Prophecy Story Index || The Sentinel Fan Fan Fiction

A Flame in the Wind
by Becky
November 1997

Blaen leaned against Eri and idly watched as Jydan secured his packs to Shadowrose's saddle. It had been a month since Jydan had rescued him from Rik, two weeks since the two of them had become tayaerra, something Blaen still was having difficulty understanding sometimes. He chuckled quietly to himself. When he'd met the surly, angry mercenary half a year ago, he sure hadn't expected to find himself becoming friends with him and spilling out his whole life tale to him. And then to go so far as to make some kind of commitment or whatever the word was he should use. There were days when the whole last month seemed unreal. He snorted, shaking his head, and looked away from Jydan's curious eyes, ostensibly examining their campsite, making sure everything was put back in order. The whole last month. Light, the whole past six months.

A moment later, a hand descended to rest on his shoulder. He looked up to see Jydan watching him, his expression somewhere between concern and amusement. His voice was low. "Blaen? You okay?"

Blaen nodded. "Yeah. Just ... thinking." Jydan only raised an eyebrow, waiting for more information. Blaen shrugged slightly under Jydan's hand. "You know, about stuff, life in general. Sometimes it just doesn't seem ... real."

Jydan frowned. "Real? What do you mean? What doesn't seem real to you?"

Blaen sighed, looking away again. "I don't know, just . . . things. Where I've been, where I am now, Rik, this whole trip, the last several months." He hesitated, then dropped his eyes to look at the ground, scuffling one foot in the dirt as he forced out in a whisper, "You."

Jydan didn't say anything for so long that Blaen started to worry and finally dared to look up under the cover of lowered lashes. That was a mistake. Jydan snagged his eyes with his own and held them as he shifted around to grasp both of Blaen's shoulders, speaking softly, intently.

"Listen to me, Blaen. The Oath of Tayaerra is not something any Eirenan takes lightly. That includes me. It was and is real. And so am I. I know you've had a hard time. I understand that and your ... reluctance to believe, to trust, that I won't hurt you or abandon you or let something bad happen to you. But I am your friend, Blaen, your tayaerra. I won't leave, kid, I promise."

Blaen's dark blue eyes were wide with wonder and gratitude. He swallowed and smiled shakily. "I ...." He flushed and ducked his head, whispering lowly, "Thank you."

Jydan's hands tightened and slid over his shoulders, pulling him into a brief, warm hug. He chuckled softly, voice full of understanding. "You're welcome. Any time you need to hear it again, just let me know."

Blaen laughed against Jydan's chest before pushing himself back, grinning sheepishly. "You might regret saying that. I may have to take you up on the offer."

Jydan smiled wider, light blue eyes still soft with affection, as he ruffled Blaen's curls. "Hmm. Maybe I'd practice it some more." Blaen only blushed again, making Jydan chuckle as he gave the younger man a small shove toward Eri. "C'mon, we'd better get going. I want to get to the next town before midday. We need supplies."

*********************************

Jydan relaxed in his saddle, half-listening to Blaen as he rattled on about the history of relations between Gurodel and Jourdain. Truth was, he knew most of it already, but he'd needed something to keep Blaen's mind busy during the day so he wouldn't be thinking about Rik or the fact that they were still near his territory. They were closer to the border, only a day or so away from crossing into Jourdain, but once in Jourdain, they would have to travel north towards Rillanda, passing by a large chunk of Rik's territory. Hopefully by being in another country, Rik would leave them alone. I hope, at least for Blaen's sake. Jydan was amazed they'd been able to escape Rik's notice for so long as it was.

When he'd rescued Blaen a month ago, he'd simply picked a direction and rode. Fortunately that had brought him back to that farm where they'd picked up Eri. The farmer there had told them to go south, that Rik would not expect that, nor would he be so foolish as follow them south. The ruler of the southern regions of Gurodel would not tolerate Rik in his lands and would use his presence as an excuse for an all-out war. Jydan had used that fact to his advantage, staying deep within the southern lands while Blaen healed and recovered.

Meanwhile, the bond between the two men had strengthened as Blaen began to put more of his trust in Jydan, letting him inside, while at the same time, Jydan opened up his own soul and shared himself with his friend, later his tayaerra. They spent much of the time during the day just talking. Neither man had been comfortable at first, but gradually the walls went down and the sharing came easier, sometimes dissolving into laughter, other times tears. But each time it was a step in the right direction. A week after they'd taken the Oath of Tayaerra, Jydan decided they needed to get out of Gurodel altogether. He had friends up in Rillanda at the tavern. It would be safe for them there. So they'd picked up and started west, heading for Jourdain. Once across the borders, they would then go north toward Rillanda. It would be longer than just simply heading straight north through Gurodel and then through the top section of Jourdain, but it would take them a little further away from Rik, maybe make things a little safer.

Jydan shifted his attention back to Blaen's voice long enough to nod to something he said. Silently, with a clinical eye, he observed his young friend. The first two weeks after the rescue, Blaen had nightmares every night, waking Jydan, sometimes with screams, other times by crying. Each time, Blaen had been embarrassed and had tried to push away Jydan's willingness to comfort him. But Blaen always gave in, his fear of the nightmare images overtaking his embarrassment at needing soothing. After the first several nights, Jydan had taken to putting his bedroll next to Blaen's, hoping that by actual physical proximity he would help set Blaen's mind at ease, maybe halting the nightmares. It didn't work, but at least then he was closer to Blaen when they happened. There had been a few mornings he had woken up to find Blaen tucked close to his side, a hand clutching one of Jydan's shirt sleeves.

Jydan had to smile at the amount of trust Blaen showed when he was asleep. Now, if only I could get him to show that much trust while he's awake! Sometimes he looks as if he's surprised I'm still around, like I'm gonna disappear or something. At least the nightmares have stopped, or at least slowed down. For some reason, after they had taken the Oath of Tayaerra, the nightmares had disappeared for the most part. There had been the occasional flash of memory, the vague short-lived mutterings in the midst of some dream, but the terrifying nightmares themselves were gone. Jydan frowned slightly, throwing a glance at Blaen for a moment. Something had happened during the oath, or rather just afterwards, but Blaen had only smiled secretly at his questions, saying everything was okay. Probably some dironan thing. And probably not anything I'd understand. Whatever. As long as it makes him happy, I suppose.

*********************************

Blaen's amused voice brought him out of deep thoughts. "Jydan, are you listening to me?"

"Hmm? Of course I'm listening to you. Don't I always?" One elegantly raised eyebrow and a half-smirk questioned the truth of that statement. Jydan waved his hand. "Never mind, don't answer that. Sorry. Just . . . thinking."

Blaen smiled. "Thinking. I see. Well, I suppose if I can manage to get lost in thought, so can you. Sorry to interrupt your deep thoughts, but I had a question."

Jydan decided to ignore Blaen's earlier remark and focused on the second one. "A question about what?"

"Just what is this tavern we're going to? The Black Rose? Is that really its name?'

Jydan grinned. "Yes, it's really called The Black Rose. It's in the Rillandan-Jourdainian bordertown of Fariedel."

Blaen's eyes widened. "Rillanda? It's in Rillanda? Isn't Rillanda dangerous right now? I mean, isn't there some kind of war or something going on up there?"

"Not exactly a war, more like an unwanted occupation by an invading force. But it's not too bad at the borders. Seth tends to stay away from the southern bordertowns. Jourdainians are notorious for their fiercely protective nature of their country and their people, at least most of them are that way. I think quite a few of them helped out during the original invasion. In any case, we'll be safe there. Seth won't bother Fariedel ... and Rik won't go that far into the northern parts of Jourdain." I hope.

Blaen nodded silently, then shifted in his saddle. "So, how did you get to know The Black Rose?"

Typical. Mention Rik and the subject changes. He needs more time. That's okay. I can do that. He replied, one side of his mouth tipping up in a sideways grin, "Well, actually, I own The Black Rose."

Blaen choked out, "You? You own a tavern? In Rillanda?"

Jydan laughed at Blaen's response. "Yes, I own a tavern in Rillanda. Why is that so unbelievable?"

"Well, when I think of Jydan, Eirenan mercenary and swordmaster, I don't think of someone who owns a tavern in some bordertown of Rillanda. It doesn't seem to work."

Jydan shrugged, settling further into his saddle. "Hmm. That may be. But then you know that how I want to be perceived and how I really am are ... somewhat different."

Blaen conceded, "True, but still ...." An interested gleam appeared in his eyes. "So tell me, how did you manage to own a tavern?"

Jydan looked ahead of him, his eyes on the road, his mind in the past. "Five years ago, I was traveling through Rillanda. I stopped in Fariedel to get a bite to eat before continuing down to Jourdain and across the coastal towns of Gurodel. As soon as I got into the main part of town, I heard this commotion coming from a large building I took to be the local tavern and inn, which I learned later was the town's main source of income at that time. To make a long story short, the owner of the tavern had died, leaving his wife and three children, the oldest being 13, alone with no family. The man had borrowed money from a very untrustworthy type of guy from one of the larger cities on the Jourdain side of the border. He wanted his money back from the wife. She didn't have it, nor did anyone else in the town. He gave her his other option -- he would take her children instead."

Jydan risked a glance at Blaen, who only nodded at him to continue. Jydan did so. "I wasn't about to let that happen. I had plenty of money on me from my most recent job, so I asked how much was owed, then bought the tavern for twice as much. She paid the debt off and I sent the man on his way. He didn't look terribly pleased. I think he wanted the children. The woman, her name is Caleen, and the townspeople were a little in shock over what a stranger had done for them; I think they figured I wanted something, which I didn't.

"Caleen renamed the tavern, called it The Black Rose after she and the townspeople figured out who I was. They'd heard about the tales of Jydan the mercenary and my habit of dropping black roses, sometimes silk, sometimes real, at places I'd been. So, technically, I own the tavern. Fariedel has sort of become a second home to me. I try to visit at least a couple times a year, stay for a few weeks or so. I haven't been there for nearly a year now, though. Too much going on. The people there are strong, kind, friendly, always willing to help those in need. It's also in a spot where it is safe. Seth won't go there, the Emerald Sea is on one side, the Jourdainian border on another. It's a good place to be, a good place to stay for awhile."

Blaen didn't say anything for a bit, just nodded again, as he contemplated Jydan's story. Finally he spoke. "You're doing this for me, aren't you?"

Jydan inclined his head. "Yes, I am. But I'm also doing it for me. I need a rest. You need time. We both need a break. It's been a rather intense six months. And I'd only just come back from another job before this one. Fariedel is one of the few places that I feel I can relax my guard enough to rest." He looked over at Blaen again. "Okay?"

Blaen smiled. "Okay."

*********************************

"NO!!! Get away! Leave me alone!"

The screams yanked Jydan out of a deep sleep. He rolled and reached for his sword instinctively, looking around as he tried to get his bearings. Outside, in a clearing, dark, lots of stars, trees, a brook in the distance, faint smell of ash from a burned-down fire, unsettled horses off to one side.

"Jydan!!"

He shifted quickly, looking across the firepit. Blaen was twisting on his sleeping mat, tossing his head, crying, whimpering. Jydan swore under his breath. The nightmares had stopped totally for the past week as they'd traveled up through Jourdain. Blaen slept every night straight through and had no problems, not even a hint of that this was going to happen. Shoving his blanket aside roughly, Jydan quickly made his way around the nearly dead fire to Blaen's side. Sweat matted down Blaen's curls to his forehead. The blankets had twisted themselves around Blaen's limbs, effectively trapping him. Jydan grasped one of Blaen's shoulders, shaking him lightly, calling to him as he laid the other hand on Blaen's forehead.

"Blaen! Wake up. It's just a dream. You're okay. You're safe. C'mon, Blaen, wake up!"

With a huge gasp of air and a cut-off yell, Blaen's eyes flew open. His arms scrabbled frantically under the blankets, trying to get free, trying to push Jydan away. "No! No!"

Jydan raised his voice a bit, cutting through Blaen's panic. "Blaen, it's Jydan. It's me. It's okay. I'm not gonna hurt you. Just relax. It's okay. You're okay."

Blaen stared fixedly at him for several more seconds, then shuddered, closing his eyes for a moment, before they popped back open. He muttered, voice still shaky, as he tried vainly to shift his arms, "I can't ... I can't move."

Jydan nodded, smoothing a hand over Blaen's forehead. "Sh, sh, you're okay, just tangled up. I'll fix it." He carefully went about pulling the blankets from around him, straightening them out, releasing Blaen's arms and legs. As soon as he was free, Blaen curled over onto his side, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared into the cold fire. Jydan watched him for a moment, noticing his shivering, then quickly threw some sticks and kindling into the pit and started up the fire again. He shifted back to sit sideways between Blaen and the smoldering flames. Blaen usually told him what the dreams were about after some time to compose himself. It seemed that if he talked about them, he could get back to sleep sooner and sleep better. He didn't expect it to be any different this time

In retrospect, he realized he should have known better.

Blaen spoke quietly. "Rik knows we're here."

Jydan looked down sharply at Blaen, whose dark blue eyes were still lost in dark memories and thoughts. He tentatively placed a hand on Blaen's shoulder, then slid it over onto his back, rubbing it lightly through the blankets. He asked, "What? How could he know? It was just a dream, Blaen, that's all."

Blaen continued, ignoring Jydan's words, quiet certainty in his voice. "He's coming. I know. I saw him."

Jydan frowned. "Saw him? Do you mean with your . . . talent?"

Blaen nodded, shivering once. Then he added after another moment, "He wants to kill you."

Jydan didn't say anything. He already knew that much. Word had reached him of Rik's anger at finding his "pet dironan" gone that morning. His lethal rage had found targets in the guards who should have been on duty that night. And then he'd tried to track down the two of them. Jydan had only a very few contacts in Gurodel, but they were enough to tell him that he needed to stay out of Rik's way for awhile. Rik had a more extensive base of contacts that Jydan could ever dream of having. He was sure that Rik knew that he and Blaen were hiding in the southern lands. He had hoped that by staying there long enough Rik would have a harder time finding them again once they left. Maybe that had been foolish hopes. But he didn't need to tell Blaen that.

He shifted his attention back to his friend. "Whatever you ... saw ... in your dream, Blaen, it doesn't mean it's going to happen. I know we're closer to Rik's territory here -- that's probably why you dreamed of him. We'll --"

Pushing away Jydan's arm, Blaen sat up, eyes snapping with an equal amount of barely suppressed rage, worry, and fear as he spat out, "No! I know what I saw. He is coming. He knows where we are, he knows we're here! He'll kill you and then take me. Why won't you believe me? Why? I'm not some frightened child to be patronized! I am a dironan! I--" He stopped short, looking away from Jydan. He squeezed his eyes shut, then said shortly, "Sorry."

Jydan slowly placed his hand on Blaen's nearest arm which tensed, then relaxed under his touch. He kept his voice soft. "If you say you saw Rik, then you saw Rik. I was never in doubt of that. As for the rest, you'll have to give me some time; I don't really understand this talent of yours. I want to understand, I really do. And if you believe that Rik knows where we are and is coming, then I'll believe it as well. I believe you." He gripped Blaen's arm, shaking it. "Okay?"

Blaen nodded, eyes still closed. "Yeah, whatever. I didn't mean to --"

Jydan cut him off gently. "No, you were right to say what you did. This partnership, this friendship, goes both ways. You listen to me, I listen to you. That's the way it works. Now, c'mon, lie back down. We start early tomorrow. We'll head further west as we continue north. It will make the trip a little longer, but that's okay. I'd rather have a safe, long trip, than a short, dangerous one, or a short one in which you can't sleep."

Blaen let Jydan help him lay back down and pull the blankets up around his shoulders. Curling onto his side again, he watched Jydan throw a few more sticks on the fire. As the older man started to move back to his own sleeping mat, Blaen opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind. Resolutely closing his eyes, he scrunched further down into the blankets and said quietly, "Good night, Jydan." He heard Jydan rustling around and figured he was settling himself down for the night.

That was until he felt something land in the dirt behind him. He shifted over onto his back, opening his eyes as he did. Jydan was laying out his sleeping mat and blanket. Wordlessly, Blaen watched as Jydan laid down after setting his sword on his other side, then said, "You don't have to do this. I'm not some little kid."

Rolling to his side, Jydan reached over and squeezed Blaen's shoulder, pitching his voice both to soothe and comfort. "No, you're not a little kid, Blaen. You're a man who has gone through some tremendously bad things. Nightmares are expected. You don't have to be embarrassed. Whatever you need me to do to help you sleep, I'll do. It's that simple." He paused and shrugged. "And you do need to sleep. I need to know you're sleeping. We both know that this will work."

A deep blush rose in Blaen's cheeks. "Uh, yeah."

Jydan smiled softly and left his hand on Blaen's shoulder, knowing Blaen would go to sleep faster with physical reassurance. "I'm here. Nothing's gonna happen to you. I won't let anything happen to you. Now, sleep."

It was a litany both were familiar with by now. Jydan had used the same phrases for those first two weeks to calm down a hysterical Blaen after terrifying nightmares that had them both in tatters some nights. Whatever happened between them during the Oathtaking had left its mark on them both. When Blaen had the really intense nightmares, it had taken Jydan several minutes to wake him and several more to get him to realize he was safe and away from Rik. It was during those intense dreams that Jydan sometimes felt as if he could somehow sense the soul-shocking fear that Blaen had felt during and after the nightmare. Jydan hadn't discussed it with Blaen at all, only half-believing what he was feeling anyway. Blaen didn't need any more spooking and Jydan didn't know if he wanted to know what Blaen had "seen" with his talent during the Oathtaking. It was all a little too strange for him at times.

After a few moments, Blaen's eyelids slowly drifted closed and fell to sleep almost instantly. Jydan stayed awake for a few more minutes, just watching, making sure. Then slowly removing his hand, he shifted onto his back, trying to find a more comfortable position. As he did so, Blaen rolled to his side and moved one hand up to grasp onto Jydan's sleeve. Jydan turned his head and smiled as Blaen made himself more comfortable in his blankets, warmth -- from the fire and Jydan's own body heat -- surrounding him. And with those thoughts, Jydan closed his own eyes and allowed himself to fall asleep.

*********************************

The next morning, Blaen was quiet and subdued. Jydan tried to talk to him, but Blaen just brushed him off, claiming he was just tired and that the nightmare was only that, just a nightmare, a kid's nightmare, like being scared of the dark. Irrational and stupid, he called it. Jydan attempted to tell him otherwise, but Blaen clammed up and disappeared with the canteens off to the nearby brook to fill them up before they headed out. Frustrated, Jydan gave up, but vowed to keep a careful eye on his young friend. He knew that Blaen was scared, but too embarrassed in the light of day to admit it, to let Jydan help him find a way to destroy the fear Rik still held over him. And until Blaen was willing to open up to Jydan all the way, there wasn't a thing he could do.

Cinching the saddle onto Shadowrose, Jydan put those thoughts out of his mind for the moment, concentrating instead on the most urgent problem -- what route would take them a good distance away from the Gurodellan border, but not so far as to add weeks onto their travel time. He knew Jourdain somewhat, even had a few friends scattered within. He laughed at that. He had "friends" in every country. Most of them weren't of the legal variety, but they were friends and that was all Jydan cared about at the moment, that and the fact that those Jydan chose to call friends didn't like Rik or his type. If he could get to one of them, they could provide a shelter and additional help if necessary to fight off Rik's very unwanted attention. Where could we go? What's in this area that I know? Who's in this area, I guess, would be a better question? Who can I trust?

He paused in securing his packs to Shadowrose's saddle, looking out into the trees and sighing heavily to himself. I am such an idiot sometimes. Nat. Rik won't dare to bother him. He'd be a complete fool. And no matter how bad Rik may be, a fool he is not.

He worked faster at cinching up the straps on the packs, calling over his shoulder, "Blaen. You ready?"

Blaen answered as he strode back into the campsite, a canteen in each hand. "Yeah, I'm ready. Here's your canteen."

Jydan took his and quickly stuffed into the appropriate saddlebag, then turned his head to watch Blaen do the same with his canteen. He waited until Blaen was done, then asked hesitantly, "You getting any kind of ... feeling or anything about Rik?"

The younger man shot Jydan a startled glance, then turned away, going over to Eri. "No."

Jydan took a step toward Blaen, then shook his head, gritting his teeth. I thought we were past this. I guess I was wrong. He said shortly, "Fine. Let's get a move on then." He mounted Shadowrose with a creak of leather and steal. Blaen pulled himself onto Eri, shifting his quarterstaff to on its straps so it wouldn't get in the way.

Blaen queried in a semi-distracted tone of voice, "Where are we going?"

"To a friend's -- Natanael's Keep."

*********************************

An hour later -- an hour filled with either silence or meaningless chitchat -- they emerged from the woods at the bottom of a gentle incline and slowly began to make their way to the top of the wide plateau from which rose a large square structure of wood, rock, and metal. A tower stood guard at each corner, men paced and watched the area from along the roof walks armed with longbows, a drawbridge lay across the cavernous drop surrounding the building, several people streamed in and out of the opening, going to and from it and the forested areas around them.

Blaen's mouth dropped open and his eyes widened. "That is a keep? Doesn't look like any keep I've ever seen. More like a fortress."

Jydan shrugged, continuing to urge Shadowrose forward. "Nat likes to call it a keep. You don't argue with Nat. At least not successfully. He --" He stopped when Shadowrose started to toss his head, ears flickering. Jydan drew his sword and looked around. If Shadowrose was nervous, then something was definitely up.

Blaen interjected quietly, shifting in his saddle, "What? What is it?"

Jydan shook his head. "I don't know. Something, but I'm not --" Birds took abrupt flight behind them, squawking with indignance. A moment later, several horses burst out from the trees. The riders each wielded a weapon, some swinging them around their heads. And all heading toward them. Jydan swore and didn't even stop to look to see if Rik was among them. He had to be. Who else could it be?

He turned back to Blaen and smacked Eri's rump with the flat of his sword, yelling, "Go! Yah! To the Keep!"

Eri squealed with shock and went straight into a hard gallop up the hill, Blaen clutching the reins and the pommel to keep his balance. Jydan dug his heels into Shadowrose's side and followed up close behind, keeping between Blaen and the men rapidly catching up with them. As they neared the Keep, Jydan saw some of the guards start to raise the bridge. At this rate, they weren't going to make it to the top before the gate was too far up to jump onto and cross.

Not unless Jydan did something to slow the men behind them down.

But first he had to get Blaen out of the way.

He pushed Shadowrose faster, riding nearer to Eri. He leaned to the side, yelling over the noise at Blaen, "Faster! Hurry! You have to get across the bridge before it's up!"

Blaen nodded once absently, then jerked his head around. "What? Jydan ..." Jydan didn't let him continue, just swatted Eri again, harder this time. The horse shot forward, nearly out of control. Blaen yelped and grabbed on, unable to slow Eri down even if he wanted to. Jydan paused half a moment, watching as Eri gathered himself to jump onto the slowly rising bridge, then pulled Shadowrose around, confident that Eri would make it. A second later he heard hooves landing on wood and pounding across the bridge. A few seconds after that the bridge slammed shut with a resounding thud.

Jydan surveyed the men surrounding him with narrowed eyes. Where's Rik? He's the one I want. Not these hired thugs. The sea of men parted and Rik appeared, riding forward on a stallion just as large as Shadowrose. Jydan smiled slightly, his hand clenching around his sword pommel more firmly. It was only him and Rik and his men now. Everyone else had scattered in all directions, running either back into the fortress or into the surrounding trees to escape the stampede of horses. Good. Just the way I want it. Some small voice at the back of his mind warned him that if he tried to take on Rik that he would be quickly cut down by Rik's men. And then Blaen would be alone. But for the moment he didn't care. All he wanted was to hurt the man who was responsible for so brutally terrifying his friend, his tayaerra. Everything else was just meaningless details.

Rik pulled his horse to a stop just out of Jydan's sword reach. He smiled politely. "Jydan. We meet again. And so soon. I expected something smarter out of you for some reason. I guess I must have been wrong about you."

Jydan growled. "If you want Blaen, you're too late. He's safe and going to stay that way."

Rik laughed. "Really. He can't stay in there forever now, can he. And once I get rid of you," he paused and pulled out his own sword, "no one will stand between me and my rightful merchandise." He lifted his sword to strike at Jydan, who lifted his own sword and tensed in preparation.

*********************************

Inside the Keep, Blaen was yanked from his saddle before Eri even had time to come to a proper stop. He fell to the ground to his knees and then was pulled to his feet again, held by one arm in an iron-tight grip. He shook curls out of his face and protested. "Hey, watch it. Let me go!"

A man's low voice boomed at him. "I don't think so, boy. Who are you and what do you want?"

He finally looked up ... and up ... and up. Then swallowed. Then gulped. A very tall, very dark, very angry looking man stared down at him with equally dark eyes full of suspicion and danger. He squeaked out, starting to ramble, "Uh, hi. Sorry about barging in on you. My name's Blaen. My friend and I, we we've been traveling. We needed a good place to stop for awhile, somewhere safe. He said it would be safe here. Maybe he was wrong. He's still outside. He should be in here. He was trying to protect me. Please, let me go. I need to help him I ..."

The large man roared out, "Quiet!"

Blaen flinched, then nodded, whispering, "Yes, sir, sorry, sir."

The man gestured toward the front of the fortress with his other hand. "What is your friend's name?'

"Jydan."

The man straightened up abruptly. "Jydan! What is he doing here? And just why are you with him? Who is he fighting out there? Who is he protecting you from?"

Blaen blinked at the rush of questions, trying to decide what to answer first. "He, uh, well, that is, I am a guide, his guide. We're friends."

The man shook him. "And who were you running from? Who is outside my gates fighting my friend Jydan?"

Blaen stopped trying to pull away for a moment. "Your friend? Jydan is your friend? Are you Natanael?"

The man nodded once, waving that aside. "Yes, yes, I'm Natanael. Answer the question. Who is out there?"

Blaen looked at the lifted bridge, beyond which he could hear muffled yells, grunts, horses' neighs, and the loud ring of steel scraping against steel. He looked back at Natanael. "Rik. That's who's out there. Rikondja, the Gurodellan slaver."

*********************************

Jydan strained against his opponent's sword as it beared down on him. He was flat on his back on the ground, only his sword between him and the gleaming sharp edge of Rik's blade. He shifted and with a grunt, he heaved against Rik, throwing him off and rolling to his feet. He'd been dehorsed in a sudden move by Rik, who then followed him down to the ground, probably hoping to finish him off in one fell swoop. Not today I think.

Rik regained his feet quickly, then danced around, swinging his sword, grinning malevolently. He started to speak in low tones. "You know you can't win, Jydan. Even if you do kill me or even greatly injure me, my men will make sure you don't live to see the next hour. And then I'll still win. You'll be dead. The boy will be unprotected. Either my men or I will take him, maybe keep him, maybe sell him. If you give him to me, I'll let you live."

Jydan bared his teeth. "That is not going to happen."

Rik laughed once, shrugging. "Your choice." He rushed Jydan with a yell. Jydan waited until the last possible moment, then swirled aside, striking out. Rik had been prepared and blocked the sword, then pressed forward. Jydan pressed back, each trying to shift the other away.

The fighters shifted and turned several times, moving unknowingly toward the deep chasm circling the Keep. Jydan took a step back, feeling for solid ground and realized with a start that half his back foot fell onto nothing but air. He danced to one side, away from the edge, then waited, sword up and ready. One wrong move or misstep and he'd fall. Not the most pleasant or most heroic way to die.

A loud call sounded out over his head, unintelligible words in varying pitches.

At least that's what Rik and his men were supposed to hear.

Well, it's about time. Took him long enough. Jydan grinned, swinging his curved sword around in a complex pattern. "Rik, it's been real nice fighting you and as much as I'd love to rid all the good people of Gurodel of your loathsome presence, I find that today is not the day to do it. Maybe another time, when the odds are perhaps a little more even. Maybe bring a few more men with you next time. I wouldn't want it said that I had an unfair advantage over you." In one swift movement, he sheathed his sword and whistled shrilly into the late morning air. Shadowrose reared up on his back legs, breaking free of the hands that he had allowed to hold him. Men fell back, surprised, and Jydan took advantage, roaring past and mounting the tall stallion in one great leap. Shadowrose reared again, shoving past the men and other horses

With a yell, Rik gestured angrily at Jydan's retreating back. "Run him down! Now! I want him dead!"

In a flurry of movement, men remounted horses and started to ride down the hill. Two seconds later, the drawbridge lowered with a loud, low boom, throwing rocks and dust clouds into the air. Partly down the hill, Rik stopped and turned back, realizing what Jydan had done. He screamed incoherently, yanking at his horse's reins to go back up the hill. But then he stopped as mounted men poured out of the great fortress, three times as many as Rik's men, and all very well armed. And they were led by a imperious, dangerous looking dark-skinned man.

Rik turned back to his men, pushing his horse faster as he yelled, "Into the woods! Now!" His men vanished into the trees. Rik paused and looked back at the men who stopped and watched him go. Jydan sauntered up from the side. Rik yelled out, "Another day, Jydan, another day." Then he dug his heels into his mount's side and disappeared into the shadows of the forest.

*********************************

Jydan pulled Shadowrose to a stop next to Natanael's mount, a tall dark brown stallion. He stared after Rik's retreating back and muttered darkly, "Another day it is, Rik. I'll be waiting."

Natanael's voice pulled him out of his thoughts. "Jydan, what in Light's name are you doing in Jourdain?"

Jydan reached out and grasped his arm, laughing lightly. "Good to see you too, Natanael. Thanks for the help. As for what I'm doing here, well, I was trying to avoid running into Rik."

Natanael chuckled. "Didn't do a very good job of it, I see."

Jydan sighed, running a hand over head. "No, I didn't. Sorry about that. Didn't mean to bring trouble to your doorstep."

As they started back up toward the Keep, Natanael waved that aside. "No trouble. Rik's a menace, a very dangerous one. Should be put out of his misery, or rather our misery." He threw a sideways glance at Jydan. "Sounded there like you wanted to be one to do it. Is there a particular reason? Or just general disgust?"

Jydan asked, "You meet my friend?"

Natanael frowned. "Blaen? That boy you all but threw across my door? Yeah, what's he got to do with it?"

Rotating his shoulders as they started to stiffen up, Jydan replied, "It's a little complicated, but to make it short, Rik wants Blaen for his own personal use."

Natanael's eyebrows went up in alarm. "That kid? Whyever for? Or do I want to know?"

As the horses plodded across the bridge, Jydan answered. "Blaen has some special ... talents that Rik covets, wants to get Blaen to use for him. He's been chasing the kid for the past five years, killed Blaen's entire family in one night just to try to convince him to go with him."

Natanael swore, then shook his head as he dismounted. "No wonder he reacted so violently."

Jydan stopped halfway through swinging off Shadowrose, then continued slowly, asking, "Why? What'd you do to him?"

Natanael held up both hands. "Whoa there, nothing permanent. I grabbed him when he came barreling in through the gate. Hauled him off his horse and asked him who he was and what he wanted. Must've scared him. He kept fighting to get away."

Jydan nodded. "Yeah, you probably did scare him. Blaen has some aversion to being grabbed. Too many memories." He didn't add that with the added mental turmoil of that morning, Blaen was probably picking up all sorts of things as soon as Natanael touched him. He turned to look for his friend, just opening his mouth to speak. "Where --?"

The air was jolted from his lungs as a smaller body impacted against his, knocking him back several steps into Shadowrose who only snorted and reestablished a firmer stance. Blaen locked his arms firmly around Jydan's waist and buried his head into Jydan's chest. He started talking, his voice muffled, but still understandable. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Ignoring Nat on the other side of Shadowrose, Jydan carefully closed his arms around Blaen's shoulders, hugging him warmly. "Hey, it's okay. I'm all right. It wasn't your fault Rik followed us." He bent his head down and leaned to the side, trying to get Blaen to lift his eyes. "C'mon, now, we're both fine. Really."

Blaen shook his head. "No, not about that. This morning, earlier. I didn't want ... I thought that if you ..."

Jydan interrupted gently. "You didn't want to think that I would get killed and my last memory would be of us fighting." Blaen nodded, his forehead rubbing against Jydan's shirt. Jydan sighed and moved one of his hands to tilt Blaen's chin up so he could see him, then slid that hand around to the back of Blaen's neck, rubbing the tense muscles he felt there. He smiled. "I understand. And it's okay."

Blaen scowled, pulling away from Jydan in a rush. "No, it's not okay. Why do you want me with you? I just attract trouble. I should leave." Before Jydan could close his gaping jaw and gather his wits to say something, Blaen ran off, heading to the other end of the compound. Jydan frowned and clenched his jaw. What is with him lately? Why can't I get him to trust me?

He started to move forward, but stopped, shaking his head. Maybe he needs some time alone. And I need to cool down before I talk to him. I have to think of the right words to convince him. Nat came up beside him, staring after Blaen before he disappeared into what Jydan took to be the stables. He then cleared his throat. "That is one really messed-up kid."

Jydan sighed, running a hand over his face. "Yeah, I know. He wasn't like this when I first met him. I think helping me track down Rik and then meeting up with him again was just too much for him. I'm working on getting him not-so-messed-up, though. It's just gonna take time." He took another breath, then pasted a half-smile on his face. "So, Nat, tell me what you've been up to lately."

*********************************

Sometime later, Jydan found Blaen in the stable where Nat had his men put Shadowrose and Eri. Blaen was slowly currying Eri, his eyes focused on his task, tensing when Jydan entered the building. Jydan ignored him for the moment and went to check on his own horse. Finding him to be already curried, most likely by Blaen since no one else would be able to touch the stallion and come away with both hands still intact, Jydan turned his attention back to the younger man. From behind, he observed Blaen's slow and smooth movements gradually become jerky and stiff, almost rough. Before the horse could protest the treatment, Jydan stepped forward, directly behind Blaen, and gently placed his hands over Blaen's, slowing his strokes to a more even pace.

"Too rough, Blaen, you're going to hurt him if you're not careful. Then he'll have a harder time trusting you next time you do this. And trust is a hard thing to earn sometimes. You don't want to lose it."

Blaen's gasp was loud in Jydan's ears. The younger man tried to pull away, but Jydan didn't move, didn't release his hold on Blaen's hands. "Uh-uh, you're gonna stay right here and talk to me. Got it? You want to tell me what's going on with you? Or am I gonna have to pull it out of you a piece at a time?"

Blaen didn't answer, only tried to push Jydan back and jerk his hands away. Jydan hated to use his greater strength against his friend, but he didn't feel he had a choice. He had to know what was up with Blaen, what he was feeling, what was wrong. Giving up resignedly, Blaen wilted against Eri, resting his head against the warmth. Jydan waited another moment, then carefully removed his hands, then took the brushes away and set them aside. With a final pat to Eri's neck, he directed Blaen out of the stall and to a overturned box at the side of the stable, pushing him down on it. He hauled over another box and sat in front of Blaen, his legs to either side of Blaen's, basically pinning him there.

Jydan waited another moment, but Blaen was concentrating all his attention on his hands. He said softly, "Talk to me, Blaen. Whatever it is, I'm not gonna hurt you or throw you out. Please trust me. You trusted me before. You trust me you're sleeping, why not when you're awake?"

Blaen flushed. He knew very well what Jydan was referring to. He had also woken up on occasion and found his hands still clutching Jydan's sleeves. It always embarrassed him and he had hoped Jydan never knew or at least he'd never bring it up. He fiddled nervously with the edges of his tunic, then finally spoke.

"Why did you want me as your tayaerra?"

"Why?" Jydan frowned, wondering why the question was coming up now. "Because you're my friend, a very good friend. You're like a brother to me. You are my brother. I connected with you like no one else ever before. I can talk to you. I can trust you. What is it that you need to hear? I thought you knew all this."

Blaen shrugged half-heartedly. "I didn't know if it was true. Why should it be? Why should you want me? I'm just a kid who's scared all the time, has terrible nightmares, cries, looks like a fool, and runs from a fight when I should stay next to you."

Jydan moved closer to Blaen, reaching out to grasp Blaen's hands in his, feeling how cold they were. He lowered his voice. "Blaen, you believed me when we first took the Oath. You believed yourself. Why are you doubting now? What has changed? Why do you think I would change my mind? You know me. You know that I'm stubborn and bull-headed. I don't change my mind. You are my tayaerra. That will never change. Never."

Blaen lifted his eyes, wide and dark, to look at Jydan. Those eyes were filled with doubt, fear, and anger, undoubtedly at himself. Unconsciously he tightened his hands on Jydan's. "But why? Why do you put up with me?"

Jydan sighed. "Blaen, I don't understand. What do you want me to say? I've said everything that I know how to. What is it that I'm missing? What is wrong? Why now? Why do you doubt my word now?"

Blaen squeezed his eyes shut. "When I took the tayaerra oath with you, I did it partially because I needed something to hang onto, something concrete, something I could trust. I don't know that those were the right reasons. I want to know if you will still honor that oath knowing that. I won't hold you to it. I would understand if you wanted me gone. Too much baggage. Rik, my nightmares, my childish tears, my cursed dironan talent, everything. I just don't want you to feel ... obligated or anything."

Jydan waited another moment, then asked, "You done?" Blaen nodded, eyes still closed. Jydan continued. "Blaen, open your eyes, look at me." After a deep breath, Blaen did so. Jydan smiled at him. "Blaen, I knew all that when I took you as my soul brother. And I accepted it. We both have our problems, our faults. You already seen some of my 'baggage' -- my father and how I feel about him. There's more and I'm sure you'll see all of it soon enough. But that's what friendship is. Sharing everything, good and bad.

"As for your so-called 'baggage', let me make some things clear. One, never mind about Rik. You let me deal with him. Two, your nightmares will go away in time, but until they do, I'm here to help you. I'm not going anywhere. Three, you are not a child. You were a child five years ago when you lost your family. You didn't let yourself grieve then. You're grieving now. Grieving for everything you lost. The tears will pass. Four, your talent is special. It saved us from getting caught off-guard by Rik. I call that important, not cursed." He paused, lowering his voice. "It may be a burden for you to carry such a talent, such a gift, but that's what I'm here for. To rely on. To talk to. To trust. To be your friend, your tayaerra."

Blaen was quiet, eyes and face still. Jydan squeezed Blaen's hands when he didn't respond to anything he'd just said. "So, are we okay here now?"

Slowly, Blaen smiled and the brittle tenseness Jydan had seen since that morning finally dropped out of his frame. "I ... yeah, I think so. I just ... well, I guess I just didn't understand what you meant by tayaerra. Or something. I don't know. I just doubted that you really wanted me to be your friend."

Jydan relaxed. "That's okay. Just don't do it again, okay?" He offset his words with a grin, reaching up to gently slap at Blaen's cheek.

Blaen laughed and playfully shoved Jydan's arm away. He took a breath and exhaled heavily to settle his still nervously rolling stomach. "So, what are we doing now?"

Jydan slapped his hands on his legs, then stood, backing up and letting Blaen rise as well. He gestured toward the door. "Now we go back and eat. I don't know about you, but I'm starved. I never much liked trail rations."

Blaen chuckled. "I imagine not. Used to being served by pretty women in taverns I'll bet."

Jydan grinned speculatively. "Hmm. Aren't you too young to know about those kind of places?"

"You'd be surprised."

"I'll bet." As they exited the stable, Jydan pointed toward a one-level building across the compound. "Nat has food waiting for us. Then we'll head back out. I'd like to make some good time today, get further north."

Blaen nodded. "And what about Rik? Won't he try again?"

Jydan was pleased to hear that for once there was no hesitation or catch in Blaen's voice when saying Rik's name. He shrugged. "He might, but we'll be ready for him. Nat and some of his men are going to ride with us for a day or so, maybe discourage Rik for attacking. In any case, by then we'll be much deeper into Jourdain, too far for Rik to penetrate without trouble. We'll be safe."

"How long we planning to stay in Rillanda?"

"Oh, I don't know. As long as we need to."

Blaen paused, then asked, "And the return trip?"

Jydan stopped before the door to the building, putting his hand on Blaen's lower back to usher him inside. He grinned slyly. "How do you feel about boats?"

*********************************

Jydan leaned back against the log, rubbing a hand across his eyes. His other hand rested on Blaen's shoulder where he lay on his sleeping mat, the top of his head against Jydan's leg. Even though Blaen hadn't had any nightmares of the nasty variety, which Jydan had half-expected, he was still sleeping restlessly, muttering in his sleep, Rik's name making frequent appearances. He slept better with Jydan's presence next to him, his hand resting warmly on his shoulder. It was his turn on watch and he should be standing, but his unsheathed sword lay next to him, ready to be swung up for battle in necessary.

Someone from across the low fire moved and sat up. In the dim light, Jydan couldn't make out a face, but from the size of the body stretching and standing up, he knew it was Nat. It couldn't be anyone else. He moved silently over to sit on Jydan's side of the fire, in front of him slightly. Jydan nodded at him, saying nothing, figuring Nat had a few questions he wanted to ask and hadn't been able to yet.

Earlier that day, in late morning, they'd eaten and quickly moved out. Blaen had stuck close to Jydan the entire day and Jydan had let him, realizing he might still be a little nervous about going back on the road so soon. During the time before the meal, when he and Nat had been alone and able to talk, Jydan had been too distracted by the current situation -- both with Rik and with Blaen -- to really be coherent about his relationship with Blaen. He knew Nat was curious and wanted to know, but they'd spent their time talking about Nat and the Keep and about their plans for traveling north. Now in the midst of sleepers, Nat could ask his questions.

Nat eyed Blaen's sleeping form for a few seconds, then turned his attention to Jydan. "So, just what is your connection to this kid? Last time I talked to you, you were determined to remain alone the rest of your life, didn't need anyone, didn't want anyone. What happened?"

Jydan smiled slightly, chuckling softly. "What happened. Blaen happened." Nat only raised an eyebrow and shifted to get more comfortable, motioning for Jydan to go on. Jydan shrugged mentally and did so. "I hired him as a guide to get me through Gurodel for a job. I was supposed to track down Rik for the Shionanians. He'd been taking kids from their border towns. Anyway, I hired Blaen because he was Gurodellan and was rated as a second-level guide. Figured he would do just fine. I knew he was young, didn't bother me.

"At any rate, as we traveled, we started talking with each other a lot. Something about him made me want to talk, to him at least. It wasn't until we'd reached the capital of Shionan that I discovered he actually knew Rik, personally. Then we tracked Rik through Gurodel, gathering information here and there. As we got deeper into Rik's territory, I should have been more careful. I wasn't. Rik appeared, took Blaen. I got him back eventually, but didn't get the chance to confront Rik. We went south for awhile and now we're trying to get north into Rillanda. I don't think Rik does much scouting up there."

Nat crossed his arms, a half-smile on his face. "What aren't you telling me, Jydan? I know there's more."

Jydan's smile dropped from his face and his hand unconsciously closed on Blaen's shoulder, causing the young man to stir slightly, but not awaken. He glared at Nat for a long moment. "That is between Blaen and myself." He looked down at Blaen, then back up, "However, I will tell you this much. Blaen is my friend, probably the closest friend I've ever had and probably ever will have. He is the younger brother I'd always wished for. I won't abide anyone hurting him and that includes you, Natanael."

Nat lifted a hand. "Whoa, there, I already apologized for that. Just cool down. It's okay. He's your friend, so he's mine too. You know that."

Jydan wilted a little, abashed. "Sorry. Blaen's been hurt so much that I get a little protective of him. I don't want him hurt anymore. He's been through enough."

Nat pursed his lips. "You can't protect him from life, Jydan."

Looking back down at Blaen's peaceful face, Jydan nodded. "I know. I won't stand in his way of living his life. But he needs to heal. And he doesn't need Rik chasing him down and trying to take his freedom away." He looked back up at Nat, "And that's why we're going to Rillanda. I have a safe place on the border that we can both relax, rest for awhile, let Blaen find his peace again, take back what he's lost to Rik these last few months."

Nat smiled, reaching across to lay a hand on Jydan's arm. "You're a good friend, Jydan. I think Blaen is very lucky to know you."

Jydan smiled back, the switched his attention back to Blaen, moving his hand down to push the dark curls away from his closed eyes. "Hmm. I'm lucky to know him as well."

*********************************

Two days later, in early morning, Nat and his men left to go back to the Keep as Jydan and Blaen continued to head north. Blaen waited until Nat was out of sight, then commented quietly to Jydan, "The two of you are good friends."

Jydan nodded as he kneed Shadowrose back onto the road that would take them north. "Yes, we are. I don't get to Jourdain very often, but whenever I do, I try to stop by the Keep, catch up. Never hurts to have contacts wherever you travel." He paused, then grinned rakishly. "Besides, you don't think I always used this curved sword, did you? It's not a typical weapon in Eirena."

Blaen lifted an eyebrow. "I was curious about that. Especially after I saw that Nat had the same style of sword. I take it you learned from him."

Jydan smiled in memory. "Yeah, years ago, long before I even got Shadowrose here. I wasn't too much older than you are now when he came through Eirena, stopping by my uncle's for some reason I can't remember now. I saw his sword and immediately wanted one just like it. He saw that interest and offered to teach me. He's only a few years older than me, but he'd been using that curved sword of his as soon as he could lift one. Anyway, I learned fast. Jovan and Nat talked to the swordmaker in the guild and had a sword crafted for me, perfect in weight and balance." He lifted one hand and touched the pommel of the sword slung across his back. "Since then, Nat and I have always been friends. He's a good man. And a good mercenary who decided about three years ago to stay settled in one spot. He chose the border between Jourdain and Gurodel and built his Keep there."

Blaen shifted in his saddle, smiling at how much Jydan was talking. Not a typical thing for him to do. Usually it was Blaen talking during their travels. He liked this change. He prodded. "Tell me more."

Jydan threw a glance at Blaen, painting a fake scowl on his face. "You're not gonna let me stop now, are you?"

Blaen laughed. "No, I'm not."

Jydan sighed and shook his head. "More. Let me see." He paused a moment, then grinned. "Well, there was the time that ...."

*********************************

Blaen jerked awake with a gasp. Breathing hard, he sat up, looking around the small room that he and Jydan had bought for the night at the small town inn. Jydan was nowhere to be seen, but the saddlebags were still stacked neatly on the floor next to the opposite narrow bed. The morning sun streamed through the small window, throwing light patterns onto the floor, highlighting the dust floating in the air. Rubbing his face, Blaen pushed the blankets away. Jydan must be downstairs getting the horses ready or maybe ordering breakfast. I could really use some coffee right now. What is it with me and these dreams? At least Jydan wasn't here to see me this time. And at least it wasn't a nightmare. I just wish I knew what it was supposed to be.

Shaking his head, he shoved back his hair and swung his legs out of bed, stretching his arms over his head and yawning. The door creaked open and Jydan's head poked inside. He grinned. "Hey, you're awake. I was beginning to wonder." He came all the way inside, carrying a mug of something hot, steam rising from the top.

Blaen smiled and reached out his hands. "Please let that be coffee."

Jydan chuckled and settled the mug into Blaen's hands. "Yeah, it's coffee. Figured you might want it. I tried waking you earlier, but you just swatted at me and told me to go away, that you were busy or some such thing."

Blowing over the hot liquid, Blaen had to laugh. "Sorry. Don't remember that."

Jydan sat on the other bed. "That's okay. You needed the sleep. And this was the first place we've actually slept on real beds, or at least as mostly real, in quite some time. I expected that you wouldn't want to get up before the sun." He paused, then grinned. "But then when do you ever want to get up before the sun?"

"Hey!" Blaen grabbed his pillow with one hand and threw it across the room, catching Jydan in the face with it. Jydan laughed, but didn't throw it back, not wanting to make Blaen spill the hot coffee on himself.

He pointed at finger at him, the stern look on his face ruined by the smile pulling on the edges of his lips. "I'll deal with you later, kid."

*********************************

"Get on the ferry! Now!"

"But --"

"Don't argue! Just do it!"

Jydan's clipped voice left no room for argument.

Blaen turned and threw his quarterstaff across the slowly growing gap between the ferry and the pier. Then gathering himself, he jumped across the gap, slipping and landing hard on his knees on the wood. He pulled himself up and quickly turned to look back on the river shore. Behind him he could hear the shuffling of Shadowrose's and Eri's hooves as they shifted to keep their balance against the pull of the current on the flat-bottomed ferry. And he could hear the ferry crew yelling to each other as they poled across the wide expanse of water.

Staring at Jydan fighting against several men, giving the ferry time enough to pull away safely from the dock, Blaen muttered under his breath, hands gripped tight around the railing, "Come on, Jydan, enough of this. Just get over here."

It had been a week since they parted company with Nat and three days since they'd stayed overnight at the small inn where Blaen had had his dream. After crossing this river, they would have been too far away from Rik for him to easily get to them. They'd only just got the two horses on the ferry when Rik and his men burst onto the scene. Jydan had yelled for the ferry crew to shove off as he and Blaen fought against Rik's men in the tight quarters of the small pier leading to the ferry. Blaen hadn't wanted to leave Jydan alone, but he also didn't want Rik near him. And when Jydan had yelled at to board the ferry, Rik had been heading their direction.

Come on, come on, come on.

Jydan was getting closer to the edge of the pier, losing ground to walk on. He must've realized it because he struck out at men closest to him with his feet, shoving them back, toppling them, giving him a few free moments. Blaen watched as he turned, eyed the growing distance between him and the ferry, then raised his sword and let it fly. Blaen watched it soar, spinning in the air, and yelped as it struck down, point first into the planks of the ferry not five feet from where he was standing. His eyes went back to Jydan in time to see him dive deeply into the water and start swimming toward the ferry.

Blaen yelled for someone from the crew to help as he watched Jydan struggling against the heavy current. One of the burly men grabbed a thick rope attached to a some round white thing that Blaen assumed floated. The man threw it far out into the water and Jydan quickly latched onto it, kicking against the current as Blaen and the man pulled him toward the ferry. As Blaen helped haul Jydan up onto the deck, he asked, "Are you all right?" He kept one hand on Jydan's back, hoping the older man didn't notice how much that hand was shaking.

Laying one hand on Blaen's knee, Jydan nodded, gasping and wiping the water from his face with a small towel one of the crew gave him. "Yeah, fine. You?"

Before Blaen could answer, Rik started yelling from across the rushing water, his voice echoing into the midday air. "Someday, Jydan, someday you won't be so lucky. You're not always going to be around. He belongs to me! I made him!"

Jydan pushed himself smoothly to his feet, a low growl building in his chest. Blaen let him go and watched wide-eyed as Jydan spotted a crossbow attached to the side of the small cabin on the ferry and grabbed it, quickly loading on arrow onto it. Rik was standing on the edge of the pier, shaking his sword at them from across the water. As Jydan took careful aim, images from the dream he'd had the other night started streaming back into Blaen's mind, making his eyes go wide with realization. I have to stop him. He can't kill Rik, no matter how much I want him to.

Jydan was preparing to release the arrow when Blaen leapt to his feet, stepping quickly over to his side and hesitantly laid a hand on Jydan's arm. "Jydan, you can't kill him. His death doesn't belong to you."

He began pulling back on the release. "Oh, yes, it does."

Blaen moved his hand and cautiously placed it on top of the crossbow, wary of accidentally releasing the arrow. "No, it doesn't. You can't do this."

Jydan paused, looking down at Blaen, who swallowed at the intensity and anger evident in those light blue eyes. He knew none of it was directed at him, but he still had to force himself to stay still and not back up from Jydan. He watched the older man's jaw clench and his glance shift to Rik and then back to Blaen.

Finally Jydan lowered the crossbow, very displeased. "Fine. I won't kill him. At least not now." His voice dropped and he shoved a finger into Blaen's chest. "But you had better explain why I just let him go, Blaen."

"I will," Blaen promised. Then he realized that the crew was watching them with more interest than he was comfortable with. "Just not here, okay? Later."

Jydan grunted and turned away sharply, unloading and putting the crossbow away. Blaen looked back out over the water at the rapidly diminishing figures of Rik and his men. He hugged himself, listening to Jydan calming the captain of the ferry crew who wanted more money to pay for the danger he and his men had been put in. He closed his eyes, letting the wind whistling past his ears cut out the noise. He took a deep breath, released it, then opened his eyes again, focusing on the water below him.

I want him dead, too, Jydan, more than you realize. But it's not the right time. I wish it was, but it's not.

*********************************

Much later that evening, Blaen sat cross-legged in front of the fire. He threw another seed pod into the flames, listening as it snapped with a loud pop. Across from him, Jydan held his sword across his lap, running a whetstone down the blade, then smoothing it over with a cloth. He raised his eyes for a moment, looking at his friend in curiosity, then focused his attention back on the blade. He was a little concerned about the silence, but then he hadn't talked much either since they'd left the ferry. Too upset. Too angry that Blaen had stopped him from killing Rik.

Since the ferry, Blaen hadn't a thing beyond monosyllable words. And since they'd made camp a half-hour ago, all he'd done was just sit, staring into the fire, seemingly entranced by the orange and yellow dancing light.

Enough. Jydan ran the stone carefully down the blade as he slowly spoke. "So, are you gonna tell me what you meant back there? About Rik's death not belonging to me?"

Blaen stiffened for a second, then sighed. "Yeah, I guess I should. I know you want to kill Rik. Sometimes, I want you to kill him. A lot of times, actually."

Jydan continued to work on his sword, but interrupted quietly. "He deserves it, Blaen. He's hurt a whole lot of people, used them for his own gains, his own profit. Slavers are the worst kind; even a lot of the mercenaries who are less than moral say that Rik is the worst of the worst. And he hurt you and still is hurting you now. For that alone I would want to get rid of him."

Blaen's voice dropped as he shifted against the log he was resting against. "I know. But sometimes I don't think it's right that you should kill someone for me, because of me."

Jydan stopped and looked over the flames at Blaen. "I can understand that, Blaen, but I feel I need to, if only to stop him from threatening you. He's dangerous. One of these days he's gonna come after you and I won't be there to keep him from hurting you." His voice and eyes dropped. "You're my tayaerra, Blaen. It's my duty to stand by you and protect you, just as it is yours to do the same for me. And if that includes killing Rik, that is what I will do."

Blaen shook his head. "You can't tell me that is the whole reason you want to kill him. I've seen how you look when you're fighting him. How you looked today. You wanted ... revenge or something like that."

Jydan nodded. "Yes, that is true as well. He's taken you from me. And he's kept on trying. He's threatened you, scared you, hurt you. I want him dead. I have no shame in admitting that. It is part of why I fight him, why I want to kill him." He set aside his sword and settled forward, elbows on his knees. "But you still haven't told me why you won't let me. I know it's not pity or sympathy for the man. You hate him as much as I do, if not for yourself, then for others. Tell me. What is that you know that made you stop me this afternoon?"

Blaen took a deep breath, blew it out, then began. "I told you before about what happened when Rik burned Kinesti, when he killed my family. If you remember, I told you I had a 'vision' about Rik, about what would eventually happen to him."

Jydan frowned. "Yes, you said something about a woman if I recall."

"Yes, I did." He closed his eyes, reciting in a singsong voice. "A woman, hung about with prophecy and destiny. And a broadsword that spoke of history, past, present and future." He opened his eyes and stared into the flames. His voice, lightly sonorous and melodic, sent chills down Jydan's spine. "A few days after Natanael left us, I had a dream. I can't really remember much of it, but I remember enough. Whoever the woman is that I saw in that vision, she is important, very important. She is the 'she for whom' of prophecy of centuries untold. She is the turning point, the beginning and ending of the circle of time, the one upon much depends. It is necessary that we meet her as our destiny will mesh with hers and begin the fulfillment of prophecy."

He paused, swallowed, then finally met Jydan's eyes. "But only if Rik is still alive at the proper time. He is necessary. Without him, there will be no way for our paths to cross hers."

Jydan just stared, jaw muscles clenching. He growled. "If that means that I have to let Rik get his hands on you again, don't expect me to be happy."

Blaen shifted and drew his legs up under his chin. "I don't know, maybe he will, maybe he won't. It's not like I'm thrilled with the idea myself. I just know what I felt and what little I can remember being told in my dream. I can't see the future really, just get a general sense of things occasionally."

Grunting, Jydan picked up his sword again, going back to sharpening it. "Lovely. Just lovely. I guess I should be happy that Rik finally gets his due." His eyes went back up to meet Blaen's. "I did understand that correctly, right? That his eventual death will come at this woman's hands."

Blaen nodded affirmatively, wrapping his arms around his legs more tightly. "Oh, yeah, most definitely. That I saw very clearly. He was very dead. A knife, his own knife, was in his chest. I think ... I think you'll even be there to see it."

Jydan rubbed down the blade. "Good."

Blaen didn't answer that, just went back to staring into the fire, rocking slightly. Jydan looked up again, and after a moment, he set his sword aside, standing and going around to join Blaen on his side of the fire. He sat down next to him and casually draped an arm around Blaen's shoulder, drawing him close to his side. Blaen leaned into him, dropping his legs down to the ground and relaxing against him instinctively. His voice was quiet, almost too quiet for Jydan to hear.

"I'm a little scared, Jydan. I don't want to get anywhere near Rik again."

Jydan pulled him closer, wrapping his other arm around him, feeling Blaen latch onto his tunic. He nodded against the top of Blaen's head. "I know, Blaen, I know. I'll do my best to protect you ... and not kill Rik. But you must understand that your life is more important to me than a prophecy, no matter how far reaching it's supposed to be. If I have to kill Rik to save you, then that's what I'll do. End of story."

Blaen shivered once, whispering, "Yeah, I know. I've always known that."

Jydan smiled. "Good."

*********************************

Jydan paused at the door of The Black Rose tavern, nodding in approval at the new woodwork on the outside. The sign hanging above the door amused him and caused Blaen to giggle. A painted depiction of a black rose laying across the pommel of a suspiciously familiar curved sword. He threw a glance back at his friend, who only smirked and shrugged. Jydan rolled his eyes and pushed open the door. It was mid-afternoon, after lunch, so it shouldn't be terribly busy inside. Hopefully that would mean he could see Caleen and her family first before the rest of the town figured out he was here. Shadowrose was easily distinguishable from the normal everyday horse. When the stallion got noticed, people would start to show up, wanting to see him. Sometimes he felt like he was some sort of mythic figure to these people, even though they knew him and talked to him for the last five years. Maybe it was because he stopped by so infrequently.

Letting his eyes adjust to the dimmer light inside the front tavern room, Jydan took note of the few customers still sitting at the back wall. There were a couple barmaids cleaning tables and a bartender behind the counter. But no Caleen. He frowned, then strode over to the bar counter, aware that Blaen was keeping close to him. The bartender, a man maybe a year or older than Jydan, looked up at his approach. Jydan smiled. "Greetings. I wondered if you might be able to help me."

"Depends what you want."

"I'm looking for Caleen."

The man tensed noticeably, his dark eyes narrowing. "Why? What do you want with her?"

Jydan continued carefully, not wanting to spook the man, whoever he was. "I'm a friend. I come through here a couple times a year. I just want to talk to her. I mean her no harm."

The man just stared at him for a few moments, then grunted. "Wait here. I'll see if she wants to talk to you. What's your name, stranger?"

"Jydan." He gestured to his Blaen, half-hidden behind him. "And this is Blaen. She won't know him, though. But he is a trusted friend. Tell her that." The man only nodded and disappeared into the back rooms.

Blaen leaned against the counter, commenting quietly, "Didn't seem like he recognized you."

Jydan shrugged. "I didn't recognize him. He must be new. In any case, Caleen will set him straight. She ..."

Before he could continue, the door to the back rooms flew open and a bundle of energy burst out, heading straight for Jydan. Blinking in surprise, Blaen backed up a few steps, a half-grin on his face as Jydan was quickly embraced by a young girl with long blonde braids and freckles. At least that's all he could see before Jydan closed his arms around her and swung her around as she squealed in delight. "Jydan! You came back. You've been away for so long!"

Jydan laughed and set her on the counter. "I know, Rina. Sorry, I just couldn't get away. Where's the rest of your family?"

"Right here."

Blaen followed the voice over to the doors where a woman with thick dark blonde hair wrapped up in a elaborate twist, sparkling green eyes, and an amused smile was watching Jydan grin at Rina. To her side stood a tall, thin, older teenage boy with dark hair and green eyes; and another girl, maybe mid-teens, long loose dark hair and large, dark eyes. Behind them was the bartender, looking somewhere between confused and embarrassed.

The older woman, whom Blaen took to be Caleen, stepped around the counter and went to Jydan who took her hands in his and pressed a kiss on the back of each. His grin softened. "Caleen. How are you doing?"

She smiled. "Well. And you? I hear you brought a friend with you?"

He nodded, stepping slightly to the side, bringing Blaen forward. "Yes. Blaen, this is Caleen. Caleen, this is Blaen."

Noting that Jydan still had a firm grip on Caleen's hands, Blaen simply inclined his head. "Good to meet you, Caleen. Jydan has told me some about you."

She chuckled. "Some. Hmm. Yes, that would probably be the word I would choose. Rarely does Jydan tell all. We'll have to sit and talk, maybe you can tell me things about Jydan that he won't tell me."

Jydan only laughed. "Now, Caleen."

Rina giggled and swung her feet back against the counter as she shared a grin with Blaen at the silliness of the two "old" people. The other two finally joined Jydan and Caleen. The boy held out a hand to Jydan, who finally released Caleen and grasped the boy's hand firmly. "Andreian. You are taller every time I see you."

Caleen took her son's arm in her hands, smiling. "There are days I swear that I can actually see him outgrowing his clothes." Andreian laughed, a red blush painting the tops of his cheekbones, but Caleen only leaned against her taller son. "And he looks more like his father every day. Acts like him too."

Jydan smiled. "Your father would be proud."

Andreian returned the smile, "I would like to think so, sir."

Jydan turned to the other girl who had been watching with a shy smile. He lowered his voice, talking in more sedate tones. "And Danise, the shy little flower, how are you?" He took her hand and kissed the back of it gently, inclining his head at her regally.

She blushed, tucking her hand in her skirt, and replied in a soft voice, "I'm fine, Jydan. I'm glad you came back to visit us."

"So am I. I missed you all." He turned slightly, drawing Blaen forward again where he'd been lurking behind him. "Andreian, Danise, Rina, this is Blaen. He's a very good friend. We travel together."

Rina clapped her hands, a bright smile on her young face. "So you won't be all lonely anymore."

Jydan grinned at Rina, then looked down at Blaen, whose face was flushing with the attention.

"No, Rina, I won't be all lonely anymore."

*********************************

Blaen flopped into the chair on the side porch of The Black Rose. It had been a week since they'd first arrived in Fariedel. And it was only now that everything had settled back down again to what passed as normal around here. Jydan was still inside, exchanging stories with old friends. It was dark outside, fairly late. Most everyone in the town had gone to bed. Only those left inside the tavern, a few nightbirds and the stars were out. He inhaled deeply, letting the brisk chill of the night air fill his lungs. He smiled. It was amazing how relaxed he felt after only a week in Fariedel. It had taken a few days before he slept all night through, but eventually he did. There were no nightmares, no prophetic dreams, no bad feelings. Just peace.

Well, that wasn't exactly true. He did occasionally pick up hints of discord. Rillanda was after all in the midst of great turmoil. There had been a lot of death, a lot of discord and disharmony, happening in this country in the past several years. But he also felt an undercurrent of expectation and hope. He wasn't sure where it was coming from, he only knew it was there, almost like it was coming from the land itself. And somehow he knew that these feelings were tied up with the woman with the broadsword. He wasn't sure how, but she was.

Sighing, he shoved away those thoughts. He was here to relax, to heal, as Jydan would say. And Blaen admitted that Fariedel was a good place to heal. Nestled almost on the border between Jourdain and Rillanda, it was a particularly safe spot, and in the town lived a combination of people from both countries, combining Rillanda's perseverence with Jourdain's bull-headed protectiveness. Seth wouldn't bother Fariedel -- too far for him to worry about. And Rik couldn't reach him, not without raising an alarm.

He relaxed back into the chair, closing his eyes. Safety. Rest. Healing.

*********************************

Jydan had only just got to his room door when he heard someone call his name. He looked back. Caleen stood at the base of the stairs, a candle in one hand. She motioned for quiet, then gestured for him to come to her. He frowned and went back down the stairs. As he reached her, he asked, "What is it?"

"It's Blaen."

He stiffened, looking around the empty room. He'd seen Blaen go outside an hour ago when he was still chatting with old friends. He'd been so involved with talking that he never saw him come back in, but he assumed Blaen had gone up to bed awhile ago. His voice was unexpectedly sharp. "Where is he? What's wrong?"

Caleen raised a hand. "No, no, no. He's fine. Nothing's wrong. He fell asleep."

Jydan relaxed, then asked, "Well, then, what's the problem?"

She chuckled, pointing at the side door. "It's where he fell asleep. He's on the side porch, huddled in a chair."

Jydan sighed, running a hand over his head. "Ah, I see." He walked quickly to the side door and opened it, feeling the chill seeping through his clothes. He must be freezing out there. I know he hates being cold. How can he still be sleeping?

But there he was, curled into a chair, arms folded tightly across his chest, legs drawn up, head bent down, hair falling to cover his face. Jydan shook his head, chuckling softly, and stepped forward to carefully scoop him up. Blaen didn't wake, only turned his head toward Jydan's chest, seeking heat. Once back inside, Caleen used her candle to light Jydan's way to the room he and Blaen shared. There she lit the fat candle sitting on the small table between the two beds and backed out of the room.

Jydan settled Blaen onto his bed, then proceeded to pull off Blaen's boots and outer clothes. Blaen didn't wake, only muttered vaguely, trying to dig himself into the heavy blankets surrounding him. Finally, Jydan covered Blaen, tucking him in. Blaen sighed and scrunched down. Jydan sat heavily on his own bed, weariness catching up with him. He was glad that Blaen finally felt safe enough to fall asleep with no prompting, but... He shook his head as he yanked off his boots. As he settled down in his own bed, he looked over at Blaen again, whispering to his unconscious friend, "New rule, Blaen, no falling asleep on the porch or next time I leave you there."

Yeah, right.

*********************************

Weeks passed. Then a month, then two. Winter arrived. With it came rain and snow and wind. The townspeople became used to seeing Jydan and Blaen around all the time. Blaen quickly became a favorite with the younger children and their parents after it was discovered that he had spent three years at the Academy in Ashanaran in Shionan. He had a natural teaching skill, lots of patience, and a love of helping. He also told a great many stories of the places he'd been, the people he'd met, and the things he'd done during his short experience as a guide. Sometimes his tales sounded a little outrageous and sometimes they were. He drew not only from his own experiences and knowledge of various cultures, but from others' tales they told around the fire late at night during the travels.

Jydan watched all this with a smile. Blaen was recovering, healing. He laughed a lot more now. He was relaxed, with Jydan and himself. And with others. Quite often he would find Blaen roughhousing with the children in the small house they used as a school during the colder months when there was too much snow outside to teach outdoors. Sometimes he would just watch from the door, laughing quietly. Other times, rarely, he would join in, usually tackling children and tickling them into helpless giggling.

Once he'd found himself with a handful of Blaen. The first time he'd hesitated, unsure if the younger man would bolt if he manhandled him. That hesitation had been his downfall. Blaen had struck, as had all the children. Caleen had found them a few minutes later, Jydan pinned to the floor by the weight of seven children and Blaen. Slightly embarrassed at letting her see him like this, he'd tried to displace his cargo, but they'd refused to move. Caleen had laughed and disappeared, her laughter echoing into the cold evening air. Blaen had taken one look at Jydan's face and lost control, laughing so hard he fell away, holding onto his sides, releasing Jydan.

Jydan laughed with him. What else could he do?

However, since then he hadn't let Blaen get the drop on him again. If it was tickling he wanted, it was tickling he got. After that first time, if Blaen and the children ever got Jydan pinned, they were always extremely lucky. But it was never who won that mattered, it was that they were having fun. Something that Jydan approved of, no matter how silly it seemed to get sometimes. Blaen deserved a little silliness. He'd had enough serious stuff for a long time.

*********************************

Another few months passed. While Blaen taught and regained his balance, Jydan did smaller bit jobs into the close communities of Jourdain. He took a few cautious jobs in a few of the other Rillandan border towns around Fariedel. He didn't want to attract Seth's attention to Fariedel if he could help it. The town existed as a spot for those working against him to gather safely, then disperse back out to other parts of the country. The movement against Seth wasn't large and it wasn't very organized. There had been a few tries to organize it, but no one had stepped forward yet who had the charisma to hold the movement together under a single person's orders. Jydan knew it was only a matter of time before the right person came along that would pull the country together and move against Seth. Jydan almost felt like he wanted to be involved in such an organization when the right leader came along. He mentioned as much to Caleen who promised to get word to him if such a leader showed up and started organizing.

But in the meantime, Jydan was trying to hide his anxiousness to move on. He'd never stayed anywhere for very long. That wasn't how a mercenary lived. They were always on the move. Blaen had been like that too as he was growing up. However, now he was finding out how much he'd missed by the constant moving and Jydan found it difficult to tell him that he wanted to leave. He wouldn't leave without Blaen, but he knew he wouldn't be able to stay much longer, maybe just after until winter ended.

In the end, Jydan's efforts to hide this knowledge from Blaen were in vain. Blaen knew him far better than Jydan had realized.

*********************************

Blaen dropped down to the steps of the front porch of the tavern, sitting next to Jydan as he stared out at the street where the last snow was melting away into puddles. Blaen wordlessly handed him a mug of something warm and smelling of fresh coffee. He took it, thanking him with a quiet smile. Silently they watched the sun rise over the tops of the houses, spilling light through the clouds and down onto the two of them. Blaen sipped at his own mug of coffee, then shifted to lean against the post on his other side.

Keeping his hands tight around mug, he said quietly, "Thank you."

Jydan eyed him. "For what?"

"For staying here so long. For waiting. For doing this for me. I know this isn't how you would've spent the last several months." Jydan's light blue eyes were startled. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again, deciding instead to take another swallow of coffee. Blaen hid his amused smile behind his mug, waiting.

Jydan finally spoke again. "How did you know?"

Blaen shrugged. "I know you. But I just wanted to let you know that I appreciated it, that you stayed here, with me, didn't pressure me to leave." Jydan started to say something, but Blaen lifted a hand. "No, wait, I'm not done yet. I also wanted to tell you that I'm ready to leave whenever you are."

This time Blaen had to laugh, his eyes crinkling as Jydan's mouth worked, but nothing came out. He shook his head. "Speechless twice in one night. I bet I'll never be able to do that again."

Jydan laughed and reached up to tap Blaen on the back of the head. "You." He left his hand there, his fingers curling around the back of his neck, his voice becoming serious. "Are you sure, Blaen? I don't want to rush you."

Blaen clasped Jydan's forearm with his hand, smiling. "I'm sure."

Jydan smiled widely, then released him. "Okay."

"So, how are we going back? North? South?"

"Well, actually either is a little too dangerous for my taste." He paused, then added, laughter still in his voice. "You never did tell me how you felt about boats."

*********************************

By boat it was. Straight across the Emerald Sea to a Shionanian port. From there they traveled to Ashanaran and reported to the Council of Elders. Jydan had sent messages to the Council through various messengers, explaining the delay and giving what information he could. But there was information he hadn't been willing to trust to messengers, such as more detailed plans of Rik's routes, movements, the amount of territory he held, how big his group of slavers were, just how many were working for him, and so forth. Jydan spent the better part of a week going over what he'd learned with the Council. Blaen added any information he had as well, trying to recall what he'd seen of Rik's camp that night.

After the Council had thanked them and paid them, Jydan found them another job that would take them north to Valeria. A simple job, just a guide and a front point guard/tracker. Jydan had a habit of taking jobs that required secrecy and deception, sometimes taking jobs that underpaid, other times taking things that seemed like a lost cause. But for now, Jydan wanted to start easy. He didn't want to dump Blaen back into the seamier side of life just yet. Maybe as they worked together more, became used to each other's habits while working, got used to thinking for each other, well, then maybe he'd start taking his normal type of work again. For now, he was happy just to be out on the road.

Once in Valeria, Jydan made a small correction in his registration for the guild job roster. He and Blaen came as a team, never individuals. Where one was hired, the other must be as well. And so they spent the next several years working in Eirena, Shionan, Malinde, sometimes going through southern Gurodel to get to Jourdain, sailing across the Emerald Sea once or twice a year to visit Fariedel. But they avoided Rik and his territory in Gurodel. Neither had a desire to go there and Jydan refused any job that would take them there.

Then came a return trip to Shionan from Jourdain.

*********************************

"It'll only take a few minutes. I promise. We haven't been in Gurodel for so long that I've run out of those herbs."

Jydan paid the stable owner, then turned his attention down to the younger man at his side. "Okay, already, you've got me convinced. Let's just make it quick. I want to get back here and get some sleep. I'm exhausted."

Blaen paused a moment, looking up at Jydan, forehead furrowing in concern. "You could stay here. I am capable of shopping by myself, you know."

Jydan shrugged. "I know. I'd just rather you not wander around in the marketplace alone. The Xiomaga Market isn't exactly the model for safe places to shop."

Blaen rolled his eyes. "You worry too much."

"It's not you I'm worried about. It's the shopowners. You'll probably try to bargain them out of all their herb stock for half of what its worth. Then I'd have to put up with your teas and herbal cures that much longer."

"Oh, thanks." He stuck out his tongue at Jydan, then ducked out of range of the longer arms as they reached for him.

Jydan laughed lightly. "I'll get you later, kid."

"Only if you catch me."

Jydan strolled toward the marketplace, keeping an eye on Blaen, making sure he didn't get too far out of his sight. They may be in the southern parts of Gurodel, but they were close enough to Rik's territories to make him nervous. And there had been a lot of skirmishes in this region lately. From one day to the next, the city could change hands and the residents wouldn't notice or even really care. In addition, Rik was getting bolder, expanding his territory. Jydan had heard through various contacts that the slaver had made some firm inroads in parts of northern Jourdain, gaining footholds up into the weakened Rillanda. Seth didn't care about the borders and as long as Rik stayed along those borders, Seth would leave him alone.

Pulling his attention back to his current location, Jydan glanced around the large marketplace in the underbelly of the city. Xiomaga was as close to being the capital of Gurodel as there could be. One of the largest cities, filled with people of all types -- thieves, peasants, mercenaries, farmers, slavers, and even herb sellers. He didn't like Xiomaga much at all, usually avoided it. But he had been too exhausted to continue today, even if it was still daylight outside and would be for another hour or so.

He and Blaen had just spent two weeks helping Nat get rid of some rather annoying and well-armed raiders that were determined to kill Nat and his men and take the Keep for their own. It had been a very long two weeks, filled with more down and dirty fighting than Jydan had seen in a long time, probably since before he'd met Blaen. At the end of those two weeks, when the raiders had finally been defeated, the few stragglers still alive chased away, Nat had offered to Jydan that he and Blaen could stay awhile, rest up before heading back. But after one look at Blaen's pale face and violence-weary eyes, Jydan had refused. He wanted to get them both away from the sight of so much death.

Nat had understood and given Jydan a horse to take him back to Eirena as part of his payment for his aid. Shadowrose hadn't survived the intense fighting on the last day. The images of his great stallion's last moments were forever engraved in his mind.

Blaen lying unprotected, unarmed, semi-unconscious on the muddy ground, wind knocked out of him, a knife wound in one arm. An enemy soldier holding a huge sword above him, getting ready for the downstroke. Jydan too far away to stop him, no weapons he could throw. Nothing he could do except yell.

Then out of nowhere had appeared Shadowrose, rearing up on his back legs, lips pulled back in a snarl, like a huge black god of death, defending his master's closest friend. The stallion had shrilled out a challenge, knocking the man down and away, the proceeded to rear back up, pawing the air. The enemy soldier had rolled to the side, then came back up on his knees, shoving the sword toward the exposed chest of the great stallion as his front legs came back to earth.

Jydan stopped for a moment, closing his eyes. There had been nothing anyone could do. The sword had pierced the horse's lungs and heart. He could still remember Shadowrose's scream of pain and dying that had rung out across the battlefield outside the Keep. He'd fought his way finally to Blaen's side. By that time, Blaen had been awake, haltingly fighting off other soldiers as he stood in front of Shadowrose's body. The battle had ended a few minutes later as the last wave of Nat's hired army stormed into the field, cutting down the last of the enemy soldiers.

Sighing, Jydan rubbed his forehead and opened his eyes, automatically searching out Blaen's form in the growing crowd in the marketplace. He caught sight of him talking to a store owner, probably asking for directions. Jydan moved to catch up with him before Blaen noticed he wasn't around. He knew Blaen still felt bad, maybe a little guilty, about the stallion's death. He knew how attached Jydan had been to the horse, how much Shadowrose had meant to him. But Jydan would never trade Blaen's life to get back Shadowrose. Blaen was more important to him, would always be more important. Yes, he would miss the fierce black stallion, but he would've been lost without his tayaerra.

Blaen looked up as Jydan reached him. "Hey, I was wondering what happened to you."

Jydan smiled slightly. "Just taking my time." If Blaen saw the recent memories filtering through Jydan's face, he didn't say anything, just nodded once.

"Well, I found out where the best herb vendor is."

Jydan gestured him forward. "Lead on. And try not to get us lost."

Blaen only laughed and jumped back into the masses of people around them again. Jydan followed closely, but a few minutes into their journey through the market, several large carts cut across their path, separating the two of them. Jydan kept his eyes where he last saw his friend, catching him in glimpses between the overloaded carts. He shifted from one foot to the other, rotating sore neck muscles. Herbs. I can't believe I let him talk me into this. He's only gonna try to feed them to me the next time I get the flu.

He never saw the man come up behind him before his world exploded into darkness.

*********************************

Blaen only had time for a muffled yelp when he felt hands around his waist, grabbing tightly. The next second a hand was slapped over his mouth and he was dragged into an alley, away from where he'd been waiting for Jydan to join him after the carts had gone passed. He struggled and kicked, but hands, too many hands, held him still, secured his limbs with rope. A gag was forced into his mouth and tied roughly at the back of his head, painfully catching several strands of hair in the knot.

A voice whispered in his ear. A cold voice. A jolt of fear shivered down his back -- it was a voice he recognized.

"I told you I wouldn't forget you. And this time Jydan won't be able to help you."

What?!? Jydan! What have you done with Jydan! His own plight at finding himself in his worst nightmare's hands forgotten, he struggled harder, worried about his friend. The hands shifted and a face entered his view. He stopped moving and flinched back, swallowing hard.

It was Rik. And he was laughing.

"Greetings, Blaen. It's been a very long time. Much too long."

*********************************

Groans. Flashing lights. Muffled voices. Someone touching him. Hands pulling, poking.

Jydan shoved it all away. Tired. He was tired. Hurting. Wanted to sleep. But whoever was out there, beyond him, demanded that he wake up. He didn't want to wake up. But he would if only to get those hands and voices to go away and leave him alone.

As he blinked muzzily into consciousness, his head screamed at him for attention. He groaned, raising one shaking hand to touch the side of his head where he felt a bandage. Oh, man, what happened? He sorted through his memories, trying to remember what he'd last been doing.

A voice spoke. "Sir? Can you hear me?"

He squinted at the pain the voice was evoking in his head. He muttered, "Yeah. I can hear you. What happened?"

As his vision began to focus, he made out an older man in a green healer tunic sitting next to him on a stool. He glanced down at himself, realizing he was lying on a cot, a sheet pulled over him. He was still dressed at least, though only in his undershirt and a pair of trousers. Groaning, he pushed himself up to a sitting position with one hand, holding onto his head with the other.

The healer reached out to steady him. "Whoa, easy there. You need to be careful. You got hit on the head pretty hard."

Jydan carefully swung his feet onto the floor and rubbed at his face, trying to get his brain to respond. "Hit on the head? When? How?"

"First, can you tell me your name? Where you're from?"

"My name is Jydan, I'm from Eirena, on my way back there from Jourdain." A thought occurred to him and his eyes darted around the tent. "Is my friend around here somewhere?"

The man frowned a moment. "Your friend? I'm sorry, sir, you were alone when they brought you to me. No one knew who you were."

Jydan swore once, then tried to stand, only to fall back to the cot with another moan, holding onto his head again. The man rested a hand on his shoulder. "You should to rest."

Shoving away the hand, he demanded, "What happened? Do you know? I remember being in the marketplace, waiting for some carts to go by. Then something hit me, a brief pain, and then darkness, and now being here. How long have I been out?"

"A full day and then some. It's nearly midnight."

"Are you sure there hasn't been someone around to see me? A young man, long curly brown hair, blue eyes, has two gold hoop earrings in the left ear. His name is Blaen."

The older man pursed his lips, shaking his head in regret. "I'm sorry, no one by that description has been here. I was told that someone approached you from behind and hit you over the head. He then disappeared even before you had completely fallen to the ground. Then panic ensued as someone realized that there was a slave raiding party in the marketplace. It took some time for things to calm down again after that."

Jydan's head went up in surprise and a half-felt fear. No. "A slave raiding party? Do you know whose it was?"

The healer nodded after a moment. "Rikondja's, of course. He's the only one who would be so bold. He took at least a dozen of the younger people from the marketplace area before escaping with them." He turned away from Jydan, oblivious to the sudden anger filling Jydan's eyes. He rustled in a table drawer as he continued. "Someone else did stop by about an hour or so after you were brought in. He gave my assistant something to give you." He swivelled back to face Jydan, handing him what he'd pulled out of the drawer. "Seemed like an odd thing to give to a man in need of healing, but he said you would understand."

Jaw muscles clenched tightly, Jydan fought to keep from swearing in every language he knew. He didn't want to offend this man who had helped him. He held in his hand a silk rose. A black silk rose.

Rik has Blaen and he's baiting me. I'll kill him.

Gritting his teeth, Jydan forced himself to his feet again, steadying himself against a table as he scanned the tent for his sword, boots, and outer clothing. The healer protested again, standing up next to him. "Really, sir, you shouldn't be leaving."

"I don't have a choice. I have to find Blaen. Where are my things?"

The healer didn't look like he was going to say anything for a moment, but then waved over to the other side of the tent. "Over there, in the small brown chest. I can't make you stay, but please be careful."

Jydan quickly dressed, trying to ignore the pounding in his head as he mentally rehearsed what he was going to do to Rik when he got his hands on him. Prophecy or no, Blaen, I want that man's head on a pike.

*********************************

Blaen strained again the ropes binding his wrists. Still nothing. Growling in his throat, he tried to shift his weight on the hard ground, but only succeeded in moving about three inches to the left. He was sore from the hard riding. Being tied to a horse for four days and bouncing along hard roads, unable to control anything, was nothing he'd ever wanted to do. He slumped back against the pole he'd been secured to inside a bare tent. Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply through his nose, trying to find some measure of calm, but not finding any. He was worried about Jydan. He was scared for himself. But mostly he was angry. Angry at Rik for messing with his life again.

The tent flap was flung aside and the object of his thoughts stormed inside. Blaen glared up at him, defiance shining in his eyes. Rik smirked back, then squatted down, running a finger down Blaen's cheek. "Well, my pretty, this time I've got you for good. No one's seen the mercenary. Guess he must've given up on you."

Blaen jerked his head away and spat out in a low voice, "You don't know Jydan. He doesn't give up. He'll find me."

Rik laughed, standing back up. "Oh, you don't understand. I hope he doesn't give up. I want to see the great mercenary Jydan again." Rik's eyes gleamed most unpleasantly. "I plan to kill him." With a snap of his cloak, he disappeared through the tent flap, calling to his men.

Blaen stared after him, whispering in a broken voice, "No."

*********************************

Jydan ran a hand over the hoofprints embedded in the dirt of the rarely-used trail. The tracks were fairly fresh, maybe a few days old, three at most. Several horses, no carts. It must have rained in this area around the time that the horses had come this way or maybe just before. The prints were deep, solidly embedded into the packed trail. And whomever the horses belonged to, they had their mounts carrying heavy burdens and moving at a good clip. It had to be Rik. This trail wasn't used much. Too many places where it would be easy to pick off travelers and then swarm down and rob them. But none of the thieves along here would be so foolish to bother Rik. They'd be dead before they could even think about apologizing.

He stood and remounted his horse, kneeing it forward. It'd been a week since he'd left Xiomaga and still Rik was ahead of him. The first few days Jydan hadn't been able to go far without nearly toppling off his horse from the pain of his headache. A few hours travel, stop and rest for another couple hours, up again, go for a few more, then stop again. It hadn't been until the fourth day that he felt he was finally recovered, the pain gone, letting him concentrate on finding Blaen. He was in Jourdain now, following the trail toward Rillanda. He didn't know why Rik was going toward Rillanda, couldn't think of what was there ... except maybe Raiders Canyon.

Growling and muttering, he pushed the horse faster. He didn't know exactly where the canyon was, only had heard of it in conversations from time to time. Now he would have to find someone to tell him where the canyon was in case Rik covered his trail too well for Jydan to follow. He had to find Rik, had to stop him.

Before it's too late.

*********************************

Blaen struck out at Rik as soon as his hands were freed. Rik dodged the blow and shoved him back onto the ground. The younger man moved to get up and attack Rik, his anger overriding his good sense, but Rik moved first, stepping onto Blaen's hand, slowly adding more pressure until Blaen stilled, twinges of pain flitting across his face.

"Now is that any way to treat such a good friend, Blaen?"

"You are not my friend, Rik, you never were. You only want to use me."

Rik pursed his lips. "Hmm, true. But then that's what you do with tools. You use them. I own you, Blaen. I keep telling you that. You keep trying to get away from me. And then I have to find you again. Such a waste of time."

Blaen tried flexing his fingers under Rik's foot. "You do not own me, Rik. You never have. And you never will." Rik pressed down harder on Blaen's hand, making Blaen gasp and close his eyes. He forced out through tightly clenched teeth. "If you're trying to scare me, Rik, it's not working. I'm not a child anymore. You're just a phantom, a vaguely nightmarish image from my past. Nothing you can do to me will convince me to work for you or with you." He opened his eyes and stared up at Rik's slowly purpling face. "You have no control over me any longer. I outgrew you."

Rik stood there for a moment longer, then leaned down and grabbed Blaen, hauling him up by the collar, pressing him against the center tent pole. Blaen met his eyes calmly, ignoring the fluttering of his stomach that told him that maybe he just crossed that invisible line of Rik's anger.

The slaver growled and dragged him by the arm over to the tent flap, yelling for the nearest guard. "Take him over to the rest of the prisoners, chain him with them." He looked down at Blaen again. "And don't hurt him. I have a very special buyer who I think would like him undamaged." His grin was none too nice and Blaen had to wonder as he was yanked over to the other prisoners if he just made a mistake.

A very bad mistake.

*********************************

Jydan handed over the reins of his horse to the street kid. He used up his last real funds some time ago. He didn't have time to find another source of income and he needed information. Hopefully this information would be the last piece he needed. He headed toward the forested areas beyond the town, taking the trail that led into the darkness, ignoring the yelled comments from the kid that it was getting dark and he should wait until morning.

It's been two weeks, kid, I don't have time to wait until morning. This may be my last shot. I can't let Blaen down. I promised him I wouldn't let Rik get his hands on him again. He shook his head. Those thoughts would do him no good. He focused his attention on this latest bit of information -- the bit he hoped would help.

Kellessan. That name again. What is that now? Four villages? No, five. And everyone says the same things about her. Well, if she is who everyone says, then she has to know how to get to Raiders Canyon. Maybe I could even convince her to help me get Blaen and the others out.

With new determination in his step, he hurried his pace through the trees, following the directions the street kid had given him. Well, that is, if I can even find her and get her to listen to me.

*********************************

Blaen shivered again, shifting slightly, wishing their was more slack in the chains so he could wrap his arms around himself more tightly. It was cold! As it was, he and the other prisoners tried to huddle together, tried to conserve body heat. He leaned his head against the cliff wall, looking up into the early evening sky. If he'd counted right, it had been two weeks since he'd been kidnaped by Rik. Two weeks of rough riding and being threatened and manhandled. Where is Jydan? Why hasn't he got here yet? He promised he would never let Rik hurt me again.

Then just as immediately, Blaen chastised himself. Jydan had been hurt, that much he knew from listening to Rik and his men. Someone had clubbed him over the head. That had been the only way they'd been able to take off with Blaen without being stopped by that "moralistic mercenary." Rik seemed to both want and not want Jydan to find them. Rik wanted to kill Jydan, but he also must have known that Jydan wasn't going to be easy to kill and could very well kill him before Rik could do anything about it.

Blaen sighed, moving his eyes down to watch Rik and several of his fellow slavers ride off toward the western end of the canyon. Raiders Canyon. That was the name he'd heard. And from he'd heard before, he knew that the canyon was in Rillanda. Rik had come over to tell him personally that he was going to speak with Blaen's new owner, as Rik had changed his mind about keeping the stubborn dironan. He was planning to sell Blaen to a man from across the Drynan Sea who specialized in "breaking" such people as Blaen. Rik had grinned, given Blaen's hair a painful yank, then strode off, laughing at the fear Blaen knew had briefly appeared in his eyes.

Now all Blaen could was wait for Jydan. He somehow knew he was coming. If he opened his gift, he could sense it in the thickening of the silver cords binding his and Jydan's souls together. Only the fact that those cords hadn't disappeared altogether had kept Blaen sane that first day and a half when he'd heard that Jydan had been attacked as well. He'd reached inside for the silver cords binding him with his tayaerra and found them narrow, pale, and limp, stretched thin. It had been almost midnight of the next day before he'd noticed a difference, when they had jerked with agitation, vibrating with life. Blaen had almost cried with relief, but hadn't because he hadn't wanted to alert Rik that something was different.

With each passing day, the cords had thickened and then narrowed as Rik pressed them forward and Jydan worked to catch up. Finally, in the past several days, Blaen somehow knew that Jydan was gaining ground, was close, was going to find him. And tonight ... tonight he felt so close that Blaen thought he could call out and Jydan would answer him.

So now he just had to wait. Wait until dark. That was when Jydan would attack.

*********************************

Jydan had been surprised that Kellessan had heard him sneaking up on her in the forest clearing. He'd been more surprised that she believed him so quickly, that she figured out he knew someone Rik had taken, and that she agreed to help him with very little persuasion on his part. He didn't like to ask for help and had been grudgingly prepared to argue for at least an hour, but that hadn't happened. It was almost as if she had been just waiting for him to come by and ask for her assistance.

Whatever the reason, he wasn't about to question his good fortune.

*********************************

Blaen jerked awake when someone touched his wrists. No! He tried to pull back, thinking Rik had returned sooner than expected, but the grasp didn't release. Realizing the grip on his wrists wasn't cruel, but rather only strong and firm, he looked up ... and found a pair of intense blue eyes set in a female face staring down at him. She whispered some reassurance about her being with Jydan, pointing out the taller man at the other end of the captives. Blaen nodded vaguely, only half aware of the physical world. His suddenly wide-open gift chanted at him, echoing inside his head, drawing him into a whirlwind of lights and a multitude of voices he didn't recognize, but still somehow knew.

She for whom, she for whom, she for whom, she for whom.
She for whom destiny awaits has come. Be released from your binding to the godless one, young dironan.
She for whom will now take up the burden and, at the proper time, will deliver vengeance for blood spilled.
And now, we set you and your tayaerra free.
Give the prophesied protector this message -- It will not be much longer. Continue to prepare.
Live well, Blaendironan of Gurodel.

He nodded in acceptance to the inner voices, his eyes clearing to see the woman still undoing his manacles. He swallowed and whispered, his voice dying off at the end, not knowing who had spoken. "Thank you ..."

The woman raised her eyes, believing him to be speaking to her, and gave him a quick smile. "Kell. And you're welcome."

He returned her smile, rubbing his wrists as the manacles fell away. Kell. She for whom. Yes. I understand now.

*********************************

The fighting was long and hard. Two against too many to count. Only the knowledge that Blaen was still safe and well had kept Jydan from blowing past Kell's restraining hand when Rik had shown up. And somehow it felt right to sit back and watch Kell exchange sword blows with the slaver. It wasn't until Rik nearly had them both killed and Kell somehow made all the slavers fall asleep that Jydan realized that she might be the one from Blaen's vision. Female mercenary, blonde hair, some special mage power, and that sword that almost glows at times. Could it be ... ?

He shoved those thoughts aside as he cleaned his sword and then joined Kell next to Rik's prone, now naked, form. He looked down dispassionately, discovering with surprise that his intense hatred for Rik, although still there, was not nearly as overwhelming as it had felt during the past two weeks. He exchanged a few words with Kell, then turned them both to leave, intending to gather up the horses as they did so.

As Kell was tying the last of the reins together for her six horses, Jydan stepped back over to Rik's body, smirking slightly at the loud snores. He reached into his tunic, pulled something out and dropped it on the man's chest, then turned away, not looking back. It was over.

As Kell and Jydan disappeared into the trees, Rik's chest rose and a slightly battered black silk rose slid down to rest on the sliced clothing remnants.

*********************************

"You are my tayaerra."

Blaen grinned a little foolishly at Jydan's simple remark, knowing that it said everything, that it meant everything. He finally understood that. There was no need for any other words. Just that sentence alone made him feel a little giddy inside. Jydan raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything, just smiled more and shook his head.

After another moment, he gestured toward Kell. "Is that ... ?"

Blaen quieted down, nodding. "Yes, it is. That's her. Have you learned anything about her?"

Jydan pursed his lips. "From her? Not really. She's not the talkative type. From a few others, I've gathered that she is quietly gathering forces to go against Seth, take back Rillanda. She's already got the loyalty of most of the villages and towns on the southern border. Took me forever to convince those I talked to that I didn't want to hurt her, only wanted to ask for her help. She's become some sort of instant mythic legend, I think. Between that and the demonstration of fighting skills she used on the slavers and Rik, I'd say she's got a very good shot at helping Rillanda and its people."

Blaen's next words surprised both of them. "We need to join her."

"What?"

"We need to join her. It's what we're meant to do. Look, we both know you're more comfortable, that we're both more comfortable, in Fariedel than anywhere else. Why not just move there, make that our ... home, instead of Valeria. We could still travel when we felt the need to, but ..." His voice trailed off, watching his partner's face for some sign of what he was thinking. But Jydan had always been the master of revealing nothing, even to his tayaerra at times.

Finally Jydan nodded. "Agreed. We ask, though, not demand. If we're not wanted, I don't want to push it."

"Fair enough." Blaen looked toward Kell again, still somewhat entranced by the glow he could 'see' around her and her sword. "Introduce me to her? We really didn't have the time to get properly acquainted earlier."

*********************************

Blaen looked up from lighting the short, small incense candle as Jydan padded quietly back to join him next to their small fire that was set apart from the rest of the ex-captives. With tired groan, Jydan dropped down to sit next to him and slumped back against the log Blaen had pulled over for a backrest. Blaen shifted sideways to better face Jydan, curling his legs up to his chest. "So, are we secure for the night?"

"Yeah."

The one-word answer told Blaen just how tired his friend was. He glanced down at the candle he'd placed near the fire. He'd hoped to talk to Jydan. But if he was that tired, maybe he should leave it for another time. After all, Jydan had done more in the two weeks before than Blaen had. And having to fight Rik's men on top of those two weeks hadn't helped. In addition, for the last three days, Jydan had been pushing them all to get safely beyond the slaver's reach in case he decided to go after them again. Kell had promised that the sleep spell she left on Rik and his men would last for at least a full day, giving them a good head start, but Jydan hadn't wanted to take any chances.

No, it's too early for this. It can wait. I'll wait. He's tired, needs to sleep. I ...

"What is it, Blaen?"

"Huh?" He met Jydan's partly amused, partly curious eyes. "What? Oh, nothing. Just thinking."

Jydan shifted slightly, sitting forward. "Don't give me that. You're acting like you've got some wonderful idea that you just can't wait to share with me."

Blaen hesitated. "I ..."

Jydan laid a hand on Blaen's arm. "Just don't tell me it's another herbal cure for mid-winter coughs or anything like that."

Laughing softly, the younger man shook his head. "No, nothing ... nothing like that." He shifted position, crossing his legs, then reached out and pulled the candle closer to him, settling it in between he and Jydan. He moved again, wincing slightly. Jydan, of course, caught it.

"You okay?"

He waved it away, smiling sheepishly. "Yeah, just sore. Too much hard and fast horseback riding lately. Nothing that won't go away -- eventually."

His hand tightening on Blaen's arm, Jydan's eyes clouded over and his voice dropped. "I haven't really got the chance to talk to you about that. You said he didn't hurt you, but ..."

Blaen covered the hand on his arm with his own. "I'm fine, really. Just sore ... in that one area and maybe my wrists from the manacles. He threatened a lot, but never did anything. As I said, he wanted me undamaged." He stopped for a moment, then went on, somehow knowing what Jydan's next comment would be. "And I'm sure you're wondering how many nightmares I've inherited from this lovely trip."

Jydan nodded. Blaen shrugged. "Right now when I sleep, I'm too tired to dream I think. So I really can't say for sure. However," he grinned, "I haven't got to tell you this before, but one of the last times I talked to Rik, I told him he had no more control over me, that I had outgrew him. And I believe that's true. So, no more nightmares."

Jydan smiled quietly. "Good for you." He squeezed Blaen's arm once more, then released him to gesture at the candle. "Now, what's with the candle?"

Blaen took a breath and focused most of his attention on the flickering flame as he talked. "During those two weeks, I had a lot of time to think. Sometimes I was scared, for myself and the other captives. Sometimes I was scared about what happened to you. A lot of times I was mad at Rik for forcing himself into my life again. A few times I worried about what would happen if you didn't find me or didn't come for me."

Jydan tried to interrupt, but Blaen held up a hand. "No, wait, let me finish, I knew you wouldn't let me down. It was just, well, I was scared. It was irrational. I never believed you would just give me up to Rik. I knew that. Anyway, that wasn't what I wanted to talk to you about. One thing I thought a lot about was our partnership, our friendship, our tayaerra bond and all the things that have happened to us in the last five years since we've met.

"I tried to think of a way to explain to you what I discovered, since most of it was just feelings and unformed thoughts. This candle was the best I could do. I found it in one of the saddlebags. Actually, it's more the flame that I was thinking of."

Blaen held his hand over the flame, far enough away that he wouldn't get burned, but still close enough to feel the heat. He glanced up at Jydan, glad to see that he still had the mercenary's attention. He smiled at him, then looked back down at the flame.

"I decided that a friendship, our friendship, is like this flame. Particularly a flame in the wind. When a terrible wind blows in, you want to cover the flame, hide it, bury it, so it doesn't blow out. But everyone knows that if you trap a flame in a jar, then the flame will eventually go out. On the other hand, if you leave it totally open to the wind, it might go out as well, all at once. Or it could rage out of control and start a fire that could, unattended, burn down a house, a town, an entire hillside of trees.

"But if you simply shelter the flame, just enough to skim the higher wind away, then the flame, even though it might flicker a little bit, it won't go out. It will light up the darkness, expose the shadows, reveal hidden things, and keep you safe in the night."

He stopped and slowly looked up to meet Jydan's eyes. Jydan was still for several moments, then a slow smile spread across his face and his blue eyes gleamed. "A flame in the wind. I think I understand."

Blaen smiled back, relieved. "Good. I'm glad."

Jydan reached down and picked up the small candle, setting it aside. Blaen blinked, wondering what he was doing, then before he could move, Jydan's arms were around his shoulders and he felt himself being pulled into a strong, warm, gentle embrace. He shifted his legs down, straightening them out, then slid his arms around Jydan's waist, hugging him in return.

He felt Jydan rest his cheek against the top of his head, heard him whisper, "I'll always be here to keep you safe in the night, Blaen."

"I know."

Smiling, he settled more comfortably against Jydan's chest, closing his eyes, letting the peace and safety float over him, knowing and believing finally in the strength of the bond between them. He knew that no matter what happened to them in the future, he would be this man's true friend, family, brother, tayaerra for the rest of eternity.

Sleep snuck up on the pair and wrapped its warm arms around them, bundling them safely together as they descended into a much-needed rest. Beyond them, the flame flickered once, silently snapping up and down as the night breezes whistled through the trees. But it didn't go out, only continued to glow in a soft pool of light.

- The End -


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