Prophecy Story Index || The Sentinel Fan Fan Fiction

Silver Cords
by Becky
September 1997

"How did you and Jydan meet anyway?"
"Jydan and I literally bumped into each other..."
-- Dorien and Blaen, 'Searches'


Blaen stumbled backwards several feet and fell onto the wide dirt path with a thud, vaguely hearing the startled exclamations of those swerving around him. Shaking his head, he peered upward, squinting in the bright midday sunlight. A tall, unsmiling man, at least ten years older than him, with close-cut medium brown hair and dressed in browns and grays glared icily down at him. Blaen swallowed hard, wondering if he'd committed some horrid sin and was about to be punished for it. Two years ago, he'd traveled through Eirena on his way to Malinde and had gone the inland route. The people here, on the coastline, seemed to have different mannerisms and accepted behaviors than those inland, and he felt out-of-balance with them after a year in Malinde.

He began to stammer out an apology. "Sir, pardon me, I'm--"

The tall man didn't seem to care to listen to him. "Why don't you watch where you're going? Young punk."

Me? Watch where I'm going? He ran into me! He tried to apologize again anyway, just to be polite. "Sir, please, I'm so..." As he spoke, he started to clamber to his feet, realizing that sitting stupidly in the dirt wasn't helping his case any.

However, upon doing so, he tangled one foot in the strap of his pack still lying on the ground and fell again -- forward this time -- right into the tall man. Instinctively, he reached out his hands and found himself grabbing one of the man's arms for balance, even as the man grabbed him to keep him upright, muttering a few Eirenan swear words.

Raising his eyes, Blaen met the icy blue eyes of the other man. A strange tingling flew straight down his spine, like the feel of the air during a lightning storm on a dry Gurodellan summer afternoon. The other man seemed similarly affected, his mouth hanging open for a few seconds. Then he blinked and shoved Blaen away, growling, before stalking past him.

Blaen stood another moment, watching the tall, gray-cloaked figure disappear into the crowds of people in the marketplace. He looked down at his hands, flexing them, feeling even there a residual tingle from the brief contact he'd had with the man. Then he shook his head. The heat, the travel, the new place, just being tired, my imagination, who knows?

He resettled his worn brown cloak over his shoulders and dusted off his similarly colored tunic and trousers before hefting his pack again and then continued down the street. Only one day in Valeria, not even registered at the Guild yet and already you make trouble. You could have stayed in the smaller towns of Gurodel maybe or even in Shionan -- they liked you there. But, no, you had to travel. You wanted to see the world. You, a second-level dironan, who could've had a nice, plush, easy job at the Shionan Academy, had to come to Eirena, where you don't know a soul and no one has the slightest inkling what you are.

Blaen sighed, eyeing the mass of people wandering in and out of vendor stalls and making their way through the crowded street. Valeria was the largest trade city in Eirena nestled next to the coast of the Emerald Sea on the west and the Nerias River and Clarriet Mountains to the north -- the perfect location for a trade city.

And, man, is it busy! He just shook his head as he let his gaze roam over the marketplace. Women gossiping while they picked through jewelry and fabrics. Men doing business and making deals over mugs of ale. Children running and playing among the adults and the kiosks, kicking up dust into the warm, slightly humid air. Various animals were scattered around -- horses, sheep, cows, goats, birds of varying types. Shop owners shouting to get the attention of and bargaining with customers as they sold their wares.

All were ignorant of the meaning of the two gold hoops in his left ear lobe. But, then again, that is why you left Gurodel -- too many people knew. Make up your mind, Blaen. As people brushed by him, he picked up pieces of images and sensations. He consciously closed himself off -- too much would make him dizzy or sick. Normally he didn't pick up this much, but at large, busy marketplaces without someone else he could specifically focus on, everything tended to bombard him at once. Fortunately, nothing was solid enough to cause a second sight or 'vision', just indistinct glimmers.

Except for that tall man who'd run into him.

He frowned to himself as he looked for the half-hidden alleyway he'd been directed to that contained the Mercenary Guild building. He'd only met those eyes for a brief moment and the contact was no more long lasting than the people who were passing by him now. But there was something there, something ... something I can't really decipher. He'd felt overtones of a future connection, of friendship, of a bond, of something stronger he couldn't understand. His frown deepened as he remembered the lone image he'd received -- an odd flash of silver.

At the same time, he'd felt the man's impatience, quick anger, and annoyance at being interrupted during his search for ... something ... in the marketplace.

In addition, the feelings and overtones lingered for at least a minute after the man left. Typically, his moments of insight vanished quickly after contact was removed. But not this time. Something was different. And that something, whatever it was, had stunned him long enough for the tall man to get away.

Blaen stopped in the middle of the road, looking around. He was in the produce area -- he must have passed the correct alleyway. Turning and muttering under his breath, he retraced his steps and found the turn he'd missed while being lost in thought. As he entered the squat brown building, he set aside his deep thoughts. Another day, another time. Right now, I need money to buy food. And for that, I need a job.


The mercenary stood for a moment in the shadows outside the building currently housing the local offices of the Mercenary Guild. Arms crossed, he leaned back against the wall opposite the building, dark gray cloak pulled around him to hide him from prying eyes. To any who did chance to see him, he was an imposing sight. Tall, lean muscles, cold calculating eyes peering from beneath a hood, large strong hands. The long pommel of his sword topped one shoulder and the tip of the curved sheath could be seen outlined against the fabric of his cloak on the opposite side of his body. Not someone to mess with intentionally if you wanted to walk the next day.

He eyed the building for long minutes, noting those who came and went in the intervening time. Some were trackers, paid to find things or people. Others were fighters, some willing to work for whomever paid the most money and some who fought only for a cause they could agree with, assuming the money was at least decent. A sprinkling of guides filtered in and out. He knew from experience that good guides were hard to find and harder still to keep a hold of for any length of time -- because of their rarity, they tended to cost more than the average mercenary guild worker and they seemed to have less compunction about leaving in the middle of a job. Regardless of specified profession, everyone he saw was a mercenary he was familiar with, whether publicly known or not.

He'd searched half the day for this place, getting misdirection it seemed at every turn, and now was in a distinctly unhappy mood, thus his forbidding stance against the wall. He'd been away for the past several months in Malinde and the Guild had moved its base since he'd last been here. Now that he'd finally found the building, he wasn't even so sure he wanted its services anymore. But his next job would take him to Gurodel and for that he needed someone who knew the country well.

In other words, a guide.

Finally he pushed away from the wall and strode toward the darkened doorway. Lowering his hood, he entered the building and ignored the muted whispers that started as soon as his face was revealed in the shallow light of the alleyway.

"Wasn't that Jydan?" "Isn't he the mercenary who leaves black roses to mark his presence?" "I hear he's ruthless." "I'd heard he was heading for Gurodel." "What's he doing here?" "I don't know."

Jydan, mercenary and tracker for hire, only smiled grimly to himself. Let them wonder. Keeps them on their toes and out of my way.

There were few others in the semi-dark front room and so Jydan went straight to the counter, to where a short, rotund man stood, a long knife at his belt, several thick ledgers on the surface in front of him. He looked up as Jydan approached and nodded congenially.

"Jydan, greetings."

"Greetings, Henrik. I need a guide who is familiar with Gurodel. Maybe even a native Gurodellan, if one is available that can be trusted."

Henrik shoved back his long dark ponytail and opened one of the ledgers as he asked, "For how long?"

Jydan replied, "Several months, six at most."

Henrik flipped through several pages, then stopped and began tracing a finger down a column of names. "We do have some guides willing to go to Gurodel, even one native Gurodellan that just arrived today. Any other specifications?"

Jydan thought for a moment, absently adjusting the knife at his belt. "Can travel long distances by horseback. Language skill would be great. Fighting skill would be a plus, but not terribly necessary. As long as they can defend themselves adequately with their weapon of choice. No one too flamboyant or money-hungry. This isn't a pleasure trip. And I'm not at liberty to give details about the trip until the contract is signed."

Henrik nodded, pursing his lips, then said slowly, "The native Gurodellan guide who arrived today would fit those requirements. He is very well spoken of, registered in the Guilds in Malinde, Shionan, and even in Gurodel, if that really matters. He is, however, very young, only 19 years of age. Already well traveled and can speak several languages. Does not own a horse, but says that he can ride well. And he is a newly designated second-level dironan."

Jydan frowned. "A what?"

Henrik paused a moment, then continued. "It's a Gurodellan term. The closest it can be translated to in standard is 'guide and seer'. Not exact, but close enough. It is an inborn talent in Gurodellans, extremely rare though. It has to do with 'seeing' or 'feeling' auras and such or something like that. In any case, after the novice level, there are only three levels and to reach the second level at such a young age bespeaks great control and maturity. Typically, from what I understand, one does not gain second level status until mid-forties."

Jydan nodded once, waving away the extraneous information. "Whatever. He'll do. Draw up a binding contract for six months. He'll be paid as we go -- half again standard wages -- plus a bonus at the end. And I'll provide a horse for him."

Henrik blinked once, a little surprised. "You don't want to meet him first to be sure you'll get along."

Jydan straightened up to his full height, mouth pulling into a disapproving thin line, and snapped out, "I'm looking for a guide, not someone to gossip with. As long as he does what I ask, we'll be fine. We leave tomorrow at sunrise. I'll have a horse sent over this evening. And I'll sign the contract tomorrow morning before we leave."

Henrik pulled over a scrap of paper and a quill and scribbled down Jydan's contract agreement terms. "Very well, Jydan. Everything will be ready tomorrow morning as you have asked."

Jydan left without another word and Henrik watched the door swing shut silently before shaking his head. He opened the door to the large work room behind him and grabbed the first person that passed him, a young girl.

"Peri, find Blaen, the dark-haired Gurodellan. Tell him we have a job for him."


Blaen secured his lone pack onto the saddle of the tall tannish gelding, murmuring to it softly. It had been some time since he'd last ridden a horse, but he had confidence in his abilities. He'd always had a way with horses, no matter how unfriendly they might be to others. He glanced back out through the open door of the stable again where an early morning drizzle was sprinkling over the stable yard. Still mostly dark, though he could see the beginnings of the dawn lights over the tops of the buildings to the east of him.

Wonder where this Jydan is that hired me. It's nearly sunrise. We should be leaving soon. He looked back at the horse, petting its mane absently. Do I really want to go back to Gurodel? It's been five years. Surely he's moved on by now. No one would wait around that long for one person ... would they? His hands stilled and the horse turned to look at him with large soulful brown eyes.

Blaen laughed softly, nervously, to himself. "Of course not. Probably forgot all about me." He ignored that distant memory of a voice that promised he would never forget Blaen, youngest son of Brienne and Sudarsan; Blaen, last of the Three Dolphins family; Blaen of the rare and precious dironan talent, both blessing and curse; Blaen of the coastal village of Kinesti in the province of Turell of the country of Gurodel...


Mentally shaking himself, he grabbed the long quarterstaff from the side of the stall and fastened it to on the other side of the saddle, making sure he could pull it out quickly if need be. The knives in his boots and the dagger on his belt would do him little good for close hand-to-hand fighting and he never had learned to use a sword, depending on his good will and quickness to get him out of jams. Besides, he rarely traveled alone, usually going along with large caravans from place to place.

As he tied his bedroll behind the saddle, Blaen pondered on what the exact reason could be that this Jydan wanted to go to Gurodel. From what Henrik, Peri, and others had told him, Jydan was a hard man for anyone to stay around for any amount of time. He has few, if any friends, mostly just acquaintances and enemies. A man of secrecy, quiet, and mystery, but the man to go to if you wanted something done quickly and correctly. He was reputed to be quick and cold in his anger, impatient, rashly judgmental at times, and a master of masters with his long curved Eirenan sword.

But Peri, an orphan at age 11 who Henrik had hired off the streets, had told him that Jydan was nice to her and sometimes brought her things from his travels. Blaen had heard similar comments from the other children and some of the women who lived and worked in Valeria, both in and out of the Guild.

He sounds like a study in contrasts. Could be a very interesting six months. I hope I don't regret signing that contract before meeting him.

Voices approaching the stable made him turn to look out the doorway where more light was shining in from the partly-visible rising sun. The first he identified as Peri's, the second as a man's, most likely Jydan's.

"But why do you have to go to Gurodel? You only just came back."

"I know, Peri. I'm sorry. I can't tell you why I have to go, only that it's very important that I do. I'll come back as soon as I can, I promise. I'll bring back something for you, maybe a pin for that pretty red hair of yours. Okay?"

"Okay, Jydan, but I'll miss you."

"Same here, kid. Now, you said Blaen was in the stables?"

"Yeah, saddling the horse you sent for him. I told him I'd let him know when you got here."

Blaen stayed half-hidden in shadows by the horse when Peri and Jydan walked into the stable. Peri, a slight girl, was shrouded by a hooded cloak, the hood of which she lowered when she walked inside. The man wore a cloak as well, but the hood was down, which left his face open to Blaen's view.

Blaen blinked. It's him! The tall man from yesterday. He's Jydan?!? Great, just great. Which gods have I offended lately? Man.

He squared his shoulders and stepped forward just as Jydan began to scowl. "Good morning. You must be Jydan. I am Blaen, your guide to Gurodel." And just to be prayerfully hopeful, he added a welcome blessing he'd picked up in Shionan. "May all your paths be blessed by wisdom and light."


Jydan had taken a breath to call out for this Blaen when the shorter man, perhaps rising to his shoulder, stepped from an open horse stall where he'd been hidden by the bulk of the horse. He's so young! He had a mass of shoulder-length curly brown hair, though Jydan saw a loose leather tie hanging over one stall divider, presumably to tie back his hair. He had dark colored eyes, but not brown, perhaps dark blue or green. He was dressed in conservative browns, but his eyes caught dark red, blue, and green accents interwoven among the mostly brown fabric, adding color and uniqueness to the common style. He also caught the glint of two gold hoop earrings in one of his ears.

And those were what stirred his memory as Blaen greeted him.

I know him from somewhere. Something recent. In the marketplace? Maybe I saw him yesterday sometime? Memory hit him and his eyes widened slightly. Yes, it was in the marketplace. The guy who bumped into me. Twice!


Blaen's smile crept a little wider at the stunned look on Jydan's face. He does remember. I was beginning to wonder there for a moment. So now what do we do? Has he already signed the contract?

At that moment, Jydan's jaw suddenly clenched and Blaen watched in some amusement as the muscles along the mercenary's cheek spasmed several times. I guess that would be a yes.

Peri spoke up from Jydan's side, uncertainty in her voice. "Is something wrong, Jydan?"

Jydan pulled his eyes away from Blaen and rested a hand on Peri's shoulder in reassurance. "No, nothing's wrong, Peri. We just ... recognized each other. We met in the marketplace yesterday on accident."

She smiled widely. "Well, since you already know each other, everything should be all right, right?"

Jydan threw a glance at Blaen before replying. "Yes, Peri, everything will be fine. Go back inside now. I have to talk to ... Blaen for a little bit. I'll stop by to say goodbye before I go." She nodded and skipped out the door, leaving Blaen alone with Jydan.

Blaen tensed, but waited quietly for Jydan to speak first, as was his right as employer. Jydan just stared at him for long moments, then grunted. "So, you're my guide. I hope you're as good as you claim and you're not as clumsy as you were yesterday."

Blaen flushed, but defended himself. "I'll confess to the second one, but the first time you ran into me, not me into you."

Jydan's eyes narrowed. "Oh, really, I remember it differently. I do not 'run' into people -- they move out of my way."

Blaen snapped back. "Or what? So you don't run into them, you run over them instead. Small difference, I suppose."

The mercenary's voice turned cold, and he moved closer to Blaen, trying to use his height to intimidate. "Listen here, little man--"

Blaen immediately bristled, determined not to let this ... this uncultured, impolite, arrogant jerk! ... walk all over him. "I am not a little man."

Jydan went on relentlessly, blue eyes snapping with both fire and ice. "Fine. Listen here, shorty, I'm paying you to get me through Gurodel. If there was a way for me to get out of this contract without paying huge penalty fees, I would take


"So would I."

"--but there isn't and I have never broken a contract and I don't intend to start with you. Don't argue with me, stay out of my way, and do your job, and we'll both be happier."



They stared at each other in silence. The gelding at Blaen's back shifted nervously, picking up the animosity in the air. Blaen finally looked away, turning to the horse and petting down its mane, quieting it.

Diffidently he spoke. "The horse is well-trained. Does he have a name?"

Jydan replied after a moment, all traces of anger gone, but his voice remaining impersonal. "His name is Erinnim, Eri for short. It's Eirenan for--"

"For 'silverlight'. Yes, I know."

Jydan was quiet another moment, then added, "He's a good horse."

Blaen nodded, still not facing Jydan. "Good. I'm ready to go when you are."

"Very well. We can get food supplies for a few days at the Guild kitchen and then we'll go. My horse is tied at the gate."


It wasn't until three hours later that Blaen finally decided that he'd had enough silence. Plus he wanted to know where exactly they were going and what they were supposed to do when they got there. Jydan was riding ahead of him, back stiff and straight, head moving only occasionally to check their surroundings. Currently they were headed down the coastline on one of the road main Eirenan roads. Typically, the road was much busier, but it was still early and most travelers were only now getting up to face the day. The road itself was plenty wide for the two of them to ride side-by-side. It was big enough for several carts to ride side-by-side! But neither wanted to speak to the other.

But now I gotta know what I've got myself into. So just swallow your pride, Blaen, and be the first one to speak. I have the distinct feeling he could go until the Gurodellan border and not speak a word. Not the way I want things to go. If I'm gonna work for the man, I have to be able to communicate with him, no matter how annoying he is.

Blaen stifled a sigh and kneed Eri up to settle into a pace next to Jydan's coal black stallion, Shadowrose, the absolute biggest horse he'd ever seen in his life. Jydan didn't even acknowledge his presence, just kept riding and looking straight ahead. Blaen cleared his throat experimentally and began.

"So, why exactly are we going to Gurodel? The contract said you would explain details once I signed it. Well, I signed it and now we're three hours out of Valeria. If it's secrecy you were worried about, I think that's pretty well taken care of." He gestured around them to the wide expanse of coastline -- nothing much more than trees and high cliffs. Not another soul to be seen, maybe a few birds, but that was about it.

After a few more moments of continued silence, Jydan turned his head slowly to meet Blaen's eyes. Blaen kept his face fixed in an expression of polite and curious interest. Then Jydan focused his attention back to road in front of them. For a second, Blaen thought he wasn't going to answer the question. But Jydan finally began to speak in an informative, although removed, tone of voice.

"There have been reports of slave raids along the border between Shionan and Gurodel. The clan leaders in Shionan asked me to give them a hand in tracking down the main bands and putting a stop to it."

Blaen frowned. "There have always been slave raiding parties along the border. Why try to stop it now?"

Jydan rolled his shoulders, settling back on his horse, his eyes still fixed on the road. "The raids have increased and children are being taken. Young children. And only children. No adults. In addition, there have been rumors that the slave raids are being organized by a one individual, that the raiding parties are all working under one person -- a Gurodellan by the name of Rikondja."


The name echoed through Blaen's head like a death knell or an omen. He stiffened, his hands tightening painfully on the reins of his horse, his knuckles whitening with the strain. Eri pulled his head forward in protest at the sudden tension. Blaen made his hands relax, made himself breathe again, made himself hear the gentle swell of the seatide over the memories of screams in his head, made himself smell the slightly tangy air of the sea instead of the phantom odor of acrid smoke. He closed his eyes for a few moments, letting Eri follow Shadowrose's lead, taking several deep breaths. He can't get to you. It was five years ago. You're older now. He can't hurt you anymore. Just relax.

A voice pierced his thoughts and his eyes flew open to see Jydan watching him intently, one hand on Eri's reins. "Hey, you okay? You recognize the name or something?"

Blaen swallowed hard, putting a false look of calm on his face. "Yeah, I ... recognize the name." More like 'or something'.

Jydan shrugged, released the reins and went on. "Anyway, I've been hired to find and track him, see where his hideout is, where he is taking the slaves. The clan leaders haven't been able to do so and they're hoping I can."

Blaen nodded, his heart finally slowing back down to something approaching normal. "And that's where I come in."

"That's where you come in. I haven't been in Gurodel much, mostly just border towns and some of the coastal villages, but always with an interpreter. I can speak a little Gurodellan, enough to get by in the bigger cities where I hear standard is used more, but in the smaller towns and villages, well, it just isn't enough. And then there are customs, landmarks, hidden areas, the list goes on. I am hoping that having a native Gurodellan as a guide will help."

Blaen was silent, processing what Jydan has said. He stared past Jydan out at the sea, watching the waves roll in, the greenness of the water for which it was named reflecting the trees studding the shoreline. So much like home, or at least how it used to be. Nothing left but ashes and ruins now. All gone. The sea breeze blew across his face, bringing with it a few loose strands of hair that clouded his vision and stuck to his eyelashes. He shoved them away without thought, then looked at Jydan who was frowning at him.

He smiled slightly. "Sorry, just thinking. I hope I can help you. It's been five years since I was in Gurodel. I left because ... because of a lot of reasons." Gone, gone, gone. "But I grew up there and I know most of the country well enough that I think I help you find Rikondja. He's terrorized Gurodel for years. It's about time someone put a stop to it." He paused, then looked away and finished quietly. "Thank you."

Jydan blinked in surprise, then shrugged. "It's what I do, kid."


That night over the campfire and a small, but filling, supper, Jydan watched Blaen from the other side of the fire pit from beneath hooded eyelids. It had been a long day of riding and Jydan had to admit to himself that Blaen was an excellent rider, much better than he'd expected of the 19-year-old. At 30, Jydan had been riding almost from the time he could walk and from the time he turned 13, he'd been riding the bigger, sometimes meaner, stallions that his uncle Jovan told him came with the package of being a mercenary.

From watching the younger man handle Eri, Blaen probably grew up riding horses as well, but still not the finer horses like Eri. Good riding mounts were nearly impossible to find in Gurodel -- he knew, he'd tried to find one there before buying Shadowrose from a Malinden merchant a few years ago. So even though Blaen couldn't have been riding anything like Eri before now, he had some inborn riding talent that not many had these days.

Add in the fact that Shadowrose hadn't once tried to nip at him. Instead he'd just swished his tail in equine pleasure whenever Blaen's hands came in contact with him. Definitely strange. Shadowrose was not the nicest horse around, but he was extremely intelligent, dependable, strong, fierce in his protection of his rider, and known for his dislike of strangers touching him or even coming near him with or without permission. Jydan had taken to shoeing the stallion himself because of the complaints from blacksmiths getting bitten or kicked.

But now he's cozying up to that kid as if they'd known each other in another life or something!

He turned his attention back to Blaen who was keeping his eyes on his plate as he ate, obviously starved. There was something altogether different about him, but Jydan couldn't put his finger on exactly what. And this aside from the fact that he was a dironan, which he'd vaguely recognized the description of when Henrik had explained. No, there was something else, something...

Blaen looked up at him for a moment, then back down at his plate and in that brief moment, Jydan pinpointed what was bothering him. His eyes! He may be young, but he's seen a lot, more than most I would guess. He frowned to himself. Would that explain his reaction to Rikondja's name? He seemed very ... disturbed, more than I would think is just a recognition reaction Maybe he's met him or something? And that memory isn't pleasant? He mentally shook his head. Keep to your own self, Jydan, don't get involved. Working relationship only, not a friendship. You can't afford friends, not in this business.

When Blaen was done eating and had set aside his plate, Jydan decided he wanted to know a few more things about this new guide of his. He waited until Blaen had settled back against a fallen log, then said, "Henrik told me that you are a dironan. Will this talent of yours help us?"

Blaen froze in the act of shifting his long cloak, then finished pulling it around his body before replying, keeping his eyes down. "Typically I need to have physical contact with a person to perceive anything about them. It doesn't just appear or anything. Occasionally there will be a person I don't need to touch to 'read'. Their personality is usually very strong and overpowering, but still I have to be within a few feet of them. So I don't know if it will help or not. Usually all I can pick up are images, sometimes sounds, rarely words, that don't always make sense to me, but relate to that person's present or immediate future. And I can usually feel ... auras is I guess the best word for it -- the general feelings that a person is putting out, at least the strong ones. But then most people can sense those easily enough just by observing body language."

Jydan nodded, then frowned, something just occurring to him. "Can you read me?"

Blaen looked up sharply, and Jydan swore he saw something flash across Blaen's dark blue eyes, but then Blaen ducked his head back down before Jydan was even really sure he saw anything. The younger man hesitated, chewing his lower lip for a second, then answered quietly. "Yes, at first, in the ... in the marketplace. I was tired and surprised. But not now, so don't worry, I won't invade your privacy ... or anything like that." He swallowed, then turned to lay down on his mat on his side, back to the fire. "I'm really tired, so I think I'll call it a night."

Jydan watched his guide settle himself, pulling his cloak and blanket over himself. Jydan threw a few more logs on the fire to keep it going for a bit longer. "Yeah, see you in the morning." He waited a few minutes longer, hearing the younger man's breathing even out into sleep before lying down to stare up at the stars before drifting off into sleep himself.


Blaen let his breathing even out, letting the older man think he was asleep. In reality, his eyes were wide open and staring fixedly into the lightly forested area around them, beyond which he could still hear the sea slapping against the sandy shore. When Jydan had asked about being able to read him, Blaen's gift had suddenly opened up, only for a split second, then Blaen had forcibly shoved it back down again. But images and feelings had still imprinted themselves upon him, insisting that he listen, that he see, that he know.

I don't want to know. I never wanted this gift, especially not now, not when I'm going back to Gurodel, back to where ... he ... is waiting for me.

The young man squeezed his eyes shut tightly, forcing a heavy breath from his nose, striving for calm. After a few minutes, he shifted slightly, then curled down his head a little more, getting comfortable. Tonight the images from the past would leave him alone, that he was sure of. Closer to Gurodel was a different matter. But for now he was still safe.

Tonight all he saw were silver strands of light.


A week and a half passed, each day merging into each other in a routine of sameness on the long journey to Shionan and the Gurodellan border towns. Up early, ride for hours and hours, stop to eat and buy supplies occasionally, to bed late, then up early the next morning to start all over again. During the daylight hours, Jydan and Blaen began to talk, exchanging little bits of information, relaxing with each other slowly. Blaen explained more of what a dironan did and how he was educated at the Shionan Academy. Jydan talked briefly of how his uncle, also a mercenary, helped him get his own start into the mercenary world. Jydan asked Blaen about his own family, but all Blaen told him was that they were all dead.

As they traveled, Blaen learned more about his new employer just by watching the way he dealt with those they met on the road and in the various towns they entered from time to time. A few times during that first week they came across bandits attacking peasants. There was even once when the bandits were brave -- or foolish -- enough to go after a semi-noble carriage. Each time, Jydan would stop them and send them off with a good round of punishment, never actually killing anyone. He refused rewards, simply accepted thanks, not even giving his name to those he helped.

Blaen was impressed, though curious. Jydan was a mercenary. And most mercenaries didn't seem to have the moral streak that Jydan had. He could be gruff and aloof, while at the same time gentle and kind with children they met in the villages and towns on their route. Well, normal children, that is. Bratty ones did not make a good impression on Jydan. Blaen had caught Jydan flexing his hands more than once as if he wanted to reach out and paddle a particularly obnoxious child.

All-in-all, Blaen figured he had made out pretty good. Decent employer, though a bit rigid and difficult to get along with at times. Didn't do any raiding himself; instead he stopped the raiders, without even having to use that nasty-looking sword of his much. Good wages -- really good wages. A real riding mount that maybe he could buy off of Jydan when the contract was up.

Now if only they weren't going to Gurodel, things would be perfect.


Blaen twisted around in his saddle once more to look at the huge stone walls surrounding E'Teirene City, the capital of Eirena. He shook his head as they continued down the road, horses loaded with new supplies. "And I thought Valeria was big. Man was I wrong!"

Jydan raised an eyebrow. "You didn't see the City on your way to Valeria?"

Blaen shrugged as he turned back to look ahead of them. "No, I didn't take the coast road. The trading caravan I traveled with that year used one of the inland routes through the foothills. Better business they said. And I went with them straight up to Malinde. I only got back to Eirena with another caravan on the day we ... met in the marketplace."

Jydan nodded. "Hmm." They continued on in silence, heading back toward the coast road, the sun shining warmly over the shoulders.

After a half hour of travel and around several curves in the road leading out of the last of the hilly territory around the capital, they began to hear the sounds of fighting -- swords, yells, horses. Jydan picked up the pace to a full trot, coming around the last bend to see a lone carriage being attacked by raiders some distance down from them. He was reaching for his sword to jump in and help the outmatched guards when he saw the embellished seal on the outer carriage wall.

He froze for half a second, then lowered his hand to rest on the pommel of his saddle, his face suspiciously blank.

Blaen came to halt beside him, pulling back on Eri's reins. "Whoa! Are we gonna help them?" Jydan's answer, when it finally came, was short, clipped, and harsh. And utterly without mercy.


Blaen blinked, cleared his throat nervously a few times, then finally spoke. "Uh, did I hear you right? We're not helping them?"

"That's right. We're not helping them."

"You wanna tell me why. I thought you went after raiders and bandits. Why is this different? They're being--"

Jydan whirled in his saddle and grabbed Blaen's upper arm in a tight, unyielding grasp, making him yelp in surprise and pain. The older man's eyes were cold and angry. "Because I decided to have it be that way. Remember our agreement, you do what I say, you get paid. No more, no less."

Flinching away and nodding once, Blaen snapped his mouth shut and swallowed anything else he might have had to say. "Yeah, sure, whatever, man."

Jydan released him and directed his horse off the path up a side way to get around the carriage and the raiders, obviously expecting Blaen to follow with no further questions. Blaen hesitated, watching in silence as at least half a dozen raiders, well-armed ones, continued to fight the guards, laughing as the guards fell onto the ground. Rubbing at the new bruise forming on his arm, he glanced in the direction Jydan had taken and saw Shadowrose's dark shape moving through foliage. He looked back at the carriage, then growled under his breath.

I can't just ride away. Not like Jydan. I just can't.

He loosened his quarterstaff from its place strapped to the saddle, bringing it up across his lap. Then he pulled one of his boot knives free. Taking a deep breath, he shoved his heels in to Eri's side, spurring the horse forward, yelling an old Gurodellan battle cry as he did.


Jydan was jerked from his dark brooding as Blaen's cry echoed around him. He twisted around, looking for his guide. He wasn't behind him, wasn't anywhere near him. And then the sounds of renewed fighting hit his ears. The carriage. He didn't, he couldn't, I told him we weren't, that he wasn't supposed to--

Grinding his teeth, he kneed Shadowrose to back up on the narrow trail, too narrow to turn around to ride normally. While Blaen could defend himself adequately in a fight, those raiders were nobody to fool with and Blaen was definitely not up to fighting against all of them by himself. If he didn't need Blaen in Gurodel, he could have just left the kid to his fate -- that ... rubbish ... in the carriage certainly doesn't deserve help -- but he did need Blaen, at least for the moment.

The road finally came into view and with it enough room for Shadowrose to turn around which the stallion did immediately. Jydan kneed him into a hard run toward the carriage, yanking out his sword and yelling for attention. Bodies were scattered on the ground, some guards, a few raiders, most still alive, though unconscious. Blaen was wielding his quarterstaff with either an amazing amount of skill or just really great luck. The younger man had just knocked one raider away from a wounded guard sitting half-propped up against the wheel of the carriage when Jydan saw another raider appear from the other side of the carriage, a long dagger raised, aiming for Blaen's back. Jydan didn't hesitate, but yanked a short knife strapped to the inside of one arm and threw it with deadly intent.


Blaen jerked when he heard the grunt behind him, whirling around to see the raider he'd heard behind him fall to the ground, a knife sticking in his chest. He swallowed hard and looked across the way to see Jydan just turning away from him, intent on disarming the two raiders attacking him. Blaen looked back to the carriage where a stern-looking older man stood in front of the carriage doors, a short fighting sword in one hand. Blaen judged him to be in his mid-fifties, maybe early sixties. But he was still able to hold his own in a fight. Blaen's eyes drifted further back to the carriage itself where he had seen the face of a child peering out earlier.

A child that Blaen was determined the raiders would not get their hands on.


With the additional assistance, the raiders were defeated quickly and the ones still alive sent scurrying on their way. Jydan collected his various daggers and knives from the chaotic mess around him, cleaning them and his sword on the cloaks of the dead raiders. Then he grabbed the reins of Eri and Shadowrose and walked slowly over to the carriage where Blaen was talking to the older man. He came into the conversation just as the older man was speaking.

"I suppose you want a reward or something now. No better than a raider yourself."

Blaen blinked, stepping back a pace, looking surprised, maybe a little offended. "No, I don't want anything. You looked like you were in trouble. I wanted to help."

The man sneered, going on as if Blaen hadn't even spoken. "And if the raiders had still won, you would have claimed a part of the bounty, no doubt."

Blaen shook his head, protesting weakly. "No, that's not it. Sir, are you all right? Is the kid okay?"

Jydan's head shot up. There was a kid involved? He hadn't seen a child anywhere. He looked at the carriage again and then saw the curly-headed mop of black hair through the doorway of the carriage. He swore softly, realizing that he'd unknowingly endangered the life of a child by refusing to help. Even if the feelings he had for the older man were justified, he should never had done that.

Posture straightening in haughtiness, the old man replied, "My grandson and I are fine. Now let us be on our way."

Blaen just stood there, somewhat in shock at the rudeness of the man. Most Eirenans, not counting the raiders and bandits and the nasty mercenaries, tended to be on the polite side. Even the nobility were at least not terribly condescending, at least the ones he'd met in his short time in Eirena. But this guy...

Jydan came to a stop next to Blaen and stared at the other man in undisguised disgust. The man glowered back at him, curling his lip. "You. What do you want, mercenary?"

"From you? Nothing."

Blaen's eyes shifted rapidly between the two now silent and hostile men, unsure what exactly was going on, but the tension in the air was obvious. He doesn't even need his dironan abilities to pick up the radiating mess of chaotic emotions, nothing good, all bad. Hatred, contempt, resentment, loathing from both sides. He could all but smell and taste the unpleasantly strong emotions in the air and the stench was almost overwhelming. He had to take a step back from both of them to regain his equilibrium or just lose it right then and there. No one said anything else for several long seconds. Only the noise of guards moving about, helping their injured comrades, and settling the horses interfered with the uneasy quiet.

Another voice finally spoke up -- the child's voice -- quavering with fright and uncertainty. "Grandpa Roeland?" A boy, maybe 8 or 9 years of age, peered out from the carriage, eyes wide and scared.

The old man -- Roeland -- turned to the boy, stepping in front of him to block his view of the carnage. "Just stay inside, Filip, we'll be on our way in a little bit. Everything is okay." The boy nodded, his eyes jerking to meet Blaen's briefly before he ducked back inside obediently.

Roeland looked back at Jydan. "Well, why are you still here? I want nothing to do with you or your little friend." He waved a hand at them dismissively, then walked away, yelling at his guards to hurry things along.

Jydan shoved the reins to Eri's bridle into Blaen's hands roughly, pulling himself on Shadowrose's back as he spoke in curt terms. "Get on, we're leaving." Blaen opened his mouth to protest, but Jydan silenced him with a cold look. Blaen hurriedly strapped his quarterstaff back to the saddle and then mounted Eri to follow Jydan away from the carriage and the surrounding chaotic mess.


Twenty minutes down the road, Jydan's anger had finally reached a boiling point. He steered Shadowrose off to the side of the road; Blaen did likewise, confusion in his eyes, but wisely keeping his mouth shut. Jydan slid out of the saddle and threw the reins over a nearby tree branch, then stalked over to Blaen who was just preparing to dismount.

Jydan reached up and grabbed Blaen by the collar and literally pulled him off the horse, ignoring Blaen's startled exclamation. He pulled him around and slammed him up against a large tree trunk, hands still wrapped in the collar of Blaen's shirt. He leaned in closer to Blaen, biting off his words in daggered fragments, punctuating each phrase with a hard shake.

"Don't you ever, ever, do that again! Don't you ever disobey me! What I tell you to do, you will do. What I tell you not to do, you won't do. Do you understand me?"

Blaen fought vainly for purchase against Jydan's stronger hold. His toes barely touched the ground and he had very little leverage to push back from to get away from the mercenary seemingly intent on harming him permanently. He didn't reply to Jydan's insistent question for a moment too long and the older man shook him again, harder this time as he demanded an answer. "Do you understand me?"

Wincing as his head impacted with the tree trunk, Blaen snarled out a reply. "Yes, I understand you, now let me go!" Jydan pushed him back against the tree, then dropped his hold, stepping back several feet. Blaen straightened his clothes and glared at Jydan. "This was not in the contract."

"The contract says you do what I say."

"The contract does not say that you have the right to run my life and tell me what to do or that you push me around like some petty stableboy. I may be young, but I am a fully trained guide with rights and privileges. I do not need this from you. Forget the penalties. I'll pay them. I don't have to take this. You can keep the horse and the fee, just let me get my belongings."

The younger man turned to grab his bag from its spot strapped to Eri's saddle. A heavy hand gripping his arm stopped him, yanking him back to stand against the tree. "No, I don't think so. There is no way you're getting away that easily. Not from me. I told you I've never broken a contract."

Blaen tried to twist his arm away, but the mercenary's grip was too tight. He settled for an angry glare. "Fine. I'll break it and tell them it was my decision, not yours. Now let me go!"

"What about Rikondja? What about the children he's taking? I need your help to find him. What about that?" For an instant, Jydan saw something akin to fear flash through Blaen's eyes, but it was quickly replaced by stubbornness and anger again.

"Get a guide in Shionan or Gurodel. There is no way I am hanging around with someone who changes his mind about who is worthy enough to be saved from raiders."

Jydan's jaw clenched. "It was more than that. There were too many for me to fight. And you can't--"

Blaen finally pulled free of Jydan's grasp and moved away from him. "Don't start with that. I can fight just fine, thank you, sword or no sword. Just because I don't do it as a living doesn't mean I can't do it at all."

Jydan ground out, his jaw clenched tightly. "They were better than you. One nearly killed you. If I hadn't--"

Blaen cut him off again. "I knew he was there. I hadn't planned on letting myself get killed. I've been on my own for the past five years -- I know how to keep myself alive."

Jydan's anger was melting away and he realized suddenly that somehow in the space of only a week and a half he had begun to feel a kind of responsibility for the young man who was traveling with him. He growled and turned away. "I told you it was more than that."

Blaen's voice was strident as he came around to face Jydan. "Then you want to tell me what that was all really about? 'Cause I sure don't know." He gestured back to the road behind them. "Who was that guy? How do the two of you know each other? What makes him so rotten that you refuse to defend him or his grandson?"

"I didn't know the boy was with him. I didn't see him. I would never put a child in danger. But Roeland..." His face stilled and his eyes hardened with loathing.

Blaen caught a swift look of loss amidst the hatred and anger floating through Jydan's eyes. He lowered his voice, hoping for some kind of calm, even though adrenaline was still pumping through him. "Then talk to me, Jydan. Tell me why. Otherwise I'm leaving."

Jydan stared into the distance for a long, long while, then he said quietly, "Roeland is my father."

His mouth falling open, Blaen blinked in surprise. His father? But the markings on the carriage said that Roeland is one of the higher nobles of Eirena. And he is Jydan's father? He hadn't managed to find his voice again before Jydan went on in a distracted, removed voice.

"Dianthe, my mother, was a nursemaid and teacher for his children. One night, when she was asleep, Roeland slipped into her bedroom and ... well, when she found out she was pregnant, she went to Roeland, asking for help. He laughed in her face and threw her out with only the clothes she had on and no wages. No one takes the word of a servant over that of a noble, so she went to her brother Jovan and stayed with him. When she told him what happened, he wanted to kill Roeland, but she talked him out of it.

"Nine months later, I was born. When I was 13, just before she died, she told me who my father was. Out of respect to her last wishes, I have never done anything to Roeland or his family. Some of them aren't too bad. I think one of the older ones remembers my mother and has figured out who exactly I am. And Roeland most definitely knows. And hates every second of it that he, one of the richest nobles in Eirena, is father to a 'low-bred, no-good mercenary'."

Jydan fell silent, his mouth twisted in a self-depreciating grimace. Blaen didn't know what to say, didn't know where to begin. He cleared his throat nervously, then finally spoke. "I, uh, I didn't ... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have pushed. I'm sorry."

The mercenary shook his head once. "It's not important. It never was." He turned to look at Blaen. "What is important is your decision. Are you still going to help me?"

Blaen's hesitation only lasted a moment, then he nodded. "I'm still in."

A small smile crossed Jydan's face quickly, then he was all business again. "Good. Then we'd better get going. We should be in Shionan by tomorrow nightfall and then we'll have a few more days travel before we get to Ashanaran, the capital."


Several days later, Blaen walked through the Lower Ashanaran marketplace aimlessly, looking at various vendors' stalls. He'd always liked the Shionanians, so much more peaceful than their Gurodellan neighbors. Educated, respectful, quiet, simple. He'd lived here, hidden here, recovered here, had been protected here, for three years after he'd left Gurodel, was educated in their Academy, had his prenaturally strong dironan talent trained (and raised it to second-level), met their people, learned their native languages (at least three of them), and generally was liked by them and liked them back.

Shionan had been a great contrast to Gurodel. For one thing, it had no royalty. Instead it was ruled by a Council of Elders from the various clans that controlled parcels of land scattered throughout the country. Unique, as most countries had one, or maybe two, rulers. But they had very little war and very much harmony, just what Blaen had always wanted.

Gurodel didn't have one ruler; actually there were no real rulers to be spoken of, period. Each province was ruled by whomever in the area had the most power at that time. Territorial wars and being constantly on the move to avoid the worst of them were a way a life, something you got used to or you left. Which is what Blaen had done at age 14 during the time that Rikondja was rising rapidly to power, taking land and slaves left and right. No one had been able to stop him; no one wanted to try.

No one except a young boy with ridiculously idealistic visions of peace running loose in his head.

Blaen shook such memories from his mind and concentrated on the here and now. There would be no changing the past, no matter what he wanted. He looked down the street, wondering how long Jydan was going to be in with the Elders. They'd asked him to join them in the Council Hall for a meeting to discuss what exactly they wanted Jydan to do, a meeting that didn't require or need Blaen's presence.

So he'd gone to visit old friends and teachers at the Academy and then left a note for Jydan in their small quarters at their inn that he would be at the Lower Ashanaran marketplace. He wasn't hard to spot in a country full of pale-skinned, blonde people who dressed in mostly in pastels and white clothing.

As he walked, he stopped at a jewelry booth, glancing over the display of delicate pins and necklaces. One pin in particular caught his eye and he moved closer to squint at it in the shadows of the vendor's tent. It was a circle of three dolphins cast in silver, a tiny garnet stone hanging down from the top. He touched it with one trembling finger -- so similar to what he remembered, to what he lost five years ago, his last tie to....

A hand descended on his shoulder and a voice spoke in his ear, startling him. "Hey, you ready to go?"

Blaen spun around, his heart beating wildly. "Jydan! Don't do that. You scared me to death."

Jydan backed up a step, lifting both hands apologetically. "Sorry. What were you looking at? Some kind of pin?"

Blaen hesitated for a moment, then painted a fake smile on his face, waving it away. "Nah, it was nothing, just a piece of light that caught my eye. Let's go." He walked past Jydan out into the street.

Jydan frowned, then looked back at the still swinging dolphin pin on the hook. He reached out to touch it, then pulled back his hand, turning to follow Blaen. None of your business, Jydan. Just leave it. You've got work to do. But the unsettling memory of the pin and the shaking of Blaen's hand when he'd touched it hung in his memory as they headed out of town.


Once back out on the road, horses loaded with fresh supplies, Blaen asked, "So, what did the Elders have to say?"

Jydan settled back in his saddle, letting Shadowrose lead the way along the quiet, tree-lined road that would take them to the Shionan-Gurodellan border towns. "Well, not much more than what they'd told me in their original message they sent me a month ago up in Malinde. They'd heard of me, knew that I occasionally would help get rid of the nastier mercenaries or raiders. They had hoped that because of this that I would help them with the Rikondja problem. Their army, small as it is, can easily take care of most of the raiders that appear along their shared border with Gurodel. But Rik is different. He is fast and hard to catch, striking and getting out before the army really has the time to mobilize.

"They are already taking steps to guard those towns or just moving them further inland. While they are doing that, the Elders want me to track Rik down, find out where he's hiding, maybe discover the routes he takes, how they can find him and take back their people if they need to. The Shionanians are a formidable people, even if they appear basically peaceful. Their solidarity and interdependence are their strengths, something Rik has obviously forgotten or never learned."

Blaen shook his head, staring blankly ahead of him, commenting quietly. "Actually, that would be something Rik would know, but would decide was a challenge, a risk, a game. See how far the Shionanians would let him go before striking back, then he'll just disappear and take anything he got from them with him and not be seen again for years. It's his way."

Jydan was silent, observing Blaen carefully. Then he asked, "Just how well do you know Rik?"

Blaen flinched as if he'd been hit, "I don't..." His voice trailed off, then he looked down at his reins, fiddling with the extra lengths of leather draped across his hands.

Jydan just waited, not wanting to push too hard. Blaen had the ability to lock up tighter and faster than anyone he'd ever known, including himself. Ever since the incident with Roeland, they seemed to be getting along better, knowing each other's limits a little better, understanding each other a little more. They still don't talk much. Jydan wasn't the talking type, at least not the same way Blaen was. Blaen was constantly curious, asking questions about where he'd been as a mercenary and comparing that to places that he himself had visited during his trips with the trading caravans. He talked about a lot of stuff, but not much about himself. Even though Blaen had been able to get him to talk about his parents, Jydan had not yet been able to pry more out of his young guide than they were dead.

He suspected that their deaths were wrapped up in the drastic reaction that Blaen had evidenced every time Rikondja's name was mentioned. The flinching, the shadows in his eyes, the loss of color in his face. Everything pointed to the fact that he must know Rik -- and fairly personally. Whether that knowledge would help them or not depended on whether Blaen would talk to him.

He nudged Shadowrose closer to Eri and reached out a hand, laying it gently on Blaen's arm. The muscles stiffened up, then forcibly relaxed. But he didn't look at Jydan at all, just stared fixedly at the road. Jydan swallowed, then spoke. "Look, I don't know what's going on in that head of yours, but I realize whatever memories you are thinking about can't be good ones. I may only be a mercenary, an uneducated, illegitimate, unwanted son of some idiot Eirenan noble, but I can see that whatever Rik did to you or to your family, it's still hurting you. I can't make that stop, but together we can stop Rik, or at least try to, and maybe prevent what happened to you from happening to anyone else. Anything you can tell me will help and even if it doesn't, if you want to talk about it, well, I'll listen."

Blaen didn't say anything for a long time and when he did, his voice was quiet. "I thought you said your mother was a teacher. How could you be uneducated? Weren't you a good student?" Blaen looked over at Jydan, a hesitant smile on his face.

Jydan met his eyes, seeing a small measure of calmness in them. He released Blaen's arm with a squeeze and shrugged, smiling himself. "So I lied. I'm not totally uneducated. But I never went to any formal school or anything. And when she died, well, that was it. After that, all I learned was how to be a mercenary. It's probably her fault that I'm a mercenary with a sometimes inconvenient sense of morality."

Blaen grinned, chuckling a little. "Funny, that's what I thought earlier, that it was odd that you, a mercenary, had a sense of morality. Even if you don't want to admit that you're the one who bumped into me."

Jydan glared at him. "Let's not get into that again, kid."

Blaen laughed again and looked back down the road. A few moments later, he started to talk in a softly subdued voice.

"Gurodel isn't an easy country to grow up in. Lots of wars, lots of raiders, bandits, slavers, the list goes on. We moved a lot, trying to avoid the worst of the stuff. We, meaning my parents, my older sister, two older brothers, and a younger sister. Once every couple years, we'd pick up and leave wherever we were at, just to avoid the bloodshed and rampaging armies that would storm across that province when someone else decided they wanted a crack at power.

"When I was 12, we moved to Kinesti, in the province of Turell, on the northeast coast, in a cove area where a lot of fishing was done. My father, Sudarsan, was originally from the town before he'd moved years and years before to avoid one of the ever-present wars. But there were people still there, family, although a little distant, but family nonetheless. The only way most Gurodellans can be sure who they're related to is by the family crest. Ours was a circle of three dolphins cast in ghlia, a burgundy precious metal that is found only in Gurodel. In any case, our clan was known as the Three Dolphins family. I know there are no dolphins in the Emerald Sea, but the name had been passed down for generations and no one really knew why we had that name, only that we did.

"Anyway, by this time, my dironan talent had showed up. I think I got it when I was 10 or something like that. A year after we moved to Kinesti, I had ranked up past novice-level to first-level, or so I was told later. There are few teachers for the poor or peasants, not even for someone with dironan talent, so I mostly taught myself until I got to Shionan, but that was later. Word got around of what I was and people would show up, wanting me to 'read' them or some such thing. Annoying, but I lived with it. Because of the awareness I had of emotions, I started wanting Gurodel to find a way to have peace, instead of this constant warring and fighting. People told me I was nuts to think that anyone would ever find a way to unite Gurodel, that it had always been the way it was and it would always be that way. But I was young and idealistic and thought that there should be a better way, a different way..."

Blaen's voice trailed off into memory. Jydan watched him gathering his thoughts and his courage. Then he shook himself and went on. "And then just before my 14th birthday, Rikondja heard about me, heard that I was dironan. He came to our village, looking for me. He was just gaining power then, not like he is now. He said he had a proposition for me."

Blaen stopped again, and this time Jydan prompted quietly. "What did he want?"

His short bark of laughter took Jydan by surprise -- it was broken and painfully raw. "What didn't he want? He wanted me, he probably still does."

Jydan frowned slightly. Wanted him? What does that mean? He hesitated. Do I really want to know about this? Do I really want to involve myself in this, something that obviously hurt this kid so deeply? He looked over at Blaen who sat tensely in his saddle, eyes staring into the past, only partly aware of their present location, already trapped in hurtful memories. His mother's voice rung in his head:

"Every time someone shares something personal with you, you take on a piece of their soul, a piece of them, and by sharing yourself with someone, they take on a piece of your soul. Remember that, my son, and choose very carefully who to share your soul with, for someday you will have to make that choice. And that choice may change your life, regardless of what you decide."

Her words and the old hurt in her eyes had steered the young Jydan on a path of keeping his distance from everyone and everything, choosing to stay uninvolved, unattached, distant. And now that choice she spoke of was before him. He had already told Blaen about Roeland, at least the facts, maybe not the hurt and anger and the pain that filled him when he found who his father really was from his mother and the full story from his uncle Jovan. That he had withheld, claiming it wasn't important, that it never was, even though some small voice deep inside cried, "Liar!"

Make a decision, Jydan. This is the point of no return. Ask or don't ask, but say something. Anything. He opened his mouth, a brief thought passing across his thoughts to change the subject, but instead he reached out a hand to lay on Blaen's shoulder and said softly, kindly, "Tell me."

Blaen looked over at him, searching his eyes for a few seconds. Apparently finding something he trusted, he nodded once and shifted in his saddle a bit. And the story poured out of him in bits and pieces, starts and stops, truth unvarnished and hurtful, but truth nonetheless...

Five years before . . . .

"I have a proposition for you, Blaen of the Three Dolphins family."

Blaen looked at the tall, heavily built man with some curiosity, consternation, and skepticism. He didn't like what he was feeling from the man, guarded as it may be. He echoed slowly, "A proposition. And that would be...?"

To Blaen's outer and inner eyes, the man just felt like a potential warlord. Huge man, big muscles, medium dark scraggly brown hair, small beady green eyes full of intelligence and a thirst for power, scars on his bared arms and one on his face along one cheek bone, and, of course, there was his gang of six men, all equally large, that had come with him. To his nearly-14-year-old soul, the man reeked of danger and death. His nerves were yelling at him to leave, to get away. It took all his willpower to stay still and let the man talk.

The man slapped a meaty hand down on one of Blaen's thin shoulders, gesturing around him with his free hand. "How would you like to travel beyond this village? See the rest of the country, the world?"

Blaen eyed the hand warily, then said, "No thanks. I like it here. Why would I want to travel? My family is all here. Just who are you anyway?"

The man chuckled once. "Spunk. I like that. My name is Rikondja. Don't be so quick to turn down my offer, boy, it may not come again."

Blaen pulled away, taking several steps back. "That's okay. I won't need to hear it again. Like I said, I'm happy here."

Rikondja's eyes narrowed slightly and his voice lowered. "I'll be around for a little bit longer. Be sure that we will speak again, boy." He remounted his horse and gestured for his men to follow him as they rode down the street toward the small village inn.

Blaen watched them go, an uneasy feeling creeping into his soul that he would definitely be seeing Rikondja again and that his life would be irrevocably changed as a result.


Several days passed. Rik came by every day, asking Blaen if he had reconsidered. Blaen held firm. Then Rik started demanding, subtly at first, then more loudly, that Blaen change his mind and go with him. Blaen still refused. His family and the townspeople supported him in his decision and helped keep him away from Rik whenever possible. His mother Brienne was especially protective of him, of him and his brothers and sisters. She had lost her first child to slave traders early on in her and Sudarsan's marriage and was not about to lose another child, no matter what.

Blaen's 14th birthday came and with it, a small celebration, as 14 was the age of becoming a man in Gurodel. The party was a joyous one, filled with laughter and memories, something in short supply considering the constant wars and the constant moving. Being in the company of family again made things easier on everyone as they knew who they could trust.


Two weeks after Rik had shown up in Kinesti, Blaen was out on the shoreline checking the fishnet traps in the shallows one early evening when he felt a presence behind him -- a presence that did not make him feel good. He straightened and twisted abruptly, nearly sending himself into water. It was Rikondja. Alone. In fact, there was no one else to be seen anywhere. And from the look on Rik's face, he seemed extremely pleased by that fact.

Blaen gripped the long hooked pole he used to check the nets with harder, fear starting to churn his insides, sending his control over his talent scattering to the winds. Rik smiled, obviously catching the fear on Blaen's face.

"Don't be like that, boy. I don't want to hurt you. In fact, I want to make it possible for you to live in luxury for the rest of your life. Wouldn't you like that?"

Blaen shook his head. "I keep telling you I like it here. I'm not leaving my home, especially not with you."

Rik's smile disappeared and his eyes got cold and hard. "Well, you no longer have a choice. You're coming with me whether you like it or not. You're worth too much for me to let you make your own decisions." He started quickly toward Blaen, hands outstretched to grab him.

Blaen acted instinctively and swung the pole, its hook attached in a half-full net of fish, up at Rik. It hit Rik full in the face and fish slapped onto him and slid down his front. Rik roared as he tried to disentangle himself from the net and pole, cutting himself on the hook in the process. Blaen didn't stick around to see anymore and turned hurriedly away, running further out into the water, diving in and swimming when it was deep enough. As he swam away from shore, he could hear Rik's scream following him.

"You'll regret not coming with me, boy. Believe me, you will."

Blaen just kept going, heading for the opposite side of the cove where another fishing village was located, where he would be safe for awhile before he headed home on foot.


Later that evening, as Blaen and Cedron, one of his father's fishing companions, approached the outskirts of Kinesti, they began to smell smoke, then taste its acridness in the air. They looked at each other and started to run, both terrified of what they might find. As they rounded the last curve in the path leading into the village, they finally began to make out the dozens of plumes of dark smoke billowed against the night sky, blotting out the stars.

They both stopped and stared in shock at the wasteland of fire and smoke and destruction. Every building, home, marketplace stall, cooking shack, even the lone inn, was burning. Screams of women and children echoed in the air. Men yelling for more buckets of water, yelling for their wives, yelling for their children. Cries of loss, of denial, of aloneness permeated the shield Blaen held around his heart and soul.

And everything broke loose.

Blaen screamed incoherently as he began to run toward the far edge of the village, where his own home was, where his family was, where he was supposed to be. He was barely aware of the people he passed, of their crying eyes, of their reaching hands, of their voices calling out to him to not go, to stay back, to stay with them.

A horse came tearing down toward him, nearly running him down, succeeding in knocking him over. He looked up through smoke-stung eyes to see Rikondja, a lit torch still in one hand, a wild and evil grin on his face. He leaned down and spat at him. "And that, boy, is why you should have come with me when I gave you the chance. Now it's too late. Now you have nothing. Nothing and no one to blame but yourself."

Blaen stared up at with wide, disbelieving eyes. He whispered in a broken voice, "No." Rik just laughed and swung his torch at the nearest building, adding to the already hotly-burning flames. Blaen watched its flight with horrified interest, then moved his eyes back to Rik, his dark features lit by crackling flames. Rik's maniacal laughter became part of the flames and the screams and, for an endless moment, Blaen's world disappeared into a whirlwind vision of a thousand images.

Death. Terror. Slaves. Screams. Fire. Destruction. Power.
A tall, imposing woman hung about with prophecy and destiny.
A great glowing broadsword that spoke of history, the past, present, and future.
A battle. Two battles.
Death. Rik's death.

Blaen blinked and it all was gone. Rik was still laughing. The fire still burned brightly. Rik looked down at him, mocking pity in his green eyes. He spoke and Blaen heard him as if from a long distance.

"I'll come back tomorrow, boy, see if you've changed your mind. There's nothing left here for you now. And if you run, I'll come after you. If you try to hide, I'll find you. I will never forget you, Blaen, son of Brienne and Sudarsan, of the Three Dolphins family. You cannot escape me, remember that."

Blaen stared up at him and whispered, "You will die, Rikondja. She for whom destiny has awaited will kill you. You cannot escape her, remember that."

Rik jerked upright, eyes flashing, his laughter momentarily forgotten, then he growled. "Nice try, boy, but you can't frighten me. I am Rikondja. I am meant for power. Power is mine to take. And so are you. I give you one night to prepare. And then you will be mine."

He turned his mount around and yelled for his men and then they all disappeared into the darkness. Blaen sat in the dirt for a moment longer, then shook off the remnants of the spell and pulled himself to his feet and ran for his home, Rik's words about 'nothing left' still ringing in his ears.

What he saw sent him to his knees in shock.

The house, the small barn at the side, the fishing boat tied next to it, everything was engulfed in red-hot orange and blue flames, lighting up the sky and reflecting off the water in the distance. As he kneeled in the dirt, a tremendous crash echoed and the roof fell in, bringing down the walls of the house as it did, everything collapsing in on itself.

The noise and realization of what was happening yanked him to his feet. He had taken two steps toward the burning wreckage when strong arms grabbed onto him and held him tight. He struggled to get away, not caring if he hurt whoever was holding him. "No, I have to help them. They're in there, I know it. Let me go. They're gonna die. Let me go. Let me go."

A voice he barely recognized as Cedron's whispered in his ear. "No, Blaen, they're gone. There's nothing you can do. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Blaen finally gave up and sagged in Cedron's arms, eyes staring blankly at the fire. Tears rolled down his face, but he didn't make a sound. Inside, his soul shattered and broke into a million fragments, crying out for his greatly loved family, but on the outside, he just simply stared and silently mourned, in too much shock to do more.


Early the next morning, before sunrise, Blaen stood again before what was left of his home for the last two years. All that was left was ashes and warm coals. An imagined voice in the cold morning breeze whispered at him, "Nothing left, nothing left, nothing left." He fingered the pin on his collar, hidden beneath the pulled-up hood of his cloak. The pin was all he had left, the pin and his memories. He stooped and touched the blackened ash where the doorway to the house had once been. There were no tears left; he felt empty inside, dull, lost, alone.

He whispered, "I'm sorry. I never meant for this to happen." He paused a moment, then went on. "Goodbye." Standing, he pulled his cloak around himself more tightly, hefted his lone small bag over one shoulder, and then turned and walked away. He didn't look back. There was nothing to look back on. He was the last of the Three Dolphins family, of the entire family clan. They were all gone, all dead in the blazing fire that destroyed the village.

He was alone now.

Present . . . .

"No one knew that I had gone. I didn't want anyone to know. I didn't want anyone to have to hide a secret like that from Rik. People from the other fishing villages had helped those who were left, taking us in, feeding us, giving us a few clothes. The cloak I had was from Cedron's oldest son. It was a little big, but it kept me warm. The clothes were mine, as was the pin and the small bag. All I had in it was a half-loaf of bread that I took from Cedron's house. I needed some kind of food to help me on my way and I knew he wouldn't mind.

"I walked for half a day until I came upon the first mercenary guild outpost in Gurodel. I told them I knew most of Gurodel and was willing to work as a guide or an advance scout, anything to get me out of the country. I was hired immediately and posted as a scout on a trading caravan heading toward to Shionan. I never looked back.

"In Shionan, I took small jobs here and there, working my way further inland, away from the border. When I arrived in Ashanaran, I went to their Guild House and registered there as well. Somehow someone found out about my dironan talent and suggested I go to the Academy for training and education. I did. I stayed there for three years, learning more about my abilities, learning that the night of the fire had opened my talent up to second-level. I trained, I learned, I survived. It was all I could do. It was all I had left to hold on to."

Even four months later, the words of Blaen's tale remained fully engraved in Jydan's mind. The heartache and the loss were spoken and heard in every stark word of the younger man's story. He glanced across the table at Blaen through the smoky interior of the Gurodellan tavern. Outwardly he seemed at ease, concentrating sheerly on eating. But Jydan knew differently. He had seen how tense Blaen had become since the moment they had crossed the border over into Gurodel. Sudden noises would startle him. He wouldn't sleep all night through -- Jydan knew that for a fact; sometimes he would wake up and see Blaen just sitting next to the dwindling fire, staring into the coals.

Jydan returned his attention to his plate, sopping up gravy with a hunk of bread. At least Blaen talked to him now. The two of them had finally connected after Blaen had told him about how Rik had fit into his past. They had begun to trade stories back and forth of growing up, sharing more than just facts. Jydan had taken the risk of sharing his soul and now that he had, he wanted to continue to do so, finding that Blaen was more than just a guide, just a dironan. He was a friend, one that had lost more in one night than Jydan could even comprehend.

As they had talked during the long rides and tracking in Gurodel over the past few months, Jydan had discovered just how close Blaen was to his family. Family was extremely important to the Gurodellans as the family unit was one of the few things they could count on to be constant. Blaen's relationship with his family was closer than Jydan had felt with his mother or his uncle. They were more than just related, they were friends, counting on each other, depending on each other, loving each other totally.

And Blaen had lost that and his innocence in just one night.

Jydan had closed himself off to friendships a long time ago, but had remained partially open to the more vulnerable around him -- the children, the women hurt by their husbands, the poor, the weak, the lost, the alone. Even with the fulfillment it brought him to help those who truly needed his help, something inside always felt empty. He knew that it was the price he paid for never fully trusting anyone, never letting anyone in.

Until now. Until Blaen.

Now he just had to get Blaen to realize that fact and let Jydan into his life a little more. He had repeatedly refused to discuss Rik any further after that first time. He said he just wanted to forget, to leave it alone, that the past was just that -- the past.

Well, Jydan thought he had a way to maybe open Blaen up just a little more. At the Gurodellan border, so many years ago, Blaen had to sell his family pin to buy food. He'd never been able to reclaim it. Jydan intended to change that. He'd learned only yesterday that he had two weeks before Blaen turned 20 -- he hoped it was enough time for...


The voice jerked Jydan out of his thoughts rather abruptly and he looked up to see Blaen lifting an eyebrow at him in amusement. "I was beginning to wonder there. Where were you?"

Jydan smiled. "Inside my head somewhere."

Blaen raised both hands in mock horror. "Terrifying thought."

Jydan just laughed and stood. "C'mon, kid, let's get out of this joint and get back on the road. After four months of wandering, I think we may be getting closer. I can just feel it."

As he headed for the door, Blaen following, he almost missed Blaen's subdued response. "Yeah, so can I."


A rough hand clamped down on Blaen's mouth, startling him out of heavy sleep. He inhaled sharply, instinct yelling at him to fight back when his eyes cleared and Jydan's face came into focus. He swallowed hard and breathed out, feeling his heart still trying to pound its way through his chest. Jydan lifted his hand after another moment and raised a finger to his lips for him to remain quiet. Blaen nodded and sat up as Jydan moved back. Blaen raised an eyebrow, gesturing around, hoping Jydan understood the inherent question.

Jydan moved closer and whispered in Blaen's ear. "I hear people circling around us. Get ready."

Blaen's heart picked up speed again and he looked wildly around, half-expecting some nasty raider to come tearing out of the trees. His nerves had been on edge for way too long and the shadows dancing around him didn't help. There was little light, just the half-moon shining from over the trees and the stars. The fire had long gone out or Jydan had put it out, more likely the latter.

Jydan stood and Blaen started yanking on his boots. Jydan was still dressed -- he had been on watch for the first part of the evening. This far into Gurodel and this close to catching Rik, Jydan hadn't wanted to take chances. He slept lightly, but he had told Blaen he would rather be fully awake. Blaen had agreed and had done the second watch each night for the last two weeks, giving Jydan a chance to rest.

Still shaking the residual fuzziness of sleep out of his head, Blaen had only just gotten to his feet, using his quarterstaff as leverage, when four men appeared out of the trees, one at each corner of the small clearing. Four very large men, all with a sword. Jydan tensed and Blaen's hands gripped his staff, his knuckles whitening.

No longer stumbling over the Gurodellan language, Jydan asked in a suspiciously monotone voice, "We don't have anything of value, boys, so why don't you just move right along."

Another voice intruded, one Blaen recognized with instant clarity. "Oh, but you do have something of value. Something I've been trying to find for nearly six years."

Blaen backed up slightly, bumping into Jydan's shoulder as Rik stepped out of the trees, a very unpleasant smile on his face. "Blaen, my boy, how have you been? You've grown, I see, and got yourself a friend. How nice. And on the eve of your 20th birthday. How appropriate. I told you I wouldn't forget you, boy."

Still keeping a wary eye on the other two men, Jydan pulled Blaen closer to him, growling out at Rik. "He's not yours for the taking, Rikondja. He never was."

Rik turned his attention to Jydan. "And you would be Jydan, the Eirenan mercenary that the Shionanians hired to find me. Oh, don't look so surprised. I knew you were here the minute you stepped across the border. I was just waiting for the right time and the right place to reclaim what should have been mine."

Blaen shook his head firmly, his back straightening, his voice surprisingly calm. "No. I never belonged to you. I never will. You do not and cannot own me."

Rik was silent for long moments, then he waved a hand at his men. "Very well. We'll do it the hard way if that is what you wish."

And the fight began.


Blaen fought hard against the two men opposite him, realizing they were trying to keep from hurting him and using that to his advantage. For once he was glad that Jydan had insisted that he practice using the staff more. He never really liked violence or fighting and tried to avoid it when at all possible. But Jydan had been adamant. Traveling in Gurodel was dangerous business and tracking down a known slaver was even more dangerous. Jydan had wanted them both to be prepared for anything. And now Blaen was glad of Jydan's paranoia. The practice and training was coming in handy as he shoved back one of the raiders and swung at the other. He chanced a glance over at Jydan who was holding his own rather easily against the other two men. Rik was still lounging up against a tree, watching with idle interest.

Seeing the murderer of his family, all of his family, and half the village of Kinesti, made the anger and hurt rise again inside, lending him strength. He pushed forward, fighting faster, making the raiders step back in alarm, still trying to disarm him safely. Doubtless they had felt Rik's wrath before and knew what would happen to them if they hurt him needlessly and without approval.

Blaen pressed on, swinging his staff with hard accuracy. One raider went down after taking a blow to the head. Blaen turned all his attention to the other one now, knocking his feet out from underneath him and shoving him to the ground next to his friend half-senseless. He looked at Jydan who had just finished dispatching the second of the two raiders and was turning to look at him, his eyes doing a rapid check for injuries. Blaen smiled slightly, showing him that he was all right. Jydan nodded minutely and then looked at Rik.

Rik laughed once, clapping. "Oh, that was a wonderful show. However..." He snapped his fingers and a dozen of more men appeared from the trees in a rush, grabbing Jydan and Blaen before they could move. Blaen struggled, but couldn't make the stronger grips to budge any. His eyes met Jydan's for a moment before he was hauled roughly over to stand in front of Rik.

Blaen glared up at those oh-so-familiar green eyes with hatred and defiance. "You cannot own me. No one owns me."

Rik reached out and grasped Blaen's chin in a punishing grip. "As I told you before, you no longer have a choice. I took that away from you. You belong to me."

Jydan's voice growled from across the clearing. "I will find you, Rik. And when I do, I will kill you. Know that. And if you hurt him, you'll wish all I did was kill you." Even without seeing Jydan, Blaen knew that the mercenary's eyes were cold and deadly, that his jaw was clenched, and that his hands were flexing, already imagining having Rik in his grasp.

Rik suddenly smiled a very cold smile that chilled Blaen's soul. "Oh, no, on the contrary, I don't plan to hurt him at all. You have no idea how much a dironan is worth or what they can do, do you, Jydan? But I do. You see, I have always wanted a pet dironan. I had so many plans for you, Blaen, plans that you ruined by running away. Well, no matter, you've come back to me. We will just have to work faster to make up for lost time, hm?"

Blaen tried to pull away again, his fear overcoming his earlier defiance, a small whimper escaping as he struggled. "No, no, no, let me go."

Rik ignored him, gesturing for his men to take him into the trees. "Tie him and put him on a horse." Then he looked back at Jydan. "As for him, kill him, then see if you can find their mounts. We can always use good horses. Get back to camp by tomorrow dawn. We have a schedule to keep."


Jydan watched helplessly as Blaen was taken from his sight. He almost didn't hear Rik's final words before the slaver also went back into the trees, leaving Jydan alone with four men, three of them holding him kneeling on the ground, the other standing ready with a long dagger. Jydan heard Blaen's panicked voice rising in the air in near-hysterical screams and he tensed. The screams suddenly stopped and Jydan's heart nearly stopped with them. No, Rik said he wanted Blaen alive, so he has to still be alive. Breathe, Jydan. Blaen is counting on you to find him. No one moved until the voices of the men and the sounds of horses receded into the far distance. Then the man standing in front of Jydan took a step forward. At the same time, Jydan saw a large dark shape shift in the trees surrounding them.

That was the movement Jydan had been waiting for.

He whistled shrilly, then yelled as he kicked out. "Now, Shadowrose, to me."

The black stallion roared out of the trees, neighing loudly, then reared at the man with the dagger, knocking him to the ground with his front hooves and stomping a few times to make sure he stayed down. Both horses had taken off during the first fight, startled by the sudden battle. He didn't know where Eri would end up, hopefully back at the last village they'd passed through. But Shadowrose he could depend on to come back to the campsite. Jydan freed himself from the raiders and rolled away. One of the men had his sword, but he was not totally weaponless. He yanked a long dagger from each boot and began to spar with the three other raiders, who all had swords.

Soon he had cuts on his arms and hands from the swipes of the longer reach of the sword blades, but one of the raiders had a dagger in his chest, so Jydan figured the score was still even. Two down, two to go. Hang on, Blaen, I'm coming, really I am. Don't give up yet.

And he kept fighting.


Blaen shivered again, pulling the thin blanket around his body tighter, trying to find some warmth in it. His cloak was somewhere on the ground back at the campsite along with the rest of his overclothes. He only had on his trousers, a loose long-sleeved tunic, and his boots. Hardly enough to keep out the chill of the evening. And not being in a tent didn't help matters either. Instead he was chained by one ankle to the wheel of a small cook wagon, not out of sight of the two dozen men sleeping around the fire, but far enough that he didn't get any of the heat from the flames either.

He pulled his legs closer and buried his head against his knees, rocking slightly. Oh, Jydan, I'm so sorry. If only I had refused, if only you hadn't picked me, I'm sorry, sorry, sorry. He'd heard Rik's order to kill Jydan and something inside had come apart again. After being alone for so long and finally finding someone with whom he could talk, only to then be the reason for their death was too much. He'd started fighting, harder this time, yelling, screaming, kicking.

When Rik appeared, he lashed out at him, wanting him dead, but not able to do it. Rik growled and swatted out once, clocking him across the back of the head hard enough to drop him into a state of near-unconsciousness. He'd drifted in and out for the rest of the ride and then woke up when Rik dumped water on him to find himself chained down. Rik had smiled down at him and told him to get a good night's rest, as they had 'so much to do' the next day, but not adding any details, leaving that to Blaen's all too-vivid imagination. He knew about Rik; he knew what he was and what he could do. Then he'd patted Blaen's cheek, laughing, and left him there with new terrors to ponder.

And now all he could do was sit there and wait for whatever was to come. He was tired, his head hurt, his talent was raging all over the pace, making him pick up all sorts of horrid things from Rik and his men. And he'd lost his only true friend. Jydan! He rocked harder, his mind a jumble. What am I going to do?

Something flashed across his inner sight -- something silver. Then he suddenly felt a presence near him, in front of him. He jerked his head up, expecting to see Rik or someone else equally terrifying. All he saw was a large black shape standing above him, leaning down to him, hands outstretched. He backed away in fear, shaking his head, his mouth working soundlessly. The figure halted, looked around for a moment, then raised a hand and slid down the hood and stepped aside to let the lingering light from the fire remove the shadows from his face.

Blaen blinked. He had to be dreaming. He had to be seeing things. But the figure squatted down next to him and began working on the chain in silence. Blaen didn't move, just stared. He had to be dreaming. The manacle unlocked and was set aside. Then those light blue eyes held his and whispered quietly.

"I'm not a dream, kid."

Blaen's throat closed up. Jydan. It was Jydan. He had come for him.

Jydan seemed to know his thoughts. "You knew I'd come." He turned slightly, looking at the mess of men sleeping around the fire. "Where's Rik in that? I want to deal with him face to face."

Blaen shook his head. "No, you can't. There are too many of them. He'd kill you or have his men do it. You know that."

Jydan grunted. "Maybe I'll just kill him and not bother asking first." He stood and made as if to go toward the fire.

Blaen rose rapidly to his feet, grabbing Jydan's arm. "No, no, you can't do that. That's not ... right, even if it is Rik. Please don't, Jydan. He isn't worth it."

Jydan looked down at him, a frown on his face. "You're worth it, Blaen, but I'll let this one go, for your sake. Come on, Shadowrose is waiting for us at the edge of camp. Let's get out of here." He pulled something from inside his cloak and dropped it to the ground, then grabbed Blaen's arm, pulling him in the direction of their safe exit.

The next morning, instead of Blaen, Rik would find a single long-stemmed silk black rose laying nestled in the open manacle. And his screams of anger would be heard all over the hillside.


By the time they reached Shadowrose hidden in the thick trees outside the encampment, Blaen's shivering had increased to where his teeth were chattering, even with the effort he was putting out to keep up with Jydan's brisk pace. Jydan frowned harder, eyeing his young friend. He whipped off his long, heavy black cloak and wrapped it around Blaen. Blaen swallowed and nodded his thanks, pulling it closer to himself. Jydan helped Blaen up onto the tall horse, then settled himself in front of him.

He turned his head. "Hold on tight. We're gonna have to ride hard to put some distance between us and them just in case."

He felt Blaen nod against his back, then reach around Jydan's waist to hold on with all his strength, pulling the cloak with him to keep it on. Jydan clicked to Shadowrose and they maneuvered their way out of the heavy trees onto a half-hidden path that lead out of the encampment. Once on a solid and relatively clear road, Jydan kneed the stallion, whispering a command into the horse's ears. "Yah!"

Shadowrose started at a run, then worked up to a hard and fast, ground-eating gallop. Jydan kept his head low, feeling Blaen do the same. He wished he could've taken the time to be sure that Blaen was okay. He looked so terrified when he'd appeared out of the dark in front of him. He'd only realized that after a moment and then revealed who he was. Still Blaen hadn't looked as if he believed. What had Rik told him? What did that ... filth ... say to scare the stubborn, hard-headed young man I had gotten to know into a terrified child?

He felt Blaen burrow a little closer to his back, the arms around his waist tightening a bit more. Then, he began to feel a wetness seeping through the back of his tunic. Blaen was crying. He could only hope that the tears were tears of relief. He couldn't stop to ask him. They had to keep going.


They rode and rode and rode for the rest of the night and into the next day and into the next evening, stopping only for brief breaks for Shadowrose who was not used to carrying two people for so long. As the sun set on that next evening, they arrived at a small village, the last one they'd passed through before heading into what was obviously Rik's territory. They had paused there to help an elderly farmer and his wife reload a turned-over truck of food and hay, fixing their broken wagon wheel as well. The farm had been on the edge of town and it was now the first thing they saw when they exited the trees.

That and Eri grazing placidly next to the small farmhouse.

Fortunately for them, the farmer and his wife had recognized Eri's markings, and the saddle and bridle that the gelding was still wearing, and had kept him in the hopes that the two kind young men would appear and reclaim the horse. Jydan thanked them profusely and settled Blaen onto Eri so they could set out again, still at a hard pace, putting more room between them and Rik, as much room as they could.


Blaen laid stiffly on the bedroll, back to the quietly crackling fire, arms curled tight against his chest, hands clutching at the heavy blanket, eyes wide and unblinking. By all rights, he should have been exhausted and fallen to sleep immediately upon laying down. They had been riding for two days, basically without much stopping. But tonight, Jydan had declared them both too tired to continue and said they'd sleep that night in the forest, protected on two sides by high cliffs and the other sides by thick foliage. Surely they would be safe for just a few hours.

The young man wanted to sleep, desperately craved the rest it would bring him. But he couldn't close his eyes. Every time he did all he could see was Rik's leering face, all he could hear was what Rik promised his new owner would 'give' him, would do to him. When Jydan had snuck in and taken him out of the camp, he had been too relieved to give Rik or his words much attention. And except for his brief spate of tears immediately following his 'rescue', the adrenaline of the hard riding had helped to keep away disturbing thoughts. But now ... now that he had nothing to do but sleep, his mind had begun to stir up all sorts of wild ideas, painful memories, and cruel visions of both sight and sound of what had been in the past and what could have been in the future.

A wolf howled in the distance, startling Blaen. He sat up, heart pounding in fear. The wolf howled again, but wasn't answered. Across the low fire, Jydan stirred slightly in his sleep, but didn't wake. In the light offered by the moon and the flames, Blaen saw Shadowrose's and Eri's ears twitch, but otherwise they were calm. They would know almost as soon as Jydan if something was wrong.

He pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them, and just stared into the dancing flames, trying to blank his mind. I want to sleep. I'm so tired. So very tired. Before he realized what was happening the firelight took over his range of vision and expanded in his mind to become the fire that took his family and his home from him. He could hear the screams of the villagers, smell the smoke rising above the burnt-out buildings, see the cold light in Rik's eyes as he flatly stated Blaen had nothing, nothing, nothing...

He jerked his eyes away from the flames with a muffled sob. Jydan rolled over to face the fire and Blaen froze, not wanting to wake the older man. He must be as tired as Blaen, probably more so, considering he hadn't even suggested setting up a watch. He waited until Jydan settled again into a deeper sleep, then gathered the blanket around his shivering body and scooted away several feet to sit against a tree.

He brought his knees up to his chest, wrapping both his arms and the blanket around himself tightly. After a few moments, he began to rock, his shivering increasing. He knew the shivering wasn't completely because of the temperature -- it was a delayed reaction to the stress of the last few days, make that the last few months. Ever since they had arrived in Gurodel, Blaen had been waiting for and expecting Rik to show up and hurt him again. He knew that his memories as a 14-year-old were probably a little distorted, maybe overblown, but the fear, however irrational at times, was hard to push away.

The shaking began to increase and he tightened his hold on his legs, trying to remember how to breathe properly through the choked sobs rolling up through his chest. When did I start crying? Can't be loud. Mustn't wake Jydan. Be mad. Wouldn't understand. Laugh at me. The last time he'd had such a reaction was after he left Kinesti and two days into his first job as a guide. Then he'd left camp and gone far out of listening distance and cried for an hour, by himself, not wanting anyone else to know. After that, he'd gone back and never cried again, just pushed any pain he had left away, not wanting to deal with it.

The tears refused to listen to his head anymore and started pouring down his cheeks in earnest. He lowered his head to his knees, hoping to keep them quiet. Maybe he'd just cry himself to sleep. Not the most restful of sleep, but at least it'd be something.


A noise tickled at Jydan's ears, a noise that didn't quite match the natural sounds of the forest. He blinked awake, finding himself looking into the flames of the slowly dying fire. He squinted across the firepit to where Blaen was ... to where he was supposed to be ... and wasn't. He pushed himself up, staring out into the darkness, his heart beating rapidly in his chest. Where ...? Oh, no, don't tell me I've lost him again. If Rik was here, I would've heard, would've known. I should never have gone to sleep.

He called out frantically. "Blaen! Where are you, kid?"

There was silence for a few moments, then a quiet voice replied to his panicked query. "Over here, Jydan. Sorry I woke you, scared you..."

Jydan's eyes adjusted to the dark and he found Blaen huddled against a tree on the opposite side of the small clearing, blanket pulled around him, rocking in jerks. He frowned, reaching for more wood to throw on the fire, "What are you doing over there? You're supposed to be sleeping."

A shrug was his only answer. Blaen settled his head back down on his knees and continued rocking. Jydan watched for another second. Something was wrong, very wrong. Then he heard the noise that woke him again.

Sniffles, sobs, tears.

He's crying. Why is he crying?

Jydan stood and walked softly over to Blaen, laying a hand on the shaking shoulder. "Hey, kid..."

Blaen nearly jumped out of his skin, backing away, scraping against the tree trunk. Jydan yanked back his hand and stared down at the younger man in surprise, seeing little in the dim light, but enough, too much really. Red eyes in a pale face, tear streaks reflecting flames, trembling hands, tense muscles.

Jydan extended a hand slowly. "C'mon, let's get you over where it's a little warmer, okay?"

Blaen blinked at him, eyes still wide, breathing erratic. He looked at Jydan's hand, then used the tree for leverage, pushing against it to rise to his feet, clutching the blanket around his shoulders. He stumbled toward his bedroll, falling to a slouched position next to the fire. Jydan grabbed his heavy cloak and a canteen, then dropped down next to Blaen.

He handed the canteen over. "Here."

Blaen took it, but just held it, looking down at it stupidly. "Why?"

Jydan refrained from rolling his eyes, realizing it wouldn't be a good idea right now. "To drink. You need the liquid. Just do it. Trust me."

Blaen nodded, then swallowed several gulps before capping it and setting it aside, crossing his arms tightly to himself again, ignoring the blanket that had dropped to lay in a puddle around his hips. Jydan watched him stare into the distance, eyes blank, not really seeing anything. The eyelids would droop, then spring back open again. He could see the tears being held back, could see the intense shivering of Blaen's body. He knew what he should do, what he did for the children he knew when they needed comforting and had no one else to turn to. But he didn't know if Blaen would accept his comfort, his help. Blaen shied away from contact a lot, probably because of the way he picked up emotions from people. Too much for him to take.

But he needs it now. I can see that. Will he accept it? I can but try.

He scooted over to sit right next to Blaen, their sides barely touching. He draped his cloak lightly over Blaen's shoulders, then left one hand there, slowly rubbing Blaen's back in small circles. Blaen stiffened, tried to draw away, but Jydan grabbed his arm and held on. "Sh, sh, it's okay. I'm not gonna hurt you. I just want to help you relax. It's okay. Trust me."

Blaen shuddered and remained where he was, still tense, but he stayed nonetheless. Neither said anything for several moments, then Jydan finally spoke, realizing he'd have to say something if he was really going to help his young friend. Friend. He really is my friend, isn't he? I wonder if... He set that thought aside and concentrated on what he needed to say now.

His voice was quiet, hoping to instill some comfort. "You know, Blaen, I was worried, scared of what was going to happen to you. I didn't think I was gonna get there in time. I didn't want to lose you. I mean that, not because you're my guide though, but because you're my friend, probably one of the few I've ever had. I know at first we didn't see eye-to-eye. I know you tried to see things my way, do things my way, but I was too closed-off to realize that, at least for awhile.

"But you kept trying, chipping away at me like I was a block of stone or something. You wanted to know stuff, stuff I didn't really think about a whole lot. Then came that whole thing with Roeland. I really blew that. I nearly lost you then. I couldn't afford to, but I nearly did. I was amazed you decided to stay with me, even after I explained why I did what I did."

Jydan paused a moment, snorting. "Some explanation. What I didn't tell you was how much I missed having a father around growing up. I got called all sorts of names, names I never told my mom. And then when I found out who my father really was, I hated him, hated him for throwing her out, hated him for being my father, hated him just for being him. Jovan blackmailed him once, got good money out of him to keep things quiet. Needed the money for something and that was the best way to get it."

He glanced over at Blaen, saw that he was still listening, then continued on. "Anyway, back to what I'm trying to say. I'm glad you were the one I hired, that you came with me, that you didn't leave back there after Roeland. I know this thing with Rik has been really hard on you. I'm sorry for that. I didn't expect him to show up and take you. I should've, especially after you told me your story. I'm sorry. That was my fault, kid. It won't happen again, ever again. I am never gonna let Rik get his hands on you ever again. I'll kill him first. I--"

A heavy sob interrupted him and he looked over at Blaen who had hidden his face in his hands as his whole body began to tremble with the renewed onset of the stress reaction. Jydan pulled him carefully over to rest up against his chest, wrapping both arms around him tightly, warmly. Blaen transferred his grip to Jydan's tunic, clenching the rough fabric with both hands as he cried into Jydan's chest.

Jydan petted down Blaen's hair with one hand, holding him securely with the other. "I've got you, Blaen, it's okay. Just cry. I understand."

And the truth was, he did understand. He understood that Blaen still missed his family, that he hated and feared Rik, that he felt so alone sometimes, that he blamed himself and his dironan gift for his family's deaths, that he was scared Jydan would ridicule him for his weakness, that he didn't want to fight anymore.

Jydan shifted and brought Blaen closer to him, resting his cheek against the top of Blaen's curl-covered head. "You're safe, kid. And you're not alone. Not anymore." Another choked sob was his only reply -- that and Blaen burrowing further into Jydan's arms, giving himself over totally to Jydan's keeping.

Finally, after at least 20 minutes, Blaen fell asleep, resting comfortably against Jydan, one hand still wrapped tightly in Jydan's tunic, as if afraid Jydan would leave in his sleep. Jydan carefully pried Blaen's hand loose and then laid him down on the bedroll, covering him with the heavy blanket. He sat there for long, long minutes, just watching Blaen sleep. Blaen shifted once in his sleep, his forehead furrowing as he started to mutter against some villain -- Rik, most likely -- in a dream. Jydan reached out a hand and smoothed it across Blaen's forehead, whispering for him to sleep, that it was okay, that he was safe. Blaen settled back down and dropped further into sleep.

Jydan sat back, then stared into the fire for a long time. He looked over at his pack where his gift for Blaen was safely tucked away. He had been waiting for the right time. He didn't want to scare Blaen off. He knew he'd earned Blaen's trust, to an extent, and he didn't want to lose it by Blaen misunderstanding his gesture of friendship. He sighed and made his way back over to his own bed. He would wait until Blaen seemed well enough to make such a decision without undue emotional stress. They still had to travel back up to Eirena, since he didn't see Blaen wanting to stay in Gurodel. Or maybe they'd go to Jourdain. Rik wouldn't be expecting them to go that direction. He could check on the tavern, see his old friends up on the Rillandan border.

As he drifted off into sleep, a small smile passed across his face. Mother would be happy. I made the choice to share my soul. And my choice had been good. I know it has.


Two weeks later while sipping at a cup of cooling coffee, Jydan watched Blaen across the fire, listening to the soft scratching of his stylus as he wrote in a journal Jydan had picked up for him a few days before. Blaen hadn't wanted to talk to him about Rik and what happened, but he was still clearly bothered -- the nightmares told him that much. So Jydan got him the blank journal, telling him to at least write about them, telling him that it might help. He hoped now that enough time had passed that Blaen could make the decision that Jydan was to ask of him.

Five months ago, I would've laughed in the face of anyone who told me that I was considering even becoming a tayaerra, much less wanting Blaen to be the one I chose. But then, I'm not the same person now as I was five months ago. And if this is ever gonna happen, it has to be now before I lose my courage.

Draining the last of the coffee in one gulp, he set the cup aside. Blaen didn't move, just continued to write intently. Jydan leaned back, closing his eyes, breathing the night air. They had ridden hard for a week solid to put distance between them and Rik's gang of slavetraders, stopping only when they had to sleep and rest the horses. Along the way, Jydan had put out additional warnings about Rik. To stop Rik and his men permanently would take more than just Jydan and Blaen or else he would have stayed and taken care of the job himself.

The scratching of the stylus finally stopped and then he heard the binding of the journal crack slightly as Blaen closed the book. He slowly opened his eyes, staring at Blaen as the firelight danced off his dark hair. Jydan asked softly after a few more moments. "Feeling better?"

Blaen smiled slightly, shrugging a little. "Yes, I think so."

Jydan returned the smile, letting go an inward sigh of relief that Blaen was maybe on his way to recovery, that maybe the nightmares would stop and Blaen could get a full night's sleep for once. He didn't know exactly what Rik had said or done to make Blaen so terrified and Blaen still refused to tell him. Whatever it was made Jydan want to turn around and find Rik and rid the country of some unwanted trash. Blaen hadn't let him kill Rik in cold blood and Jydan had to admit that he could never do such a thing and live with himself after that, even if it was Rik. He just wasn't a man to kill someone in cold blood. Unfortunately, Rik had no such honor in his soul and both Jydan and Blaen knew he would not have hesitated to call out all his men if Jydan had woken him for man-to-man combat.

And after that night he'd woken to find Blaen shaking and shivering in the dark, his hopes that Blaen would recover easily from his abduction had been dashed. Blaen's reaction had worried him, had ... frightened me. Blaen is my partner, my friend. I didn't realize, didn't see how the whole thing with Rik had affected him. And it wasn't just seeing Rik again that did it. Right from the start when we came into Gurodel, he was already acting nervous, like he was expecting Rik at any moment just to show up.

He rubbed a hand over his face, trying to shove old regrets to the back of his mind, knowing it won't do him any good to worry about them now. I only hope it's not too late for Blaen to realize what he's come to mean to me. I hope I can explain tayaerra to him adequately enough. He turned 20 the day after Rik took him. That means he's old enough for the ritual as well. He watched as Blaen put the book and the pen and ink away. That is, if he even wants this like I do.

Jydan cleared his throat, gaining Blaen's attention. He began hesitantly. "I was wondering if we might talk."

Blaen stiffened a little. "Talk? About what?"

Jydan lifted a hand. "Not about ... that. Something else. A custom among friends in Eirena."

Pleased to be considered Jydan's friend, Blaen relaxed and let a small smile tug at his lips and tilted his head in acquiescence, curious. "Go on."

Jydan continued slowly, his words quiet, sometimes halting. "There is an unspoken understanding in Eirena that all friendships follow a path. Along the way there are stopping places for friendships. Some stop early on, becoming nothing more than acquaintances, some become closer, people you talk to quite often, but don't truly connect with. Others become close friends, their lives running together in many ways, but still separate. Still others consider themselves as brothers, even though not related by blood.

"The purest and highest friendship one can ever hope to someday have is that of tayaerra, soul brothers, their lives forever intertwined, for their souls have merged in a way that nothing can part them, not life or death or anything before, between, or beyond."

Blaen's blue eyes were wide with the implications of what he believed Jydan was trying to tell him. He swallowed and whispered, "That's ... Are you...? Am I...?"

Jydan chuckled lightly and Blaen blushed. Normally so good with words, now his fluency had failed him as tried to express what he was trying to understand. Jydan went on, a small smile on his face. "Yes, I am saying what you think I'm saying. I would exchange the Oath of Tayaerra with you." His smile faltered as he finished, "If you haven't lost all faith in me after letting you get taken by Rik."

Blaen shook his head firmly. "No. If anything, you reaffirmed it by coming for me. I both expected and didn't expect you to come. I considered us friends, but I wasn't sure how far you'd go in that friendship, even with what you said to Rik before we left." He smiled shyly, voice soft. "I would be honored to be tayaerra with you, Jydan. What do we do?"

Jydan pulled his saddlebags over and dug around, pulling out a small silk drawstring bag. "To take the oath, both participants have to be at least 20. Two weeks before you turned 20, I visited an incense vendor in Gurodel and bought what we need for this. I had been thinking about this step for some time."

This time it was Blaen who chuckled. "Confident, weren't you?" And Jydan flushed slightly this time as well, making Blaen chuckle more.

Jydan rose and went around the fire to sit next to Blaen. "Turn to face me." In a moment, both were seated next to the fire, cross-legged, facing each other, neither touching the other, a small space left between them in which Jydan placed a short squat white scented candle that he took from the silk bag. He smiled and began.

"First, we must remove all weapons from our persons, as we come together in total trust, needing nothing to defend ourselves from one another."

Jydan's sheathed sword was already off, laying on the other side of the fire. Blaen's quarterstaff rested alongside his bedroll. Blaen removed both his two boot knives and the dagger at his belt. A pile of knives and small daggers soon built up next to Jydan. Blaen shook his head at the amount, but didn't say anything. Jydan took his business very seriously.

Then Jydan pulled a small stick from the edge of the fire and used it to light the candle, inhaling the musky scent of the candle deeply. Blaen did the same, following Jydan's movements carefully, wanting to get this right.

Jydan met Blaen's eyes and spoke softly. "I, Jydan, son of Dianthe, nephew of Jovan, do beseech the Light above and around us to grant my request of becoming tayaerra with my friend, Blaen of Gurodel, dironan and guide."

He stopped and nodded to Blaen who took a breath and said slowly, "I, Blaen, son of Brienne and Sudarsan, do beseech the Light above and around us to grant my request of becoming tayaerra with my friend, Jydan of Eirena, Light-blessed mercenary and ally to those in need."

Jydan smiled and continued. "By this oath, we do choose to become more than brothers of duty or of friendship. We become tayaerra, brothers of the soul, forever united by bonds stronger than blood or marriage."

He paused and picked up the silk bag. As he dumped the bag into the other hand, he said softly, "Normally, here is the point at which tokens are exchanged between friends to symbolize the oath. Since you didn't know anything about this, I will give you mine, but you can wait until later, if you wish."

Blaen interrupted quietly. "What does it have to be?"

Jydan glanced up, setting aside the bag. "Something that to you represents the bond between us. Sometimes tayaerra exchange knives or jewelry, others give gifts that mean something important to each, whether new or old and cherished."

Blaen smiled secretively at Jydan. "Actually, I think I may have something." He snagged his pack and hauled it over, glad again that Rik hadn't taken it as well. Who knew what would have happened to his gift then? Around the same time that Jydan had bought the scented candle and whatever else was in that bag, Blaen had arranged for something to be crafted for Jydan, something he had planned to give him when their contract time was up. It had been delivered to him the day before Rik had attacked. But now it seems as if we are signing a lifetime contract and why shouldn't I use it now?

He finally found the small wrapped bundle in the midst of his pack and pulled it out, turning back to Jydan and undoing the twine securing the fabric in place. He looked over at Jydan who smiled back and again took up the ritual words.

"With tokens of friendship and brotherly love, do we two symbolize the bond between us."

Jydan reached across the small amount of space separating them and pinned something to the top collar edge of Blaen's tunic. Blaen lifted a hand to feel it, bringing it up to where he could see it. He gasped -- it was a collar pin, similar to one like he'd seen three months ago at a marketplace store in Shionan, one that Jydan had caught him looking at, even though Blaen had denied it. Small, thin, a stylized circle of three dolphins, glowing the soft burgundy indicative of ghlia.

It was crest of his family.

Blaen ran his fingers over it and found a nick at the top of one dolphin -- a nick he knew well -- and gasped again. It was his family crest pin, the one he'd had to sell years ago in a Gurodellan-Shionan border town when he'd run out of funds and had no job. It was the only thing of value that he'd had. He looked up at Jydan, his voice choking. "How did you find it? This is my pin."

Jydan grinned, obviously pleased with himself. "I'm a tracker, Blaen. I have friends who owe me favors. I had it tracked down and I purchased it from the current owner. I knew that pin in Shionan meant something to you. After you told me about your family, I realized what exactly."

Blaen blinked a few times, then whispered, "Thank you." He stretched over and pinned something onto Jydan's collar, then sat back as Jydan's fingers found the pin and traced it over, then looked at Blaen in curiosity. Blaen made himself meet Jydan's eyes as he ran through a hasty explanation. "I know that your family life wasn't like mine and that even if you weren't raised by two parents and don't feel the lack, I know that somewhere inside, you ... regret or are angered by the stupidity of your real father.

"I don't know how Eirenans feel about family crests, but to us Gurodellans, it is important. Sometimes who gives you the crest is almost as important as the crest itself and the history that lies behind the crest. As I know you would refuse to accept your real father's crest, for which I know you hold no honor, I give to you a new family crest, the Crouched Panther, for even in rest you are always on alert, ready to defend, ready to protect, ready to serve. Wear it in honor always."

Jydan was quiet for several long moments, making Blaen rethink what he'd done. Jydan fingered the pin and stared down at the candle's flame flickering between them. Finally he looked up and met Blaen's eyes. To Blaen's surprise, there was moisture in Jydan's eyes as he said, "Thank you, my friend. I accept the Crouched Panther family crest in honor and pleasure. Know also that while you are of the Three Dolphins family, you are also part of my family."

Blaen nodded. "I know."

Closing his eyes, Jydan rested both hands, palms up, on his knees, and raised his face to the night sky. Blaen followed his example and listened to the final words of the ritual.

"Words and tokens have been finished. So is the Oath of Tayaerra taken. So shall it be, both now and for the future, in this life and in the Beyond."

Even with his eyes closed, Blaen could sense something solidifying between he and Jydan. He slitted open his eyes and opened himself to his inner sight. He saw the now familiar flashes of silver that have been appearing more and more often since he and Jydan first met five months ago. Silver preceded and followed Jydan wherever he was in relation to Blaen, whether in physical proximity or just in his thoughts. Now for the first time, those flashes of silver were identifiable as cords, streaking from both himself and Jydan, cords that could be used to tie something together.

Which was exactly what the cords were doing, twining together and wrapping themselves in and among and around and to each other.

Blaen reclosed his eyes, surrendering himself to the light musky scent of the candle wafting through the night air and up to trees and stars overhead. A light smile curled on his lips as he whispered an echoed response to Jydan's words.

"And so shall it be."

- The End -

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