a sentinel to hear.
Jamie shot the royal assassin a black glare. Rafe pulled his horse around and cantered to the back of the royal procession.
“What did he say?” Blair piped up.
Lady Beth had taken the carriage east along the Ninial Estuary to her home on the grass flats, along with a cadre of the legion, leaving Blair under Jim’s care. The young sentinel had debated giving the prince his promised Highland pony, but the lad was still too small. Daniel, his school companion, was a head taller and he was a tiny scrap. Blair could handle an old, slow, well-trained pony but the prince’s safety couldn’t be trusted to a broken down nag. He needed another inch in height and a gold tot in weight, before he could possibly have the strength to handle a horse in a raid; shying away from an assault.
Since they had dispensed with the coach they could take the highroad rather than low, winding road. The trails and roads were less well travelled. Jim preferred the highroad, it was starker, harsher, greener -- it made his senses sing.
They were in dragon country. Teetering crags in the distance were dusted with snow and lilac mist. On their left the trail dropped away in a sheer rock face, trees crowded in the valley below creating an impenetrable carpet. Their trail twisted into the forest, and then travelled downwards following a tumbling stream.
“We’ll break at the base of the hill where the brooks meet.” Jamie called ahead to his grandfather.
The older sentinel lifted his hand in acknowledgement. Their soon-to-be camping ground was one of their favourite stopping places. The plunge pool ahead of them, formed by the cascading stream they were following, was perfect for swimming and fishing. On the edge natural shingle beach, where two highland streams met, there was a small flat grassy meadow which meant they could pitch their tents without clearing away stones.
Jamie leaned back in his saddle as Pern picked his way carefully down the steep path and Blair echoed his movement. Sean was at the head of the train and first to turn off from the stone path and onto the meadow. Pern scenting water jigged sideways, and Jamie controlled him easily. They deserved a rest; while it was early, the Legion would make camp and enjoy a moderately leisurely evening. Jamie directed Pern off the path and then, with the slightest of pulls on the reins directed the stallion to halt. Before Pern had stopped, Blair had wriggled down from the saddle and was running to the pool. Jim resisted his automatic response to yell at him to stop. Blair skidded to a halt on the shingle beach and promptly squatted down to peer at the water.
A flash of angry red caught Blair’s eye. He picked his way over the rocks and roots tangling together on the banks of the brook. Tucked between two water smoothed stones was a flare of sickly green light speckled with blood red. Blair crouched down beside a little frog. It was glossy brown, and its left leg lay at a strange angle.
“Oh, poor thing.” Gently, Blair scooped up the frog and cupped it in his hands. He trotted down the stream to where the water cascaded over a tiny waterfall.
“Hullo,” Blair cajoled. “Can you help me?”
In response to his words a transparent water elemental rose from the bubbling brook. She was tall, easily three times the height of the boy, but as thin as a willow. A minnow swam inside her form. Her hair was a knotted mass of river weed and her eyes were frozen diamonds. The water elemental knelt majestically in the cool water, the cascading water mimicking her skirts.
“How may I help you?”
“He’s got a sore leg.” Blair held up his hands. “Can you help him?”
The water elemental brushed the quivering frog’s back. “His leg is broken. I’m sorry, child, he will pass onto Danu’s heart to be born anew.”
“No,” Blair wailed softly. “He’s just got a sore leg. Cindy helped me when I fell and hurt my arm.”
“And how did she do that?”
Blair’s face scrunched up as he thought. “She made it glow gold.”
“Perhaps you can help your frog?”
“And then you can look after him until he gets better? ‘Cause frogs like water and he’ll dry out in my pocket.”
“You are a very wise boy.”
“I can see auras, I haven’t figured out how to change them. But I know it needs to be gold.” Blair leaned forward earnestly. “Do you know how?”
“Perhaps Danu can help you?”
Blair grinned luminously; that was a good idea. He dropped to his knees on the earth. Carefully, he cupped the frog in one hand and planted the other on the grass. The leaves tickled his fingers.
“Mama?” he called. Deep within the earth he felt the warmth of a hug. Danu enfolded him. Silica and granite formed his bones and red hot larva was his blood. He breathed air. He could feel his birth mama on top of Goodrich and she bent down and kissed his brow. Blair could almost feel the touch of her lips upon his forehead. But he remembered why he was here.
“Danu?” he held the frog up high. “Can you help?”
Danu shifted and opened her great eyes. Blair felt her hand resting on his head. Chewing on his lip, Blair focused on the frog, its aura was fading and was tinged with a sickly green.
“Make it gold,” Blair entreated.
The answer was unmistakable, ‘You.’
There was no answer, just the continuing feeling that she held him close. If Danu thought he could do it, he could do it. He pictured the aura change colour, imagining it bit by bit, changing to a bright, glorious gold.
Blair snarled in frustration. The hand holding the frog flashed an angry, seething red. Blair felt Danu hug him close and the rage whispered away and his aura smoothed back to its incandescent yellow. Realisation that Danu was helping came to the prince in a flash. Blair wished with all his heart and soul to change to gold; wanting to heal. The yellow slowly became tinged with cool gold and little silver sparkles. Blair held his breath as it seeped into the frog’s fading aura.
Startled, Blair dropped the frog. “Nooo,” he wailed.
The little green frog fell. Before it could hit the soil the water elemental snatched it up, and with a splash both fell into the brook and were washed downstream.
“You made me drop my frog,” Blair snapped at the stranger emerging from the undergrowth. He was tall, taller than Jamie, and dressed in forest green to merge with the trees. A scruffy beard marred his square jaw. It was a lighter colour than his mid-brown shoulder length hair.
“I’m sorry.” He dropped down to one knee, but was still head and shoulders above Blair.
Blair craned his head to look back down the brook and wondered how fast it would take Jamie to reach them.
Blair glanced back at the forester. He leaned forward and squinted at the man’s aura, it -- like Rafe’s --was silvery smooth. Blair settled for looking at his pale grey eyes; it was always possible to see people’s souls in their eyes.
“You with the party?” The forester gestured at Blair’s princey clothes.
Blair stroked at the black velvet tabard. He had lost the silk ruff around his throat a ways back along the brook. Blair nodded solemnly, his corkscrew curls bobbing in his eyes.
“Jim makes me wear proper clothes.”
“My protector. He’s on his way here now.”
“Really?” the man said with slight scorn. “I can’t hear him.”
“He’s not making any noise.” Blair’s eyes took on an otherworldly cast. “Are you sure you can’t hear him breathing?”
The forester rose lithely. Absently, he brushed a lank lock behind his ear to better listen. Blair saw that the tip of his ear was slightly pointed. “Ah, you’re right.”
“He’s going to overreact when he sees me here, isn’t he?”
“Probably,” Blair agreed. “He’s just drawn his sword.”
The forester stepped back and allowed the undergrowth to enclose him. “Perhaps a personage such as you shouldn’t leave their blessed protector, it could cause an incident.”
“No fun in that,” Blair said truculently.
A branch swished and the scruffy man disappeared. “‘Til we meet again, Prince Blair.”
Jamie’s appearance should have been orchestrated. As the leaves settled ahead of Blair, the laird emerged from the undergrowth behind him. He was flushed with exertion, and brandishing his broad sword, but his breathing was controlled and he was as silent as a cat.
“Blair, who was here?”
“A man dressed in green and brown.” He pointed ahead to the branches that showed no evidence of the man’s passing; not a single twig was damaged.
Jamie galloped past him, stopping just at the edge of the rhododendron bush where the forester had paused to speak. His nostrils flared as he scented his prey. “A Man. An adult man. Did he try anything, Blair?”
Blair shook his head. “No, but he lied.”
“Lied?” Jamie echoed. The urge to run after the forester was proclaimed loudly by the set of his shoulders and the unease of his gait. But Blair knew that Jamie wouldn’t leave him alone.
“Yes. He’s silver, you only get silver if you’re hiding something. And,” Blair yawned tiredly, “he called me Prince Blair and pretended just before that he didn’t know who I was.”
“Come on,” Jamie thrust out his hand.
Blair let him grip his hand. He trotted at his sentinel’s side, as Jamie strode out. He was pulled down stream, over rocks and twisted roots. The sentinel was angry; it was not fair. He couldn’t go anywhere without a watcher because he was a prince of the crown. Jamie forded the stream and Blair stumbled. He was so very tired.
“Chief?” Jamie reached down and circled an arm around his waist. Blair leaned into him, and allowed Jamie to pick him up. He snuggled his head in the crook of Jamie’s neck and went to sleep.
Jamie cast a shocked glance at his sleeping charge. Blair was a limp weight against his shoulder.
“Blair?” He jiggled his prince, but Blair was out for the count. This was not natural. Jamie picked up his pace, splashing through the water. He had to get back to the camp and his grandfather; the older sentinel would know what to do. The scent of highland broth cooking on a wood fire was his beacon. The stream widened just before their camp, and Fraser, crouched on a rocky shore, was filling an urn with water. He stood as he saw the young sentinel.
“Get my grandfather.”
Jamie forged through the water and past his highlander. The camp was set, the tents raised and the horses bedded down. Lord Ellison looked at them immediately, unsurprisingly well aware of their approach. Jamie cast his broadsword aside, knowing that Fraser would tend to it, and swung Blair into both arms.
“What happened?” Ellis was at his side in an instant. He laid a knowing hand on the boy’s forehead. “No fever; he’s cool.”
“He met a man out there. He said that there was nothing wrong, but he just passed out on me.”
“Fraser, Rafe, go see if you can find this man,” Ellis directed.
“A league up the stream, there is a small waterfall under a fallen tree truck. Blair was playing there,” Jamie supplied.
“If it is poison, you may need my help,” Rafe pointed out.
Ellis nodded curtly. “Guy, go with Fraser.”
“Aye, milord.” Both highlanders ran to the water.
“I’ll go as well, grandfather,” Stephen snatched up his lowland rapier and hared after the men.
Ellis spared a moment to glower at his younger grandson, before gripping Jamie’s elbow and directing him after Rafe. The assassin was running for his tent and his tools.
The Royal Assassin was unfurling a small, black velvet roll as Jamie laid his burden on a low cot. The sentinel glimpsed an assortment of vials and needles, before turning back to the prince. For all intents and purposes, Blair appeared to be sleeping. He shared a concerned glance with his grandfather. The older sentinel began to carefully undress the boy as Rafe picked up Blair’s hand and peered at his fingertips.
“The nail beds are pink and healthy,” the assassin announced.
“That is a good sign?”
Rafe poked a finger in Blair’s mouth and lifted up his lip to examine his gums. “Good blood flow. Poisons often make your gums pale or bright red.”
Ellis spoke, “I find no evidence of wounds. What exactly happened, son?”
“I was wandering up the stream looking for Blair when I heard him speaking with a water elemental. He found a frog, I think it was injured.”
“He called up a water elemental? Perhaps he over extended himself?” Ellis mused. The sentinel settled back on his haunches, he extended his hands and shook them. Then with great deliberation set his palms on either side of the prince’s face. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. The habitual furrows on his brow smoothed.
Jamie held his breath as his grandfather extended his othersense. The old sorcerer was adept at sensing disturbances in the natural and unnatural order of things. Sentinel senses gave him an advantage. Ellis breathed out slowly, his breath hissing out between clenched teeth.
“I believe Prince Blair attempted a healing,” Ellis said. “He’s sleeping.”
“Healing!” Jamie swore under his breath, the little brat had scared him stupid. “I’ll bloody well whale the tar out of him.”
Ellis snorted. “By the time you supply me with a great-grandson, you’ll be really good at this father thing.”
“I’m not his father,” Jamie grated.
“You’re the next best thing. If only Naomi had told us who Blair’s father was.” Ellis sighed introspectively.
“Since, I’m kind of redundant in this conversation and I’m not needed anymore,” Rafe said introspectively, “I’ll make myself scarce.”
“I’ll put him in my tent.” Jamie bent down to wrap his prince in a blanket
“He’s welcome to stay here,” Rafe said, gesturing expansively.
“That’s not necessary.” Jamie lifted his prince.
His clan were waiting on tenterhooks outside. Several were honing their broadswords. All looked ready to tear and rend whosoever had dared lay a hand upon the prince. Jamie read their devotion and raised his head high in acknowledgement.
“The prince is fine and is only sleeping,” he said getting straight to the crux. Their sigh of relief was heartfelt. “We know not what happened, the prince did meet someone out in the woods, but his malaise is due to a failed healing. We will stay here until the prince awakes. I want a guard mounted. When Fraser returns send him to me immediately.”
“Yes, Laird Jamie,” his ghillie answered.
The sleeping boy rolled over in his cot and curled around his cuddly toy. Automatically, Jamie reached over from his bedroll and flicked Blair’s blanket back over his shoulder. Jamie turned onto his back holding on to his blanket against his chin and kicked out with his feet, straightening out his blankets. Some days he just wanted his feather bed and silk sheets.
Hands folded behind his head, he stared up at the stretch of canvas above his head. Who was the man that Blair had met in the forest? What had Blair tried, and failed, to heal? The frog? There was so much to consider; he doubted that he would ever fall asleep.
Pondering his place in the scheme of things, Jamie fell asleep with his mouth wide open.
Blair rolled onto his other side and opened his eyes. Jamie slept a handspan away and he was snoring. Why he didn’t wake himself up, Blair did not know. Reaching out, he pinched Jamie’s nose. He coughed and turned onto his back. Blessed silence reigned, but now he was awake and there was never any chance that he would go back to sleep.
Blair cast off his blankets and slipped off the cot. He spared a moment of contemplation on why he was just wearing his shirt before he ducked out of the tent. Jamie’s ghillie was coaxing the morning fire into life.
Blair crouched down at his side. “Porridge?”
“Aye, Lord Blair, good wholesome porridge.”
“I don’t like porridge.”
“I should make you eat porridge until you’re twenty.” Jamie joined them.
“Hey, Jim.” The prince rocked back on his heels to better look at his sentinel. His aura was a dull beige and curiously flattened, as if pulled like taffy. Blair had not seen that effect before, he couldn't begin to guess its meaning. He reached out and grabbed a handful -- it even felt sticky.
Jim glanced at him in askance and his aura flared yellow. The fragment in Blair's hand stayed uncommunicative and opaque.
"What the matter, Jim?"
“What happened yesterday? What have I told you about running off? That man could have done anything.”
Blair let his hand fall open and the aura dribbled through his fingers like viscous cold broth. “I was just playing.”
“Don’t you understand? You’re Blair Nechtan Finn of the House of Sandburg-Bran, Holder of the Keys to the Weardian, Heir to the Lands of Acharn and Protector of the People, you have responsibilities to your people and wandering off isn’t one of them.”
“I was just playing,” Blair protested again.
“You could have been killed! That man could have took you.”
“Why would anyone want to take me?”
Jim seemed to fold into a smaller, older person. Blair watched horrified, trying to interpret the miasma of colours enfolding his Sentinel. There was a tinge to the colours -- grey and lowering -- and he didn’t know what it meant. It wasn’t actually a colour, it was more of a heavy, leaden taste that weighed him down.
“Blair,” Jim began and then he changed tack abruptly. “Please, just tell me where you’re going to play, so I know that you’re safe.”
Blair rose from his crouch, unerringly arrowed to his sentinel’s side, nestling under the arm that was lifted to allow him to hug close.
“Sorry, Jim. I thought I was safe, even when I saw the ranger, it felt right.”
Jim squeezed him close. “You have to learn to balance your instincts against your common sense.”
“But I was safe.”
Jim sighed so deeply that Blair felt his rib cage expand. “And what if it had all gone wrong and I wasn’t close enough to get to you.”
“You always will,” Blair refuted and shivered as a coldness as cold as the deepest, wettest, most abandoned dungeon in Goodrich seemed to enclose him.
“I will do my utmost,” Jim intoned.
Blair hugged the cold, aloof statue that was suddenly his Sentinel. He struggled to understand the new textures and phases to the aura that he knew so well. Abruptly, he drew back from Jim’s side, and shuffled around so he could look him in the eye.
“What do you see, Jim?” he asked solemnly.
“Nothing, just a feeling. Blair.” He smiled, painfully. “You just have to promise me, Blair, that you’ll think before you run off. It’s one thing to explore the Citadel, another to run off in the middle of nowhere.”
Blair held his hand over his heart. “I promise, well… sort of… sometime I get lost in my head and then I’m a ways a way and I didn’t mean to do it, it just -- you know -- happens.”
“Like the castle secret passages, eh?”
Blair’s eyes gleamed. “If we’re invaded and barbarians run over the Citadel and I know where to hide it might save us all.”
“Don’t borrow trouble, Chief.”
“Oh.” Blair looked abashed. “You know, if I do get in trouble I can try magic.”
Jamie grabbed his hands before he could even wriggle his fingers. “No.”
Jamie’s eyebrow rose in question.
“I figured it out, like when Whitecap yelled at me and the werefey came and frightened him. When I’m annoyed the elementals come. I bet I can call fire.”
“No, Blair,” Jim said seriously, “you can’t do that. You’ll be hurting people.”
“But you just said that I would be in danger.”
“Being in danger doesn’t mean that you can hurt people. You need to understand what’s happening. The first art of conflict is to know your enemy. The second art is that your enemy may become your friend when you know them.”
Blair mulled over those words. “Eh?”
Jim smiled and squeezed his hands. “When you get to know people they may become your friends. The trick is knowing when you know them, it helps if you have a friend with you when you meet potential new friends.”
“You,” Blair said simply.
“Yes, me.” Jim released his hands.
“I knew that already.”
“So why did you run off?”
“I didn’t run off.”
“So you boys have just went full circle in this conversation.” Ellis dropped on a log set beside the fire for just that purpose and stretched out his long legs. “How are you feeling, Prince Blair?”
“Like my tummy is hollow. I need some breakfast.”
“The porridge is nearly ready, your highness.” The ghillie poked at the fire.
“Actually, Prince Blair, porridge is the best thing that you can take after casting a spell, especially with some nuts, dried fruit and honey.” Ellis nodded to Jamie’s ghille who reached for a pot of honey.
“It doesn’t matter what you put in it; it’ll still be porridge,” Blair grumbled.
“Consider it a lesson.” Jim tugged Blair back to sit at his side.
Still grumbling, Blair accepted the bowl of porridge. There were lumps of dried, dark fruit that just looked like flies. Jim dropped a generous spoonful of summer honey in the centre of the bowl.
“I don’t like porridge.”
“M’lord?” The ghillie leaned over proffering a small jug of thick, sweet cream. “I like it with porridge.”
Blair held his bowl out. The ghillie let a dollop fall on top of the honey. “Jim doesn’t like cream,” Blair said conversationally, “it gives him an upset tummy.”
“I know, Prince Blair. He was a poorly wee tyke until we guessed that milk didn’t set well on him.”
Blair squinted at the old man, who he knew from everywhere but he suddenly realised that he didn’t him know at all. The ghillie looked after Jamie, picked up after him, kept his clothes, clean and was always close.
“You’ve always looked after Jim?”
“Since he before he was a page in the Royal Court.”
“Did he ever get in trouble?” Blair asked cannily.
The ghillie looked him straight in the eye. Blair looked back squinting through the man’s veil of heavy, bristly eyebrows to his soul.
“No, Prince Blair, Jamie never got into trouble.”
The ghillie was as opaque as The Wizard Sultan when he was doing his utmost to control his loud, singing aura.
Ellis concentrated on his own bowl, but said absently, “He was never caught doing anything wrong.”
And that Blair could see was an out and out truth.
Blair,” Jim said deliberately and Blair cringed at the forethought in his tone.
“You said that
“Yes, the sort that needs components not the…” Blair hunted for the right word. Jim waited patiently for him to speak. Mutely, Blair crossed his hands and pressed them over his heart.
Jim nodded, understanding. “What sort of components?”
“All sorts of stuff, dried dead things and powders. Like the yellow powder that he uses.” Blair looked at the Queen’s Sentinel.
“That Lord Ellis uses,” Jim corrected.
“That Lord Ellis uses.”
“Do you remember any of these spells?”
“Oh, yeah, but the stuff’s nasty, like Cindy’s jars with her mice with the insides on the outside. The powder stuff is fun, I want some of that yellow powder.”
“You can’t have any.”
Blair continued as if he hadn’t heard. “I’m pretty sure that I don’t need any powder for fire. I think that I can call fire.” Abstracted, Blair fell silent. He could hear merry giggles and feel the whisper of the tiny elementals that rode the wind around him. The one that danced by his shoulder bowed at its waist and stuck its tongue out. It bobbed down close to the fire as Blair leaned forward to peer at the guttering flames. A bright eyed wyrm lounged in the white-hot base of the fire, glowing at hotly as the glowing coals. It was a tiny version of the larger dragons he had seen in scholarly texts pictured wrapped around hills.
“Blair, what are you looking at?”
“I’ve seen little people dancing in candles.” The wyrm blinked slowly, golden scaly lids sweeping over jet black eyes.
“Is there a person in the fire?”
Jim wrapped a warm arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. “Elementals have their own life. You can’t dictate to them.”
“I don’t.” Blair smiled at the cloud garbed air elemental twirling before him. Elementals made their own choices, but they listened to him.
End Chapter IV
Sect of the Sentinel Chapter V
“Almost there,” Jim whispered in a button-like ear.
Blair quivered before him. “Really?” He rose up in the saddle and peered futilely through the dense forest of fir trees.
“Can you smell it.”
“Smell what?” Blair sniffed loudly. “What is it?”
“The sea. Eilean Ellis is on the edge of a sea loch.”
“The sea? I’ve read about the sea, it’s salty.”
“That’s what you’re smelling.”
Blair sniffed again, mantling like a young hawk. “Smells more than salty,” he pronounced.
“Well, yes, it is a bit more complicated. Tomorrow after we’ve rested we’ll go down to the shore and I’ll show you how to catch crabs.”
“Why can’t we go now?”
“We’re not there yet, Chief, we won’t be their ‘til sunset and then it will be time for supper.”
Blair felt Jamie tense and he knew that they were nearly upon Eilean Ellis. Eagerly, he too sat up straight. Pern sensing home picked up the pace, and the cadre of guards trotted smartly with them. Emerging from the swath of luxuriant trees, Blair had his first view of Eilean Ellis. It was as Jamie had said a castle on an island. Blair sighed happily, it was everything that he had dreamed of. It felt warm, the many turrets might be dressed in cold black Highland granite but it felt welcoming. The clan home of the Ellis covered the whole of the small island apart from a strip of grass on the northern edge. It seemed to have grown over time, with different architects adding onto the proud keep that stood in the centre of the island. On the southern wall -- protected from the northern born storms -- was a small pier lined with moored fishing smacks. A stone built bridge arched the short span between the mainland and the island.
“Look.” Jamie pointed to the backdrop of mountains skirting the sea loch. Across the stretch of water and halfway up the great mountain of Sgurr na Bannachdich he could see a line of lights in the evening gloom.
“What are they?”
“That is Holdskeep.”
“When the Clan grew out of the keep. We built the stronghold on Sgurr na Bannachdich. It will never be taken; it is unassailable.”
Jamie continued. “Look to the west. There’s the Pass between Sgurr na Bannachdich and a’Ghreadaidh that we came through. We skirted down the forest paths of a’Ghreadaidh to here.”
“I can’t see them.” All he could see was a forest of greens, dark verdant and healthy. Higher up the mountain the setting sun turned the heather a burnished gold.
Jamie simply laughed. He lightly tapped Pern’s flanks sending the stallion forward at a near gallop. Blair grabbed the pommel of Pern’s saddle and hung on.
The legion cantered over the bridge as one, Pern at their head. The gates were flung open at their approach and they rode into the main courtyard. Greetings were called left, right and centre as friends and family saw one another. Blair was opened mouthed with the glee of it all.
They were one big family. He could feel it in his heart, like knew like. Blair quivered with the torrent of emotions washing over him, it was like bathing in the Wizard Sultan’s fizzy sherbet.
Cannily, he looked to Steven, green eyed, jealous Steven. Whoever wrote of jealousy being green had to been able to see auras. The youngest son of the head of the clan positively exuded envy.
Blair didn’t understand why; he was home and a member of a family that glowed so warmly that Blair felt like a lizard basking in sunlight.
Jamie launched out of Pern’s saddle and swept down on a tall sturdy woman that held her arms outstretched. He dove happily into the hug.
“James, it’s been too long.”
“It’s only been months and months.”
Blair slipped down from Pern and padded across to their side. He wanted a closer look at this woman who he guessed was Ellis’ wife. He glanced around for his mother’s Sentinel. Ellis was smiling at his oldest grandson and wife who were still hugging.
“Hey, my turn.”
“Ellis.” Lady Ellison turned so she could kiss her husband right on the lips with a loud smack. She did not relinquish her hold on her grandson.
Blair turned back to Steven. He waited patiently until he had his attention. Steven met his gaze squarely. They studied one another. Blair cocked his head, pointing him towards the hug.
Steven didn’t move.
Blair widened his eyes deliberately entreating and nodded towards them again. Steven took a tentative step forward and the Lady Ellis saw him.
“Come over here, Steven,” she demanded imperiously.
Steven moved into the hug and Blair was struck at how much smaller Steven was than Jim. The seething lime colour of his aura oozed to neutral beige.
“Grandmother,” Jamie was speaking, “this is Prince Blair.”
Blair smiled at the woman; she was radiant.
“Blair, this is the Lady Fionula nla Alain. Lord Ellis’ wife.”
Blair bowed precisely, as taught. “Lady.”
Polite pleasantries over, Blair stared unabashedly at the lady. Her hair was white with a pinkish-orange tinge. She was tall, taller than Jamie and raw boned. An image of her garbed in copper armour and wielding an axe rode across Blair’s vision, and she was younger and had shining red hair like his mother.
“Blair?” Jamie said, and judging from his tone he had said it more than once.
“It must be some little boy’s bedtime if he’s half asleep standing up.”
He wasn’t going to be sent to bed with a brand new castle to explore. “Food,” Blair responded piteously, “food.”
“Growing boys need supper, do they?”
“Yes, Lady Ellis.” Blair bounced onto his toes.
She laughed. “You’ve got a little firecracker here, Jim.”
“Aye,” Jamie said, his accent coming through strongly.
“Just like his grandfather.”
“Did you know King Blair?” Blair asked.
“Oh my, yes.” She smiled secretively and Blair saw the same pink tinge that he had seen in Carolyn. Blair looked to the icicle that was Ellis Ellison standing aloofly beside them. He huffed and looked back at Lady Ellis. There was a story there, but he couldn’t touch quite get to grips with it. “I first met him where I was just a little older than you are now. Who knew that one day, I’d meet you. And you know, you’re exactly like him.”
“I’ve seen portraits; his hair sometimes isn’t curly.”
“Oh, that’s because then the fashion was to oil your hair.”
Blair didn’t like the sound of that. “It sounds icky.”
“Blair likes his baths,” Jamie supplied. “He doesn’t even like getting dirty.”
“Well, there you are, you’re not exactly like your grandfather.”
“Never said I was.”
Lady Ellis laughed as clear as a bell. “Oh, yes, you and Jamie are going to have fun.”
“Food?” Blair tried again.
Lady Ellis held out her hand. “Supper, it is.”
Blair looked at her be-ringed fingers. “I’ll go with Jamie.”
“Of course, you will.” Her hand fell to her hip.
“Come on, Chief.” Jamie dropped a heavy hand on his shoulder and directed him to an iron wrought wooden door recessed in the north wall.
The corridor beyond was dark, but well lit with lanterns filled with dancing fire elementals. They turned this way and that and Blair was confused. This place was more complicated than the dungeons in the bowels of Goodrich.
He was going to have a lot of fun exploring.
“If you’ve got the stronghold on the mountain side, why do you still live here?”
“Because it’s our home,” Jamie answered.
Arm in arm, Lady and Lord Ellis opened the great door to the Ellisons’ Hall. A sea of Ellison plaid rose before Blair’s eyes.
They raised their tankards high and chanted, “An Ellison. An Ellison. An Ellison.”
Blair froze, they were as loud as a shynty match, both in noise and manner. The room pulsated. One, two, three, Blair planted his feet -- shoulder width apart -- on the rush covered floor and pictured his own aura smoothing and growing around to form a perfect silver sphere.
“An Ellison. An Ellison. An Ellison.”
“We are home,” Ellis declared. “And the Sect continues.”
Jamie moved to stand at his grandfather’s side as if pulled by a string through his nose. The roar as he took his place overran Blair’s shield. He pushed up against Jamie’s thigh and burrowed under his naturally strong shield.
::Hey, Chief, are you all right?:: Jim asked for his ears only.
“Our new sentinel and his guide, Prince Blair, Heir to the throne of Acharn!”
At the cheer, Blair clutched Jim’s leg until he felt the warmth of bruises rising under his fingers.
‘Oops.’ Distressed, he smoothed the fabric under his fingers and pictured the blue green radiance permeating the hurt skin.
Once it was healed to his satisfaction, he patted Jim’s leg fondly.
“Chief?” Jim ruffled his curls.
“Ah ha.” Yup, it was healed.
“You ready for something to eat?”
Blair’s stomach growled audibly and Jim frowned. “I’m very hungry,” Blair said, faintly surprised.
“Yes, you are.” Hand tucked around the back of his neck, Jim led Blair to the high table and the centre seat. A plump cushion had been placed on the carved chair. Never letting go, Jim helped Blair onto the seat. He nodded to a plaid dressed server to scurry forward with the first course.
Hot, savoury carrot soup was dolloped into the bowl before him. Jim finally released him, but Blair still felt his ghostly touch on the back of his neck.
“Here.” Jim buttered a bread roll with sweet butter and held it right before his nose.
Blair grabbed it and stuffed it straight in his mouth. Cassie, his long dead nanny, would have smacked him for his lack of manners. Jim simply gave him another one.
“Soup now.” Jim presented him with a spoon.
Blair blew on the soup once and then promptly began to shovel.
“Hungry boy,” Jim’s grandmother said from somewhere over his head.
“Slow down now, Chief.”
Since he was scraping up the last dregs slowing down was no problem. The entire clan was staring at him.
“I was hungry,” Blair said defensively.
“Healer,” came the whisper. “Healer.”
The word was picked up by another voice and the whisper grew and metamorphosed.
“Sandburg-Bran. Sandburg-Bran. Sandburg-Bran!” The call swelled until they were chanting and banging their tankards against the wooden tables as they chanted.
Blair watched them wide eyed.
“To the Sandburg-Bran!” Ellis roared, silencing them all momentarily. He held his own tankard high.
The clan took up the toast. “Sandburg-Bran!”
“To the Sentinel and Guide. The circle continues!”
“The circle continues!”
Jim’s hand was back on his neck, gently guiding him to stand. Blair felt the need for some height and clambered on the chair.
“The circle continues!” he piped; it seemed appropriate.
Their response made his ears ring. Jim stiffened and rocked backwards. Blair grabbed his hand and pulled him back. The Sentinel blinked and then smiled down at him.
“Noisy, aren’t they,” he mouthed.
“Uh huh.” Blair nodded.
::They’re just pleased to see us::
::I’ll tell you later::
“Enough,” Ellis bellowed into a gap between toasts.
The silence was immediate. Ellis commanded and received respect.
Blair sneezed, deliberately. “So can we have some more food?”
Ellis snorted a short sharp, depreciative laugh. “The prince is hungry. Let’s show him a proper Highland Feast.”
Blair dropped down onto his seat. Ellis clapped and four servers came forward carrying a roast boar on a shield. They placed it on the centre table. More food came, dishes of fowl and other birds, bowls of vegetables and they were placed around the centrepiece. More formally dressed servers, wearing the house plaid, walked between the centre table and the rectangular table around it. They served food to the clan members seated at the rectangular table from the centre table.
A sliver of roast boar was laid on Blair’s plate. He poked it with his ceremonial belt knife. A pile of tubers was portioned next to it. Blair scowled; it was proper banquet food -- he hated ‘meat and two vegetables’.
“Here you go, Chief.” Jim gave him a golden chunk of something. “You’ll like it.”
“Really?” Blair stabbed it and ferried it to his mouth. It was savoury and salty. “What is it?”
“It’s called crackling.” Jim smacked his lips as he swallowed his own piece. “Here try this. Parsnips basted in wild honey.”
The party wound down at close to midnight. Jamie’s ghillie had taken the prince to bed hours earlier. Jamie slung a leg over the arm of his chair as he supped on his heather ale.
It was good to be home. A noise caught his attention. He cocked his head to the side. Blair, in his suite in the north tower, was up and exploring.
Jamie downed his ale in one. “Grandfather, I’m to bed.”
Ellis lifted his hand in acknowledgement; he was deep in conversation with his lady and the castle’s chatelaine.
Jamie wound his way through his home, relaxing in the comfort. Then he heard Blair open his bedroom window. Speeding up, he made his way into the room.
One knee on the window sill, his foot on a chair, hand on the window latch, Blair froze. “Hello, Jim.”
“What are you doing, Chief?”
“I can hear singing.”
“Really?” Jamie listened and heard two clan members caterwauling somewhere below. “I wouldn’t call it singing. They’ve just drunk too much.” He helped Blair off the window sill and walked him back to bed. Blair clambered in and allowed Jim to throw the quilts over him.
“Where do you sleep?”
“Through that door.” Jamie pointed. The door was cunningly hidden in the wooden panels that covered the brickwork of the tower.
“I can still hear the singing.”
“Go to sleep, Chief.” Jamie tucked the blankets around his neck and then he made sure to close the window tightly.
“Jim,” Blair said, sounding fractious with tiredness.
“How did they know I was healing you?”
“Chief, you glow. We have to do something about that,” he said as an aside.
“Am I a healer, like they said?”
“I don’t think that you’re a healer like Cindy Lou, Blair.” Jamie crossed back to Blair’s bed and sat on the edge. “You can heal, but you’re not doing it like Cindy Lou; the same thing happens, you mend people, but it doesn’t work like how Cindy Lou does it. It’s too demanding.”
“Chief, most folk don’t sleep or get really hungry like you do when they heal only a little bit.”
Blair shook his head, confused.
“I don’t understand either, Chief. I’ll ask your tutors when we go back to the Citadel. Until then, no healing, all right?”
Jamie flopped back on the quilts and stared up at the plaster ceiling. “I don’t know what would happen if healed someone too much; you might hurt yourself.” He rolled onto his side and propped his head on his hand. “I want your promise on this.”
Blair was silent, weighing his words. He pressed back into his pillows and crossed his arms over his narrow chest.
Blair shook his head. “It’s not right.”
“That promise. It--” Blair rubbed his stomach, “--it makes my tummy flutter.”
Jim sat upright to better face his prince. “May I then propose, that if you feel the need to heal that you speak to me first.”
“Will you forbid me?”
“We will treat each need on its own merits.”
“Do you promise?” Blair said earnestly.
“I promise,” Jim said solemnly. “Now, go to sleep.”
Blair woke in a dark, soft, warm place. He had enjoyed travelling through Acharn to Ellis Island, but he didn’t like sleeping on the canvas cot. He couldn’t sprawl on a cot, you had to lie like a dead man laid on a byre. He crawled under the mess of quilts and emerged by the pillows. The singing was back, light and airy and filled with longing. Underneath the song came a discordant beat. Blair listened to the call and then followed its plaintive song.
Ellis guided his Lady Wife to their bedchamber. It had been a good party, a good start of the celebrations of James’ true role in the Clan d’Ellison.
“The prince doesn’t like you,” Fiona observed.
“He resents that I can take James away from him.”
“But you can’t.”
“I can -- and I will -- send Jamie on short assignments requiring his talents. I can’t separate their hearts but I can separate their bodies. Blair is unable to make that distinction. He’ll understand when he gets older.”
“They have a very close relationship, perhaps too close?”
“Jamie will be betrothed to the Lady Carolyn that will, perforce, bring a healthy separation.” Ellis stopped abruptly and held up a hand.
Lady Fiona waited holding her breath as her husband listened. He sighed deeply and exasperatedly.
“What is it?”
“I’ll give you three guesses.” Ellis stomped down the corridor.
“Walk softly, Ellis. He is but a child. As is James.”
“James is an adult.”
“Young adult,” Fionula corrected, as she linked arms with her husband. “Where is he?”
“Tiptoeing down the staircase.”
Fiona slowed his progress down as they emerged into the hall. A small figure was carefully picking his way down the long staircase. He skirted the banister one hand trailing along the marble handrail. The lanterns on the wall flared just before he reached them lighting his way.
“My husband,” Fionula said her voice pitched just to carry to the prince, “you’ve had a long journey, you must be clamouring for your bed.”
Ellis turned to her, perplexed. Fionula smiled, watching out of the corner of her eye as Prince Blair froze with comical effect, one foot poised to place on the next stair.
“Aye, I be wanting a good night’s sleep.”
Between one heartbeat and the next, Blair spun on his heel and darted back up the stairs.
“That was fairly easy,” Ellis observed as he listened to Blair bolt into his bedroom and slam the door behind him.
“It just takes a mother’s touch.”
“Hmmm.” The lord whistled lowly, twice. A border collie rose from its rest before the fire and padded to the master of the house. Ellis crouched down and stroked velvet soft ears.
“And who is this young one?”
“Dubh, daughter of Kirsty out of Galb.”
“Ah, good stock. Come, pretty one.”
The bitch followed obediently at his heels up the stairs. Lord and lady stopped outside Blair’s chamber. Ellis coughed, swallowing a laugh at something that only he could hear.
“What is it?” Fionula asked, used to such incidences.
“Jim, he snores so loudly, I would have thought that he would wake himself up.” Ellis crouched down and picked up one of Blair’s boots that had been placed outside the bedroom door for cleaning. The dog wagged its tail; it knew what was afoot.
“Blair,” Ellis said clearly and proffered the boot to Dubh. The dog took the scent and then plopped down on its rump, waiting for the next instruction. “Guard.”
Dubh lay down across the threshold barring the door.
Blair opened his chamber door and stared down at the dog barring his path. The glossy black dog lifted a long, triangular shaped head and looked back at him with amber eyes.
“Hullo,” he tried.
He didn’t have much experience with dogs. He knew cats; he knew their independence, followed their unpredictability. A few of the guards at the Citadel had specially bred guard dogs which helped them with their duties, but Blair was barred from playing with animals which were trained guards. They served with their masters and little else. This ‘dog’ was different -- it needed to belong to a family. Calm and cosy. Blair squatted until his nose was a breath away from a cold, doggy muzzle.
“Hmmm.” Carefully, he reached out and laid his hand on top of the dog’s head. This was different; it wasn’t like the auras of his family. There was no colour scheme, but a solid, warm feeling that encompassed his being.
It was nice.
Realisation came in a heartbeat. “Friend.”
The dog licked his face from chin to forehead.
“Ugh.” Blair wiped his face with the back of his hand. He rocked back on his heels. The more he concentrated, the better he felt the undertones and the overtones of the dog. He could feel a loyalty -- to a king? Blair blinked slowly; he could taste Lord Ellis’ cold nature like an icy cup of juice against the gaps where his new teeth were coming in.
“No, you don’t belong to him.” Blair wrapped his arms around a silky neck and intoned, “Mine.”
The dog wagged its tail.
“Hey, Chief.” Jim staggered out of his chamber scratching his butt. “What’s this?”
“It’s a dog, Jim,” Blair said seriously.
Jamie rolled his eyes heavenward. “Why are you up?”
“‘Cause it’s time to get up.”
“Go and get breakfast, Chief. I’ll be down in a wee while.”
“Are you going back to bed?”
“Damn right I am.” He kicked the door shut behind him.
A free rein to run wild; this was going to be so much fun. He would go and find the source of the singing.
“Come on, dog,” he ordered.
End Chapter V
Sect of the Sentinel Chapter VI
Blair followed the plaintive singing into the depths of the castle. He found dank, dark steps that led to barred door. He studied the large lock, momentarily stymied. There was no convenient key on a ledge beside the door. The music called him. Blair planted his palms on the salt-soaked wood. The tiny water elementals skating through the warp and weft of the wood grain clamoured to the surface at his call. The larger elementals who were gnawing at the iron bolts and hinges, laughed as their smaller brethren joined them. The wood and metal beneath his hands warmed. Metal aged, turning rusty orange. Fragments flaked away. The wood swelled. Blair flinched back as the door blew outwards in shards and splinters.
A large hoarfrost elemental rose before him and caught the slivers in a windstorm, blowing them back out of the doorway and out across the beach. It turned to him and grinned frenziedly, displaying icicle-sharp teeth in a lipless mouth. A cold blast rocked through Blair as the elemental blew itself to the four winds. Blair grinned; he had enjoyed that.
With the dog at his heels, Blair trotted off down to the beach.
The rocks were slippy underfoot. He slid once, his booted foot running away beneath him and ended up on his knees skinning them. Dog snuffled his cheek.
“That hurt,” Blair protested. He picked at the green strands growing on the rocks. He stood, and more gingerly skidded over the large stones. Slowly, he caught the knack of slipping safely over the rocks. The larger stones gave way to smaller stones with tiny white, conical specks. These weren’t slippy and he picked up his pace, heading unerringly to the sea. Dog barked and snuffled in the long greeny-brown plants lying on the rocks. Blair bent to investigate. A tiny red eyed monster glared back up at his, claws raised.
“Hello?” Blair tried, but it had a small mind with no sense of self, not even a ghost of an aura. It scuttled to the left and escaped under a rock. Blair straightened. The singing was closer. He cast about looking along the bay. The arc of the southern leg of the loch stretched away, and Blair could make out a golden swath, but even if he squinted he could make out no details. Across the water, the northern face of Sgurr Deary was grey and forbidding.
A body moved, sliding into the water with barely a splash. Blair ran slipping and sliding over the rocks, one foot went left and the other right, crosswise, and he ended up face first in a pool. Spluttering, he emerged and struggled out of the water. Dog paddled along at his side.
Blair shook himself off as he climbed out of the water and looked up straight into large, moist, obsidian black eyes.
Blair’s mouth opened in a soundless exclamation. The being had a small triangular face and a long snout ending in a dog-like black nose. Blair backed up and plopped down into the water. Now he could see it properly. The being had a long body ending in a tail and stubby appendages. Blair had seen its like in his text books. The question was, was it seal or selkie?
“I’m Prince Blair. Oh, but I’m not supposed to say that, am I? I was told that I’m not supposed to throw my name about. But the thing is, I’m a prince and most folk are supposed to know me so keeping my name secret doesn’t really work.” Blair huffed.
“Greetings, Prince Blair.”
“Oh, greetings.” Blair turned away from the seal. A lady lay behind him, lounging on the rocks, looking at him over her shoulder. The hair on her head was bristly, short and grey like a seal’s pelt. It ran to a point at the base of her skull, and a faint line followed the length of her spine. Her legs and rear were blotchy, following the patterning of her seal form. “You are selkies. I heard you singing. It was nice.”
“Thank you. We were singing to the Moon of Neal.”
“It’s the harvest moon of the cloud berries.”
“Jamie likes cloud berries. Does that mean that they’re ready to be picked?”
Blair plopped down beside the selkie. “What’s your name?”
“I’m not supposed to share my name. What would you like to call me?”
Blair settled back on his heels and saw his reflection in large, liquid-like, black eyes. “Mirroe.”
She laughed and it sounded like a bark. “Bright boy -- you see much.”
“More than I know, though. You’re magic, like the elves. I can only see what you want me to see; but leastwise I know that you want me to see only what you want me to see.”
Mirroe rolled onto her stomach and pillowed her head on her arms. “You’re wise beyond your years.”
“This has been said before.” Blair folded his arms around his knees. “I don’t know what I’m going to say until I say it and I don’t always understand what I say. Jamie finds it… illuminating.”
“Illuminating? So what told you to say that?”
“I did -- I’m bright, you know!”
She laughed, throwing back her head to display a rank of needle-file teeth.
“Stop teasing him, Mirroe.”
Blair turned fast as he could, but he missed the change from seal to person. The man rose to his feet and shook his hands before making some deep knee bends. His feet and calves and the sides of his thighs were dappled with smooth seal fur. Trailing up around his groin and sides were pigmented patches of dark skin.
“Jamie has freckles as well,” Blair observed.
“Would you like to go swimming?”
Blair regarded the slate grey waters. “I can’t swim.”
“We could teach you.” The selkie’s teeth were filed to sharp points.
“It looks cold.”
“You’ve got some puppy fat; you’ll be fine.”
The selkie was as unreadable as the dark loch. Blair took a step backwards. “Nah, I want Jim to teach me.”
“Stop teasing him, Merow,” the lady selkie said. “It’s perfectly safe, Prince Blair.”
“Still…” Blair knew his own feelings. “No, no thank you. Jim can teach me. I better be going back; Jim will be looking for me. It was nice to meet you.” Blair bowed and scarpered.
“You daft wee bugger,” Mirroe berated her companion, “you scared him off.”
“I didn’t intend…”
“You would have given him a good drench, don’t you deny it.”
Blair scampered over a slick covered rock. He knew now how to safely move and leaped from rock to rock. Dog splashed through the pool, with no regard for keeping dry. Blair finally clambered up the rough rock face to the opened door. He stopped to catch his breath once inside the threshold. Dropping to Dog’s side, he pulled the dog against his side.
“They were… truly strange. Ruled by their own nature. Come let’s tell Jim.”
Blair flung himself onto Jim’s bed with a gleeful whoop and landed on his chest. The air huffed out of Jamie’s lungs with a satisfying gust. Jamie’s words made no sense.
Blair chuckled and dove in to tickle his companion’s side. Jamie wheezed, trying to cry and breathe and laugh. His cheeks were turning as red as the rosiest apple. Blair rocked back on his heels and settled back on Jamie’s blanket covered legs.
Jamie coughed and drew in a whooping breath. “You little toad,” he wheezed.
“I met some selkies. They weren’t very nice,” Blair told his friend.
“What?” Jamie struggled up onto his elbows. He held his side. “Why are you wet?”
“I went outside. I met some selkies down by the water.”
“What -- how did you get outside?”
“By the side door.”
“It was open?”
Blair twined a strand of blanket around a finger. “It is now.”
“You are a little brat.” Jaime threw off his blankets. Blair scurried to the corner of the bed as Jamie half clambered-half fell out of his deep featherdown bed. He just wore his long white ghillie shirt. Blair watched as he splashed cold water on his face. Jamie groaned and rubbed his face.
“I’m never drinking ever again.” Jamie staggered into the garderobe. Sounds of retching filled the room.
“Jim?” Blair was plastered against his Sentinel’s side in an instant. Jamie threw up again into the porcelain bowl. “What’s the matter?”
Jamie retched once more and the bowl filled to the brim. He sagged backwards onto his heels and Blair put all his strength into keeping him upright.
“Did I hurt you, Jim? I didn’t mean to. I was just playing.”
“Oh, by the Goddess.” Jamie sagged against the walls and planted his temple against cold slate tile.
“Jim, what should I do? Should I get your--” he hunted for someone who could help, “--your ghillie?”
“No,” Jamie protested.
Blair was out the door, barely listening to his words. “Duncan! Duncan!”
The ghillie staggered out of his room, buckling his britches. “M’Lord?”
“Jamie’s poorly. He’s throwing up. I jumped on his tummy.”
“Aye, well, there’s no surprise.”
“It’s the ale. It never sets well on his stomach.”
“The ale?” Blair dogged his heels back to Jamie’s side. “Not the wrestling?”
“It probably didn’t help. Laird Jamie does better with white wine from the Sultan’s lands. Red wine gives him headaches that would bedevil an elemental.”
“Why does he drink if it…”
Duncan interrupted him. “Would you be so kind as to go down to the kitchen and get a tea kettle of camomile, lemon and honey.”
“I’m sorry, Jim.” Blair patted Jamie on the back and ran to do the ghillie’s bidding.
Blair skidded to a halt on the shiny, polished floor and made a mental note to try this again later with just his socks on. The gangly dog slid at his side.
“Lady Ellison.” Blair sketched a bow.
“And where are you running off to?”
“We eat in the main hall.”
“It’s for Jamie. Duncan says he needs some camomile tea.”
“A bit too much ale, aye?” Fionula said knowingly.
“That’s what Duncan says.” Blair confided, “I jumped on him, I don’t think that it helped.”
Fionula winced. “Perhaps we should add some willow bark, as well?”
“Why?” Blair asked his perpetual question.
“Willow bark helps with pain.”
“Are you a herbalist?”
“I have trained at the Druids’ Academy. My Lord is a sentinel -- knowledge of herbs and healing is essential for his and our people’s care.”
“Uhm. I have been taking lessons with Lady Malu, but I’m not ready to treat Jim. I will learn, though. We mustn’t have willow on the escarpment. Malu uses salci for headaches and ache and pains.”
“Willow is a tree that likes the earth to be moist,” Lady Fionula said as they walked down the corridor to the kitchens. “It is most likely found by rivers and lochs rather than at the top of the Citadel’s escarpment.”
“Will you show it to me?”
“We can walk in the woods and I will show you the plants that grow in the valley. Early in the morning is the best time to harvest the sweetest, most succulent leaves. It ‘tis a bit late now.”
The kitchen was just like the kitchen at the castle; busy with activity. All the servers and cooks moved with perfect efficiency. Lady Fionula did not enter the throng, but raised her hand. The head cook, conducting the kitchen with the art of a musician, stepped out of the activity.
“Yes, my Lady?”
“Hot tea, doubly steeped camomile, with lemon juice and a teaspoon of honey.”
“I have a few batches made, M’Lady, after the riot of the night before.”
Lady Fionula’s lips quirked in a smile, still fighting a smile she opened an ornate cupboard with a finely wrought iron key. The cupboard was filled from top to bottom with vials and bottles. Some were wrapped in paper to protect the contents from sunlight. This was a proper herbalist’s cabinet, but Malu and her daughter had a whole room set aside for their herbalism work. She opened a wax stoppered jar and took a pinch of white power. The head cook extended a double-handed mug. Fionula sprinkled the powder in the mug
“Here you go, Prince Blair.” She handed down the mug. “Hot camomile and honey tea. That will put Jim to rights.”
“Thank you.” Blair ducked his head in a bow. “Lady Fionula.”
“You go look after your sentinel.”
Blair slowly walked, holding the mug carefully.
Jim had been poured back into bed by the time that Blair had, at a snail's pace, made his way back to the laird’s suite. He lay on his bed, his arm flung over his eyes.
“Some lessons,” the ghillie whispered at Blair’s concerned expression, “have to be learned again and again.”
“What I don’t understand is, that if tastes so bad and does this, why drink it?”
“Well, some things have to be learned. You will learn to enjoy it.”
“It doesn’t look worth it.”
“Aye, well, no doubt we’ll be having this conversation again in a few years.” Duncan sat on the edge of the mattress. Blair clambered up onto the down-filled pad. He shuffled across on his knees, still holding the mug. “Sit up, lad.”
Arm still over his eyes, Jamie shuffled up into a sitting position. He held his other hand out imperiously. Blair pushed it into his hand and waited until his fingers curled around the mug.
“Just drink; don’t taste,” Jim muttered under his breath. “Just drink.” He took a long quaff, his cheeks bulging and then he took an almighty swallow. He shuddered from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. Taking a single breath, he then finished off the contents of the mug. He sagged aback into the pillows, lolling to the side. Blair leaned forward and sniffed the dregs, it didn’t smell that bad, but evidently it tasted pretty foul because Jamie had turned the colour of turned milk.
“Here.” Duncan filled the mug with cold water from the pitcher beside the bed. “Drink that down and then back to sleep.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jamie mumbled.
“Come on, Prince Blair, let’s give Jamie some peace.”
Blair shuffled obediently off the bed. “You know, Duncan, you can call me Blair. You call Lord James, Jamie. I don’t see why you can’t call me just Blair.”
“It wouldn’t be proper, Prince Blair.” Duncan opened the adjoining bedroom door and gestured for Blair to go ahead.
“What if I said, please?”
“I dunno, I’ve known Jamie since he was in swaddling. He was Jamie before he became Lord James. You’ve always been Prince Blair, even when you were in swaddling.”
“As I’ve been given to understand,” Blair put on his best teacher’s voice, “Jamie was Lord James when he was born.”
“I cannae be arguing with that, but we didnae call him Lord James till her Majesty invested him. And well, I’d be telling fibs if I said we called him Lord James, he’s Laird Jamie when he’s not Jamie.”
“So, it’s just because you’ve known him since he was a baby.”
Duncan closed the door on Jamie. “It’s true.”
“Well, there ain’t nout that I can do about becoming a baby,” Blair said in his passable Highland accent.
Duncan snorted. “Yeah, but maybe we’ll make a Highlander of you. Come on, let’s get you dried. Why are you wet?”
Blair slithered out of his clothes, leaving them lying on the floor in a damp puddle. “I followed the music to the selkies on the shore.”
Duncan bending to pick up the clothes, froze. “You saw the selkies?”
“I think that Merow wanted to drown me.”
“You know a selkie name?”
“Mirroe named Merow. They’re not their real names. They’re their --“ Blair pondered, “-- the names that they use when they don’t trust a person.”
“They wanted to drown you?” The ghillie crouched at Blair’s eye level.
“Maybe? Or at least give me a good fright.” Blair wrapped himself in the sheet that Duncan offered.
“Selkies don’t drown children.”
“Do they drown adults?” Blair asked.
“It has happened,” Duncan said soberly.
Duncan sighed deeply. He stood and moved to the wardrobe where Blair’s clothes had been carefully stored. He pulled out a small kilt and white shirt.
“For the most part they have been bad men that in some way injure the selkie. Fishermen with nets with no bells.”
Blair submitted to being dressed. The ghillie obvious thought that he was a baby, but Blair knew that sometimes he helped Jamie get dressed.
“Right.” Duncan patted the folds straight. Blair preened; he liked wearing the highland fealeadh beg. Blair allowed Duncan to dress him in the knee socks and soft leather slippers.
“Can we have breakfast now? I’m hungry.”
“Eggy bread?” Duncan grinned.
Blair bounced up on his toes.
“Are you sure that I can’t interest you in porridge?”
“Ick, only if I was starving and only then if I were really starving.”
“Ah, you’ll learn.”
Blair hit the ground running. He made it out of the door before Lord Ellison managed to yell, so Blair figured that he had made a clean escape. Breakfast had been a bit of a chore, Jim was still abed, so only his grandparents had been on the high table. Duncan had supplied eggy bread so it hadn’t been all that bad, but he had been there.
Blair scooted down the corridor and executed a sharp left. He felt free to run around; unlike the Citadel the Seat of the House of Ellison was small and everyone knew everyone else. He was safe from the nebulous fey and the diverse peoples which visited the Citadel and his mother. Dog ran at his heels. Blair ducked into a nook, hiding in the cranny out of sight. The selkies were not singing but the other beat reverberated through his bones. Crouched down, he paused listening to the sibilant whisper of the world.
“Ooh?” Blair dropped down onto his tummy and planted his ear on the ground.
Blair bounced up. “Lady Fionula?”
“What are you doing?” she asked lightly.
“Listening.” Blair craned his head and looked around the lady. What did that noise mean? He wasn’t too sure, but it sounded worried. He skirted around Jamie’s grandma and followed the voice. This place was much more noisy than the Citadel. The whole place rocked with the inhabitants’ presences.
Lady Fionula followed. Blair trotted back to the opened door. Wood and metal splinters were scattered all about. At the threshold, he peered out side checking for the selkies. It was clear.
“What happened to the door, Prince Blair?” Lady Fionula said, her voice filled with knowledge.
Blair smiled winsomely and wiggled the fingers of his right hand. “Me.”
“Hmmm. You do realise that the door was locked and barred for a reason?”
Blair shuffled. “I guess so. Jamie would say that this was naughty, yes?”
“I think that you know the answer to that, don’t you?”
Sighing heavily, he nodded. “Come on, we have to go see.”
He darted back out the door, but rather than return to the eastern rocky shore, he skirted around the foundations of the castle. The sibilant voice whispered too low for him to make out the words. The rocks to the north of the castle were high and craggy. The slabs of granite rose out of the sea. Blair ran up a long lee which angled up steeply. He paused at the peak expecting there to be water churning beneath a precipitous drop. The world had sung its song. He could see the choppy sea, but steps, which he had not imagined, had been carved into sheer rock face.
He ignored the Lady Fionula and scampered down the steps. The damp seaweed was slippery but the summoning voice could not be ignored. The staircase spiralled downwards, twisting along the rock face down into a crevice.
He slid down the last step and onto the flat bottom depths of a narrow crevice. The floor was slightly damp with spray from the high tide, but the crevice was not inundated by sea water. At the back a dark hole beckoned, Blair dropped to his knees. Engraved stones lined the perimeter.
“Hello?” He poked his head in the hole.
“Blair!” Lady Fionula caught the back of his belt and yanked him back. “What are you doing?”
Blair twisted around. “What is this?”
“It’s the Womb of Danu.”
“Who’s in there?”
“Nobody or Danu. It’s the hub of the Sect. It’s why the castle is here – we protect the Womb.”
“It’s very dark.” Blair’s fingers ghosted over the stones. “You put people in here?”
“Ew!” Blair backed away as if burnt.
“It’s part of the mystery.”
“You’re going to put Jim in there?”
“It’s part of the ritual to induct him into the sect.”
Blair backed away from Lady Fionula. They couldn’t put Jim in the hole. It was dark and wet and it wasn’t anything to do with Danu. He stopped and peered into the hole, confused. The Lady was there but she wasn’t very happy.
“You can’t put Jim in there.”
“It’s about him becoming a sentinel.”
Blair peered up at Jim’s Grandmother, she was obdurate. He knew that word; Simon had taught him about the people who think only one thing and couldn’t be changed. Blair peered into the gaping maw, the stones moved, clamping down over the entry like clashing teeth. The air around him wailed. A dark fetid tongue licked the stone teeth.
The stones were slick with sea water. A slimy green stone turned under his foot and then the grey, clashing waves were reaching up to him. He hit the water with a heavy splash. It was cold, shockingly cold. The water was heavy, pulling him down. Bubbles confused him. Long green strands of seaweed, danced in the crashing waves. Buffeted this way and that by the waves that rolled up the inlet he was inexorably pushed down to the seabed.
The waves held him.
A warm body sidled alongside him and another form swam along his back. He was pushed away from the seabed. Together they broke the surface. Blair coughed and retched and coughed and retched. Blinking, he looked into liquid brown eyes. Mirroe pushed up firm against his arm and Merow was on the other side.
::I thought you didn’t want to learn to swim?:: Merow said.
Blair wrapped his arms around the selkie’s neck. He opened his eyes. They were well away from the coast, past the crashing waves in calmer water. The water was cold and Blair felt him limbs becoming heavy. Tears sat on his tongue. The fur and muscles under his grip shifted, and Merow suddenly held him.
::Don’t go to sleep, little one. You don’t have enough puppy fat to stay warm::
Merow curled Blair to his chest, holding him high out of the water, as Mirroe pushed them through the choppy waves. Another selkie joined them. Blair blinked sleepily as another warm, fur covered body slipped up against him.
Arms held him. The wind whistled.
“Huh?” Blair curled into a lush, pelt snuggling down out of the bite of the wind. He was tired, it was easy to close his eyes for a very quick little nap even if he wasn’t a baby.
End Chapter VI
Sect of the Sentinel Chapter VII
“What!” Jamie snarled as he stalked down the corridor. He scrabbled at the brooch at his shoulder fixing his great kilt.
“Laird Jamie, the clan is out looking for the boy. Lord Ellison leads the search,” Duncan said soberly.
“Why wasn’t I woken?”
“You were,” the ghillie pointed out.
“Immediately?” Jamie turned to snap at the ghillie as he stomped down the staircase to the lower levels.
“Lady Fionula returned to the keep and raised the alarm. Lord Ellison took the guard and the herbalist and left immediately. He told me to wake you.”
Jamie growled under his breath. He sat on the bottom stone stair, pausing long enough to pull on his leather boots.
“I don’t believe I slept through this.”
Duncan laid a careful hand on his shoulder.
Ellis Ellison had lost one guide. King Sandburg had been his centre, his brother and his best friend. No other had come close. He would not lose another guide. He would not allow his grandson to suffer a life half lived.
He strode to the moving edge where sea met land. He knew the waters, fished in their depths with the clan fishers in the warmer months. The tide was rising in the open estuary and the rips were treacherous. Blair had not been found in the cove by the Womb of Danu, so it was likely that he had been caught in an underwater current.
“Oh, Danu,” he prayed under his breath. The child was strong in elemental magic, he had been consecrated to the land, the air, the waters and the inner fire of Danu on the seventh day he drew breath. Since that day the elementals had walked at his side. Air was closest, but the elementals of water also succoured, and, annoyingly, helped him in pranks. The prince would be protected. He would be safe.
A pebble was digging into his side. Blair rolled over off the pebble and onto sand. He was warm and someone was holding him close and rubbing his arms and legs. Yawning Blair sat up, pushing down the warm fur. He was tucked in a vee between some rocks.
“Hey, little one.” Merow was crouched next to him, protecting him further from the wind. “Warm?”
Blair nodded and Merow untangled him from the fur. He swung the pelt around his shoulders. Blair watched as it merged with Merow’s human skin, seeping seamlessly.
“I fell in. You rescued me.”
“I thought that you could only skinwalk on land ‘cause you had to take your pelt off?”
“No, where did you get the idea from?”
Merow shrugged. “Books often tell part of the story but not all of it. Fingers and thumbs can be very useful in the depths.”
Blair stood and squinted. A dark blur sat on the edge of his vision, with a bright colour wafting at the top. The castle looked far away. Blair rubbed his eyes. Merow wrung the water from Blair’s plaid, twisting it in his strong hands.
“Can you?” Merow clicked his tongue but couldn’t find the words.
“Can I what?”
The selkie shook his head and twisted the fabric tighter trying to draw the last drops from the material.
“I don’t know the word. Let’s get you back home.” Merow wrapped the dampish kilt around Blair, and then swung him up onto his hip.
“Why’s we so far away?”
“The current swings through the loch as the tide rises. You were cold and we needed to get ashore and it’s quicker to ride it than swim against it. We rode to this bay.”
“I can walk.” Blair wriggled.
“We will skirt the water’s edge,” Merow said implacably and walked.
“He’s a bairn.”
Ellis raised a hoary eyebrow at the old fisher who had left his coble to join the clan members running to the Womb. The old fisher’s son had launched his own coble, to follow the surface currents, as part of the search.
“They’ll have him.”
“Aye.” The fisher raised a gnarly hand to shade his eyes as he peered east along the coast. “No selkie will allow a child to drown.”
“Children drown all the time,” Ellis said soberly.
“If we clamber up to the Dog’s Head--” the fisher pointed to the rocky outcrop that resembled the broad sweep and solid muzzle of a Great Dane, “--we’ll have a better view of the land.”
Ellis didn’t hesitate and ran to the outcrop. Standing on the nose he allowed his sight to roam forth. Hearing followed, edging along the path of sight. And there striding through the foaming surf was a selkie, a selkie that carried a very much alive Prince Blair.
“By the Grace of Danu!” Ellis exulted. Belying his years, he leaped off the rock. The selkie paused waiting for the Sentinel of Acharn to reach them. The stones were treacherous but Ellis flew over then.
“Thank you.” Ellis snatched Blair from the selkie’s grasp and held him tightly to his chest. “Thank the Goddess.”
He held him, breathing in his scent, using his sense of touch to map the chill in his hands and feet, the dampness of his clothes and his spiralled curls. Ellis dropped to his knees and immediately divested the unusually quiet Prince Blair of his kilt and wet shirt. The herbalist unfurled the blanket that she had prepared. Rather than touch the child she offered it to Lord Ellis. Blair regarded him with wide eyes, as Ellis rewrapped him in the dry blanket, cocooning him from head to toe.
“Let’s get you home.”
Slowly Ellis stood marvelling that he held the Prince and that he was safe. The selkie watched with a flare of deep satisfaction in his overly big brown eyes.
“Ellis John Forest, son of Eoin McWhan Ellis.”
The selkie smiled widely showing teeth designed to eat fish. He leaned forwards and whispered, “The child calls me Merow. Know that Merow, known to you as Omor, acknowledges your debt.” He stepped back into the water and dove. Mid-plunge his form rippled and with a switch of his tail he disappeared into the depths.
Jim ran pell-mell over the stones to the beating heart that called him. He honed in on it. His grandfather stopped bracing himself against a large boulder. Jim ran straight into the man, forcing him up against the rock. He fumbled with the blanket, peeling it back.
Blair blinked at him sleepily, snug in his warm cocoon. His brow furrowed in concern as he read his sentinel’s anxiety.
“He’s fine, son,” Ellis spoke lowly, “a bit chilled and he’s had a shock. But he’s fine.”
Jamie’s nostrils flared. “Give him to me,” he demanded.
“Shush, son,” Ellis whispered as he carefully passed the child over. “He’s safe. He just needs some warm broth and a place by the fire.”
“I’m never having children,” Jamie promised as he held Blair against him. “It’s just too hard.”
In the dark of the evening the fire roared in the hearth throwing out furnace level heat. Two padded armchairs were angled to catch the warmth. Ellis sat in one, the light from the flickering flames making him look more aquiline than usual, his cheek bones stood out in sharp relief and his fine nose was sharp. Jamie sat in the other chair, feet propped up on a stool. Blair lay sprawled over Jim’s lap, one leg hooked over the chair arm, the other dangling between Jim’s knees. Fast asleep he let out the occasional huffing sigh.
“It is your birthday tomorrow, grandson.”
“Tonight we begin your Induction into the Sect.”
“What is all this about? I am a sentinel. I’ve been involved in the doings of the Sect since The Goblin Queen tried to dethrone Queen Naomi.”
Ellis leaned out of his chair and speared him with a hawk like glare. “There are rituals to be followed – initiation.”
Jamie sighed heavily. “Grandfather…”
“You may not enjoy being the centre of attention, but you are Laird James William Forest d’Ellison heir to the House of Ellison and the Northern Mountains, Sgurr na Bannachdich, Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh and Sgurr Deary.”
“La la la lah lalla la,” Jamie muttered sotto voco.
“You are to take the mantle of The Sentinel, hereditary protectors of the lands of Acharn. There will be celebration and there will be feasting, you will be toasted and feted, whether you like it or not.”
“So what happens?” Jamie asked ungraciously.
“As the moon rises tonight we will venture to the Womb of Danu where you will spend the night in solitary contemplation before the ritual to induct you into the Sect.”
“What would have happened if it had not been a Dark Moon tonight?”
“Grandson, you are without a doubt the most cynical, obstreperous offspring of the Ellison Clan that has ever been begotten.” Ellis growled. “Know this: the Moon of Neal rises as a sentinel is born, so it does as a sentinel’s birth is honoured.”
Jamie craned his head looking at the darkening sky, royal blue tones merging with the black of night. The moon would be rising soon.
So be it. If his grandfather needed this and the Clan felt it important he would endure.
“I’m going to put Prince Blair to bed. There is no reason for my guide to stay up and experience this Induction. He too young and he’s had a day which would lay a man low.”
Ellis held up his hand. “A prospective sentinel does not normally have a guide. There is no need or expectation for Blair to be there. This is a Sentinel Mystery.”
Blair opened his eyes and slowly sat up, his eiderdown quilt falling to his waist. He looked around, checking the fire place, the wardrobe, the fireplace and the window. Was it a sound that woke him? Blair slithered out from under the quilt and crossed to the window. He clambered up onto the padded chair by the window. The latch yielded to a minor elemental dancing inside the lock.
Blair knelt on the windowsill and peered out. The Moon was setting on the eastern edge of the loch. The moonlight made a bridge to Neal along the length of the saltwater fjord. The selkies were not singing.
“Jim?” Blair hopped down. He grabbed his dressing gown and shrugged it on. The wooden panelling door that led to Jim’s room was open. Blair trotted in.
“Huh.” Chewing on his bottom lip, Blair contemplated life, his sentinel and his whereabouts. Life was gravely out of kilter. Blair huffed and knew exactly where to go.
Torches gutted in the darkness. The moon still hung directly over the loch casting a ribbon of light to the Womb of Danu. At the bottom of the hewn staircase kilt clad members of the Ellison Clan ranged around the hole. Ellis stood with his back to the cliffs, facing out of the crevice to confront the moon. It was silent, no one said a word.
Careless of the slippery steps, Blair picked his barefoot way to the Womb.
“Child!” Ellis spotted him immediately.
“Lord Ellison.” Blair pushed through the gathering to stand opposite the Queen’s Sentinel.
The Sentinel jerked back at the brusque tone. “Prince Blair?”
“Where is Jamie?”
“He undergoes the Ritual of the Sentinel.”
“In the Womb?”
“Remove him, now.”
“No,” Ellis huffed. “This is part of who he is. It’s about his Clan. All Sentinels undergo the Rite of Succession.”
“And therein lies your error, Lord Ellison.”
Ellis’ eyes bugged. He leaned forward, nostrils flaring as he scented Blair.
“Prince Blair?” he hazarded.
“Jamie wears the mantle of sentinel; he does not need to undergo the rites. You have placed a sentinel in…” Blair faltered, suddenly he was adrift lacking knowledge, where moments before it had been clear. “It’s too quiet in there. He can’t breathe; it’s too wet and heavy. It’s cruel. He’s already a sentinel!”
Ellis’ mouth slowly dropped open. “Goddess! Fraser, we have to get him out. Now!”
Short, stocky Fraser didn’t hesitate; he jumped feet together into the gaping maw. Ellis dropped to a crouch and reached into the hole.
Fraser voice drifted out of the Womb. “Oh, Danu.”
Grimacing, Ellis stretched further into the Womb. Blair held his breath as Ellis caught something, and with a deep intake of breath stood. He had Jamie’s wrists clasped firmly and as he stood the Womb gave birth. Galvanised, the other clan members moved to help. Jim lolled in their grasp, his head ricked back and for one horrid moment Blair thought that it was not attached as it hung so loosely.
“Son?” Ellis dropped to his knees, cradling Jamie’s head on his lap. “Jamie.”
Silently, Blair moved forward. Jim didn’t look like Jim anymore, he looked waxy and half-dead.
“You shouldn’t have done it. Jamie never wanted to go in there,” he said his voice rich with reproach.
“Jamie?” Ellis cajoled to no response. He looked up, spearing old Duncan with his glare. “Go get a stretcher, now!”
“Lord,” Duncan acknowledged the order and ran off.
“Fionula,” Ellis directed.
The Lady of the Clan crouched at her grandson’s side, experienced hands gauging his breathing, the beat of life at his neck and the coolness of his skin.
“We need to get him back to the castle, now,” she said tightly.
Blair’s view was abruptly obscured by a clan member. Angrily, Blair poked her hip hard. The young woman jerked away. Ellis looked up as she moved, his gaze catching Blair’s. Tears hung, unshed, in the old man’s eyes.
“Me,” Blair said simply. He dropped to his knees by Jim’s shoulder. His guardian was far way, only a shell of Jamie lay before him. Danu held him in Her grasp. But Jamie was so very, very far away he might never return. Danu had told him that Jamie did not need the ritual immersion. Jamie did not need quiet. Jamie – if anything – needed to be in the hub of life even if he had to be forced to play.
Blair mapped the gentle wing of Jamie’s eyebrow with a chubby finger. “Jim? Come back.”
There was no response. Frustrated, Blair brought his forehead to Jim’s and thought with all his might,
Slowly a rolling voice intoned, ::Ah::
::You shouldn’t have gone in the Womb. You already are a sentinel::
::It was bad of them to do that::
::Ah ah:: Jamie chided and opened his eyes. Blair grinned seeing his own eyes reflected in the obsidian pupils.
“Hey, Chief,” Jim whispered.
“Hey, Jim.” Smiling, Blair settled back on his haunches.
“James!” Ellis exulted. “Son. Thank the Goddess.”
Tiredly, Jamie reached out and clutched his Grandfather’s outstretched hand. “Hey, Grandfather.”
“I can only apologise, son, the ritual is about waking the sentinel – you are one. It was torturous to isolate you.”
Jim closed his eyes and rested back on his Grandfather’s lap. “You never know, it might have made me a better sentinel.”
Blair caught Jamie’s larger hand in his own two. “You’re already the best sentinel.”
Jim smiled tiredly and carefully curled his fingers around Blair’s hands.
Jamie had been relegated to a couch, but the celebration of his birthday continued, albeit somewhat less boisterous manner than normal Highland celebrations. The day had taken on a surreal quality which seemed to move around him as if he were the calm eye of the storm. His grandfather had approached him several times, words on his tongue, but they went unspoken, apart from a terse: “We may not be able to carry out the rites, but there are still things that you need to learn as a sentinel.”
Lessons Jamie could tolerate, being stuffed in dark, dank holes was another matter. Although obviously every other sentinel had been including at some point his Grandfather. Or to be accurate, every prospective sentinel spent time in isolation in the Womb and emerged a sentinel. That meant that his inheritor would be subjected to the Womb.
“How are you feeling, Grandson?” his grandmother asked softly as she sat next to him. Allana, bard of the clan, was singing quietly by the fire.
“Weary, I would like to go to bed.”
“Remain a while longer, you are the guest of honour.” She patted his knee. “Blair hasn’t given you his present.”
Blair was sprawled on a bearskin fur by the fire with his dog watching the pop of the flames.
“I think that he wants to give it in private.” Jim rolled upright and leaned over to lightly kiss his grandmother’s wrinkled cheek. “It’s been a long day. The banquet was lovely and thank you for the new sword.”
“Your sincerity shines, son.”
“Sorry. As I said it’s been a long day.”
Jim stood and stretched his hands above his head until his spine popped audibly. Seeing his movement, Allana drew her song to an end, lilting the last chord.
“Thank you, my clan. Today has been somewhat different Induction into the Sect than is customary. Thank you for your well wishes, both welcoming me to the Sect and asking after my health. I am a Sentinel of the Sect and your support makes that possible. “
He rocked back on his heels at the resultant cheer.
Jamie bowed. “Thank you. It’s been a long day for me and mine.” He held out his hand and Blair crossed the room to grab it. “So we will say good night.”
“Night. Night.” Blair said obediently.
Many were smiling as he conducted his young guide from the banquet hall. Blair waved once as he was dragged through the double doors.
“You really tired. Jim?” Blair asked as they trooped up the wide staircase.
“Yeah, I am.” It was hard work being a sentinel. He allowed Blair to go into his room first, although he did check with his senses. Blair took a running jump onto his bed. He bounced once twice and then shuffled on his hands and knees to the head of the bed. From underneath the pillow he pulled a flat wrapped parcel.
“Happy Birthday, Jim.”
Jim dropped down on the bed. He ran sensitive fingers over the leather folder. “What is it?”
“Heh eh.” Blair wriggled.
Jim undid the buckle and opened the folder. He carefully withdrew the picture. He couldn’t help but smile. It was as good as a hug. Blair had painted a picture of them: sentinel and guide side by side. He didn’t have a neck and his feet pointed at right angles, but the shock of fair hair and the colourful kilt identified him. Blair was a little taller than he was in real life, but he had drawn his messy curls perfectly.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s the best picture I’ve ever seen.” How could you help but not love it? It was honest. He slung an arm around Blair’s shoulders. Blair turned into his chest and hugged for all his worth.
“Love you, Jim.”
Jim pressed his face against the tumbled curls, and whispered, “You too, Chief.”