Prophecy Story Index || The Sentinel Fan Fan Fiction

Dedication: To Angie, who bid on and won this story in the First Annual The Sentinel Gen Auction to the tune of 125 letters to TPTB on behalf of The Sentinel. She had a choice between a Sentinel story or a Jydan/Blaen Prophecy story, and since she really had no preference as she likes them both, I chose to write this. Angie likes hurt/comfort and lots of caring between the guys, so you'll see plenty of that in this story. Additionally, I've tried to address a few other things that needed to be taken care of in the lives of Jydan and Blaen before returning to the "present" time in Rillanda, and as such, this is an emotional roller coaster ride at times. Thanks for being so patient, Angie, and I hope you enjoy this!

Also, many, many wonderful thanks to my roommate Robyn who beta'ed this beast (and a lovely one it is!) and kept me going on it -- especially when I muttered and grumbled about making her suggested changes, which, of course, once made, bettered the story! This is the first time I've let her read one of my Prophecy stories as I wrote it, and her input was invaluable. Thanks, Robyn!

by Becky
May 1999

Set after 'A Flame in the Wind' and 'Markings and Symbols'.....

"Whoa, easy there." With one hand, Blaen pulled back on the reins of his current horse -- one taken from Rik's band of raiders. He used the other hand to steady the young boy seated in front of him on the saddle, carefully pushing aside the sudden fear rising from the youngster as they stopped. Behind him he heard the rest of their little band of "almost-slaves" on stolen horses come to a stop as well. Glancing over his shoulder reflexively, he took a quick count and found everyone still with them. Turning back, he squinted in the midday sun where it streamed around Jydan and his horse. "Jydan? What is it?"

The older man, facing away from Blaen, shook his head. He straightened a bit in the stirrups, leaning forward. "Not sure. I thought I heard something."

Blaen eyed their surroundings -- jagged hills on either side of them, some sloping upward gently, others rising abruptly to high peaks. Their pathway, a wide valley trail, wound through the hills, sometimes branching off into dead ends. A few gangly trees and thick krishi needle bushes dotted the hillsides, clinging tenaciously to the hard-packed dirt next to the large boulders jutting up through the ground. Southern Gurodel sure isn't much to look at -- probably never will be. I can't believe Jydan and I lived down here nearly a month! He shook his head, returning his gaze to Jydan.

"Are you sure? I mean, there aren't many places anyone could hide around here." He gestured loosely with the reins of his horse, slumping forward a moment, then shifting back again when his chest pressed harder against the young boy's back. Another jolt of the boy's fear ran through him at the contact, abruptly awakening his own fears and memories of the previous weeks. Clamping down on his instant reaction, Blaen took a deep, somewhat shaky breath to resettle himself.

Not now. We don't have the time to deal with it. Just ... be calm, relaxed.

Another breath. In and out. And another. In and out.

Not looking at them, Jydan didn't notice, focused more on the trail and whatever it was he'd heard. The mercenary's frown deepened in response to Blaen's comment. "I know -- that's what worries me. We should be hitting the crossroad that leads north to Xiomaga here pretty soon." Pausing a moment to scan the hills again, Jydan swung his horse around. "Take the lead, Blaen. I'm gonna do a little scouting. I shouldn't be long. Just keep alert."

Blaen nodded, nudging his horse forward a bit, then having to shift to kick outward, deflecting equine teeth from the boy's leg. I'll be glad when I can get Eri back -- this mount just isn't working for me. Too big and too mean. Upon reaching Jydan's side, he touched the other man's arm before he could take off. "Be careful." Please.

Jydan flashed him a quick reassuring smile and laid his own hand on Blaen's for a moment, squeezing his fingers. "Will do. You'll be okay?"

Hearing more than just a question of his physical well-being, Blaen smiled slightly in return, nodding once. "Yeah, I think so." Their eyes met for a moment, exchanging a few unspoken words, then Jydan wheeled his horse around and disappeared around the next corner in the trail. Blaen watched the dust settle for a moment. After being rather unwillingly separated for two weeks, the two of them had stayed within seeing and hearing distance of each other for most of the time. Reaffirming our bond, perhaps? Or maybe Jydan's just still a little worried that Rik might find us. However, now that we're in Southern Gurodel... He rubbed at his forehead, feeling the weariness of the journey weighing down on him again. And not only the journey itself, but our traveling companions. Too much worry and fear in this group. Understandable, but it's getting to be just a bit too much.

And Jydan knows it quite well.

A hand patted his, bringing him back to the present, and he glanced downward to see the boy turning slightly in the saddle to look up at him. "Is he gonna come back?" The young voice quivered, speaking in soft, barely-heard phrases.

Blaen smiled reassuringly, setting aside his frenetic thoughts. Of Jydan's return, there was no question. "Yes, Dustyn, he'll come back. He always does." Shifting in the saddle again, he lifted a hand in the air, turning his head to call back to the rest of the group. "Jydan's gonna scout the area out a bit. He wants us to keep going. We should be safe here, but stay alert." After receiving a ragged chorus of affirmatives, Blaen gestured forward. Moments later, small dust clouds formed as the group continued their journey toward home.


After getting a good ways down the trail, Jydan found a sufficiently ride-able slope and aimed his horse toward it. He didn't want to be away from Blaen and the others too long, but he also needed to get up higher where he would have a better view of the area. Maybe I can figure out what that noise was. His horse, however, didn't seem to agree with his plans, fighting his directions and tossing his head rebelliously. Jydan scowled and muttered under his breath.

"Come on, I know you don't like me, but I don't have time for this. Yah!" He dug his heels in a little harder and finally got the horse moving and heading up the hill. Jydan leaned forward over his mount and patted the horse's neck. "See? This isn't so bad, is it?"

Steering around loose rocks and other slippery spots, Jydan maneuvered them toward the top of the ridge. The horse took the last few feet in a jump to land solidly on the mostly flat, wide plateau. Higher peaks rose around them, but Jydan nodded agreeably to himself. This will do just fine. Deciding to stay mounted and not risk the stolen horse bolting and leaving him stuck on the plateau, Jydan swivelled slowly in the saddle.

He scanned the valley -- rather several valleys -- below him, spotting the narrow strip of water trickling through the peaks to the south, the spotty areas of greenery scattered here and there, along with more gangly trees and krishi needle bushes. Nasty things, that krishi stuff. He rubbed one leg in memory of accidentally falling into one -- a very unpleasant experience. Coming down the trail just to the west of him, he spotted Blaen and their merry little band of travelers just as they rounded the corner. Jydan resisted the urge to wave, not seeing his friend looking at him, but then Blaen looked up directly at him for a few moments before returning his attention to the boy sitting in front of him.

Jydan blinked and shook his head, a slight smile curling his lips. One of these days, I'm gonna have to ask him how he always knows where I am. Some sort of dironan thing, no doubt. He shifted slightly and continued to scan his surroundings. Hills, rocks, dirt, a few shallow caves carved into the hills, more rocks. Not much of anything. Certainly nothing that could cause the noise he'd heard. Still... To the east, he could see the point where the Damaris foothills finally descended completely into the valley that lead toward Xiomaga. Good. We should reach the crossroads by this evening. I do not want to spend another night in these hills. Caves are not my thing. He looked back at Blaen, spotting him easily. And having this crowd of people with us so constantly is definitely not good for Blaen.

Rocks skittered down the slope behind him and he stiffened. There it is again! He turned his horse slowly, absently patting his mount's neck as the stallion pranced nervously underneath him. Nudging the stallion forward, they slowly approached the other side of the plateau, where a clump of krishi needle bushes grew outwards and upwards, clinging to the side of the adjoining hill. Jydan quietly pulled his sword from the sheath on his back in preparation, his other hand tightening on the reins, ready for anything.

Just as he reached the edges of the bushes, the noise stopped for a moment, then started again, getting louder. That doesn't sound like a person. Sounds more like ... an animal ... something with hooves.... His eyes widened as a head popped around the bushes. Two very wide, deeply-set cobalt blue eyes dominated his first sight of the animal. Those were followed closely by the two long, curling white horns that rose above the eyes, sprouting out of the light tan and white mottled fur which blended almost perfectly into the background. His horse pranced fractiously backwards as the other animal emerged from behind the bushes, followed by three more of its kind, two of which were young and still wobbly, staring at the unfamiliar sight of Jydan and his horse. Similar to the more common deer, but with a few very important differences. One of which was the fact that each long delicate leg ended in a silver-colored hoof.

Jydan just stared for a moment, surprised at seeing the very rare, almost-gone krishelle. Prized for hooves, horns, and fur, the remaining herds had retreated to the Damaris range, hiding among the caves and the krishi needle bushes. The krishelle were the only creatures that could be in or near the bushes without getting hurt. Their thick hide prevented the sharp needles from doing any damage. Thus the similar names.

Smiling to himself at the small family of animals, he wished Blaen could be here to see them. He was, after all, the one who had told Jydan all about them. Two seconds later, he realized that where one family of krishelle lived... Carefully resheathing his sword, he turned slowly, scanning the hills, finally seeing the other krishelle scattered on the hills, half-hidden in the bushes and in the shadows of shallow caves, watching him and his small group of travelers as they passed. There's a whole herd out here! Shaking his head a little, he looked back at the intently staring animal in front of him -- the proud buck, eyes oddly intelligent.

He whispered, "Don't worry, you're safe. No one but my tayaerra will hear of you. Go now. Back to doing ... whatever krishelle do." Chuckling softly, he turned and rode slowly away, heading toward the hill that would bring him back to the trail.

Jydan had seen all he needed to and was satisfied they were in no danger. Time to rejoin Blaen on their trip home.


Hearing Jydan's voice as he and two other men re-entered the camp, Blaen glanced up briefly from where he sat at Dustyn's side next to one of the campfires. Jydan met his eyes and nodded once, not stopping in his conversation with the two men. Must be secure for the night. Blaen nodded back and returned his attention to the boy. "So you'll be all right for the night, okay?"

The boy nodded, flashing him a tired grin. "Yeah. How much longer do we have to go?"

Blaen tugged the blanket up around the boy's neck a little more snugly. "Only a day or so, I think. We're doing pretty good. I bet you can't wait to see your parents."

Dustyn paused a moment, swallowing, then he said, "Yeah. I miss 'em. Do you think they're okay? I mean, Rik didn't hurt them or nothing, did he? I saw one of them, the slavers, one of them pushed my mom down and hit my dad. My mom was crying."

Wanting to reassure the boy, Blaen laid his hand on Dustyn's cheek, saying quietly, "I'm sure they're okay, Dustyn. And I know they'll be so happy to see you. Just go to sleep now, okay?"

Letting his eyelids close, Dustyn whispered, "Okay. Night, Blaen."

"Night, Dustyn." He left his hand on Dustyn's cheek for a moment, then pulled it back, but remained seated for a bit, watching, wanting the boy to know he was safe as he drifted off. Most of those in the group had been older teenagers and a few Blaen's age. Dustyn, at only just 13, was the youngest and smallest of the group Rik had kidnapped. Remembering very well what it felt like to be alone at such a young age, Blaen had immediately taken to looking after him during their time with Rik. And doing so did give me someone else to worry about other than myself...

Looking across the way, he saw Jydan crouching before their own little fire, feeding more wood to the flames. Blaen gave one last look at the peacefully sleeping Dustyn, then clambered to his feet. He stretched a bit to relieve the tense muscles in his legs and back from riding horseback for so many days. Oh, man, I need a break. He wove his way through the maze of sleeping mats and plopped down next to Jydan on the hard ground. A gentle wind whistled past them, blowing from the mountains they had just left. Sparse trees dotted the landscape around them, casting eerie shadows by the light of the moon above them.

Jydan poked one last time at the fire, then settled onto the ground, moving back a little so he was even with Blaen. "You're taking first watch tonight."

Blaen nodded. "Okay. Who's after me?"

"Ilaro, then Rutanal. They know who's after them."

They fell silent, both staring at the flames of the fire, listening to the night noises and the muffled voices as the rest of their traveling companions settled down for the night. Blaen fiddled with his cloak, drawing it closer over his shoulders, holding it closed against the slight chill in the air.

Jydan spoke up quietly. "Dustyn doing okay?"

"Him? Oh, yeah, he's fine. A little scared. And maybe worried about his parents. But he's pretty strong." Blaen tilted his head up to look at Jydan. "We sorta kept each other sane during those few weeks with Rik."

Jydan raised an eyebrow, looking past Blaen to Dustyn's sleeping form, then back. "Is that so."

"Yeah. He's a good kid. And smart. He figured out pretty quickly that Rik had a thing about me. He talked to me when we were riding -- we rode on the same horse most of the time." Blaen paused, moving his hand over the dirt under his legs. "And he was the least...confusing for me to be with. The others, their emotions were stronger. With Dustyn, I just sorta latched on and focused on him. Kept me from losing it completely." He stared into the distance for a long moment, then looked back at Jydan, shrugging. "Which was tempting more than once if only to get away from Rik."

Jydan shifted a hand to rest it on Blaen's back. "I'm glad you didn't. Lose it, that is." He smiled gently.

Blaen returned the smile. "You would've found me. You did find me."

"Hmm...true. But still...."

Silence fell again between them, broken when Jydan yawned and rubbed a hand over his face. Blaen shook his head and nudged at Jydan's side. "Go to sleep, Jydan, before you fall over or something. I know you've got to be exhausted. Especially after fighting with that ridiculous horse all day."

Jydan snorted and rolled his eyes. "That horse. I know it's probably been mistreated by the slavers, but I just cannot get it to work with me. Definitely gonna be trading it in for a mercenary guild horse once we hit Xiomaga." He shifted to roll out his sleeping mat, pulling off his sword and sheath to lay next to him. Settling down, a blanket drawn up to his waist, Jydan rolled to his side and looked at Blaen. "Did I tell you I was quite jealous of Kellessan's horse?"

"Tavi?" Blaen leaned back against the log, pulling his quarterstaff closer to him. "No, you didn't. But even if you were, it wouldn't have made any difference. That horse..." He squinted, looking into his memories. "Well, it was like he was born just for Kellessan. And no one else."

"Somehow, I think I believe you." The mercenary paused a moment, then said quietly, "Oh, before I forget, I, uh, saw some krishelle today when I was looking around."

Blaen stared at him, eyes widening as he whispered, "Krishelle? Really? Wow! I haven't seen one in years!" He turned his head to stare at the Damaris Range. "I thought maybe they were all gone finally." Blaen swivelled back to look intently at Jydan, scooting a bit closer to him. "What did it do?"

"Do?" Jydan pursed his lips. "It, uh, he, I guess since it was a buck, was hiding with its mate and two younglings in a big bunch of that krishi needle stuff. They popped out and just sorta stared at me. When I looked around, I realized there were a bunch of them in the hills, watching us. The noise I'd been hearing? It was them, probably breaking pebbles and dirt clods lose when they moved, keeping hidden from us as we passed them."

"It was a herd?" Blaen's voice dropped even softer. "A whole herd? Safe?"

Jydan nodded. "Yeah, I think so. I wanted to tell you earlier since I knew you would've liked to have seen them, but I didn't want to take the chance that word would get back that they were out here."

Blaen nodded absently. "Oh, I understand. The hunters would storm out here and kill them all off. Maybe another time we can come back through..." His voice trailed off, eyes lost in thought and memories. Krishelle. Wow. I'd always hoped they weren't all gone. I'm glad they're not. After what they did...


"Huh?" Blaen blinked and looked back down at Jydan who was smiling rather fondly and amusedly at him.

"You ever gonna tell me what it is with you and krishelle? I mean, I'd like to know. Unless this is some sort of state secret or something." He offset his words with a grin. Blaen laughed softly, but didn't answer other than to shake his head. Smile fading a little, Jydan reached out and touched Blaen's arm. "If you want to tell me, that is."

The younger man looked over at him. "You just want a bedtime story." Ignoring Jydan's mock glare, Blaen shifted a little and stared off into the fire. "It happened a long time ago. I was only maybe 4 or 5, I think. Really small. We lived somewhere to the south of the Damaris Range." He gestured toward the hills. "It was springtime. And quiet for a bit. No wars or anything. Or maybe I was just too young to pay them much attention. Anyway, I wandered away from my older siblings one afternoon, following some bright blue flying insect toward the mountains."

Jydan chuckled. "Sounds like you. Getting distracted by the pretty colors."

Blaen rolled his eyes and went on, "Before I realized it, I didn't know where I was. And didn't know which way to go to find home. I think I started to run or something and I fell into some little creek of water and got totally soaked." He looked down at his hands, rubbing the fingers of one hand over the palm of the other. "I hurt my hands, scraped them on some rocks or something. I probably skinned my knee too. But I don't remember really. I do remember sitting up, sniffling, looking at my hands, wondering if anyone would find me. Then something crunched next to me and I looked up to see this huge animal with two giant horns and silver hooves and big blue eyes staring at me."

Jydan guessed, "A krishelle?"

Nodding, Blaen smiled again. "Yeah, a krishelle. A huge buck. I didn't know what to do. I'd never seen one before. Never heard of one. Another one appeared. One without horns -- the buck's mate, I think. They nuzzled each other, almost like they were talking to each other, then the doe came over to me and lipped my cheek." He laughed softly, touching his cheek. "It tickled. I laughed. She did it again, then nudged me to get up, which I did finally. Then she started to nudge me toward the trees. I thought she wanted me to leave and I started to cry, saying I didn't know where I was and I didn't know where my home was. I remember hugging her. Their looks so tough and it is, but it's so thick and warm feeling. I remember curling my fingers into it while she nuzzled my shoulder."

"Sounds like you made an instant friend. And here I thought krishelle were always pretty wild."

"Oh, they are. Very, very skittish. Avoid people and most other animals pretty much all the time. Very clannish type of animal."

Jydan frowned. "I don't understand."

Blaen turned to meet Jydan's eyes, a small grin on his face. "You were the impatient type as a child, weren't you, Jydan? Probably didn't like long bedtime stories."


"All right, all right. Anyway, the doe led me back to my village, where my mother was extremely frantic, my rather distraught siblings were scouring the town and surrounding forest, and my father had started to gather a search party. Someone, I don't know who, saw me standing just near the trees with the krishelle, one of my hands clenched firmly in the animal's coat. In full sight of everyone, the doe lowered her head and nuzzled my cheek again, which got me to release her, and then she vanished into the trees." He chuckled. "Funny -- I had sorta hoped to keep her as a pet."

"A pet krishelle, now there's a thought."

Blaen shrugged. "I never had a pet. I wanted one. We just never got around to getting one. Anyway, after that, I was the talk of the village for a month or so. Krishelle never associate with people, not even children, and definitely don't let anyone get close enough to actually touch them. That I did and that the krishelle touched me back...well, it kinda threw everyone for a loop. I think they all took it as some kind of sign that I was different. It wasn't until my dironan capabilities really kicked in years later that I understood that I truly was different. That what had happened with the krishelle then, and a few other times when I happened to find them, was part of my abilities -- a natural affinity with animals, especially the wilder ones, like krishelle. They just know they can trust me and I won't hurt them at all. I can sorta...communicate with them. It's kinda hard to explain."

Jydan cocked his head. "Is that why Shadow liked you so fast?"

"Uh, yeah, actually, it is." Blaen grinned. "That and I always managed to sneak him sugar cubes when you weren't looking. He had a major sweet tooth, you know."

"Warhorses do not have a sweet tooth." Jydan tried to glare at his unrepentant-looking friend.

Grinning, Blaen answered, "Maybe not, but Shadow sure did. All that bluster and tough warhorse image was just a façade."

Jydan snorted and laughed, then rolled over to his other side, facing away from Blaen. "I'm going to sleep now, Blaen. Have fun on your hour of watch."

"You mean, no more bedtime story?"


"Yeah, yeah, I know. Shut up, kid." He laughed quietly.

"Good night, Blaen."

"Night, Jydan." Quieting and still smiling, Blaen pulled himself up to sit on top of the log, holding his cloak around him, staff laying across his knees as he watched and listened to the night noises. Soft snores and muffled breathing sounds were the only accompaniment to the few nightbirds, the occasional cricket, and the wind softly whistling through the trees.

His hour passed quickly, easily, as he watched and thought back to his first encounter with the krishelle and the few ones he had later -- one just after his dironan abilities became active and one after his family was killed when he'd left the campsite of the eastern-heading caravan he was traveling with to cry alone at night in mourning. Always letting me touch them. Always comforting me. Giving me courage to go on. Sort of like Jydan. He smiled over at his sleeping partner, wondering what the older man would think of being compared with an animal. Smothering a chuckle, Blaen shook his head. Not!

After waking his replacement, Blaen laid down behind Jydan on his own sleeping mat, yanking the rough blanket up over his shoulders, feeling the chill from the ground seep up into him. I can't wait to get Eri back and all my packs I know I left with him. I want my shaliata. Sometime right after he and Jydan had become tayaerra and after they'd finally got back to Eirena, Jydan had given him a specially made, uniquely Eirenan insulating blanket which Jydan had called a shaliata. It kept him much, much warmer than anything else he'd ever had.

Well, warmer except for Jydan, that is. I swear he just radiates heat sometimes.

Inching closer to his partner's back, Blaen closed his eyes and breathed out slowly, looking for the vision of warmth that would let him sleep. Next to him, in his sleep, still on his side, Jydan scooted backwards, responding to his tayaerra's chill and offering that elusive warmth. Blaen smiled and moved closer himself. Forehead and hands pressed to Jydan's back, he drifted off, letting sleep and long-ago dreams of krishelle claim him.


Two long days later, Jydan finally led the weary group of freed captives past the wide, lazily guarded city gates of Xiomaga at midday. You would think after an attack by Rik they would learn, but... He shook his head. Not his problem. He just wanted to drop the captives off, gather up Eri for Blaen, a different horse for himself, get some supplies and get out of Gurodel just as fast as they could. No matter what Blaen had told him a few nights ago about his little vision when Kell had released him from his shackles, that he was free of Rik forever, Jydan knew that Rik would be on his way after them as soon as he woke up. The mercenary could feel him approaching like a summer thunderstorm, riding fast and hard and angry in their direction.

He glanced at his tayaerra as the younger man drew up even with him. Blaen can feel the same thing -- he's been a little distracted ever since we woke up this morning. Or rather when I woke up -- I think he'd been awake for an hour at least before that. I wondered if he decided he was over Rik a little too soon. Shaking his head, he set those thoughts aside for the moment. Plenty of time later for dealing with demons of the past -- and present -- for both of them.

Within a few minutes of their arrival, word spread that those whom Rik had kidnapped had returned. Parents and families and sweethearts reclaimed and rejoiced over the young people. Jydan nodded benignly at the thanks given him as he slowly dismounted. Next to him, Blaen followed suit, landing hard on the hard-packed dirt road. Jydan caught the brief wince that crossed his friend's face. The mercenary frowned but didn't say anything, knowing that most likely Blaen was just very sore from the riding. They all were.

Blaen reached up to help the boy that had been riding with him, but the boy suddenly looked in the opposite direction, face lighting up. He slid off the horse's back, stumbling as he fell into the dirt, but not even noticing as he ran toward the outstretched arms of a man and woman -- his parents, Jydan assumed. Good. Looks like he'll be fine then. He stepped closer to Blaen and laid one hand on the young man's shoulder.

"You doing okay here, Blaen?" He had to lean down a little to make sure his friend heard him among the hubbub of noise and voices.

Leaning partially into the horse, one hand still grasping the reins, Blaen nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Just a little tired. Tired of riding. Tired of..." He waved his other hand around weakly, taking in the crowds of people, the rising noise, the dust, the general chaos of the moment.

Jydan squeezed the thin shoulder beneath his fingers, a little concerned at the minute vibrations he could feel. His guide was much more tired than it appeared. Swallowing a few choice words he wanted to direct at Rik for making them do this, he said, "No argument here." He paused, then slowly went on. "We have to keep going, Blaen, I'm sorry for that." The man wanted nothing more than to find a nice inn with two soft beds where they could sleep for an entire day. But the mercenary wanted to know they could sleep without worry of being found by Rik.

Blaen sighed and turned to face him, looking up at him, squinting a little in the sun. "I know. But at least we'll be out the road, just the two of us. That'll be something." He smiled, the prospect of the quiet of just the two of them lighting up his weary eyes. "So let's get Eri and some supplies and get back out on the road before I sit somewhere and can't get back up again."

"Yes, sir." The older man chuckled, shifting his hand from Blaen's shoulder to tug of the loose hair hanging around Blaen's neck. Both men had decided it was safer to hide the two earrings once they reached Xiomaga and rather than remove them, Blaen had simply shaken his hair free from its ponytail some ways outside the city.

Moving his hand to rest on Blaen's back, Jydan started them in the direction of the mercenary guild, their two horses trailing along behind them. The other horses Jydan left with the rescued captives. These two he would use to exchange for a better horse to use until they got to Malinde and he could get a new warhorse to replace Shadowrose.

One step at a time, Jydan. First, let's just work on getting out of Gurodel in safety.


Another day and a half of riding, once again with Blaen on Eri and Jydan on a mercenary guild-trained horse, brought the two men within one more full day's ride to the Shionanian border. Feeling safe for the moment, Jydan declared they would rest for the night in a clearing surrounded by trees and a small river drifting just past the greenery and down a small sloped hill. The sun set in the distance, hovering like some great ball of orange flame just above the mountains to the west, only just beginning its descent past the high peaks.

Blaen gratefully slid off Eri's back and tossed the reins over a nearby tree branch before stumbling over to land clumsily on the ground, lying half draped over a conveniently placed log. "I think I'll just stay here for a while. I am so sore."

Jydan laughed softly as he dismounted a little more gracefully than his young friend. "I don't think you want to stay there too long, kid, you'll probably get stuck in that position."

"You had to remind me, didn't you?" A muffled groan wafted up toward him from the ground, along with a pebble thrown half-heartedly toward him.

Shaking his head in quiet amusement, Jydan quickly unsaddled both horses. Normally Blaen would take care of Eri, but Jydan knew the younger man was still pretty sore from his time spent with Rik. Our mad ride back down here and away from Rik isn't helping him get any better either. Once we're safely into Shionan, then we'll stop for a while, rest up. Have a healer look at that marking.

His jaw tightened in memory of that black double-edged axe so cruelly burned onto Blaen's shoulder. Much against Blaen's will, Jydan made the younger man let him check it every night, making sure it didn't get infected or anything like that. He'd seen it happen before, usually leading to a pretty nasty sickness. But so far, it seemed fine. Jydan didn't know if there was a way to remove such a marking or not, but he wanted to find out. He'd told Blaen to think of the marking as a mark of survival, but he'd found he didn't like it anymore than Blaen did. So if they could find a way to get rid of it...

Having tended the horses with food and water, Jydan settled on the log, reaching down with one hand to pull back the loose hair covering Blaen's face. "Hey, you..."

Blaen opened one blue eye and looked up at him. "Hey yourself. Thanks for taking care of the horses. I should've helped you." He shifted, moving himself up to a sitting position, biting down on a groan. "But I'm just so tired. I just want to sleep." Pausing, he wrinkled his nose and touched his hair tentatively. "And maybe a bath."

Jydan grinned, patting his friend on the shoulder. "The river's right down there." He pointed beyond the trees. "Probably a little on the cold side, but if you can handle that..."

The younger man chewed on his lip for a moment, then looked down at himself, plucking at his shirt. "A bath, even if it is a cold one. Clean clothes. Clean hair. Oh, yeah."

Jydan nodded and stood up. "Good. You go ahead. I'm gonna grab some wood, start a fire, then I'll join you. I think both of us will feel better after getting clean."

Blaen stared up at him. "I can help you find wood."

Lowering his hand to grab Blaen's, Jydan pulled him to his feet, steadying him as he tottered for a moment. "No, no, it's okay. I can handle it. Go, go!" He made shooing motions. "You can scout out our bathing facilities, maybe find some soaproot or something. Take one of your blankets, the oldest one -- we are fresh out of towels today." Blaen just blinked at him, a smile curling up the edges of his open mouth. Jydan laughed and gave him a gentle push. "Well, what are you waiting for?"

After another moment, Blaen finally shook his head, eyes sparkling with humor, and jogged past Jydan toward the river, finding some hidden energy, only barely remembering to stop and snatch a blanket from his pack as he left the clearing.

Puttering around their campsite for a minute, clearing away the excess brush, Jydan waited, listening, wanting to know Blaen would be all right before he started looking for firewood. After a bit, he heard a huge splash followed almost immediately Blaen's whoop of shock at the coldness of the water. He laughed again, his tense shoulders relaxing a bit, worry dissipating some. Kids these days...


Getting used to cold water all at once is highly overrated!

Blaen shivered as a breeze blew across the water, reminding him again that his hair was quite soaked. Okay, the sooner you get clean, the sooner you can get out and get warm and dry again. Sinking down a little in the shallow water near the shore, Blaen scanned the plants along the edges of the shoreline. Finally spotting what he needed beneath the overhang of several willowy trees, he waded quickly down the shoreline, shivering again when what little warmth he still had vanished as he entered the shade. Snatching several clumps of the yellow soaproot, he turned back and made his way to the large flat rock where he'd piled his clothes and extra blanket to be used a towel before he'd dived into the river.

Okay, now we're set. Hair first.

Standing waist-high in the water, humming tunelessly under his breath, Blaen cautiously opened himself a little, focusing on the calming sound of the water rippling over rocks, the songs of birds as they perched in trees overhead, the rustle of leaves as the evening wind blew through them. He still felt tired, both inside and out, from the travel, the people, the constant need to keep his inner barriers up, but this was a step in the right direction. Closing his eyes, pausing for a moment before he started washing his hair, Blaen took a breath and reached for his bond with Jydan, wanting to feel it, to see the silver light flash past his vision. In mere moments, he could see the cords stretching between himself and Jydan shimmer into being behind his closed eyelids. They vibrated softly, glowing with life, with peace, and with some residual gentle concern for his tayaerra. Blaen smiled a little, Jydan's concern for him warming him as it always did.

Sighing softly, he returned his attention to washing his hair, sinking down in the chilly water to wet the mass of curls again. The sun was setting more and he wanted to be out of here before too long. He pondered momentarily what was taking Jydan so long, but then the scent of cooking drifted toward him, carried on the wind. Ah, he must've caught something. Good, I'm starved.

Two washes and rinses later, Blaen dunked himself once more in the water, rinsing off any residual soaproot suds from his now wonderfully clean hair. Then, using a smallish rag for a soapcloth, he started to scrub himself down, feeling immeasurably better as the dirt and sweat of the last few days began to stream away from him. He ran the cloth over one shoulder, then the other...


Wincing, he splashed more cold water on the abruptly sore spot on his shoulder where Rik's black mark glared balefully at him. Still a little tender, the soaproot and cloth together on it had not felt good. He held a hand over the mark, feeling the heat rising in contrast to the chilly water. When the pain finally receded, he moved his hand and looked down at the black double-edged axe that mocked him every time he saw it, whether purposefully or accidentally.

I wish I could just scrub this thing off or something. Blaen ran the cloth over the mark more gently, wincing only a little as the soaproot stung just a bit. Mark of survival. The young man snorted. It's still a mark of ownership, of slavery, no matter what Jydan tried to tell me. He scrubbed the cloth over the mark again, pressing down harder, ignoring the pain it caused. How am I supposed to go through life with this thing on me? What am I gonna tell the woman I marry about it? What am I gonna tell any children? Oh, yeah, Daddy let himself be kidnapped several times by the same man. And the last time, at the oh-so-mature age of 24, he let himself be branded. Marked as a slave.

"Yeah, that'll be great, Blaen." Voice cracking and body shaking with emotion, he didn't notice his thoughts spilling out into the air, breaking the peacefulness of the river scene. "Why don't you just announce it to the whole country while you're at it!"

Suddenly angry at Rik, at himself, at the black mark on his skin, Blaen rewet the cloth, soaping it up, and viciously scrubbed at the mark again, gritting his teeth, not feeling the hot tears that spilled from his eyes. Nor did he see the blood that began to seep from the edges of the mark, mixing with the soap, turning the suds a pale pink. Behind him, the sun sank further into the distant horizon, spilling light across the water. Vivid oranges and reds glistened in the ripples that spread out from the young man standing in the river, oblivious to nature's painting.

"I don't want it on me! I don't want anyone to know! I don't want to remember!"


Satisfied that the stew would do fine on its own simmering above the campfire, as well as the pot of water he'd just set to boil for hot drinks -- maybe some of the herb tea stuff Blaen likes so much -- Jydan snagged an extra blanket from his pack, one that had definitely seen better days. I can see we need to do some supply restocking once we get into Shionan. Another set of clothes for each of us and a few linens. I'll just have to hope what I've got saved in the Guild system is enough. Tossing the blanket over his shoulder, he straightened, turning toward the river, looking forward to feeling clean himself.

Before he could move, a shiver ran up his spine. He frowned, narrowing his eyes and looking around slowly, wary of danger. Both horses stood quietly at the edge of the clearing, neither responding to any overt warning. Granted, the mercenary horse wasn't Shadowrose, but the Guild's horses were still trained and bred to notice things that didn't feel right. And Eri...Jydan had chosen the horse for his guide, not even knowing it would be Blaen at the time, because of the mount's intelligence.

So what is it? What feels...wrong?

Another shiver tickled between his shoulder blades and he frowned harder. Maybe I should get Blaen back here where I can keep an eye on him...just in case... A moment later, he heard his tayaerra's voice rise above the soft sounds of the river and the wind rustling the trees. He couldn't understand the words, but the ragged tone was definitely upset.

Eyes widening in worry, he grabbed his sword from where he'd laid it near his sleeping mat and quickly jogged from the clearing, around the corner, and down the short slope to the shore of the river. His eyes immediately latched onto Blaen's form, his right side to Jydan, standing in the waist-deep water, head tilted down and away from Jydan, wet hair hanging around his face, his body shaking slightly from the slight chill in the air. Several feet away, just on the shoreline, Jydan spotted a flat rock, decorated with a pile of clothing and a pair of boots, Blaen's, and the thin blanket. He didn't see anyone or anything else.

Well, then what...?

Blaen's voice rang out again, tone laced with anger and hurt and pain and fear and tears and self-hatred.

"Off! Get off! I don't want to remember! I don't want to see it anymore!"

It was only then that Jydan noticed Blaen diligently and roughly scrubbing at his shoulder -- his left shoulder -- the one with Rik's marking on it.

Stifling several curses, Jydan dropped the sword and blanket on the shore and splashed into the water fully-clothed, boots and all. Stopping in front of his friend, he grabbed onto Blaen's right hand, stopping the scrubbing movement, horrified to see the blood welling up around the black mark. Dropping the small cloth in the water, the young man fought against him, trying to get away, tears running down his face, his whole body shuddering and shivering.

"No! Leave me alone! I want to get rid of it! Please! Let me go!"

Jydan gritted his teeth and pulled the smaller man toward him, shifting his grip to Blaen's arm and tightening his hold. He threw his other arm around Blaen's waist, drawing the young man into a firm hug, holding him still.

"Blaen! It's me. It's Jydan! Calm down. It's okay. Come on, now." He tried to keep his own feelings calming and at peace, knowing that Blaen, especially in his current state, would pick up on his worry and fear quite easily and react to it. "It's okay. Just calm down."

For several moments, his tayaerra continued to struggle, trying to push himself away, but then his right hand shifted and gripped Jydan's shirt instead, fingers clenching tightly into the fabric. His left arm hung at his side, red and pink lines winding their way down the skin to diffuse into the river water. Blaen sank further into Jydan's arms, pressing into him, shivering in the cool air. Jydan rubbed one hand on Blaen's back, making large circles on the wet, bare skin. He tilted his head downward, speaking into the wet hair beneath his chin.

"Sh, sh, it's all right."

Blaen shook his head, face buried in Jydan's shirt, choked sobs breaking his voice. "No...never be...all right...never."

Knowing that Blaen wasn't really listening to him right then, Jydan turned them toward the shore, gently, slowly. "Come on, let's get you out of the water and into some dry clothes, okay?"

Blaen didn't argue, but didn't move either. Jydan waited a moment, then sighed and carefully nudged his friend forward, supporting him with his hands and soft, comforting words, hoping to break through whatever had caused the sudden desire to scrub half the skin off his shoulder.

You should've known, Jydan. You should've known! It was too easy to just tell him it was a mark of survival and then expect him to just...get over it. You should've seen this coming.

Shaking his head slightly, Jydan shoved those thoughts aside for another time. He helped Blaen stand on the sandy shoreline and quickly wrapped both blankets around his shivering form -- one around his waist, the other over his shoulders. The sight of the new wound, red with blood, made Jydan shiver himself. Part of him noted rather clinically that the shiver could be because he was soaked, but another part, a deeper part or him, disagreed. Snatching up his sword with one hand, he wrapped his other arm around Blaen's back, tucking his swaying friend into his side. He'd come back for Blaen's clothes later, after he got his friend warm and dry -- and his wound cared for.

"I've got a fire going back at the campsite. And a good stew simmering away. By time you're dressed, it should be ready."

Face hidden behind the wet, loose hair, Blaen only nodded briefly in response, the only sounds being a few sobs of pain -- both emotional and physical. Holding him just a bit closer to his side, Jydan carefully steered them up the short slope, around the corner, avoiding rocks and trees, and into their campsite.

Jydan led Blaen over to the sleeping mats he'd placed next to the crackling fire. He dropped his sheathed sword next to the mat, then stopped, a frown forming on his face. Now how am I supposed to unroll it and keep Blaen standing at the same time? He hesitated, chewing at his lower lip in thought. Coming to a decision, he tilted his head down a little, asking, "Can you stand here for a moment?"

Shivering under the two blankets, his right hand shaking where it clutched the blanket draped over his shoulders, holding it closed, Blaen nodded silently. Gently, slowly, Jydan pulled his arm away from around Blaen's waist. Seeing that the young man wasn't going to topple over, even if he did sway a little at the removal of support, Jydan took several steps away toward the fire. Crouching, he hastily untied the nearest mat -- Blaen's -- and snapped it out to lay flat over the hard ground as near to the fire as he dared. He dragged the saddlebags closer, knowing he would need them for both warm, dry clothes and something to tend the bleeding wound on Blaen's shoulder.

Jydan tossed a few more logs on the fire, removed the simmering stew to sit at the side of the firepit, then stood back up again, nodding in satisfaction. He returning to Blaen's side and drew him toward the mat. "We're just gonna sit you down here next to the fire, okay?"

Blaen nodded passively, allowing himself to be moved wherever, folding his legs underneath him as he sat down, blanket still draped over his shoulders. Jydan paused a moment, pondering their situation, trying to decide how to best go about getting both himself and his tayaerra dry and warm, and tend to Blaen's injury.

Injury first, then we get dry and warm and eat. And talk. One thing at a time, however.

Jydan stared down at himself, at his wet and dripping clothes and very sodden boots, then at the sleeping mat, already damp from absorbing the water draining off Blaen's hair and body. Grimacing at the prospect of having to hang dry half of what they owned, the mercenary yanked off his boots and propped them up next to the fire to hopefully dry out at least partially by morning. Then he lowered himself to the mat, sitting cross-legged at Blaen's side, facing him.

The young man continued to shiver, his right hand gripping the blanket at his shoulders, his left hand lying limp in his lap, eyes fixed on the fire. Jydan inched closer and touched his back. "Blaen?"

No reply.

More than a little concerned, Jydan shifted his hand up to cup the back of Blaen's head. He gently encouraged the young man to turn his head a little, himself leaning further inward, toward him. "Blaen? Look at me? Please?"

Finally, slowly, Blaen looked up at him with large, liquid blue, watery eyes. He swallowed hard, then whispered, "I was wrong, wasn't I, Jydan?"

"Wrong about what?" He kept his voice soft, with no urgency, even as part of him screamed to tend Blaen's injury, to get them dry. Somehow he knew this was more important.

"I'm never gonna be 'over' Rik, am I? He'll always be here -- haunting me -- scaring me. He made sure of that with this mark of his!" Blaen squeezed his eyes shut and released the blanket to make a fist, pounding that fist into his leg. "It'll never be okay again! Never! I can't--" His voice cracked, a sob breaking out.

Jydan captured Blaen's hand, stopping the punishment, then pulled Blaen toward him, encouraging the young man to lean into his chest. "No. That's not true. It'll be okay."

"No...won't...not ever."

"Blaen..." Jydan's heart and voice broke at the pain and hurting he could hear in his tayaerra's voice. He's part of me. I should feel the pain with him. Whatever happens to him, happens to me. He only wished he knew what to do or what to say to the disconsolate young man. But he didn't. Not right then at least. Not when Blaen wasn't truly listening.

If I can't heal the inner, then I should at least tend to the outer. For now.

He gently pushed Blaen back up, releasing Blaen's hand to stroke the dark, wet hair away from his face. Jydan let his hand rest there, on his cheek, knowing the calming and familiar touch would help the dironan regain his balance. "Why don't I have a look at your shoulder and then we can get you dressed in some warm, dry, clean clothes. Hmm?" He stroked his thumb along Blaen's cheek, wiping away the wetness -- tears or river water, he wasn't sure. And it didn't truly matter. His tayaerra was in pain -- both physically and emotionally -- and every instinct within Jydan called for him to stop that pain.

Blaen stared at him, shivering under his light touch, not saying anything. Then, slowly, he nodded. "Okay."

Jydan smiled softly at him. "Okay." He released Blaen and turned to one side to haul his saddlebag closer. Digging into his supplies, he pulled out a roll of wide bandaging, two small soft cloths, plus some medicinal salve he'd picked up at the Guild in Xiomaga. Always be prepared. He shook his head once -- this wasn't what I had in mind when I got this stuff. But at least I've got it now that I do need it...

Before shifting around again to face Blaen, Jydan carefully pulled the pot of hot water from the edge of the firepit as well. It wasn't boiling yet, so it wouldn't be too hot. Setting it to one side, he dipped one of the cloths into the water carefully. Turning once again to look at Blaen, he found the young man watching him, dark blue eyes still wide and lost-looking. He reached out with his free hand and gently lowered the blanket from Blaen's left shoulder, stifling a gasp at the angry red skin and dark blood that met his eyes. Blaen shivered at the newly exposed bare, still wet skin, but kept looking straight ahead, not looking down at the wound itself. Jydan looked up again to meet Blaen's eyes.

"This is probably gonna hurt some, Blaen. I'm sorry."

The young man closed his eyes, swallowing. "I know. S'okay. what you need to." He shivered again and the mercenary determined to get this done just as quickly and painlessly as possible -- then get his cold friend bundled up in the warmest things Jydan could dig from their packs.

Softly as he could, Jydan dabbed at the injury, cleaning away the blood around the injury, detouring downwards to pick up the streaks running from Blaen's shoulder to his hand in a few quick strokes. A few muffled moans slipped from between Blaen's lips, but he didn't move. Jydan pressed his own lips together, hating to have to cause his friend more pain, but knowing at the same time he had to do this. After finishing with that, he grabbed the small jar of salve. With two gentle fingers, he slathered the new injury with medicinal salve, hoping the Guild Healer was correct in its quick numbing qualities as well as its infection-preventing ones. He made a mental note to always keep some of the salve on hand as Blaen relaxed next to him, breathing out in a soft sigh of relief.

Lastly, Jydan took up the roll of bandaging. And paused again, considering. This wasn't an arm wound he could just simply wrap. This required some creative thinking. He inched himself closer until Blaen's hip rested against Jydan's crossed ankles, then carefully lifted Blaen's left arm and drew it up over his shoulders. "Can you hold your arm there for me? So I can get this wrapped around you?"

Blaen nodded and grasped Jydan's opposite shoulder, curling his fingers into the wet tunic as he watched Jydan finger the bandaging. "What're you doing?"

"Trying to figure out how best to do this." He looked from Blaen to the bandaging and back again, then sighed. "I think we're gonna have to wrap this across your chest as well as up from this side." Stretching out his arm, he pushed the blanket off Blaen's other shoulder, letting it puddle behind the young man in a mostly-wet heap. "Okay, hold this here for me." He pressed the second, smaller cloth onto the still slightly bleeding injury, covering it and the hated black mark completely.

Blaen obediently held the small square in place as Jydan began to wrap the bandaging under Blaen's left arm and over his shoulder several times, securing the pad in place. Then Blaen held his right arm away from his side as Jydan switched to going across Blaen's chest with the bandaging and under his right arm and back over his left shoulder again a few times before finishing up with a last few wraps around his left shoulder. Jydan sliced the bandaging off, then fixed it in place with a small closing pin.

"There. That should hold. At least until a healer can have a look at it." Laying a hand on Blaen's leg, Jydan smiled and looked up at Blaen, catching a quick glimpse of panic racing across his eyes at the mention of someone else seeing the mark. But before he could say anything, Blaen just nodded.

"Yeah, it should. Thanks." The young man's eyes slid away, and Jydan fought down a surge of fear and worry. He realized some of what he felt leaked through regardless of his efforts as a hard shudder ran through Blaen's body before he seemed to...pull inward. Jydan took a deep breath, steadying himself. Not now. He's too vulnerable. Clothes. Concentrate on that.

Jydan patted Blaen's leg through the damp blanket, saying, "Now I think we need to work on getting dressed in something a whole lot more drier and warmer than what we've got on." Without waiting for an answer, he turned back to the saddlebags and started digging around, intent on finding warm, clean clothes for his tayaerra.


Several minutes later found them both dressed in dry clothes. After settling Blaen, blanket wrapped over his shoulders for the extra warmth, on the other sleeping mat, Jydan set about hanging the damp blankets, his wet clothes, and Blaen's sleeping mat on the trees surrounding the small clearing. Casting a glance at the young man where he sat in front of the fire, eyes blank and staring, Jydan decided to make a very quick trip down to the river to collect Blaen's clothes and boots. He returned to the campsite out of the darkness a few moments later, before Blaen, deep in his memories, even realized he'd been gone. Night had fallen around them, leaving them only the scattered stars, a half-moon, and the campfire flames for light.

Dropping Blaen's clothes and boots next to his saddlebags, Jydan stood, eyeing his friend across those flames. He seems so ... broken ... lost ... fragile. I have to wonder... His heart clenched within him. What did Rik do to you, Blaen? What happened? Jydan pursed his lips together and walked across the campsite to the two horses, checking them over once more before he settled down for the night. Eri snuffled at him, pressing his nose into Jydan's hand when the man stroked down his head.

Jydan leaned in toward Eri, whispering, "I know, boy, I know. I'm trying to help him." Eri blew out an affirmative sounding noise and Jydan had to smile.

Finding everything secure for the night, Jydan returned to the campfire and sat next to Blaen on the mat, stretching out his legs as he leaned back against the log on his friend's right side. He watched Blaen for a few moments, sharp eyes catching the occasional shiver in the young man's frame. Lifting a hand, he reached for Blaen's back, intending to ease them slowly into discussing what had happened ... both just recently in the river and in the not-so-distant past with Rik.

"Rik wanted to keep me for himself, you know."

At the whispered words, Jydan froze, his hand just hovering above Blaen's back. He opened his mouth to say something, but hesitated, not knowing what he should say. Not noticing, the young man continued.

"The mark -- it's more than just a mark of 'approval'. He said he needed a way to make sure I knew who I belonged to, to make sure everyone else knew as well. So that if I was ever sold or lost or even dead, I would always be returned to him. Like some kind of ownership tag you stick on a pet." His voice remained quiet, a touch of bitterness only creeping in at the end.

Jydan winced and sat forward so he was even with Blaen, resting his hand on Blaen's back, softly rubbing. "I'm sorry."

Blaen shook his head, his eyes fixed on the ground in front of the fire. "I told him I had never belonged to him, that nothing he could do would change that. And he--" His voice broke. "He laughed at me. Just laughed!" The shivering grew stronger, though Jydan knew it was more from memories than cold. He pulled himself closer, stretching out his arm out to wrap it around Blaen's shoulders, careful to keep his fingers away from the newly-aggravated and bandaged injury.

"I remember--he used--I could feel--it hurt!" Blaen sobbed, bringing his hands up to cover his face. "I can't--don't--"

Jydan gently tugged his tayaerra toward him, turning him in his arms, gently pressing Blaen's head to rest against his shoulder, wrapping the smaller man warmly -- safely -- within his arms and the blanket. Blaen's fingers curled themselves into his heavy overtunic, holding on as he shook and cried softly, his tears running down Jydan's neck as his broken words and memories finally poured out, giving the older man a very vivid picture of what happened to the young dironan....

Shortly after Rik captured Blaen...

Blaen's eyes flew open when the horse stopped beneath him, leaving him temporarily confused and lost-feeling. Memory returned quickly, unpleasantly, in one word -- Rik. Shaking the half-doze away that he'd fallen into in the last few hours of hard riding, he scanned the darkness surrounding him, wondering where they were and how late it was -- and if he could get away somehow.

And go where? No boots. No staff. No horse. You wouldn't get very far.

He stared at his hands where they rested on the pommel of the hard saddle, tied together snugly with a rough piece of rope. Against his back, he felt the other captive, a young boy, shift slightly in his sleep, waking slowly. In front of them were three other horses, all with two captives tied to them. Behind them were additional horses and their human cargo. Spread in and amongst them were Rik's men, guarding them both from them escaping and from any trail bandits stupid enough to attack Rik's group.

A spike of fear that wasn't his own alerted him to the fact that the boy pressed to his back had fully awakened. He fought it away, shoving it aside and down like he'd been doing for the past several hours -- and would continue to do as long as he could. At least the boy he could deal with. For the first part of the ride, Rik had kept Blaen with him, in front of him, on his horse. His skin crawled in remembrance and he shuddered anew at the dark, black emotions his dironan talent had picked up all too easily. Panic had nearly overtaken him as soon as Rik had touched him. Only some focused breathing and thoughts of Jydan coming after him had kept him partially sane.

Discovering a bit later that his bond with Jydan was nearly non-existent had almost lost him that small control.

Blaen swallowed hard, instinctively reaching again for those silver cords, finding them still limp and unresponsive. Jydan! He bit back a sob. Please be okay! Please!

"We'll camp here for the night." The familiar harsh voice echoed back to him, jarring him rudely from his thoughts. "Bring the dironan to me."

Blaen barely had time to register the words before two unwelcome heavy hands reached up and dragged him off the horse. He landed on his knees on the dirt trail with a thud and a bit-off exclamation of pain. One of those hands wrapped itself tightly around his upper arm and yanked him back up to his feet.

"Let's go."

Gritting his teeth, Blaen stumbled along beside the big raider, trying to keep up with the long-legged pace. His legs and feet ached with the sudden weight of walking again after riding for so long; all the muscles prickled and tingled, sending up sharp pains with every step. He kept his head down, focusing on the uneven ground beneath his feet, sparsely lit by the torch perimeter being established by Rik's men. Not having boots wasn't helping him much and he winced when a particularly pointy rock jabbed at his sock-covered instep.

He didn't realize how far they'd walked until his handler jerked him to a stop. Looking up in surprise, he found himself nearly face to face with Rik in the center campsite. A tent was being raised at one side; a large fire circled by large stones already burned hotly behind the big man. Another man stood next to the fire, poking something into the hot coals.

Rik grasped his chin in one large hand, pressing his fingers into the skin. "You haven't changed much in the years since we last met, my boy. Fortunately for you."

Blaen didn't say anything, just met Rik's eyes boldly, ignoring that little voice inside his head screaming at Rik's touch. He kept his inner thoughts focused on those silver cords -- narrow and unresponsive as they were, they were still connected to something, somewhere, which meant Jydan was still alive. And that there was still hope. Jydan would come. He always did. Until then he just had to hold on and look for ways to get away on his own.

Rik's fingers dug in a little harder, shaking him back to reality. " listening to me, boy?"

Reacting to the painful pressure, Blaen jerked his head away, trying to step back, but only bumping into the other man at his back. "I am not a boy! And before you say it, I am most definitely not yours." Rik laughed, amusement written on his heavy features, his malevolent grin speaking of the fruitlessness of Blaen's words and actions.

"Still got that spunk." He looked past Blaen to the man holding him. "Sit him down in front of the fire. I want to get this done before it gets too late. He needs to be able to ride tomorrow." Rik turned and strode toward the large fire, joining the other man, reaching out for the long object the second man held.

Blaen stumbled again as the man behind him shoved him forward. "What's going on?" He resisted being moved after a few steps, feeling off-balance with his hands tied in front of him. His captor simply knocked one foot out from underneath him and lazily caught him, settling him with a hard thump on the ground.

Rik watched dispassionately from the side of the fire. "Prepare him."

Two hands reached for his shirt. Rough fingers curled under the collar, touching the sensitive skin below. Reacting without thought, Blaen kicked out from his seated position, catching the other man on his shin. "No!" He brought up his hands, clenching them into fists, striking hard at the chest in front of him, then shifted them upwards to catch the man under his chin, clacking his teeth together loudly. "Get away from me!" He kicked again, slipping backwards in the dirt slightly, smacking his back into the large stone resting behind him. Shifting his weight to push himself upwards, he missed Rik's quick movement away from the fire and toward him.

Abruptly he found himself in the air, feet dangling above the ground. He gasped and struggled as Rik held him up by two massive handfuls of his tunic. Rik shook him hard, snapping his head back and forth. Snarling low in his throat, Rik spoke sharply, face only inches away from Blaen's, his breath hot on his skin.

"Enough! You will do as I say. You are mine."

Blaen spat at him. "I was never yours."

Rik dropped Blaen back to his feet, removing one hand to wipe his sleeve over his face, cold eyes still fixed on Blaen's face. He took Blaen's chin in hand again. "We'll fix that shortly." He shot a quick glance over his shoulder. "Is it ready?"


"Good. Bring it to me." Rik turned back and released Blaen's chin, descending to his tunic, ripping the left shoulder seam, shoving the two halves away, exposing the skin to the cool night air.

Blaen tried to push himself away again, fighting to remove himself from the sweaty hands that touched his skin. Abruptly, he again found himself eye to eye with Rik. However, this time his feet remained on the ground and Rik loomed over him, blocking out everything else.

"You forget, Blaendironan, I know what you are. I know what you can do. And I know how to hurt you."

Blaen stared wide-eyed at Rik, nearly forgetting to breathe as dark and evil feelings and thoughts slithered over him, slinking into the cracks of his barriers, pushing past his stubborn but weary resistance. Rik's green eyes and the darkness that lay behind them became his whole world. A choked whimper of pain and loss and hurt and terror and fear rose in his throat, responding to everything he felt -- every threat, every intention, every thought, every single thing Rik had planned for him.

No, no, no, no, no....

Even as part of him cried and ran away to cower in the hidden corners of his mind, he fought to stay present. There would be no Jydan to pull him out, to help him this time. And he knew -- especially now -- that he couldn't afford to block everything out and stay that way. Not knowing what he knew. Not with Rik there. The blackness rolled over him again, blowing past his wavering barriers like broken shafts of wheat.

Jydan! His soul shuddered, curling inward. Where are you?

The silver cords twitched slightly but nothing else. His inner vision began to fade, the silver cords fading with it. No! Jydan! He struggled and managed to keep the cords in sight, knowing if he lost sight of them...he wouldn't have anything that could help him.

Sweaty hands touching his shoulder, smoothing the skin softly, brought him back to himself. He moaned, flinching at the contact, but couldn't do anything else. The other hand released his tunic, going up to pat his face. A low unpleasant chuckle floated somewhere above him.

"There we go. Good boy."

He slitted open his eyes, remembering closing them only vaguely. His body refused to respond to any commands and so he could only lay there, half-aware, watching as Rik knelt at his side. I'm on the ground again. A hard rock pressing into his leg only added evidence to that conclusion. His eyes slid over Rik, then saw the long object he held in one hand.

Blaen frowned, squinting, trying to see what it more clearly. Long, black, one end had some kind of design stuck on it. That end also smoked and glowed red hot. It was in the fire. Oh.

"Hold him. He'll probably struggle."

The object came nearer and as he began to feel the approaching heat, he suddenly knew what it was. No, no, no... A weak, muffled plea broke from his lips and he shifted again, trying to move, not managing more than a small wiggle.

"Hold him!"

The hot brand touched his skin below the collarbone on his shoulder, sizzling at the contact, gray smoke rising to his face. Pain and burning rose with it, shattering his composure, destroying the last remnants of his inner barriers, exposing him to more than physical hurt. The darkness of Rik and his men fell upon him from all sides, their weight multiplied by the fear of their captives.

Blaen screamed, hearing the vague echo of malevolent laughter before he fell...fell...fell into blessed unconsciousness.


Just as pain sent him away into darkness, pain welcomed him back as he struggled back toward life again. Blaen groaned, rolling slightly, only to cry out when he put weight on his left shoulder. He let himself fall onto his back again, raising one hand to touch his shoulder, hissing when his fingers encountered hot, sensitive skin.

Ow, ow, ow, ow, this hurts! What happened?

Eyes squeezed closed tightly, breathing hard through his nose, he murmured plaintively, "Jydan?" When he didn't receive an answer, he began to worry. Shifting, he sent out his hand, reaching, hoping to encounter his sleeping friend next to him.

Instead, his fingers slid along the smooth texture of his coverings. Silk, his mind thoughtfully identified for him. Silk? A moment later, his eyes flew open. Tent walls surrounded him. Sitting up, ignoring his shoulder as it protested the movement. He glanced down at himself, seeing with astonishment the heavy silk sheet and blankets puddled at his waist -- and the fact that he didn't have a shirt on.

Gasping, he looked around, swallowing hard, trying to get his bearings, trying to remem...oh, no, Rik! He shifted slightly, moving to sit against the center pole of the tent. Something tugged at his ankle and he moved the blankets to see a length of heavy chain and a manacle attached to his ankle. Grimacing, he pulled his legs up to his chest, relieved to see his trousers had been left with him -- on him. He stared at the bare tent walls, seeing the morning sunlight beyond them, hearing a few voices.

Blaen raised his hand again, touching his shoulder lightly, wincing a little at the contact. Looking down at the hot, irritated skin, he saw the outline of a double-edged ax now prominently branded in his shoulder. Rik's words about "fixing" the ownership dilemma flitted in and out of his mind.

He whispered, "I guess this means I'm supposed to belong to Rik now."

Closing his eyes, he leaned his head against the center pole, drawing the blankets up to his neck, a chill touching him that had nothing to do with the early morning. With his inner eyes, he peeked at the silver cords -- they were still limp, not responding to any of Blaen's pleas. Jydan...please.... Someone shouted outside, their voice sharp with anger, and Blaen flinched at the tone, the flinch echoed in the sharp, burning pain of his shoulder.

Pulling the blankets up, he draped them over his bare back like a cloak, biting his lip at the memory of Jydan doing the same thing for him in comfort so many times in the past few years. He rested his forehead on his knees, feeling the tug of the chain again. Submission to Rik wasn't an option. But then neither was escape -- Rik would be watching him too closely; Rik, who had beaten him with a handful of words and some well-aimed feelings at his tired, and obviously woefully unprepared, barriers. Blaen snorted in self-derision, hating himself for the weakness and the admission.

In the meantime all he could do was wait -- in faith -- for Jydan to come after him. Wait and repair his inner injuries and be ready to fight with his own words and feelings next time. Next time. He shivered, curling down a bit, hiding behind his battered inner barriers.

Please hurry, Jydan.


Awareness came slowly, pushing inward past the fuzziness and heaviness that hung at the edges of his mind. Oh, man... His head hurt, his throat ached, he was exhausted, and some part of him shouted at him in pain. What happened? Jydan? No one answered him and Blaen wondered vaguely if he'd even managed to speak aloud. Probably not. Trying -- and failing -- to open his eyes, he concentrated on just trying to figure out where he was. Beginning to slowly feel himself, his surroundings, the hard ground under one shoulder, he shifted slightly. Then froze. Something held him still, held him firmly, not letting him move at all.

What? Jydan?

He moved again, this time awakening the searing pain in his other shoulder, which then jarred a jumble of memories and half-forgotten dreams. Blaen flinched back, a low murmur spilling from his lips, his inner barriers wavering, weakening.

"Blaen? You awake?" The soft, familiar voice came from beside him, floating down from just above his head. A warm hand ghosted over his cheek, accompanied by gentle waves of concern and family washing over him, settling his panic instantly. Blaen realized slowly that his hands lay trapped between his chest and another person -- Jydan, his mind whispered -- his fingers loosely gripping a tunic. The hand on his face stroked back loose curls before stretching over to rest on his back again, splaying widely against tense muscles, rubbing gently.

"It's okay, Blaen. You're safe here. Rik can't hurt you."

Rik. He stiffened and he heard another murmur -- from him -- in reaction to the name. I feel

"...stupid." The word slipped out in a half-slurred voice, and Jydan immediately responded to it, moving his hand to touch Blaen's cheek again.

"No, Blaen, it's not stupid. You're not stupid." A pause, then, "You sure you're awake in there? You still haven't opened your eyes."

I haven't? Oh. Slowly, feeling the weight of his eyelids fighting him, Blaen opened his eyes, blinking a few times as he realized it was morning. Filtered sunlight drifted downward to dance in beams and crosshatch patterns in the air. He shifted his eyes upward and found himself looking into the light blue eyes of his tayaerra, worry and care filling their depths.

Jydan smiled softly and kept his voice quiet. "Hey, there, sleepyhead." He stroked back loose hair again, resting his fingers on Blaen's forehead a moment. "Thought maybe you decided to sleep the day away."

"Might do it anyway. Feel so tired." Releasing his hold on Jydan's tunic, Blaen shifted one hand to his own face, rubbing at his eyes, wincing a little as the movement jarred the fresh wound -- a wound you gave yourself, Blaen, so live with it.

"It still hurts, doesn't it." A hand touched his bandaged shoulder lightly, two fingers resting over the hidden mark, before drifting further down to settle on his upper arm.

Blaen kept his eyes on Jydan's chest, fingers worrying at a fold of cloth. "I...yeah, it does. I'll be okay, though. It'll heal."

Jydan didn't say anything for a moment, but his fingers continued to rub his arm in a soothing pattern. "And what about inside, Blaen? Will you heal inside as well?" He stopped and swallowed. Hard. Blaen could hear the thickness in the older man's voice and throat, could feel the compassion and solicitude flowing through their bond.

The need to know, to see, to understand, pulled his eyes upwards even as he tried to find an answer for that question. "I..." Jydan's blue eyes shone with worry and sorrow as they searched his, looking for that answer that Blaen knew he needed to hear. Blinking a few times, he saw with startling clearness the silver cords that bound him and Jydan together glowing softly, hovering around him, caressing him with tingling energy. They waited, shifting in unseen and unfelt breezes for the invitation to surge forward and wrap him strongly in bonds of protection and healing.

<<Accept and be healed, young dironan. Accept the gift from your tayaerra, you who are destined to be companion to this soul for eternity, and the bonding, after the time of test and trial, will be complete. You have only to stretch forth your hand and all will be yours. All will be healed. The choice awaits you.>>

Blaen blinked again, the echoing voice fading away, the words vanishing, leaving only a vague memory of 'choice' behind. Jydan still watched him, a small frown forming on his face as he waited for Blaen's answer.

"Blaen? You okay?"

"I--Will I heal inside?" His fingers tightened on Jydan's tunic. "I think so. I can still remember so much right now. I can still feel ... him ... the burning ... the pain ... everything. I know--" Blaen paused, swallowing, feeling a shiver run through his body, feeling the responding shiver in Jydan's frame, seeing the quiver in the bond. "I know before I said no nightmares. I think--I don't know. We've been moving so fast--"

"--that you don't really know. I understand, Blaen. It's okay." Jydan rubbed Blaen's arm, trying to calm him.

Blaen shook his head sharply. "No, it's not okay! I don't want to feel this way!" I don't want to be so scared all the time. I want it all to be gone. I want my life back. He squeezed his eyes shut and whispered, "But I don't know how to make it go away. I don't know how to make it better. I can be all okay one moment and then it will all just hit me. So fast. Like last night. It--" Glancing up, he met Jydan's eyes as his voice dropped lower. "The memories, they ... hurt and they ... frighten me ... a little ... sometimes." He forced himself to not look away, both wanting and not wanting to see Jydan's reaction.

A moment of silence passed between them, then Jydan pulled him gently to him, wrapping his arms around the younger man carefully, holding Blaen's head to his chest. Where words failed, the simple embrace spoke for a multitude of feelings for the mercenary. Blaen resisted a moment, then melted against Jydan's frame, letting himself be held, be rocked softly, be calmed. Closing his eyes, he listened to the steady thump of his tayaerra's heart and simply absorbed the soothing presence of his protector.

Accepting his tayaerra's gift of his presence, his caring. And letting the healing begin within him.

Drifting in a tired haze, Blaen felt utterly safe and secure. Soft murmurs floated above him; the words meant nothing to him, only the comforting tone that accompanied them. He didn't know how much time had passed when the words began to sound clearer, the voice taking on an inquisitive nature.



Jydan chuckled softly. "You doing okay, kid?"

Blaen pried heavy eyelids open and blinked, finding himself on his back with Jydan leaning up on one arm over him. Wetting his lips, Blaen managed a few words. "Yeah. Jus' tired." He paused to close his eyes, then opened them again. "An' 'm not a kid."

Another soft laugh and a hand ruffling the curls on top of his head. "Whatever you say." Jydan went on after a moment, his voice growing serious. "Do you think you'll be okay by yourself for a few minutes? I'd like to go take a quick dip in the river."

Blaen nodded once, his mouth lifting on one side, eyes at half-mast. "Yeah. Go. You nee' it."

Jydan paused in the act of shifting to stand up, snorting in bemusement. "Are you telling me I smell?"

"I didn' say that." His eyes slid shut again. "I'll be fine. Go. Eri'll watch me." He drifted off toward a half-sleep to the sound of Jydan's mutterings about a Blaen-sitting horse and about feeling vaguely insulted with the implication that he smelled. Too sleepy to laugh out loud, the dironan satisfied himself with a tired smile and an inward laugh. He listened as Jydan puttered around the campsite for a few moments, hearing him start up the small campfire again. Then familiar hands gently added something to the weight to the blankets already on top of him, tucking it in softly. A brief touch on his head, then Jydan strode away toward the river.

Blaen fumbled one hand out from under the warm blankets to feel along the top, too tired to pry his eyes open to simply look and fulfill his curiosity. The heavy weave of a cloak met his wandering fingers. And then he touched a familiar solid pin -- the Crouched Panther family crest he had given Jydan when they'd first become tayaerra. Although it had been meant as a collar pin, two years ago Jydan had taken it to a jeweler and had it altered to work as a cloak pin -- so he could wear it prominently and proudly.

His hand retreating under the blankets to touch the Three Dolphins pin affixed to his collar, Blaen smiled. Different crests, different countries, but still one family. Warmth filling him, silver light surrounding him, Blaen finally let himself fall back into sleep's waiting embrace.


Clad only in clean trousers, Jydan settled down on the wide flat rock, using the small blanket in one hand to scrub at his wet hair. Warm late morning sun fell around him, heating the rock's surface and him. Ahhh. Clean again. Much better. He shivered once. Gotta be the coldest way to do that, but effective anyway. The soaproot Blaen had used the night before had been easy to spot and always worked so much nicer than the harsh lye soap bars sold in city markets.

After smoothing the blanket over his hair one last time, Jydan tossed it aside, reaching for shirt that rested behind him, folded neatly. He shook it out but didn't put it on when his eyes caught on a drying reddish spot on a large white stone half-buried in the dirt. Blaen. He glanced back to the campsite, wishing the river was closer, that he could see or hear his friend. Somehow he knew that Blaen was okay, still mostly dozing, but he didn't always trust his feelings. Especially not after something like last night.

He shook his head. That's over now. He's okay. He's healing. Finally. Maybe not all at once, but at least he's started to. Things will get better now. Memories of Blaen crying, clutching at him, gripping his tunic, words and a horrible story pouring from his lips, hit him. His own eyes filled, just by remembering the raw pain in his tayaerra's voice. Pain he hadn't known about. Pain he had no real way to relate to, to understand. Pain he wanted more than anything to take away.

Thoughts of finding Rik and fighting him, hurting him...killing him...rose up. There were moments Jydan couldn't believe he'd just stood by and let Kellessan fight for him. And then just walked away afterwards, leaving Rik in his disgraced naked state, unconscious, but still alive.

Blaen said we had been released. That we were free from Rik. That his death belongs to Kellessan in the proper time -- and that proper time has not yet come. Jydan's jaw clenched. If only it were that easy, my friend. You can't forget what he did to you. I can't forget either. And yet, for both of us to heal, we have to learn to put it behind us and to just ... move on. He stared down at his shirt, fingering the cloth for a moment, then pulled it on quickly, settling it around his shoulders. For you, Blaen, I can do anything. Even if that means forgoing the revenge I want against Rik.

Jydan scrubbed the sand from his feet, then rolled on a pair of thick socks before pulling on his boots. He stood and stamped down a few times, then gathered up his blanket and the pot of water he filled earlier. As he walked back toward camp, he pondered what route to take back up to Eirena after they made it to Shionan and restocked on supplies.

If we take Mischa'ana Passage from Ashanaran to the Eirenan border, we'll go through a lot of the smaller towns, and we should be safer on it than the less traveled routes. And from there... He paused a moment, standing at the edge of the campsite, considering the three main roadways that led in and through Eirena. The K'Aleroon Coastal Road would be the fastest and easiest. But it could also mean going through E'Teirene City. He grimaced at that prospect -- though the City was nice enough and posed no threat, Jydan still avoided it if possible. Roeland lived there and Jydan had no wish to bump into the man. Maybe we can take a small detour. Havaeloa Trail cuts off from K'Aleroon and circles around; not as pleasant a ride, but still manageable.

Shaking his head, he continued into the campsite toward the low-burning fire to deposit the pot on the flames to heat up. Remaining crouched for a moment and warming his hands, Jydan looked across the firepit to the lump of blankets on the other side. While he could only really see the top of Blaen's head, dark curls peeking out, he could tell that his partner was still pretty much asleep, face tucked down and buried under the blankets and his own black cloak.

Still exhausted from last night. Poor kid. He smothered a chuckle when he remembered Blaen's slurred protesting words a bit earlier about not being a kid. Well, he is 24. Maybe he's not such a kid anymore. Jydan stood, stretching his back muscles. Then again, I'm still 11 years older than him. Nope, you're still a kid, Blaen. Sorry.

Deciding to let his partner remain asleep for a little while longer, Jydan quietly tended to the horses, then packed up most of their things, gathering up the stiff, wind-dried clothes from the branches he'd draped them on the night before. Then, settling himself down on a log across the fire from Blaen, he pulled together a late breakfast for the two of them from the supplies in their saddlebags. Definitely need to get more foodstuffs. He paused in the midst of making coffee, going over everything they needed. Might have to take a job in Ashanaran to pay for some of this. Something that will lead in the direction we need to go.


Jydan glanced up over the flames and saw the lump of blankets moving. "Blaen?"

A hand appeared, slowly shoving down the blankets, fingers curling over Jydan's cloak pin. "Do I smell what I think I'm smelling?"

Grinning, Jydan said, "I don't know. Depends what you think you're smelling. Are you really awake this time?"

Blankets moved down to his waist, Blaen brought one hand up to rub at his eyes. "Oh, man, I still feel so tired."

"Maybe if you eat something." Jydan quickly dished up a serving of dark worsa beans, placing a hunk of bread on the side. Standing, he stepped around the fire and crouched at Blaen's side, helping the younger man sit up. "Here. The coffee's not quite ready yet, but why don't you get started on this."

Blaen nodded gratefully and took the plate. Jydan started to stand, but Blaen touched his arm with his other hand. "Jydan..."

The older man paused. "Yeah?"

"I..." Blaen's voice cracked and he tried again. "I just wanted to...thank you for last...for what you did. I know you're probably gonna tell me it isn't necessary, but I still want you to know...." He paused again, looking away, unconsciously rubbing his thumb on Jydan's arm.

"Blaen?" Jydan covered Blaen's hand with his, wondering, but not pushing.

"I want you to know how much it meant to me, that you...that you wanted to know and that you...listened...." Blaen looked up again, his dark blue eyes wide and soft. "And that I'm glad you're my friend. My tayaerra."

Jydan smiled and shifted his hand up to touch Blaen's cheek. "Me too, kid."

The moment stilled and stretched for a time, then Blaen's stomach growled, breaking the spell. Both men chuckled and Jydan rose to return to his seat on the other side of the fire. As he reached for the coffeepot, Blaen spoke up again, a sudden indignation in his voice.

"And I'm not a kid!"


Blaen nodded and smiled at the guard at the wide city gates as he and Jydan rode through and entered Ashanaran. Something inside him settled, calmed. Crossing the border into Shionan from Gurodel days earlier had been one step; actually arriving in Ashanaran, well...he felt more relaxed than he had in the past several weeks. Or maybe longer. Going straight from the nasty fighting at Nat's to dealing with Rik probably hasn't helped either of us. Blaen shook his head. Nat's. That seems like so long ago. So much has happened.

Ahead of him, Jydan pulled his horse to a stop. Blaen kneed Eri forward a bit. "What is it?"

"Hmm?" Jydan glanced over to him. "Oh, nothing. Just...thinking. Trying to decide what to do first. We need to go by the Guild and restock on supplies. And I think I'd like to stay the night, maybe catch some real sleep for once."

"And maybe some real food," Blaen added.

Jydan chuckled. "Yes, some real food. Definitely something hot and sinfully thick and rich."

Eyes closing in anticipation, Blaen sighed. "Oh, yeah."

"After all, we both know how hard Barika has been working to fatten you for her unmarried cousin."

Blaen's eyes snapped open and he huffed out, "Barika's cousin?!? Are you kidding? She doesn't care if I'm fat -- she just likes to pinch me. A lot!"

Laughing, Jydan just shook his head, sidling his mount away when Blaen swung a hand at him. "C'mon, partner. Sooner we get to the Guild House and get business taken care of, sooner we can eat. I'm in the mood for some of Barika's roasted papalel stew."

Glaring balefully at Jydan's back, Blaen nudged Eri after him, following him down the semi-crowded street, avoiding other horses and various carts, plus a few children dashing around him. Barika's cousin indeed. That woman... He shuddered. Horrid thought.

Loud voices, dust clouds, laughter, the echoes of horses' hooves on the half-dirt, half-cobblestone roadway -- it all spun around him in a melange of color and light, the familiarity relaxing him even further. In some ways, he still saw Ashanaran as a home, a safe place, a refuge. And because of that, being in the hustle and bustle of the city seemed to bother him less.

Kneeing Eri forward again to catch up to Jydan, he pointed a finger warningly at Jydan when the older man turned to grin at him. "If you even try to foist me off on Barika's sticky-fingered cousin, I'll...I'll...I don't know what I'll do, but it won't be pretty."

Jydan chuckled again, shaking his head as he turned to look forward to navigate. He gestured for them to turn at the next intersection of roads. "Knowing you and your rather devious mind, my friend, I'll take that under serious advisement."

"Hmph. See that you do."


The Mercenary Guild House in Ashanaran sat two streets over from the prestigious university and just a stone's throw away from the general marketplace. Jydan always found it mildly amusing that the Guild Houses in Shionan tended to be well-known, quite firmly established, and in public places. Most times in other countries, they were hidden and moved every couple years. Not so in Shionan. Nope, it's more like 'Here we are. We're open and honest. Come by and sit a spell.' Shaking his head, he dismounted at the front of the large two-story House, immediately handing the reins of his horse to a stableboy. "He's mercenary-trained. Be cautious."

The boy nodded quickly and led the stallion away. Another stableboy took his place as Blaen dismounted. He took Eri's reins and followed the first, both disappearing into the rougher building attached to the main House. Pulling his eyes from the two boys, Blaen looked up at Jydan and gestured with his quarterstaff. "We going in?"

Jydan nodded. "Yup. Come on." With a hand on Blaen's back, Jydan ushered him inside.


Long ago having decided to let Jydan handle all the money and contract side of their partnership, Blaen left Jydan at the long counter with the Guild clerk. Using his staff as more of a walking stick, he wandered around the large front lobby of the House aimlessly. Bulletin boards adorned most of the walls, festooned with sometimes barely legible notices for mercenary jobs, mostly tracking or security for caravans. A few for finding lost goods. I wonder what Jydan will decide to take. I know we're running short on funds and we're gonna need the money if we're gonna get him a new horse to replace Shadow.

A pang of regret stung him. He missed that stallion as well and half-thought that Shadow couldn't be replaced. He protected me. Saved me. Blaen touched his upper left arm, remembering the knife wound that hadn't even had time to heal before Rik had taken him again. Guess it's no surprise this arm is always so sore lately. Two injuries to it one month. Definitely not a good thing.

Something heavy and strong dropped onto his right shoulder, gripping it tightly. "I know that mass of curly hair anywhere," a low, deep voice boomed out, echoing slightly. He was spun around and then promptly engulfed by two thickly muscled arms, face pressed and smothered against a broad chest. His quarterstaff fell to the floor with a clatter. Feet lifted from the ground and breath whooshing out of him, Blaen could only pat weakly at the man's sides.!

"Rolf! What have I told you about suffocating my partner?" Jydan's muffled voice came as welcome music.

The arms loosened immediately and Blaen rocked back on his feet, gasping in a deep breath, steadying himself on Rolf's arms. "Nice to....see you, too....Rolf." He looked up the big man -- taller than Jydan by several inches, twice as wide, light brown eyes in a tanned face, topped by chopped-off crewcut of blonde hair. Tattoos and markings patterned his exposed arms. "Been awhile."

Rolf broke out into a huge grin, a bark of loud laughter emitting from his mouth. Blaen grinned in response. He never could quite figure out why Rolf had taken a liking to him, but he had been glad the huge mercenary was his friend and not an enemy. Not known for his friendliness, it had startled most of Guild when news spread that Rolf, one of the meanest -- and shadiest -- mercenaries around had decided Jydan's little Gurodellan friend was worthy of being in the Guild. And it wasn't that the man was big and stupid. He was extraordinarily clever; his wit was sharp and pointed, leaving Blaen wincing with sympathy on occasion.

Blaen jerked back to himself with a gasp when Rolf clamped a meaty hand on his left shoulder and squeezing hard. "Yes, it.... What is it?" He removed his hand quickly, eyes narrowing with concern at Blaen's abruptly pale face and Jydan's tightened lips. "What's happened?"

Jydan circled around to Blaen's side and gently rubbed a hand on his friend's back. "Rik happened."

"Rik? Rikondja Slavemaster?" Rolf scowled in distaste. "Bleh. That man is a waste of skin."

Jydan grunted in agreement. "You'll get no argument here." He looked up at Rolf. "I want to get Blaen to a Guild Healer. Who's the best around here?"

Rolf pursed his lips, pondering, eyes fixed on Blaen whose own eyes were still tightly closed, his right hand closed protectively over his left shoulder. "Hmm... Probably Shonaré. He's the head Healer right now. Personally visits the Council when he's needed."

"If he's good enough for the Council, then I'm sure he'll do." Jydan snatched Blaen's staff from the ground, then wrapped his arm around Blaen's back again. "Where is he?" He started to move toward the door, guiding his partner.

Eyes snapping open, Blaen held out an arm, stopping him. "No, Jydan, wait. You need to finish here first. We need--"

"We need to have you looked at." Jydan tried to move forward again, aware of Rolf's curious and somewhat amused gaze as he watched them.

"No." Blaen shook his head, standing his ground and refusing to move. "No. I'm fine. I can wait. Do what we need here first. I'll just sit right over there," he pointed at a cluster of wooden chairs arranged haphazardly around an inside open firepit in a smaller room set off to the side. "I can catch up with Rolf."

Rolf didn't say anything, just looked at Jydan, who looked at Blaen. Another moment passed, then Jydan sighed. "Fine. If that's what you want to do."

"It's what we need to do." Taking his staff from his partner's hand, Blaen stepped away from Jydan and started walking toward the chairs. "C'mon, Rolf, you can tell me where you've been since we last bumped into you. And I do mean bumped...." Jydan glanced at Rolf, who shrugged and followed, a grin pulling at his lips. Blaen kept talking, waving his staff in the air slightly. "Just what is it about mercenaries always bumping into me? Hey, Rolf, have I ever told you about how Jydan and I first met? The true story, not that wild tale Jydan keeps waving around."

Rolf's intrigued laughter rolled out. "No, I can't say that you have."

Muttering under his breath about pushy partners and how they always got their way and just how much one said pushy partner was gonna regret telling that "true" story of his, Jydan turned back to the main desk and settled down with the Guild clerk to figure out how much funds he had left and to find them a job or two to tide them over.


Guild Healer Shonaré turned out to be a somewhat wizened-looking old man who hmm-ed and clucked reprovingly over the mark and healing injury on Blaen's shoulder. Jydan stood against the far wall of the man's exam room, arms crossed over his chest, watching, a half-amused smirk on his face. Blaen sat, shirtless, on a raised chair, glaring at Jydan over the old man's bald head and trying not to fidget as the healer examined his shoulder. Blaen hadn't really wanted to see a healer and was doing it more for Jydan's peace of mind than anything else.

But he still didn't like it.

Shrugging apologetically, Jydan just grinned.

Especially when Shonaré's young female assistant -- his granddaughter, if Jydan had understood the old man's peculiarly accented words correctly -- came back into the room a moment later for a few minutes. Blaen's eyes got wide, his face got red, and he looked around frantically for his shirt which he'd removed after she'd left the first time. And which currently rested over Jydan's shoulder across the room. The young woman, a very no-nonsense type, just looked at Blaen, one eyebrow arched, and then continued on, standing at Shonaré's side, nodding and answering murmured questions as both of them examined Blaen's shoulder.

Jydan tensed for a moment, wondering if Blaen's sudden embarrassment was because of the slaver's mark... I know he doesn't want anyone to see that. But the flush on Blaen's skin and the nervous swallowing indicated he was embarrassed at being caught shirtless more than anything else, though he was sure the mark played some part in it as well. He knew how terribly modest Blaen was -- he didn't understand it and still found it mildly amusing -- but he had accepted it sometime ago. Poor guy -- being only half-dressed around a woman, especially one his age, must be killing him. Maybe I should rescue him? He pondered that for a second, then remembered Rolf's booming laughter during Blaen's impromptu storytelling and Rolf's parting back slap which had smarted rather well for several minutes. Nah. I'll let him suffer for a while. Only fair.

Keeping part of his attention on his partner and the two Healers with him, Jydan pondered the escort job he had finally decided on for the funds to get further up north. While the pay was on the low end of the scale -- probably because of the low risk of the journey -- it was enough to get them along for a while until he could get back to his home Guild in Valeria where he had more substantial funds. And for the moment they had supplies and funds to buy foodstuffs.

He hadn't wanted anything too hard or stressful at the moment for several reasons. The most important reason was that Blaen -- and himself -- needed some downtime for a bit. The next being he didn't want to go into a true fighting situation with their personal reserves so low. And admittedly I'm pretty leery of doing anything like that with a horse I don't know very well, even if it is a mercenary-trained horse. Maybe after we get up to Malinde and I get a new warhorse from Taison.

He shook his head, remembering the Malinden-settled Jourdainian horsebreeder and seller. Only a few years older than himself, but sharp and very knowledgeable about horses. He chuckled inwardly. Considering he's Alissa Horsebreeder's son, he'd better be. She would probably have disowned him if he didn't know what he was doing, only child or not. Hopefully he's got something else for me. And hopefully another of those Rose-bred stallions.

Shonaré straightened and turned toward Jydan, waving a hand for him to join them. Shaking his thoughts away, Jydan pushed away from the wall and stepped across the room. He frowned slightly when he realized the Healer's daughter had vanished, slipping out when he wasn't looking, then gave his attention to Shonaré. "So, what's the verdict?"

The old man touched Blaen's shoulder, tracing a finger over the mark. "I fear this mark will remain with your friend for the rest of his life."

Jydan looked first at Blaen, who nodded, then at Shonaré. "There's no way to remove it?"

"None that I know of." Shonaré folded his hands together. "You could cover it by rebranding over it, but I do not think that is something Blaen or yourself want to do."

Blaen shook his head rapidly, swallowing. "That would be a definite no. Once was quite enough for me, thank you."

The Healer inclined his head. "As I thought. Another way involves chemicals that would fade the mark to an extent, but never remove it totally. Again, it would not be a pleasant experience."

Jydan tightened his jaw. "And again I think both of us want to avoid any more pain." Blaen added his silent agreement in with a quick nod.

"Then all I can give you are my regrets and ask that you give extra care to this wound," Shonaré handed Jydan a wrapped package, "with these items until it heals totally. There is a numbing cream for the burning feeling that seems to Blaen's main complaint, plus bandages if they are needed again. And a special cleaning soap that will not sting or irritate the sensitive skin as either lye or soaproot will." He turned back to Blaen, focusing his gaze on the young man intently. "And, Blaen, you must be careful of this. It does not need a bandage anymore, but it will hurt for a bit. However, it will get better and the pain will stop if you let it. Just take care of it."

Blushing slightly at the gentle reprimand, Blaen nodded. "I will." He held out his hand. "Thank you."

Shonaré covered his hand with both of his, smiling. "You are much welcome, young Blaen. It was a pleasure to finally meet the student who I hear spoken of so often in the Academy halls."

Jydan raised an eyebrow and Blaen blinked.

The old man chuckled at their reactions. "Oh, yes, you are still remembered here, young man, more than you know. You impressed a great many teachers and made many friends."

"I..." Blushing further, Blaen glanced away. "I didn't know that."

Shonaré patted his hand and stepped away. "I did not think you did."

Grinning, Jydan moved closer and pulled the shirt from his shoulder. Holding it out, he said, "Didn't know I was traveling with someone so famous."

Before Blaen could answer, all three men heard a commotion just outside the closed door. Jydan stiffened and turned, tossing the shirt and package in Blaen's direction, then reached for his sword along his back. Blaen scrambled to catch both things even as the door burst inward to reveal an older man, gasping for breath, in Council robes.

"Shonaré! You must come quickly. The Eirenan ambassador has collapsed!"


The next morning as Blaen carefully packed and saddled Eri in the Guild House stable, he wondered about providence and how it seemed they were always in the right place at the right time. With the collapse and subsequent discovery of the Eirenan ambassador's major illness, the Shionanian Council of Elders had been thrown into an unusual state of panic. Shionan and Eirena were working out a very important trading negotiation and the agreement had finally been drawn up and signed yesterday afternoon, just an hour before the ambassador who was to take it back to Eirena, collapsed in the midst of the Council Hall.

When Shonaré had told the Council a half-hour later that the ambassador couldn't even leave his bed for a week, much less take the long journey back to E'Teirene City in Eirena, the Council members weren't quite sure what to do. That was when the Councilor who'd appeared in Shonaré's office had spoken up, finally realizing just who the two men with Shonaré had been.

And then they tracked us down in the middle of the marketplace as we were debating -- well, I was debating, Jydan was muttering -- about what kind of herbs to buy for the trip up north. Blaen chuckled, remembering the comical image they'd presented to the three Council members sent to find them. Poor mercenary Jydan playing his underappreciated, overburdened 'packhorse' while making his typical comments about my choices of necessary foodstuffs and herbs.

He tightened the strap of the saddle, then snapped down the last saddlebag, still smiling to himself. And so now instead of that caravan escort job -- which I assume Jydan got some buddy to do for him -- we're heading into E'Teirene City proper to deliver that trade agreement. Pausing a moment, he leaned against Eri's side and stared out the stable doors, smile fading some as he thought about the new job and just what it meant to his tayaerra. We haven't been there in a while. Actually, I only think I've been there once with Jydan, on that first trip and we didn't even get past the outer marketplace then. I've never seen the City proper, come to think of it.

Blaen frowned, running a hand over the leather saddle. Jydan...hesitated when they asked him to do this. I have to wonder if it wasn't for the rather substantial fee we're getting if he would even be doing this. I mean, I know why he doesn't want to go there, but... Blaen shook his head ruefully. Hopefully we can just pop in, deliver the message and the agreement and get out again without any trouble. I mean, it's a big city...surely we can avoid Roeland when we're there.

After attaching his quarterstaff to its place on the outside of the saddle, he walked around Eri and retrieved Jydan's extra saddlebags from a nearby bench. He draped those over one arm, then gathered up the reins to lead Eri out of the stable into the yard. Jydan had left their room in the Guild House even before Blaen had even awakened that morning. And his horse was gone. Only the presence of the saddlebags on the opposite bed had assured him that Jydan hadn't simply left without him. Which, of course, he would never do, though I would like some warning before he decides to go for one of these morning rides of his. Oh, well, maybe he went to check with some mercenary buddies or something.

Once outside, Blaen looked past the buildings to the sky, trying to determine the time. Sun's just barely cresting. He made a face. "Why does he always insist on leaving at the break of dawn? It must be some kind of sickness." Blaen muttered under his breath, stroking the hand with the reins down Eri's neck. "Right, boy?"

Eri whuffled in agreement, tossing his head.

Blaen laughed and patted the horse's nose. "See? Both of us together can't be wrong."

A few moments later, Jydan appeared from around the far corner of the building, riding on his horse. He pulled the horse to a stop next to Blaen and dismounted swiftly, his feet hitting the ground with a hard thud.

Blaen stepped toward him. "Hey, where you been?"

"Hmm? Oh, I went to check up with a few friends in the area. Get the word on the Passage and any trail bandits in the area." Jydan peered toward the sun. "Seems to be pretty clear at the moment."

"Well, you know the Shionanians. They don't put up with bandits very much."

Jydan nodded. "True. You ready to go?"

Blaen held out the saddlebags and watched as Jydan added them to his saddle. "Are we in some kind of hurry or something that I don't know about? I mean, this isn't like some kind of peace treaty. It's just a trade agreement."

Jydan's hands paused minutely as he fiddled with the straps and then kept going. "No, it's not that we're in a hurry. I just..." Bags firmly hooked, he turned to face Blaen, resignation and apology on his features. "I guess I just want to get this over with. I don't like going into the City much. I usually stay on the outskirts of it when I do have to go in, like the outer marketplaces and such. I haven't been inside the true 'city' areas in...years." He stared off into the distance. "Probably not since my mother died, since Jovan decided to move us to Valeria soon after that."

Touching Jydan's arm, rubbing his fingers over the long-sleeved tunic, Blaen whispered, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring up unhappy memories."

The older man blinked and looked down again to meet Blaen's eyes. He covered Blaen's hand. "I know. And you didn't. They're just memories. Sad, yes; but only memories nonetheless."

"You're sure?"

Jydan nodded, a soft smile on his face. "I'm sure." He patted Blaen's hand, then gestured toward Blaen's left shoulder with his chin. "How's the shoulder today? Okay?"

Accepting the change of topic, Blaen rotated the shoulder in question a little. "It's good. I used a little of that cream stuff this morning when I got up, but it seems to be fine otherwise."

"Good." Jydan paused, glancing outward as a distant morningbird heralded the rising of the sun. "So, you ready to go or not?"

Blaen smiled. "I'm ready." He mounted quickly, shifting and settling into the saddle. "Just so you know, Jydan, Eri and I are in agreement that you're a touch demented for liking to leave before the sun is even up."

Loud laughter ringing out, Jydan mounted his own horse and led the way out of the Guild House yard. He was still chuckling when they reached the opening of Misha'ana Passage on the north side of town. Blaen just smiled to himself, feeling rather pleased at his successful attempt at distracting his brooding partner from his darker thoughts. We'll deal with Roeland if and when we see him and not a moment before.


"It's called the House of Kings."

Jydan's quiet comment rolled past Blaen's ears as the younger man stared, eyes wide and mouth hanging ajar, at the huge domed building. Giant marble steps led upward to tall doors. Columns rose on all sides, all designed and etched to appear as a representation of a different animal. The multitude of marble colors of the palace walls shimmered and glistened in the mid-afternoon light. Near the top of the steps, guarding the front entrance to the palace, dominating the entire scene, sat a golden statue of a mythical winged gryphon, head and neck stretched upward, mouth open in a roar, wings unfurling as it prepared to launch itself into flight.

Seeing Blaen's eyes riveted to the statue, Jydan smiled. "My mother used to tell me a story about how the very last winged gryphon, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, rose to disappear into the skies from that very spot. Those who ruled took that as a sign and built their palace here, dedicating it with that statue." He paused a moment, then went on, dry humor in his voice. "Legend says it will return when the stars cast a shadow. Never did understand how that could work, but then it's a legend, so I suppose I shouldn't try to understand it."

Blaen didn't answer at first, just kept staring. Jydan smiled to himself, shaking his head. For someone as educated and well-versed in history and tales, it was obvious that his friend wasn't prepared to see the real thing. Deciding to let Blaen absorb the atmosphere for a bit longer, Jydan shifted his gaze, looking around the courtyard, noting the workers and the royal "hangers-on" that flitted in and out. Most of them ignored him and his partner. We're just mercenaries -- or worse, tourists. No one to be bothered with.

He also noted the guards scattered around the courtyard -- some in plain sight, others hidden. They definitely took notice of them. As well they should. Who knows? Blaen could just be acting like the uninformed peasant staring at something he doesn't even understand. Well, at least we left the horses and most of everything else back at the local Guild House. He eyed Blaen. Though I bet he feels a little naked without his quarterstaff. Jydan had kept only his sword and one boot knife. He wasn't sure about Blaen, but he was fairly sure his friend had a knife in each sleeve, plus probably his own boot knife tucked away.

For a moment, Jydan wondered if they were paranoid, then mentally shook his head. Nah. We're mercenaries. We're supposed to have weapons on us. It would probably look like we're hiding something if we didn't have them.

Blaen's voice brought him back to reality again as he whispered in awe, "It's beautiful." He stared a bit longer, then shook himself a little and dragged his eyes away to look at Jydan. "Sorry. You wanted to get this over with, didn't you?"

Jydan shrugged, eyes drifting over the huge palace before going down to meet Blaen's. "It's okay. I realized when we entered this part of E'Teirene City that I'd better go slow or you just might learn how to turn your head all the way around." He grinned, laughter lighting up his features.

Returning the grin with his own, Blaen chuckled. "Hmm. You might have a point there. But still, we'd better do what we came here for before doing any sightseeing. You've got the documents, right?"

Jydan held up the flat leather carrying case. "Right here." He waved the other hand forward. "Shall we?"

Slowly Blaen took a step forward onto the first marble step. "I'm almost afraid to go up these things -- I might get them dirty or something."

"Don't worry about it. Any tracks we leave will be gone by time we come out. They're rather meticulous about that here." Jydan kept pace with his shorter-legged friend as they ascended the steps.

Blaen nodded absently, then frowned up at Jydan. "Wait a minute, you called this the House of Kings. Isn't Eirena ruled by a Queen?"

Jydan nodded. "Yeah. For almost the entire history of Eirena. The first rulers, however, were twin brothers -- and the first tayaerra. Neither wanted to rule without the other, so they ruled together. Both married, but only one had any children -- all daughters. History said they were the fairest and best rulers this land would ever know. I'm sure a lot of what is said about them has become grandiose, but..."

He paused and shrugged. "It's what the historians say is true, so, so be it. Anyway, the two kings died on the same night. Their wives became co-regents until the eldest daughter was old enough to rule, which she did rather laxly for a year or so until one of her younger sisters ousted her and took over. The palace, built during the brothers' reign but not named yet, was given a name in her father and uncle's memory -- House of Kings. It's remained that way ever since. No one has ever considered changing it or at least the notion hasn't made it very far if they have."

They stopped near the winged gryphon for Blaen to take a closer look. He said as he leaned forward, "But you've always had queens ruling, never kings, right?"

The older man shifted his weight onto one foot, watching fondly as Blaen examined the statue. "Right. Always queens since then. The second daughter, uh...I think her name was Artina, set down the proclamation that there would always be a queen instead of a king since no one was to take the place of her father and uncle as the best kings Eirena has ever had.

"Our current ruler, Queen Leisaja, has been ruling for, oh, maybe 20 years or so now. Very fair. And she has an uncanny way of reading past any and all lies. Her mother, Anjhet, wasn't at all like that -- actually pretty opposite. Lazy mostly, let her advisors more or less rule for her. I think she ate herself to death or something. But Leisaja....she's different. Better for the country, I think. She's also got a couple daughters, but I don't think she's chosen an heir yet."

Blaen edged closer to the sculpture, careful only to touch the supporting base of the statue, asking as he did so, "You mean, it's not just who's the oldest?" The shift forward moved his loose hair into his eyes and he absently shoved them aside, tucking them behind an ear as he listened to Jydan's answer.

"Nope. Not here. Here it's the queen's choice. It doesn't even have to be one of her daughters really. Could be a female relative, a cousin or a niece. Very complicated." Jydan paused, tapping his fingers against the leather case. "If she dies without making a choice, then the eldest daughter or nearest female relative is chosen. Unless there's a challenge by another daughter or female relative like a cousin or niece or what-have-you, which is a whole other complicated ritual I don't think I want to try to explain right now." He watched with a half-smile as Blaen walked around the statue, getting a look from the other side, reaching out a hand to hover just above the golden marble.

Jydan noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned and saw one of the several palace guards stationed at the top of the stairs heading down. With a quick glance at Blaen, Jydan walked up to meet him halfway.

The guard stopped several steps away, eyes wary. "Greetings. What brings you and your friend to the House of Kings?"

Jydan lifted the leather case as he recited the formal words the Council of Elders had given him to say. "My name is Jydan; my curious friend over there is Blaen. We bring trading documents from Eirena in the stead of Ambassador Chadisha who became quite ill, as well as a message from the Council of Elders verifying both my authority to bring these and a message from the Ambassador himself. The Council asked us to deliver these personally to Queen Leisaja as I am known to them as an honorable man."

The guard eyed him a moment, then relaxed. "You are Eirenan, sir, even though your companion is not."

Jydan nodded. "True for both. My friend is from Gurodel."

"Follow me. I will take you to the Waiting Hall and have Queen Leisaja informed of your presence."

Before Jydan could turn, Blaen was at his side. Placing a hand on Blaen's back to usher him forward with him, Jydan smiled and inclined his head toward the guard. "Thank you. Lead on."


Blaen felt Jydan's hand touch his back again, pressing through his cloak, moving him forward when he paused to peer closely at another piece of art as they walked through the opulent palace halls. Way too much to take in. Portraits hung on every wall. Long, thick red drapes hung about the giant window at one end of a side hallway they passed. The wood floor gleamed under their feet, reflecting the glow of the marble columns lining the walls. He looked up to see large painted gryphons adorning the high ceilings. Wow.

He heard a soft chuckle to his right and glanced up to see Jydan smiling ever so slightly as they proceeded toward the double doors that led into the throne room. Blaen shrugged a little, feeling his cheeks flush. He whispered, "It's just all so new to me. I've never been in a royal palace before. Well, other than the Council of Elders Hall one time, but it was nothing like this." He gestured in front of them, taking in the portraits, the marble, the expensive vases on pedestals, the ceiling paintings, the statues at connecting passageways. "This...this is!"

Jydan chuckled again, but shook his head as he did. "It's okay, Blaen. I understand. I had the same reaction the first -- and only other -- time I was here a very long time ago. A little overwhelming." He held up a hand, interrupting Blaen before he could do more than open his mouth. "A story for another time, okay?"

"Yeah, okay." Blaen shifted his eyes forward, watching as the guard paused a little ways from the doors and talked to another man, one of the Queen's attendants if Blaen understood the uniform correctly. The attendant nodded and turned toward Jydan and Blaen as the guard took his leave, heading back down the hall to retake his post.

The attendant said, "Please follow me. The Queen is in audiences this afternoon and will want to speak with you." He turned, walking briskly toward the large doors. The two men followed him, stepping in after the attendant as the doors were opened.

Blaen withheld a gasp at the sight of the large throne room. More high ceilings. Tall windows. A raised dais with a very huge, very tall, very golden throne which rose upward to meet the edge of a gryphon painting that flowed from the ceiling and down the wall behind the throne. Wall hangings and drapes adorned the walls. On either side of the room were enclosed seating areas with councilors and advisors and other nobles in attendance. Tall golden candlescones lined the walls and tall candlesticks were scattered throughout the room. A long red carpet led from the doors to the dais where the Queen sat.

The attendant motioned for them to wait and then made his way around the edge of the room toward the front. A few people stood up close to the dais. Blaen quickly identified the queen's attendants and then directed his attention to the man standing in front of the dais, speaking. He frowned. It sounds...familiar somehow...

Next to him, Jydan stiffened. Alarmed, Blaen turned, touching Jydan's arm. "Jydan? What...?"

Jydan whispered, "Roeland."

Blaen blinked and grimaced. Roeland?! Man, the one place we have to go.... He looked forward again, squinting a little to make out the figure at the front -- his back was turned, but Blaen finally recognized the voice, the stance, and the body language from their one-time meeting. Definitely Roeland. A few choice words flitted through his mind as he stared at the man's back for a moment. He glanced upward again to see Jydan's jaw muscles jumping, his eyes firmly fixed on the dais. Not what we needed on this trip.

Returning his attention to the front, Blaen watched as the attendant stopped at the bottom of the dais and waited for the Queen to motion him forward, which he did and whispered something to her. The Queen's eyes found them at the back of the room almost immediately as she sat up a little taller. The attendant gestured briefly for them to come forward.

For a moment, Jydan didn't move, just stared at the back of the man in front of the dais. Blaen squeezed Jydan's arm briefly, catching his friend's eyes when he looked down, trying to communicate without words.

'I'm here. Just ignore him. He's not important.'

It must have worked as Jydan graced him with a gentle smile, and his frame relaxed a little, his shoulders loosening. Blaen smiled as well, then released Jydan's arm as the mercenary began to walk down the stretch of carpet, a little jerkily at first, but regaining his smooth stride in moments. Blaen kept with him, standing to Jydan's right and just behind him, happy to let Jydan take the leading role while he stayed in the supporting position.

As they came to a halt in front of the dais, the attendant announced in a voice pitched to carry across the room, "Jydan of Eirena and Blaen of Gurodel, both of the Mercenary Guild, here to see Queen Leisaja."

Jydan never moved his eyes away from the queen, only inclining his head slightly. Blaen, however, noted how Roeland jerked his head around to stare at them. Blaen met his eyes for a moment, reading the man's shocked features quite easily. Older than when they had run into him five years earlier, but still just as 'high-and-mighty-important-looking'. Taking only a moment to observe the older man without any emotional attachments, Blaen realized with a start just how similar Roeland and Jydan looked. Shaking himself and dismissing the man as unimportant, Blaen returned his attention to Jydan and the queen. He caught one of the attendants giving Roeland an odd look, but nothing was said. Blaen hid a grim smile.

Good. Let the man be flustered for a while. We have just as much right to be here as he does.

Straightening, Blaen moved just a hair closer to his partner, focusing on him, tuning out anything and everything else from the others in the room. Fortunately for him, he was more or less rested and his inner barriers didn't even waver even though he knew all sorts of turbulent emotions must have been coming from Roeland. He would expect the same from Jydan, but his partner had everything buttoned up tight, very little leaking through at the moment.

Queen Leisaja rose from her throne and descended the few steps slowly, giving Blaen time to observe her. Not very tall, probably the same height as himself. Older than Jydan with silver streaks in her dark brown hair that was pulled back into an elaborate twist. Soft falls of dark blue silk fell around her, highlighted by golden patterns that, as she grew closer, Blaen realized were tiny gryphons stitched into the cloth. Fine age lines danced outward on her light brown skin from her dark eyes which snapped with intelligence.

Queen Leisaja raised a hand as her foot touched the landing and Jydan took it, going to one knee, bowing over her hand and kissing her fingers. "My Queen. You do me honor."

Blaen followed suit after a moment, dropping to one knee a little clumsily.

She smiled at both of them. "You may rise, Jydan, Blaen."

The two men rose to their feet. Jydan held out the leather packet. "I bring this from the Council of Elders in Ashanaran of Shionan. Ambassador Chadisha fell ill quite suddenly and wanted this trading agreement, plus his messages to you, the Court, and his family, to be delivered as soon as possible. He sends his good wishes to you, my Queen."

Leisaja took the packet, held it for a moment, then passed it to her Chief Attendant standing only a few feet away, never taking her eyes from Jydan. "An Eirenan mercenary chosen by Shionan for this task. I find that very intriguing."

Jydan inclined his head. "The Council knows me as an honorable man, Your Majesty. I have done many things for them in the past. They trusted me to deliver this message to you."

Queen Leisaja's eyes turned toward Blaen, pinning him for a moment. "And your companion. I sense a bond between you."

Blaen looked briefly up at Jydan who met his eyes for a moment before answering, "Blaen and I are tayaerra, Your Majesty."

Her eyes widened a bit and Blaen heard a bit-off choke that turned into a cough from Roeland several feet away. Muted whispers rose, repeating what Jydan had said. Eyes widening a bit, Blaen straightened and glanced around. Now what? A sudden feeling of anger mixed with sharp concern and wary protectiveness sparked across the bond, startling him. He glanced at Jydan and noted how he'd subtly shifted to a battle-ready state. Uh...that would not be a good thing.

Queen Leisaja threw a glance at the court, quieting them with a look before returning her attention to Jydan and Blaen with a pleased smile on her face. "Tayaerra. Yes. A special bond, indeed, to stretch across the differences of Eirena and Gurodel." She paused a moment, then went on, hands bending outward, palms up. "We thank you, Jydan and Blaen, for doing us this service."

"We were happy to be of service to Eirena, Your Majesty." Jydan bowed again, then prepared to leave, only to turn back at the queen's voice.

"One more thing." She stepped a bit closer and raised a hand to briefly finger the cloak pin at Jydan's neck. "You wear a family crest unfamiliar to me."

Blaen watched as Jydan hesitated, eyes flickering slightly as he just barely kept from looking over at him or even at Roeland. Finally, Jydan answered slowly. "I was without a crest, Your Majesty, for many years. This crest," he lifted a hand to touch the pin reverently, "was given to me as a gift. From my tayaerra. It is the Crouched Panther."

"Ah. A worthy crest. For an honorable man." She smiled, glancing to the side at Roeland. "Wouldn't you agree, Lord Roeland?"

Chancing a look at Roeland, Blaen saw the older man's jaw clench tightly as well as the hand that hung at his side. He cleared his throat and replied in forced, clipped tones, "Yes, Your Majesty." He met Blaen's eyes briefly, and Blaen blinked at the hardness he saw there, directed both at him and Jydan. "Quite." A none-too-subtle hint of scorn tinged his voice.

Still smiling, she murmured, "Hmm...I thought you might say that."

Blaen stopped breathing for a moment, sudden insight hitting him. She knows. She knows that Roeland is Jydan's father. But how...? He glanced upward at Jydan's profile. No hint of an answer there. Still looking straight ahead, Jydan had yet to even acknowledge Roeland's presence. Only a brief jaw muscle spasm hinted that the man had heard Roeland's voice.

"And your tayaerra? What of his crest? And his family?" Queen Leisaja's voice broke into his thoughts, scattering them. My crest? She wants to know about my crest? And my family?

Seeing that Jydan was thrown by the question, Blaen inched forward, speaking up quietly. "Mine is a Gurodellan crest, the Three Dolphins family, Your Majesty." He reached up to touch his pin. "I am...the last of my family." A wave of regret settled around him, streaming from Jydan, followed quickly by soft comfort. Another hint of regret tickled around the edges of his barriers, coming from Queen Leisaja.

Queen Leisaja's eyes softened as she looked at him. "My sorrow is yours, Blaen of the Three Dolphins family. Though I am curious to know if you still claim Gurodel as your home if your family is gone."

Blaen smiled a little, shaking his head. "No, not really, Your Majesty. My home is with my tayaerra and wherever he goes, whether that is Eirena or elsewhere."

The queen returned his smile, nodding. "As it should be." She raised a hand and touched Jydan's cheek, then Blaen's. "Tayaerran blessing to you both."

A quick jolt of surprise from Jydan startled Blaen a bit, as did the sharp gasp and indignant words from Roeland.

"Your Majesty! This is highly--"

The queen lifted her hand, cutting Roeland off curtly. "You forget yourself, Lord Roeland. This is not your concern."

Roeland flushed red and stepped a bit away from the dais, murmuring, "My apologies, Queen Leisaja."

Blaen blinked, realizing he was missing something very important. What's a tayaerran blessing? He realized his confusion must have shown on his face when the queen smiled at him, dark eyes sparkling.

"I see that Jydan has not told you all about the tayaerran bond." She looked up at Jydan. "I will let him explain later. For now..." she held out her hand to Jydan, who took it, lifting it to press to his lips. "Light be with you, Jydan." Jydan released her hand and she shifted back to Blaen, who took her hand and kissed her warm fingers lightly. "And with you, Blaen."

Jydan inclined his head. "My queen." Blaen copied him, then turned to follow his partner as they left the throne room.


It wasn't until they reached the outer gates of the House of Kings courtyard that Jydan stopped, his long stride halting abruptly. Blaen nearly bumped into him, surprised, managing to sidestep enough to only jostle the taller man's arm in passing instead of totally knocking him over. Jydan shifted and reached to steady to Blaen, murmuring a soft "sorry" as he did.

Blaen waved it off, a hesitant smile on his face. " okay?"

Looking out at the tree-lined road, the expensive shops, the extravagant buildings owned by various nobles, and the nobles themselves wandering slowly down walkways in the mid-afternoon sunlight, Jydan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yeah. Yeah. I'm okay." He glanced downward, meeting Blaen's eyes. "You?"

"Me? Oh, I'm fine. No problems."

Jydan nodded, then glanced outward again, eyes tracking a few people watching them curiously as they walked down the road, eyeing them in return. "Good. Good."

Blaen waited a moment, then asked slowly, "Are you going to tell me what that was all about in there? The blessing thing? And the reaction it got?"

The mercenary didn't say anything at first, then touched Blaen's back. "Let's walk. I'll tell you as we go." He motioned to their left and they strolled slowly down the walkway, both quiet. Blaen knew Jydan was gathering his thoughts, organizing his explanations to make sense to someone not steeped in the Eirenan culture. A few people, nobles most likely, passed them and started a bit when they saw them. Blaen hid a smile, ducking his head.

Quite a strange pair we make. Jydan in his long black cloak, black trousers, and dark gray tunic. And that massive sword of his to boot! Immediately pegged as a mercenary. And probably not a good one at that. And then me -- definitely not an Eirenan and not a typical mercenary. One woman they passed clutched her purse closer to her body and shifted further away from them, nose held quite snootily in the air. Blaen just chuckled to himself and shook his head. Man, we must look dangerous or something.

Jydan finally began speaking in a quiet voice, and Blaen switched his attention away from their surroundings and focused on his friend.

"When two people decide to become tayaerra, the only thing that matters is their age. You have to be 20 to make such a vow. I told you before it's not a whimsical thing. It's a lifelong commitment. To break a tayaerra vow is...well, it's just doesn't happen. The private vow itself, between the two people, is all that's needed to make it real. No ceremony. No papers. Nothing like that. However, usually the families of the two will want to 'bless' the bond between them. It's not permission or approval -- just a blessing, giving them support, I guess is one way to say it. Essentially, tayaerra become part of each other's family."

"Like you told me that night when we took the vow," Blaen interrupted quietly.

Jydan smiled at him. "Exactly. Like that night. We...bound ourselves to each other in all ways that matter. And the families, usually the parents or sometimes spouses, would 'bless' that binding, acknowledging it as important and real." He paused and looked ahead of them. "But since neither of us have any living family..."

Blaen stopped, staring at Jydan. "The queen. She asked about my family. She did that on purpose -- asking me, didn't she?"

Jydan halted next to him, turning a little. "Yes. She did. It wasn't until she asked about your crest that I realized what she was doing. I didn't know what to tell her." He reached out and grasped Blaen's good shoulder, shaking him in place, a barely suppressed excitement and awed tone in his voice as spoke. "Blaen, she gave us the tayaerran blessing -- and a royal one at that."

Blaen blinked up at Jydan. "I'm still missing something, aren't I? I got the fact that we've been 'blessed'. How does that change anything?"

The other man smiled, shaking his head. "It doesn't. We're the same as before. Nothing's changed between us." He shifted his hand to tug at a few of Blaen's locks. "But somewhere up in the palace, there is a scribe writing down our names in the royal record books, saying that 'Jydan of the Crouched Panther clan (newly formed) of Eirena is tayaerra with Blaen of the Three Dolphins family, late of Gurodel; bond blessed by Queen Leisaja in full court'. And although our private vows are enough, to have the 'blessing' gives us a sort of legal status. The queen made us officially family, over the court's -- and Roeland's -- objections. To my knowledge, there has never been a tayaerran bonding with anyone outside of Eirena. We are...unique. The queen saw that and wanted to make sure what we'd done could never be naysayed or ignored or trivialized."

Blaen's mouth formed an "oh" and he turned briefly to stare back at the distant House of Kings. "Oh. That's...that's..." His words trailed off as the significance of the queen's act washed over him.

Jydan chuckled and flopped an arm over Blaen's shoulders, drawing him to his side as he started them moving again. "C'mon. All this has made me hungry. I know a few good places around where I know mercenaries are quite welcome. How 'bout you?"

Still trying to assimilate what Queen Leisaja had done for them, Blaen managed an absent nod. "Uh, yeah, sure, I could eat something. Official. Wow." He looked up at Jydan. "This was important to you, wasn't it? I never knew."

Jydan shrugged, an easy half-smile on his face. "Sorta, yeah. But I knew my mother would've gladly given me her blessing, as would have Jovan. But since neither were alive and I don't have any other family...I just accepted that." Arm still around Blaen's shoulder, he glanced downward, meeting his eyes. "Our vow was enough and still is. I didn't even know the queen remembered me--" He cut himself off abruptly, looking away.

Blaen bit his lip, hesitating, wanting to know, but not wanting to bring back any further bad memories to his friend. He reached up to touch the hand resting on his shoulder. "Jydan? If you don't want to talk about it, I understand. You know that. But if you do...I'm here. You know that, too, right?"

Letting out a long sigh, Jydan nodded. "Yeah, I know. And I think maybe I do want to talk about it." He glanced around and saw a large grassy park area breaking away from the buildings and directed them that way. "Let's go somewhere a little less crowded since the late afternoon 'mingling and gossiping' is about to begin. And I don't think I want to try to talk about this while walking."

Finding a nice quiet spot on a backless stone bench in front of a tree, they both settled down on it. Blaen sat sideways on the bench, legs crossed as he faced Jydan who sat next to him, leaning against the tree trunk, staring out at the sky. A few moments passed, filled only with the echo of bird calls and distant voices of children playing near the pond. Jydan watched nature and Blaen watched Jydan, stretching out his dironan abilities, following the silver cords. A mixture of jumbled emotions rose to the surface in his tayaerra, nothing clearly defined except the memory of loss and a distant, old sense of pain, hurt, and anger.

Blaen shifted one hand, touching Jydan's arm for a moment. Without looking, Jydan covered his hand, then closed his eyes, took a breath, and spoke in a quiet, even voice. "My mother died when I was 13, when we still lived here, in the City. She'd been sick for a couple years and she knew she would never get better. I had been practicing when Jovan came to get me, to tell me she wanted to see me...."

Twenty-two years earlier...

Jydan swung the sword again, ducking under the return blow from his opponent. He shifted to block, then pushed outward, straining his young body as far as he could. The other boy, 16, taller and stronger than him, laughed, shoving back, knocking his sword away. "Oh, c'mon, you can do better than that."

Narrowing his eyes, Jydan moved back into position and attacked, slicing in the air with his practice sword, then kicking out with one foot, sweeping his opponent's feet from under him. The other boy hit the ground with a thud, a whoosh of air, and a puff of dirt. Jydan stepped forward and held the swordpoint at his throat. "Do you yield?"

Panting lightly, the boy nodded slightly. "Yeah. I yield. Where--"


Hearing his uncle's voice and the urgency in it, Jydan backed away from his fallen opponent, calling back, "Here, Jovan! In the practice yard with Taison."

His uncle appeared from around the corner of the stable where he'd been negotiating with Alissa Horsebreeder, Taison's mother, for some new horses. Tall, hard-muscled, dark blond hair in a short ponytail, the man moved quickly across the yard. While waiting for his uncle, Jydan extended a hand to Taison and helped him up, giving him a brief smile. "See? Told you I could take you."

The older boy laughed again, clapping him on the shoulder. "So you did. Your uncle will be pleased. Though I don't think I'll tell my mom." He looked past Jydan to see his mother rounding the corner of the building as well, walking toward them, several feet behind Jovan. "Don't think she'd wanna know."

Jydan grinned, laughing with him, turning to greet Jovan as he arrived next to them.

"Uncle! I bested Taison!"

Jovan nodded only briefly in acknowledgment, his face grim. He laid a hand on Jydan's shoulder. "Your mother ... she wants to see you. Right now." He paused, swallowing. "Jydan, I think..."

Jydan froze, mouth going dry, blue eyes wide. "No. She can't. Not..." He shoved the practice sword in Jovan's hands and took off, running past Alissa and disappearing behind the stable.

The mercenary watched him go, sadness etched into his scarred face. Alissa stopped next to them as Taison asked quietly, "What is it? What's wrong?"

Jovan shook his head slowly, his lips in a tight line, not able to answer.

Alissa laid a hand on her son's shoulder, squeezing it. "It's his mother. She's dying."


Jydan halted his mad dash when he reached the door of his mother's room. He rested one hand on the closed door for a moment, catching his breath. It's okay. It's okay. She's just sick. She'll be fine. Just calm down. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes. The door suddenly opened under his hand, and his eyes flew open to see the nurse his uncle had hired just a few months before to help look after Dianthe. The nurse, an older woman, met his eyes, then touched his arm, murmuring softly. "I'll be outside...if you need anything." She passed by him, cloth rustling in her wake, leaving the door open. Jydan stood for a moment, blinking away the tears her soft words had caused. The sorrow in her voice could only mean... No! She's going to be okay!

"Jydan? Is that you?"

Swallowing hard at the weak, fragile voice, Jydan stepped inside and closed the door quietly. "Yes, Mother, it's me." He walked over to the bed set near the window, where Dianthe had a view of the trees and the sky and nature itself, more important since she had been bedridden for the last few weeks. Propped up on a few pillows, her long dark blonde hair in a thick, elaborate braid, courtesy of the skilled and compassionate nurse, she could watch the birds flutter by, singing to her in the mornings and evenings.

Dianthe smiled at him, patting the spot next to her. "Sit, please."

Jydan did so, leaning forward to brush her cheek with a soft kiss. "Good afternoon, Mother. Jovan said you wanted to see me." His voice wavered.

She grasped his hand and held it warmly. "Yes, I did." Always short of breath now because of her illness, she paused, her mouth open as she took quick, shallow breaths.. "Jydan, my beautiful boy ... I love you ... so much."

"I...I love you, too." The words came slowly, hard for the teenager to say, but knowing somehow he needed to.

"I know. ... You bring me lilacs ... every morning and read ... to me every evening. ... No other mother has ever ... been so blessed as me." She blinked back tears as she raised a hand to touch Jydan's cheek lightly. "You are truly ... a good son and I wish ... I wish I didn't have ... to go."

Jydan shook his head. "No, Mother, please...."

A tear slipped quietly down Dianthe's face. "I'm so tired, Jydan. ... I wanted to watch you grow ... watch you make friends ... watch you become a man ... watch you fall in love ... get married, have children. ... I wanted to play ... with my grandchildren. ... I wanted to ... see you happy. But--" She cut herself off, coughing into a handkerchief harshly, her slight frame shaking with every cough.

Jydan watched helplessly, slowly realizing that the cough had been worsening every day and that his mother truly was dying. Right before his eyes. And there wasn't anything anyone could do about it. He blinked away the tears in his eyes.

Dianthe's coughs stopped and she wilted back onto the pillows, eyes closed, breath coming in short gasps. Jydan reached up one shaking hand to touch her cheek. "I love you, Mother. And I know you're tired. And that you're hurting so much. But--" he paused to swallow hard. "I don't want to lose you."

She opened her eyes wearily, looking at him with the eyes he saw in the mirror every day. His eyes, her eyes. They had always been the same. Everyone told him that. She raised her hand to capture his against her cheek. Her voice cracked with both emotion and tiredness. "I know. ... And you won't. ... I'll always be with you ... in your heart." Curling her fingers around his hand, she drew it to her lips to kiss his fingers. "I have something I need ... to tell you. ... About your father."

Jydan's eyes widened. My father? Is she going to tell me who he is? "What about him?"

"You've always ... wanted to know ... but never pushed. ... Your uncle knows already ... but it was my wish ... not to tell you ... until now."

Jydan nodded silently.

She went on quietly, closing her eyes, speaking between pants of breath. "Fifteen years ago ... I was a nursemaid ... and a teacher ... working for a noble family. ... The head of the household was ... highly respected and very ... well-known. ... His family has been advisors ... in the House of Kings .... for generations. ... It was considered ... a great honor to ... work for him. ... I was young and ... loved children." She opened her eyes, staring out the window. "Maybe I was too young. ... I never thought Lord ... Roeland--" She broke off into a fit of hard coughing, her breathing becoming more and more labored.

Jydan gasped and blinked, one hand absently rubbing her arm as he tried to process what he'd heard. When the coughing slowed and quieted, and Dianthe settled back to catch her breath, Jydan whispered, shock filling his voice, "Lord Roeland? Of the Black Hawk Clan? One of Queen Anjhet's highest advisors? He's my... my... father?!?" His mother had educated him well, teaching him all the basics, plus delving into such things as art and current history -- and a type of 'who's who' in Eirenan nobility.

"Yes." Dianthe's voice faded a bit as she sank back into the bed, still coughing a bit, barely having enough energy to lift her hand to her mouth. Her eyes slid closed again, the emotional revelation tiring her out. "Yes, he is. ... Jovan knows everything. ... He can tell you ... if you wish. ... I wanted to ... tell you." Her voice became a little stronger, sterner as she opened her eyes to look at him. "And I want you to ... promise me you won't ... take revenge against ... Lord Roeland or his family. ... Killing him or hurting ... those close to him ... cannot change what happened. ... What's past is ... past. Anger and hate ... are never the answer." She opened her eyes, turning her head to look at Jydan. "Promise me, Jydan. ... Please."

He hesitated, his mind filling in the empty places in her words. A deep hurt for his mother built from what she was telling him, from the unspoken knowledge of how and why he was born. Questions and doubts assailed him, adding confusion on top of the hurt building in him. "Mother, I--" His voice broke.

She raised her hand to cover his lips. "No. ... You are my son. ... And I love you. ... Nothing changes that. ... Please, promise me. ... I do not want you ... greeting the Light before ... your time. ... Promise me."

Jydan swallowed and slowly nodded. "I promise, Mother. No revenge. I'll leave...him and his family alone."

Smiling, Dianthe relaxed. "Thank you." Her eyes fluttered closed again, breathing growing more short.

"Do you want me to get Jovan?"

She shook her head without opening her eyes. "No. Jovan and I ... have made our peace ... said our goodbyes. ... This time," she opened her eyes to look at him, blue eyes alight with love, "this is just ... for us."

Scooting a bit closer and bending forward, Jydan stroked back strands of her blonde hair, whispering, "I love you, Mother. It's time for you to rest. I'll be okay." His throat tightened and he had to force himself to continue, finding the strength to surrender his mother into the arms of Light. "Sleep." He pressed a kiss on her forehead, squeezing his eyes closed tightly. "I'll miss you."

Her hand came up to touch his cheek, stroking his skin, gently directing his head down to her shoulder. He let himself be held, be calmed, feeling the soft skin of her cheek against his forehead. Her skin smelled of the gentle lilac-scented soap her nurse bathed her with every morning. The expensive soap was her only vice, the one thing she wanted and that Jovan always managed to find, no matter how hard it was. Her other arm came up to cradle the back of his head, petting down his hair. "And I will miss you ... my son. ... Live well. ... Live long. ... And be at peace." A pause, a struggle for another breath, one last touch of soft lips against his cheek, then "I love you."

And she was gone, her hand sliding away from his head to rest laxly on the coverlet.

Jovan found him long minutes later, still sitting on the bed, hunched over Dianthe's body, crying jaggedly into one of her pillows.


Two days later, Jovan and Jydan, plus a handful of friends, stood around a grave in the local cemetery. The wind whistled past them as the late morning sun shone on them from above. Birds sang above them, winging their way through the air to land on the trees scattered throughout the simple cemetery. The day was perfect, just the kind of day Dianthe loved. The kind of day when she would sit at her window and watch Jydan and Jovan work with the horses below in the stableyard or watch her son learn how to use a sword in his mercenary training.

Jovan tossed a handful of dirt into the grave, hearing it land on the simple box below. "Be at peace, sister. I'll miss you." Then he stepped back to stand next to Jydan. The boy, grown into a man overnight, didn't move for a moment, then jerked forward, stretching out his hand to let the clutched handful of dirt spill from his fingers.

"Mother--" He swallowed hard past the lump in his throat, then tried again, whispering, "Mother, be at peace. And rest. I love you." The last of the dirt clods drifting downwards, Jydan stood for a moment, his eyes fixed on the simple grave, then he stepped back, shoulders firm against his battered inner emotions. He watched from behind shadowed eyes as the grave was filled and the last sight of the wood box holding his mother's body vanished from view.

The wind whistled past, lifting the edges of his cloak, blowing locks of hair across his forehead. He could almost hear his mother's voice whispering to him in the echoes of the soft lilac-scented breeze.

'Be at peace, my son. Be at peace.'


Jydan pulled a twig off a tree as they passed it, taking up his narrative tale again as he and Blaen strolled through the park. "A few weeks later, Jovan and I went to a night session at the House of Kings. At first, I'd been reluctant to go along with this plan of his to 'blackmail' Roeland, but Jovan convinced me, telling me neither of us were breaking our promise to Dianthe, that no one would be hurt or killed. This was simply about obtaining funds and to perhaps embarrass Roeland if he refused." Jydan glanced down at the twig in his hand, slowly stripping it apart.

"Sometimes I wonder if maybe he was hoping Roeland would have refused, so he could have embarrassed him, hurt him a little, expose him for what he really was. Jovan had told me the whole story earlier about how my mother had shown up, scared and hurt after Roeland had...forced himself on her, then cruelly tossed her out when she found out she was pregnant. Jovan had been angry that night when she first came to him and was still angry 13 years later. He wanted to do...something, anything. And I realized after my uncle told me the whole truth, so did I."

Jydan kicked at a rock in the path that led them away from the upper class side and toward the main part of the City, as the large park area bordered the 'nobility' section of the City on three sides. "I didn't really understand this at the time, but my uncle was pretty important in the local Guild. One of the leaders. He was also responsible for the purchasing and training of most of the mercenary horses. And he was smart. Cunning."

He shook his head. "Anyway, somehow he knew about this rare and fairly secret night session of the court and slipped both of us inside the gates and into the palace itself. I remember walking through those hallways, just gawking at the richness of everything I saw." He glanced over at Blaen. "Sorta like you."

Blaen grinned and rolled his eyes, but didn't say anything, just kept walking.

"No one knew we were even in the palace until we strolled down the carpet to stand in front of the throne. Needless to say, the few advisors and councilors there, plus a handful of guards, were quite shocked to see us. Queen Anjhet, in her typical half-asleep awareness, didn't really care. The guards recognized Jovan on sight and while they had their swords drawn and pointed at us, they didn't attack, just remained a little tense." He paused a moment. "Roeland was there that night. Which I'm sure Jovan knew. Tall, dark hair, distinguished. He had a Black Hawk coat of arms stitched onto his cloak. I saw it and knew who he was immediately. It...I..."

The tall mercenary fell silent, lost in his thoughts, staring into the distance.

"Jydan?" Blaen touched his arm.

"Hmm? Oh, sorry, those memories...feelings are still a little...raw sometimes." He tried to smile, but failed.

"Tell me. Please." Blaen said.

Jydan sighed, snatching another twig from a tree as they passed it. "I can't really say for sure. Everything had happened so fast. I was still mourning the loss of my mother and trying to comprehend that I was an unwanted son of a very high-ranking noble. It was all a little...shocking. I remember being a little angry, a little sad, and a lot confused." He shrugged, looking at Blaen.

"It was a long time ago. I do remember that when he first looked at me, I knew he dismissed me as only a child. Not important. But when Jovan announced who he was, saying that I was his nephew...well, Roeland stared at me harder. I could see the wheels turning and realization dawning. The man is smart. He knew who Jovan was and knew that he was Dianthe's brother. It only took him a few moments to figure out I was Dianthe's son -- and his. I think he'd hoped Dianthe had left the City in disgrace or that I'd died young or something like that. And since I obviously hadn't...the man was a bit disturbed to see his illegitimate child standing before him in full view of court and his peers. Not something he wanted to get out."

Jydan paused again, concentrating on destroying the small twig. "To make a rather complicated story shorter, Jovan pulled out a gold marker, you know, something that says someone owed him something..." He glanced over at his friend to see Blaen nodded in understanding before he went on. "It was a House of Kings marker. Somewhere along the line, Jovan must have done something for the royal court and had taken a marker as payment. They owed him and he knew it and they knew it. He looked straight at Roeland and said if he wasn't given a certain amount of money, he would bring certain embarrassment down on the royal court. That got Anjhet's attention as well as Roeland's.

"Roeland, I think, just wanted to make us disappear, as did the few other advisors. But the guards hesitated. Someone else, a young woman, stepped out from the shadows around the throne and informed them that Jovan was a local Guild leader and would certainly be missed, as would his nephew. She talked some sense into them and got Roeland to sign an agreement for the money Jovan asked for. Then...we left."

Blaen spoke up quietly. "That was Queen Leisaja, wasn't it? That's how she knew about you. She was there."

Jydan nodded. "Yup. Princess and Heir then, but it was her. I haven't seen her since that day, but I remember watching her that night while she talked with the advisors and her mother. I caught her looking between Roeland and myself. I didn't know it at the time, but I found out later from Jovan that I resembled one of Roeland's older sons and Roeland himself in ways."

"I, uh," Blaen interjected, "saw some of the resemblance today. Broad shoulders. Tall. You've both got that granite jaw thing going. And maybe the nose. I'm glad your eyes are your mom's. His were..." He shuddered. "His were not pleasant. Cold. Hard."

"Yeah, I've seen that. We've...bumped into each other once or twice over the years. Never very good encounters." Jydan agreed. "Leisaja saw those similarities as well, though no one else did. And while she was very less than impressed by Roeland's...indiscretion, it bothered her even more to know I had been left without a father...and a mother."

Blaen frowned. "Why does she keep him as an advisor now? If she knows, that is."

A shrug. "He's one of her financial advisors. Very sharp. Good instrument to use, I suppose. And I think she likes to keep an eye on those lesser known quantities in her government. He has too much power, too much influence to be left on his own without supervision." They stopped at the edge of the pathway, the border of the park area which melted into the rest of the City.

"What did you do then?"

"The next day we collected the money, then started packing to move to Valeria. Neither my uncle or I wanted to be in the City any longer. Too many memories. He'd wanted to leave the year before, but by then, my mother was too ill to go anywhere. We got a nice stone marker for my mother's grave and used some of the remaining money to buy supplies. Two days after that, we left. Jovan spent the rest of his life in Valeria; he died a couple years before I met you." Staring across the road, Jydan blinked when he realized his wandering footsteps had brought them to the cemetery where his mother was buried.

Blaen's eyes followed his and he said quietly, "Do you want to stop for a moment? I can wait out here for you if you'd like."

Jydan glanced down to meet his tayaerra's gaze. "I think...yes, I think I do want to stop. It's been a long time. I'll just be a little bit."

Blaen smiled and touched Jydan's back lightly. "Take all the time you need, Jydan. This isn't something you should hurry."


Several minutes later, Jydan stood before his mother's grave. Wind still whistled through the tree branches that hung high over it, sheltering it. Birds still sang in the air. A small smile creased Jydan's face. "Nature catering to your whims as always, Mother. Must know how much you loved it." His eyes shifted toward the stone grave marker, reading the words engraved on it.

'Dianthe. Daughter, sister, mother. A woman of compassion. She will be missed.'

Jydan rubbed his eyes with one hand, then crouched down next to the grave to trace over the words on the stone marker with two fingers. "And I do miss you still, Mother. I've tried to live as you asked. And I'm at peace. It's taken awhile, but I think it's finally true. You told me once to 'choose very carefully who to share your soul with'. I made that choice, Mother. I found someone to share my soul with. My tayaerra. I wish you could be here to meet him. I think you'd like him. I really think you would." He stopped and chuckled. "He's a better student than I am. He'd actually sit still when you were teaching history lessons since I never could."

A small sound alerted him to someone else's presence and he swivelled on his heel to see Blaen standing just a few feet behind him, a bunch of Eirenan lilacs in his hand. "Uh...sorry. Didn't mean to interrupt you, but I thought..." He held out the flowers. "You mentioned she liked these and I saw some, so..."

Jydan stood and stepped over to Blaen, taking the flowers. "Thank you. Yes, she did like them."

A light blush on his face, Blaen murmured, "Good, good. I'm glad. I'll, uh, just go wait--"

"Don't...don't go. Just wait for me right here. Please?" He felt a sudden need not to be alone.

Blaen hesitated, then nodded. "Okay. I'll wait."

Jydan graced him with another brief smile, then turned back to the grave, crouching again to lay the bunch of lilacs at the base of the grave marker. "There you go. Fresh lilacs. Just like I used to bring you every morning." He blinked back unexpected tears. "Sorry I haven't had any of those grandchildren you wanted to play with. Maybe someday the right one will come along. She's got a lot..." His throat tightened, making him force out the words. "A lot to measure up to, you know."

A hand rested on his shoulder, thumb rubbing warmly, a reminder than he wasn't alone.

He touched his fingers to his lips, then pressed those fingers to the stone marker where his mother's name was etched. "I miss you," he whispered. "I miss you." The words 'I love you' hung unspoken but heard in the air.

Silent moments passed, then Jydan stood, feeling Blaen's hand slip down from his shoulder to his back, never losing contact with him. As he turned, Blaen drew him forward, into a warm hug, letting the bigger man take comfort from him and find his balance again. More moments passed, then Jydan pulled away and wiped his eyes with his sleeve, sniffling a bit.

Blaen asked, "You okay now?" Concerned blue eyes stared up at him.

Jydan nodded. "Yeah. I'm okay." He slung his arm over Blaen's shoulders, hugging him close to his side as he turned them toward the path that would take them out of the cemetery. "C'mon."

Behind them, the wind picked up for a moment, ruffling the petals of the lilacs, raining white tree blossoms on top of the grave marker. Leaves swirled past in gentle concert to birdsong before settling again to nature's quiet song.


Running his finger along the shelf edge, Blaen wandered down the aisle back towards the front of the shop, eyes taking in the row upon row of old and new books. The large book shop had caught his attention immediately as he and Jydan had made their way back across town to the Guild where they'd left their horses and their belongings. They were planning to head back out that late afternoon, catching the far side of the K'Aleroon Coastal Road up to Valeria.

Jydan, being the man and friend he was, had only chuckled and pushed him toward the door, telling Blaen he'd meet him in an hour -- which is almost up -- outside by the crossroads next to the park. Blaen had tried to protest...well, sorta. He's only buying supplies and should be done here pretty soon. If he didn't get caught up talking to any conveniently handy mercenary friends, like he seems to do in most cities. He paused a moment, considering the statement. Maybe he's feeling out help for Kell. Would make sense....

His thoughts tapered off when a thin book on a high shelf, just out of his reach, caught his eye. An old history or maybe a mythology book since it had a decorative gryphon pattern on the spine. Pursing his lips, he stared up at it. Where's Jydan when I need him? He glanced around, but didn't see any type of step stool or ladder or anything else that could be of use to him to reach that book. Well...rats. Stepping back, he pondered the situation, chewing on his lower lip. He wasn't sure he could actually purchase the book, but he still wanted to at least look at it.

Maybe if I sorta use the shelf and stretch a little. Blaen glanced around, making sure no one was watching him, then stepped closer to the shelf, putting his right hand on the shoulder-high shelf for balance. Then he stretched the other arm up ... up ... up ... his fingers just barely grazing the bottom edge of the book. His shoulder twinged a little, the still semi-healed wound not happy with its current position. C'mon, I can almost get it. Just a little more. Gritting his teeth, he stretched up a bit more...

...and bit back a startled yelp when another hand appeared and grasped the book, pulling it from its position. Landing hard on his feet, he stumbled back a bit, turning. And then proceeded to blush a dark red when he saw his benefactors -- two dark-haired women, both about Jydan's age, attired in rich, fur-lined cloaks. Both obviously nobles. Absently he figured that since the book shop sat on the border of the grassy park, it wouldn't be too odd for some of the nobility to wander over from time to time.

One of the women held out the book to him, her slightly accented voice rich with gentle humor. "I believe you were trying to reach this."

Blaen stammered, "Uh...yeah, I was." He took the book gingerly and clutched it to his chest. "Thanks. I didn't see a stool or anything around, so I...uh...thanks."

She laughed softly, her long dark brown hair shifting with the movement. "'Tis okay. The proprietor, he does that on purpose. He doesn't want everyone to," she looked at her companion, "what did he say before, Rhi? 'Get their grubby paws all over the good merchandise' or something like that."

Rhi nodded, a grin on her face as she winked at Blaen, blue eyes sparkling. "Exactly. Allie and I always make sure we want to see books on the top shelves so he has to bring out the step ladder. Keeps him on his toes." She brushed back her bobbed, straight brown hair with one hand. Gentle amusement sparkled in both their eyes, waving gently in his direction.

Relieved to know he hadn't made a complete fool of himself, Blaen spared a moment to glance down at the thin book, reading the faded lettering on the cover. "Gryphonsong: Eirenan Legends."

Allie nodded approvingly. "Ah. Excellent choice. And in fairly good condition. Good retellings and interpretation of Eirenan mythology. Just watch out for the older language bits that pop up. Chapter 5 is probably the best."

Peeking at the cost tag tucked just inside the front cover, Blaen mentally calculated how much he had in his coin purse and decided to go ahead and buy it. Closing the book again, he looked up at the two women. "Looks good. Eirenan history and legends ... intrigue me." He chuckled nervously. "Actually, most history and legends intrigue me. Or so my partner always tells me." You're babbling, Blaen. Shut up! They were just helping you. Not trying "Oh, sorry, my manners. My name's Blaen." He started to hold his right hand out, then hesitated, unsure. "Uh..."

Allie smiled and held out her hand first, placing it in Blaen's, turning his hand over slightly. "Like this."

"Thank you. I'm not really up on my 'how to act around noble ladies' lessons. Especially not for Eirena." The ladies both laughed gently, smiling at him. Blaen kissed the back of Allie's hand delicately, keeping the contact brief. "Pleased to meet you, my lady." He took Rhi's extended hand and copied the maneuver. "And you as well." As he straightened, releasing Rhi's hand, he caught sight of the delicate gold bracelet around her wrist, two small charms hanging off one side where he really couldn't get a good look at them. "That's a lovely bracelet."

Rhi fingered it, inclining her head. "Thank you. It's my crest bracelet -- one for parental family, one for marital. Men tend to wear them as pins or coat of arms on their cloaks or overtunics. My mother wears this rather gaudy broach -- ugly thing. I prefer this. Simple. Doesn't attract a lot of attention."

"As if everyone didn't know who you are anyway, Rhi." Allie broke in cheekily, making Rhi roll her eyes.

Blaen laughed with them, his nervousness receding under their easy-going banter. "Well, I thank you both for the assistance. I hate to run off so quickly, but I'm meeting a friend in a few minutes outside at the crossroads. He gets a little cranky when I'm late."

Allie smiled in understanding. "That's quite all right. Actually, Rhi and I were on our way out as well. To wait for Rhi's husband to pick us up for an evening gathering."

"Oh." He paused, then said, "Well, maybe we could talk outside, while we wait. You seem to know a lot about the, uh, the legends. Maybe you could tell me about the gryphon on the palace steps. I saw it earlier and it's just I know you're probably used to it and all, but I've never seen anything like it!"

Rhi held up a hand, chuckling at Blaen's exuberance. She exchanged a quick glance with Allie who nodded. "I think we've got a few minutes." She motioned toward the book. "Why don't you pay for that and we'll meet you out front."

Blaen grinned and hurried off toward the front of the shop.

The two women followed at a slower pace. Allie laughed. "He's kinda cute."

Rhi shook her head. "He's too young for you, Allie."

"He's still cute."


Eri's leading reins in one hand as he rode, Jydan directed his own horse around the last corner and onto the main road that led toward the book shop where he'd left Blaen. Wonder how many things he found to read. Or buy. And how much I'll get to hear about. Shaking his head in fond exasperation as he approached the crossroads, he started scanning the walkways for his partner. He frowned when he didn't see him anywhere.

Where is he?

Pulling the horse to a gentle stop at the side of the road, he raised up in the stirrups, hoping to spot his shorter friend among the people talking and laughing. A burst of familiar laughter caught his ear, and he shifted his gaze to the grassy park, finally seeing Blaen's profile where he sat on a bench.

With two very noble-looking ladies.

Jydan swung off the horse, his cloak flaring out behind him, and gathered those reins as well, leading both horses to the hitching post closest to the bench. After tossing the reins around the wood, he tapped a finger on his horse's nose and whispered a quick mercenary command to stay and warn him of any 'sticky-fingered thieves'. Stealthily walking up behind the bench, he dropped a hand on his partner's shoulder.

"Out charming the local ladies again, Blaen? Can't leave you alone for a moment."

Both ladies and Blaen jumped, then twisted around a bit to stare up at Jydan. Blaen glared at him. "At least I know how to be charming. What is it with you and being sneaky?"

Jydan just laughed and shifted his hand up to tug on a lock of Blaen's hair. "Part of my training. You ready to leave?"

"Yeah. Just give me a moment." He turned back to Rhi and Allie who watched them quite avidly and said regretfully, "Looks like it's time for me to go. It has been a great pleasure talking with you both." From behind him, Jydan cleared his throat. He shot the mercenary a quick look and caught him with his eyebrows up expectantly. Blaen sighed. "Oh, sorry. Jydan, this is Rhi and Allie. I met them in the book shop. We've been talking about legends and so forth. Ladies, this is my friend, Jydan."

Jydan stepped around the bench, extending his hand to them, kissing first Allie's, then Rhi's hand in quite a courtly fashion. "Ladies. Pleased to meet you." As he straightened, he saw Rhi beginning to frown ever so slightly. He asked, "Is something wrong, miss?"

"I'm not...I'm not sure. You look--" She cut herself off and stiffened, eyes widening. "Jydan? Your name is Jydan?"

He nodded, exchanging a curious glance with Blaen. "Yes, it is. Why?"

"Your mother was...was Dianthe, right?"

Jydan tensed, mouth firming into a fine line. Blaen edged closer to him, his arm touching Jydan's. The mercenary nodded sharply again. "Yes." His good mood dropped away and disappeared, wariness taking over. "How do you know that?"

Rhi hesitated, stepping back at Jydan's glower. Her eyes darted nervously to the sword pommel over Jydan's shoulder, as if only just then noticing it. "She, uh, she was my nursemaid when I was very, very young. I can just barely remember her. Long blonde hair. And a sweet voice. My older brother, he's told me rumors on what...what happened back then. And now that I see you..." Her voice trailed off.

Allie touched her arm, a frown creasing her forehead. "I'm a touch lost here. What're you going on about?"

"Rhielle!" The sharp, strident voice rose above the low hum of the voices, startling all four of them. Jydan bristled, jaw tightening even further. Feeling a wash of emotions fall over him from Jydan, Blaen's eyes widened and he swallowed. Jydan touched his arm, apologizing without a word, turning slightly to see two men approaching them.

One of them was Roeland.

"It's my husband and my father." Rhi's quiet whisper got Blaen's attention, and he whipped back around to stare at her.

"Father? He's your...father?"

Rhi nodded briefly.

Allie made a face, placing a hand on her hip to stare at the three of them. "I still don't understand. What's--"

Roeland and a younger dark-haired man joined them, cutting her off. Roeland and Jydan glared at each other in silence as the older man passed, but no words were spoken. Roeland's eyes swept over Blaen without acknowledging his presence.

The second man, Rhi's husband, moved to stand at Rhi's side, laying a hand on her arm and bending to kiss her cheek. "Rhielle. Here you are. I was beginning to wonder if I'd find you." He straightened, fastening suspicious eyes on Jydan and Blaen. "And who would these two gentlemen be?"

Roeland interrupted sharply before Rhi could do more than open her mouth. "Not important."

Rhi gasped, looking from her father to Jydan. Allie stepped back, wincing away from the vehemence.

Roeland continued, eyes cold. "And definitely no gentleman."

Allie's mouth suddenly formed an 'oh' as she looked from Jydan to Roeland and back again, eyes widening with realization. "Oh. Oh...oh, my."

Jydan took Blaen's elbow. "We need to go now."

Blaen shivered slightly at the touch, then nodded. "Yeah. We do." He let Jydan turn him and they moved quickly toward their horses. As they crossed the grass, they could both hear Allie asking in a strained whisper, "Is he who I think...he is?"

Rhi's equally quiet voice answered her, "Yes, he--"

Roeland's sharp voice rang out loudly, "Enough! That...that...sélacki mercenary is not to be discussed any further." Other people passing by the park stopped, staring at the tableau, a hushed, awkward still settling on them.

"Father!" Rhi's shocked outrage carried easily in the abrupt silence.

Jydan stiffened, jerking to a halt, every muscle tensing, then resolutely moved forward, snatching the reins from the hitching post. Blaen, who had also stopped, did not join him. Instead, he whirled and marched back across the grass, right up to Roeland, almost standing on his toes, staring at him belligerently. He could waves of derision rolling past him, but he ignored them, his anger lending him and his inner barriers strength.

His voice lashed out fiercely. "I have but a few words for you, Roeland of the Black Hawks. Dishonorable. Contemptible. A disgrace. And most of all, a coward. Unworthy of the esteem your crest holds." He leaned closer, oblivious to those watching, lowering his voice even further to a confidential whisper. "And most definitely unworthy of calling that man your son."

Roeland's face glowed red with anger and rage. "Why you little..." He drew back his hand, making a fist, and swung it toward the smaller man. Blaen, however, was faster, blocking the blow and twisting away. In a blur of motion, he shoved Roeland down to sit on the stone bench with a hard thunk.

Rhi grabbed her husband's arm, eyes wide, not knowing how to react to her father's attack on Blaen and Blaen's retaliation. Allie stood rooted to the spot, startled, realizing quite suddenly that the cute young man had to be a mercenary. Around them gasps echoed in the air, and someone called for the authorities.

Blaen ignored them and loomed over Roeland when the older man started to rise. He shoved the older man back onto the bench. "Don't. Just...don't." Struggling with his own feelings, plus those of Jydan's humming through the vibrating silver cords, and Roeland's, he didn't hear the soft fall of footsteps behind him. A strong hand touched his shoulder, following by his tayaerra's soothing, calm voice.

"Blaen. He's not worth it."

After another moment of internal arguing, Blaen stepped away from Roeland and moved closer to Jydan, drawing peace from Jydan's presence. Remembering his partner's words from years before, Blaen looked up and said softly, "No, but you are."

Jydan gripped his shoulder, then glanced down at Roeland briefly before dismissing him totally. "Maybe. But I don't need him. Not anymore. I have you." A moment of quietness passed, disturbed only by the low murmurs of the bystanders. Finally Jydan spoke again. "C'mon. Let's get out of here. I think I've had enough of the City for a couple years." He draped an arm over Blaen's shoulders and steered him away, the bystanders parting for their passing, some recognizing the black cloak, the curved sword, and the mercenary horses for what they were.

"No argument here."

They reached the horses when Blaen stopped, whirling around. "Oh, wait. My book!"

Jydan settled into the saddle, shaking out the reins. "Book? What book?"

"I got--" He cut off when Rhi strode up to him and held out a small, wrapped parcel. "Oh, thank you."

She smiled tentatively. "You're welcome." Rhi looked up at Jydan, then reached up toward him, pulling her hand back after a moment. "Jydan? I'm...sorry. For what my...for what he did. To you. And your mother. I wish...I wish things could have been different."

Jydan finally shifted his gaze away from the distant trees and looked at Rhi. He uncurled one hand from the reins and stretched it down toward her, gripping her hand warmly. "I know. I'm sorry, too. And thank you."

Rhi nodded and stepped away, hesitating at the last moment before leaving. "If you ever come back to the City again, maybe we could talk...for a bit or something. Without my...without him around. Maybe get to know each other a little."

Blaen looked up from where he was refastening his saddlebags after tucking his book in for safekeeping. He met Jydan's eyes and smiled encouragingly.

Jydan nodded after a moment. "Okay. It could be a while," he warned. "I never quite know where I'm gonna be. But that would be...nice."

She smiled. "Okay." Glancing behind her, she saw her husband and Allie waiting for her. Roeland's form could be seen stalking across the park in the far distance. "I have to go. Safe travels to you both."

Blaen mounted Eri as he watched Rhi hurry across the grass to join her husband. He gathered the reins and shifted in the saddle once, then moved his eyes to look at Jydan. "You doing okay?"

Jydan took a deep breath, then nodded. "Yeah, I'm doing okay." They swung their horses around to start down the K'Aleroon Trail. "So, what's this book you got?"

"Oh, man, this book is gonna be great! Allie was telling me all about it. 'Gryphonsong'. I can't wait to read it! Did you know that the gryphons are thought to have the most beautiful voices? They would sing to each other during mating season, sorta like a courtship ritual, even though they mate for life...."


Leaning on his quarterstaff outside the fence, Blaen watched the horses inside the corral dance around each other, some vying for attention from the potential buyers, others standing quietly to one side. Neighs and whinnies filled the air, as did some dust -- both from the horses and from the people outside the corral, who were all doing much the same as Blaen. Pondering which mount to buy. Rather Jydan was pondering; he was simply waiting to advise on Jydan's choices. Finally back on track! And where we've been trying to get to for the last month. Blaen smiled, glancing away from the horses to find his partner, spotting him at the other side of the wide corral, talking with Taison, bargaining and discussing which would be the best mount to replace Shadow.

Someone jostled him from behind a little and Blaen shifted closer to the fence. Wonder if I should've stayed at the inn like Jydan suggested. He did say this was an extremely busy place. Shifting his gaze to encompass the early morning crowds gathered around the corral, Blaen shook his head. He definitely wasn't kidding. Man. He lifted his face to the sky, inhaling deeply, letting the soft scent of apple tree blossoms fill his lungs. Closing his eyes for a moment, he absorbed the soft warmth of the sun, feeling it on his face and bared neck. It had been pleasantly and unexpectedly warm this morning, so he'd pulled his hair into a ponytail and left his long cloak back at the inn. If he could just tune out the noise, he would feel like he was alone on a hillside, taking a lazy nap. Silver light flashed his inner vision, showing him his tayaerra was at peace and happy. I could always tell Jydan I'm going back to the inn to wait for him, but...

Opening his eyes, he shook his head again. Something inside him told him to stay, so he did, moving to rest his arms on the top of the fence. One of the quieter horses, a cream-colored mare, immediately trotted over, standing just a few feet away from him. Blaen smiled and held out a hand. "Come here. I won't hurt you."

After another moment, the horse came close enough for Blaen to stroke a hand down her head, rubbing the bristly hair. "There you go. See?" The horse whinnied at him, and Blaen chuckled when she shifted closer to nudge at his shoulder. "No, sorry. I don't have any treats." He reached further over and patted the horse's neck. "Go on. Find someone who will take of you." The mare whinnied again and trotted off.

Chuckling under his breath as he watched the mare nudge at a teenage girl a bit down the fence, Blaen returned his gaze to the rest of the horses. It felt good to stop for a bit. Hopefully they could stay in the area for a little while, catch up on some rest. The ten-day trip up from E'Teirene City had been nonstop, except for a few hours in Valeria as Jydan checked on the status of his account at the Guild and figured out how much he had for purchasing the new horse. They'd only arrived in town of Jilerna, sitting at the base of the Clarriet Mountains in Malinde, last night.

I think I'll be glad just not to have to ride anywhere for awhile. Even if the trip did give Jydan and me some good long hours to talk.

He smiled again, feeling peace both within and emanating from Jydan. Even with his barriers up and strong, he could always feel something of Jydan touching him, making him feel ... at home. And right then, at peace as well. They'd talked for hours about Roeland and how Jydan felt about him, both in the past and in the present. They'd talked about Dianthe and Jydan's memories of her and his childhood, comparing Jydan's and Blaen's childhood, discussing the ups and downs of both of them. They'd talked about Rhielle and going back to see her sometime. They'd even talked about Queen Leisaja and the very unexpected, but much welcomed, tayaerran blessing.

And one very long night, neither had slept as they'd talked about Rik. And about the marking. Blaen flexed his shoulder, pleased to feel no hint of the physical pain that had bothered him in the last few weeks. The mental scars would take longer to disappear -- the nightmares might be gone, but the memories, still very fresh, lingered. But he knew he would heal. Accepting Jydan's offer of comfort had been the first step. Learning to think of the unfading mark as a badge of survival was another.

What were Jydan's words that day...oh, yeah. 'A symbol of surviving, of courage, of strength, of triumph.' He paused a moment, then nodded briefly to himself. I can do that. And this time, I think I'm ready to really mean it.

Time for both of them to put the pain of the past behind them and move on. Already tayaerra, their bond had been solidified by Queen Leisaja when she had declared them family. A wisp of a memory of words floated through his head.

<<You have only to stretch forth your hand and all will be yours. All will be healed.>>

Blaen rested his chin on his crossed arms, a small, secret smile on his face. 'All will be yours.' And 'all' definitely is.


"What about that one?"

Jydan followed Taison's nod toward a dark brown stallion at the left side of the corral. Pursing his lips, he watched it a moment, then shook his head. "Not quite right. A little too high strung, in this case."

Taison sighed melodramatically. "You are a hard man to please, Jydan, did you know that? Too short, too tall, not energetic enough, too energetic, lopsided ears..."

The mercenary laughed loudly, slapping Taison on the shoulder. "I have never said anything about lopsided ears." He paused. "At least not in reference to choosing horses."

"Not yet, at least, you mean," Taison snorted.

Still chuckling, Jydan leaned with one hip against the fence, crossing his arms over his chest. "I never thought I would be back here quite so soon looking for another mount. Shadow was..." His voice faded away, then he shook off the melancholy. "Shadow was a loyal and very brave stallion. Blaen called him noble. We both ..." He looked down, scuffing his boot in the dirt. "Well, Shadow was just a horse, or at least that's what some would probably tell us, but he was special at the same time. He saved Blaen's life. Very hard to replace."

Taison clasped him on the shoulder, squeezing it. "And that, my good friend, is what makes you different from so many of the others here horse-shopping. You actually care about your mount. A sign of a true horseman."

Jydan took a breath, then let it out. "Thanks." He straightened up, shifting against the fence. "So, it's been a little while since I've seen you. Any news?"

"Hmm. Funny you should ask that." Taison started to grin. "Ileen had another baby a few months back -- a girl. Finally!"

"Hey! That makes, what, five kids now, right? And a girl. I know Ileen's been wanting one for awhile." Jydan slapped Taison on the shoulder again, rocking the older, but slightly shorter man back on his heels. "Congratulations. I bet your mom is thrilled."

"Oh, yeah, she is. We named her Alissan after her. I catch her whispering to the baby a lot." Taison laughed. "Probably giving up all her secrets or something."

Jydan laughed, shaking his head, silently agreeing that Alissa could do just that.

"I guess I don't have to ask what you've been doing."

Jydan raised an eyebrow. "Why's that?"

Taison raised an eyebrow in return. "You mean you haven't heard? The gossip about you and your partner and Rikondja Slavemaster and that Rillandan swordswoman has been filtering through the Mercenary Guild. Of course, accounts differ, but I gather this guy crossed the line and you went after him, and then this Kellessan quite royally thumped him."

Jydan shrugged once, glancing across the corral, catching sight of Blaen. His friend waved a hand at him from across the mass of horses. There he goes again -- knowing when I'm looking at him. "Something like that. I've heard bits and pieces of the stories making the rounds, but usually I just ignore them. And as for Blaen, well, I don't know if he's heard any or not." Or if he has, he hasn't told me. "Doesn't matter." He grinned. "Well, except for the fact that Kellessan beat Rik, knocked everyone out somehow, and then stripped Rik down to his skin and left him there. I hear the buyers came into the Canyon before any of them woke up. Must have been quite a sight."

Taison guffawed, choking on his words. "You mean that part was true? That she sliced all his clothes off? I always thought that was one of the crazy parts."

Jydan shook his head, grinning widely. "Nope. Definitely true. I think the man's days of glory are coming to a close."

"Hear, hear!"

They watched the horses in silence, both leaning against the fence. Jydan's eyes tracked several, filtering past the ones he didn't like and pondering others. Several potentials, but none exactly--Wait! He spotted a tall, black stallion, head held high, and pointed it out. "What about him? He looks...he looks Rose-bred."

Taison nodded. "He is. At least I think he is. Though he might not be pure. He's pretty wild. Most of my hands have taken to calling him 'Ghost' because it took us months to catch him and we haven't been able to do much more than put a bridle and saddle on him. He won't let us ride him. I'm not sure what I'm gonna do with him. He's a beautiful horse, but..." He shrugged. "I doubt he's what you want, Jydan. Though you do have an exceptional eye for picking out these breeds."

Still staring at the stallion, Jydan answered absently. "Yeah. Thanks." Ghost. Ghostrose. The proud black stallion swivelled, prancing around several horses, nipping at a few, playfully nudging others. Jydan caught the horse's eyes and they stared at each other. Ghost neighed loudly, tossed his head, and turned away, trotting toward the other side of the corral. I think I've been rebuffed. That can be changed, howev--

"What the--?!?" Taison's alarmed voice broke into his thoughts.

Jydan looked at Taison, then followed his gaze across the corral. "What is it? What--?" Then he saw it. Or rather her. A little blonde girl, probably no more than 3 or 4, crawling underneath the fence railings into the corral. No one around her noticed.

Taison took off running, yelling the whole way. Jydan followed him, cupping his hands to shout at his partner who stood a few fence lengths away from the girl. "Blaen! Get the girl! Blaen!"


A feeling of alarm from his tayaerra shivered up Blaen's spine, startling him upright. Huh? Something's wrong. Jydan--

"Blaen! Get the girl! Blaen!" He could just barely hear Jydan's voice calling to him over the voices of the crowd. He glanced at the other side of the corral, trying to find him. Jydan's voice came again.

"To your right! The fence! Hurry!"

Jerking his head to the right and down, his eyes widened as he saw the little girl standing on the other side of the fence, inside the corral. Acting on instinct, he dropped his staff, leapt up on the fence and crawled over, landing inside in moments. Voices rose in bewilderment at his actions, but he ignored them, dashing across the hard-packed dirt, dodging a startled horse to get to the girl who was stumbling toward the quiet cream-colored mare he'd spotted earlier.

"Pwetty horsey. Pwetty horsey." Her hands stretched out before her and her eyes never left the sight of the horse.

Other voices rose behind him. Frantic voices. Parents. And why weren't they watching her?! Gritting his teeth, he slapped one horse on the rump, moving it and reached out for the little girl -- just as she tripped over a rock and fell on the ground, landing hard on her hands and knees. A half-second pause and she started to wail in hurt.

Blaen crouched and snatched her up, holding her close to his chest as he whispered to her. "Sh, sh, it's okay." He shifted his grip on her, and turned to walk back to the fence.

"Blaen!" Jydan's voice roared over the hubbub.

Head shooting upwards, he looked around, wondering why Jydan sounded so panicked. He caught sight of Jydan climbing over the fence.

"Behind you!"

Eyes widening, Blaen twisted around, clutching more tightly to the girl. A big, no, huge tan horse was bearing down on him, lips pulled back in a snarl. Freezing for a only a second, Blaen backed rapidly away, really not wanting to turn his back on those teeth. His foot caught on the same rock that had tripped the little girl and he fell backwards, landing hard on his back and one hip.



The horse kept coming, knocking aside other horses who whinnied in alarm. Scrambling and knowing he didn't have enough time to move out of the way, Blaen rolled onto his side, curling around the little girl, tucking his head in to protect it. Squeezing his eyes shut, he held his breath, feeling the pounding hooves echoing in the ground beneath him. A challenging neigh rung above him and he could hear stamping of more hooves, jerking slightly as the brush of air whizzed past the back of his neck.

Jydan's voice rose above the clamor again, calling for him, searching for him amid the chaotic mess of animals. He could hear Taison vaguely as well, grabbing his workers to get control over the horses. The little girl cried and whimpered, alternately pressing closer to him and struggling to get away. Blaen locked his arms around her, trying to hold her still. Heavy dust hung in the air, and Blaen breathed shallowly against the girl's head, not wanting to inhale any more dust than necessary.

Hooves struck the ground near his legs and he fought to keep himself still, to keep from reacting. More whinnies and neighs, but sounding less panicked, accompanied them. Voices of Taison's workers echoed around him as they rounded up the horses, separating them, calming them. Opening his eyes cautiously, Blaen was surprised to see a large black horse standing over them, its two front legs braced just in front of him. The horse -- a stallion, he noted -- turned his head, lowering it to look at him. He whinnied softly, almost sounding as if he was asking if he and the little girl were okay.

Shifting a little, wincing at the bruises he felt on his back and hip, Blaen sat up, patting the horse's leg shakily as moved out from underneath. "Uh, thanks." The horse nodded at him and leaned down to lip at his cheek. Blaen reared back, a little startled. "Hey! That tickles!" The horse just whuffled at him, lipping his cheek again. Blaen almost swore he heard amusement in the stallion's tone as he gently batted the large head away from his face. "Stop it!"


Jydan edged past the handlers and horses impatiently, his nerves jangling with fear and worry for his tayaerra. He has to be okay! To have come so far after almost losing him a second time to Rik....and then to lose him in a mini horse stampede.... He shivered. He's fine. He has to be. Seeing Blaen disappear behind the crowded mess of horses and not get up again had scared him half into the Light. He half-expected to find his tayaerra crushed or stamped to death.

He heard Blaen's familiar laugh and saw him at the same time. Jogging quickly to his side, he skidded to a stop next to his seated friend. "Blaen! Are you okay?" He crouched down next to Blaen, immediately moving one hand to cradle the back of Blaen's head. The other went to rest on the little girl's back, rubbing her trembling form tenderly. "Are you hurt anywhere?" His eyes skimmed over his friend's newly dusted appearance, not seeing anything obvious, but wanting to be sure.

Blaen swallowed hard and shifted his gaze to him. "Hurt? Uh, no, not really. Just a few bruises, but I'll live. I'm okay. Really." He patted the little girl's back weakly. "We're both okay. Just a little ... um ... oh, man." He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then reopened them in a rush. "That was definitely not fun."

"Think you can get up?" Relief made him woozy, but not so woozy that he couldn't help.

"Yeah. A little help would be nice, though."

"You got it." Jydan shifted his grip to Blaen's elbow as the younger man rose, steadying him as he wobbled a bit to accommodate the extra weight in his arms.

Blaen winced a little, sucking in a breath through his teeth. "Oh, ow, ow, ow, ow. Man, I take that bit about 'just a few bruises' back. More like several large ones -- or maybe just one big bruise."

Jydan's worry went back up a notch. "Where? How'd you get them?"

"On my back mostly. And when I tripped." He shifted away from Jydan's reaching hands. "You can doctor them later. Okay?"

"Okay. You sure you're okay otherwise?"

Blaen nodded, a reassuring smile on his face. "Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks." He stared at the stallion, stepping a little closer to him. "This guy here protected us, I think. Stood over us to keep us from being stamped. So, thanks to you, too." The stallion whuffled at him again, lowering his head to lip the little girl's fine blonde hair. "Yeah, she's okay, too." He moved to show the horse the little girl's mostly hidden face. Blaen tilted his head downward to see the little girl open one eye and stare at the big black horse. "See?"

The girl whimpered in his arms and buried her face back into Blaen's chest. He held her closer, rocking her slightly as he turned back to Jydan. "Where're her parents, man? They should've been watching her."

Jydan gestured over his shoulder. "Back there. Taison's keeping them from barging in here and causing more problems."

Blaen spotted Taison and two worried-looking individuals right next to the fence. "I'll be right back."

Jydan waited until Blaen reached the fence, then turned back to look at the big, black horse who saved his tayaerra's and the little girl's lives. He reached out slowly, petting one hand down the stallion's neck. The horse allowed it, nudging at his shoulder. "So you're Ghost. And here I thought from what Taison said, you probably should've been the one charging instead of that big tan beast. Guess you surprised me."

Ghost neighed loudly, his long black mane waving in the air.

Jydan chuckled. "What? Are you laughing at me, horse? Hmm?"

Ghost shoved at him, stepping forward, moving Jydan backwards in the direction that Blaen had taken.

"Now what?"

A hand touched his back and Blaen stepped up next to him, quarterstaff back in his hand. "What's going on?"

"I don't know. I almost want to say Ghostrose wants to go home with us."

The stallion neighed again, stamping one hoof on the ground emphatically.

Stepping closer, Blaen rubbed Ghost's muzzle. "Ghostrose? I guess that means he's one of those Rose-bred horses you've been hoping to get. The name definitely fits since he came out of nowhere and kept me from becoming a piece of the corral landscape -- a very squashed piece at that."

Ghost stretched his head forward and lipped at Blaen's cheek again. Jydan laughed at his partner wiping away the wetness.

"What is the deal with that? He's like someone's pet or something, licking my face. Yuck!" He wiped his sleeve over his cheek again for good measure.

Jydan laughed louder and swung his arm over Blaen's shoulder, carefully keeping his arm's weight off Blaen's bruised back. "Maybe he's telling you that you need a bath since you've been rolling around in the dirt. You are pretty much all brown right now."

Ghost nodded, whinnying.

"Hey!" Blaen thunked Jydan on the arm. "Two against one! Not fair!" The grin on Blaen's face and the laughter in his voice belied his emphatic words.

Jydan's laughter tapered off to a chuckle and he reached out to pat Ghost's neck quietly. "I think Ghost here made a very favorable first impression. What do you think, Blaen? Is he what I've -- we've -- been looking for?"

Before Blaen could answer, Taison appeared next to them, a little breathless. "Is everyone okay here? Blaen?"

Blaen touched Taison's arm. "I'm fine. No real harm done. Not something I'd want to repeat, but...I'm okay. I'm just glad I got to the girl in time. And I think she was okay, too, just really scared."

Wiping a hand over his eyes, Taison blew out a breath. "Good. I'm glad to hear it. I had no idea that horse was gonna go nuts like that. I've set him apart from the others for the horse docs to take a look at. Maybe something's wrong with him."

Ghost nudged at Jydan's shoulder impatiently, shoving him forward a step.

Blaen laughed. "I think he's trying to tell you something. And in answer to your question -- I'm for it, if you are."

Taison raised an eyebrow speculatively and crossed his arms. "Why do I get the feeling that Ghost has just found an owner?"

Jydan grinned. "Probably because he has." He released Blaen and gestured toward the exit. "C'mon, Taison, we've got some negotiating to do."

The horseseller laughed and headed toward the fence with Jydan, leaving Blaen and Ghost to take up the rear. "Negotiating? Uh-huh. We'll just have to see about that..."


Jydan gently rubbed the last of the bruise liniment on Blaen's right shoulder, paused a moment, then lifted his hand away. Blaen didn't stir, only continued to breathe deeply, very much asleep. Smiling in satisfaction, Jydan picked up the towel lying over one leg and wiped his fingers on it. His eyes remained fixed on Blaen, watching his back rise and fall in an even cadence.

I bet he didn't even realize how tired he was. You would think nearly falling asleep in the bathing room in that tub of hot water might have been a small clue....

Restraining a chuckle, Jydan affixed the lid back onto the liniment container and set it quietly on the short bureau next to the bed. He stood slowly to his feet, stretching his back muscles. The bedsprings creaked, but Blaen only murmured once, not waking. Taking the sheet and the heavy blankets in his hands, Jydan gently covered his friend, leaning over him briefly to brush away the loose curls from Blaen's face. Face relaxed in sleep, Blaen murmured again as warmth enveloped him, then snuggled down further into the pillow under his head. Jydan left his hand on Blaen's head a moment, whispering, "Sleep well, Blaen." Then he straightened and padded across the floor in his socks to sink down onto the other bed set against the opposite wall.

One lone fat candle lit the inn's small room, flame flickering in the darkness. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Jydan watched it a moment, remembering Blaen's comparison weeks earlier between the candle flame and their friendship.

'It will light up the darkness, expose the shadows, reveal hidden things, and keep you safe in the night.'

A soft smile flitted across the mercenary's face. I may have chosen him as my tayaerra and Queen Leisaja may have made us officially family, but Blaen made us true soul brothers, truer than I thought possible. We've both lost so much. He scrubbed a hand over his face. His whole family. My mother. And a father I never knew and either wanted to know desperately or hated entirely. And then Rik. Twice. His smile returned. But in the end, we gained each other. And learned how to heal one another.

He shifted his gaze to Blaen's blanket-covered form. Seeing Roeland again had been a strain at first, reminding him of the hurt and loss from so long ago. But at that moment, in the park, watching Blaen verbally attack Roeland in his name...he'd discovered the simple truth that Roeland could no longer hurt him, that Blaen's presence in his life had stripped Roeland of his power, of his ability to hurt him.

'I don't need him. Not anymore. I have you.'

The words had been simple.

And the truth.

Jydan stood and peeled off his trousers and overtunic, tossing them over his bags at the foot of the bed. He cracked open the window slightly, letting in some cool, fresh air, then blew out the candle, dowsing the room in darkness, lit only by the moonlight streaming in through the shutters. Collapsing backwards into bed, he dragged the blankets over his body, scrunching the pillow into the proper shape. Sighing out in relaxation, he interlaced his fingers behind his head and stared up into the darkness, listening to Blaen's occasional mutterings from the depth of sleep. Complete. I feel...complete. Whole. Healed.

Closing his eyes, he rolled to his side to face the other bed, tugging the blankets up further to rest on his shoulders. Lulled by the gentle sound of his tayaerra's quiet breathing, Jydan drifted and dozed. A soft breeze whispered through the window, ruffling Blaen's dark curls and caressing Jydan's face with the soft kiss. Inhaling the delicate scent of Eirenan lilacs, Jydan, son of Dianthe, tayaerra to Blaen, smiled and slept.

- The End -

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