Prophecy Story Index || The Sentinel Fan Fan Fiction

Summary: Returning to Blaen's childhood hometown sets the stage for closure. Main story set sometime after Legacies.

Written for Sealie who has waited so patiently for this little tale.

Thanks to Robyn who helped me rewrite (and rewrite!) and refine this story immensely.

Sea Dreams
by Becky
August 2002

*************************
Prologue (occurs immediately following Rik's death in Searches...)
*************************

Blaen waited at the side of the clearing, seated on an uncomfortable, partially rotted log. In silence, he watched Kell and Dorien help each other up and half-walk, half-stumble away from the scene of the battle. There was ... something between them, but he wasn't sure what to call it yet. His dironan abilities teased him, however, with hints that both, especially Kell, were more than they appeared to be. He just wished he knew what more they were. It felt important somehow.

Behind him, he heard Jydan and the local men who'd helped them find Rik, dealing with the remainder of the slavers and raiders. Jydan's strong voice thrummed through him, echoing with confidence -- and relief and concern that remained concealed to all except his tayaerra.

Blaen stared across the distance of the clearing at the body -- Rik's body -- arms outstretched, eyes and mouth fixed open in surprise, his own dagger still in place in his chest. It's finally really over. After all these years. He hasn't come near us since that last time, but I always had a feeling he was out there ... somewhere ... maybe hurting someone else. He felt the warmth a few moments before a hand settled on the back of his head, sliding down to rest on his back even as Jydan sat next to him on the log.

"You okay?" Jydan asked quietly.

Blaen nodded silently, eyes still on Rik's body. After another few moments, he said, "I'm just, I don't know, letting myself realize that he's finally gone. Forever."

Jydan's thumb moved on his back. "And just like you said it would happen. By a woman. With his own knife."

Lifting his head, Blaen looked at Jydan. "I'd almost forgotten. After the time in Kinesti, I thought we were never gonna see him again. He just ... vanished."

A scowl followed quickly by a grimace slid across Jydan's face. "Don't remind me. That was nearly the worst day of my life...."

*************************
Two years earlier....
*************************

"Are you sure this is a wise idea?"

Blue eyes flicked up from the mug of dark ale over to his friend's concerned face. "What part of 'this' are you referring to?" He and his companion sat half in the shadows at one end of a much-dinged bar counter. Patrons in various stages of drunkenness clustered around a handful of roughhewn tables and stools in the small tavern, which was incongruously named The Happy Pig. Three men in the center of the room loudly crooned a Gurodellan drinking song -- out of synch, off-tune, and sounding mostly like a trio of sick cows.

"This." The first man waved a hand in the air. "Being here. In Gurodel. Letting Blaen go off by himself." Natanael tilted his own mug toward him, then shoved it away. "Ordering such disgusting and obviously badly-made ale."

Chuckling once, Jydan dropped his gaze back down and debated whether or not he should bother tasting the questionable-smelling brew. Another cautious sniff made his eyes water, and he pushed the tall mug away to join Nat's. He folded his hands in front of him and shifted slightly to face Nat. Good ale was a vain hope in the tiny town of Kinesti -- The Happy Pig was the only bar in town and not a place he'd ever want to visit again.

Natanael folded his own hands on the counter, warily avoiding a suspicious, if dried, stain. "This isn't the same town Blaen lived in." He inclined his head toward the main room in general. "This area has changed a great deal in the past ten years."

Jydan nodded. "So I noticed when we rode in last night. Blaen seemed to think it was a normal thing to happen and if he's happy..." He trailed off. "Well, I can't say I'm happy to be here, but here is where he wanted to be." Sympathetic old sorrow filled his eyes. "He told me he'd never been back here, not after that night. He needs ... closure."

"But you left him alone," Nat repeated, his dark eyes darkening further. "After everything you've told me about Rik and his ... obsession with Blaen, I didn't think you'd ever do that."

The other man tugged the mug of ale back to himself, staring into its depths again. "I know. I'm not happy about that either. But he wanted some time alone. He's gotten pretty good at hand-to-hand, with or without that quarterstaff of his; and I made him take Ghost so he'd at least have a merc-trained horse." He shifted in his seat and made a face. "And I think somehow I'd know if something happened."

Nat raised his eyebrows. "Because he's--" He cut himself off abruptly and chose a different word. "--special?" Naming someone as dironan in Gurodel just wasn't done anymore, not since Rik's fascination with them had become known.

"I think so, yes." He took a deep breath, then let it out in a rush. "So I just have to trust that he'll be okay." Jydan rubbed his thumb over the rough carvings on the mug. "And he will."

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

Ten years...it's been so long.

Shaded by a tall, gangly tree, Blaen sat on a large rock, legs pulled up against his chest. And yet, I can still smell the smoke. He stared at the barren patch of land, part of him wondering why no one in the sprawling village had built another house there. Weeds grew haphazardly among the remnants of brick and lumps of hardened ash, speaking of years of neglect. To one side, he could see ... it. Jydan had seen the upright stone first and quickly cleared the grass and weeds away. It was carved with a few symbols, marking the deaths of the family of Sudarsan of Kinesti. Blaen rested his chin on his knees and squeezed his eyes shut tightly. Memories, good and bad, assaulted him in quick succession. His father's deep voice ... the smell of the smoke ... his mother's soft touch ... the echoes of falling walls ... the companionship and smiles of his sisters and brothers ... the heat of the fire ... the scent of mara-berry pastries filling the air ... the emptiness and loss ...

A half-strangled sob broke free, and Blaen took a ragged, deep breath, opening his eyes again, relegating the memories and the never-quite-healed hurt to the past. Deep breaths. Stay calm. Jydan hadn't been happy to leave him alone, especially here, in Gurodel, in the very place his life had changed so drastically. But Blaen knew he needed to be alone, if only for a little while. So Jydan had acquiesced, if a bit grudgingly, and went back into town with Nat (who was traveling with them for a bit) to visit the one and only bar in town. He'd promised to wait there ... for a time.

Blaen straightened, raising his head. Ten years had passed. He was no longer the scared and very alone boy, running from an evil man. Some fears would always haunt him, but they wouldn't rule his life. He was older. More assured of himself. He knew how to protect himself.

And he had Jydan.

Uncurling his legs, he slid from the rock to the ground. Several feet away, Ghost raised his head from a spot of green grass and whinnied at him. Blaen grinned, hearing the definite questioning in the stallion's "speech." He waved a hand casually at Ghost. "Yes, it's almost time to go back. Just give me a moment longer."

Ghost shook his head once and pawed the ground once before trotting over to him.

"You and Jydan worry too much." He petted the horse's nose, but shoved his head away with a laugh as Ghost attempted to nuzzle his cheek. "Ew, no. No horse slobber today, thank you." Grasping the reins loosely, he turned away and started walking. "C'mon then."

Walking past the blackened remains of his long ago home, Blaen stopped at the marker and crouched down before it. He stared at his family symbol -- a circle of three dolphins -- etched into the stone. Below it, another symbol gave the traditional wish of peace for the departed souls. Lifting one hand, he wiped away dirt from the dolphin symbol, scraping his fingertips across the timeworn edges. A part of him regretted not allowing Jydan to stay. He'd grown accustomed to having the older man with him, nearly always in reach, always ready to lend him strength. Jydan's presence and well-being floated to him across their only partially-understood connection.

I'm not alone. I'm never alone.

Wetness stinging his eyes, Blaen leaned forward and pressed a kiss onto the symbol, lingering to whisper, "I miss you. I'll always love you." He rested his head there for a moment, eyes closed. Taking a deep breath, he set aside the tumultuous emotions spawned by the visit for a later time when he had Jydan to turn to, to catch him if ... when he fell. Pushing himself back, he stood and found Ghost waiting patiently for him. Remaining silent, Blaen patted Ghost's mane, then gave a light tug on the reins as he turned toward the path leading back to town -- and Jydan.

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

"No dartboard."

The barkeep shook his head at Jydan. "Owner took it down. Most too drunk to aim and end up poking each other." He looked nervously between the two mercenaries. "More ale?"

Nat choked and twisted around on the barstool.

Jydan's lips twitched. "No. Thank you."

With a skittish nod, the barkeep scurried away.

"I think you scared him, Jydan." Nat chewed on a stick of jerky, the only palatable thing (so far) that The Happy Pig had to offer.

"You were the one who asked for something you could 'chew on,'" Jydan shot back. "I think he was half-expecting you to chew on him."

Nat grinned devilishly around the jerky.

Rolling his eyes, Jydan spun the bowl of nuts on the counter, watching it twirl for several moments, half-listening to the continued bad singing behind him. "So...where are you going after this?"

"I'm heading on to Eirena, up to E'Teirene City." Back resting against the bar counter, Nat watched the card game beyond the singing trio in mild interest. "Got some business up there. And I want to get a few things that I can't get out at the Keep. Thought about doing some recruiting, but it'll depend who or what I see on the way." He glanced back at Jydan. "What about you? Where are you headed?"

Jydan stopped the bowl and looked over at Nat. "North. Up to Fariedel. Blaen and I are meeting with Kellessan at the Inn to exchange information. I figured we'd go early and catch up with friends."

Nat nodded wisely. "You mean, with, uh, what was her name...ah, yes, Caleen." He drew her out in two long syllables.

Giving his friend a sideways glare, Jydan said, "As well as many others."

"Hmm." Nat smiled and kept chewing on the jerky.

Jydan continued. "In any case, once Kellessan gets there, we won't have much time. She inevitably has someone trailing after her who's not always on the right side. So, usually, once we talk, we head our separate ways. Caleen's told me that sometimes that troublesome minstrel Rei shows up within a few days of our leaving and wants to know what wild adventures Kellessan's had lately." He chuckled. "Well, troublesome to Seth at least. Though Kellessan's not hugely fond of him either."

"Rei. I think I've heard of him." Nat pursed his lips. "Didn't he write about your last run-in with Rik? The one with Kellessan?"

"He sure did." Jydan grinned. "And from what I understand, that song didn't help Rik's business in the slightest."

Nat clucked his tongue in mock sympathy. "Poor little man."

Jydan laughed sharply. "His days are numbered, and he knows it. I'd make a toast to his downfall," he said, flicking his fingers at their untouched mugs of ale. "But I don't want to give Rik the satisfaction of dying before he does."

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

As he wandered back into town, Ghost trailing along behind him, Blaen gave more attention to his surroundings, finding familiar things among the buildings -- a few store names and signs, the old rusted water handpump, a greenish metal ship wheel half-buried in the ground by the blacksmith shop. Fragments of memories danced at the edges of his mind with every step. He could feel the afternoon's emotional turmoil catching up to him. Not sleeping well last night didn't help.

A burst of laughter up ahead caught his ear, and he hesitated as he turned a corner. A cluster of tents with brightly-dressed travelers peddling their wares and entertaining a crowd met his eyes. Enticing food smells drifted on the breeze, reminding him that he'd only picked apart a biscuit that morning rather than eating it. Giving the sun a quick glance, he judged it was soon enough for an early supper. He fidgeted with Ghost's reins, hungry but uncertain if he should attempt going where there were so many people. With the memory of his family's death hovering so close to the surface, his inner barriers felt a little thin.

Large, wet lips attacked the side of his face, startling him and scattering his thoughts. "Ghost!" He wiped and rubbed his cheek with his hand and sleeve as he glared at the obviously non-repentant horse. "Is that your way of asking if I'm awake?"

In response, Ghost's ears flickered and he stamped the ground with one hoof.

"I don't know if that's a yes, a no, or just the horse version of laughing." Blaen rubbed at his cheek again. He looked again at the marketplace. Reaching under his overvest, he juggled the weight of his coin purse, judging how much he had to spend. Not a lot, but enough for a few things. "I think I'm gonna risk it." Drawing Ghost to the edge of the road, he looped the reins over a hitching post. "I'll think about seeing if they have any apples for you."

The horse whickered at him, his ears perking up at the mention of his favorite fruit.

Blaen chuckled. "I'll be back as soon as I can." He patted the stallion and hurried away. Sidestepping two jugglers entertaining a horde of amazed children, Blaen edged past tables and small tents, remaining on the edges of the marketplace. Although he felt no threat in the simple gathering of people, he didn't want to stay long. Even if it did bring a welcome sense of familiarity to him, reminding him of so many other spring fairs he'd attended as a child.

The rich scent of fresh bread led him to one side where a bakery worked in unison with a seller under a tented table. He quickly purchased a loaf, then spotted an apple seller and bought the promised apples for Ghost and the other two horses back in the stables. Pausing at a booth selling ales, Blaen abruptly wondered if the ale at The Happy Pig was as bad as he once remembered his father saying it was. If it is, Jydan and Nat got a rather unpleasant surprise. He chuckled and counted the coins he had left before buying a small jug of dark Alante ale -- particularly good he'd been told.

Turning, he headed back toward Ghost. His coins were nearly depleted, and though his barriers still remained up, he didn't want to take any chances. A table of worn and old books stopped him. Drifting closer, he slid curious fingers over covers and pages of words and stories. So much to know... His hand hovered over a large hardcover proclaiming to be the complete mythology and history of Gurodel. He didn't even pick it up. He had neither the funds to buy it or the space to keep it.

Just as he was turning away, the seller, a tall, thin, beak-nosed man spoke up. "I see you are of the Three Dolphins clan."

Blaen froze, then looked up, his hand raising instinctively to his collar where his ghlia pin shone proudly. He answered the man slowly. "Yes, I am."

The man's sharp eyes studied him. Blaen stiffened under the scrutiny, his instincts beginning to kick in as he wondered whether or not this man knew he who was. Really knew who he was. He took a half-step back, chastising himself for leaving his quarterstaff at the boarding house.

Then the man spoke again. "I have something that might interest you." He dragged a box labeled "cheap or free" to himself and dug inside the sloppily stacked box until he pulled out a bedraggled, coverless thin sheaf of pages. "I've had this in my inventory for years. Found it in a dump heap awhile back. Maybe you'd like it."

Taking the seemingly fragile stack of pages, Blaen squinted to read the smudged title page -- "Dolphin Clans." Clans? There were ... are ... others? Fanning the pages once showed the inner text was still readable if faded; scattered among it was handwritten notes. He dragged his eyes away from the temptation of the words to look at the seller again. "Yes, I would be interested. How much?"

The man waved a hand in the air carelessly, already moving to the next customer. "Nothing. Take it."

"Thank you." Blaen backed away and tucked the book, such as it was, inside his tunic to keep it safe. He turned and slipped between people to get back to Ghost. In his rush, he bumped into an old woman, nearly knocking her over. He rocked to a stop and gently grasped her shoulder with his free hand to steady her.

A jolt of ... something ... tingled up his arm, and he blinked several times. His barriers flickered and were gone, but only for a second before they re-solidified. The old woman peered at him intently, her eyes suspiciously alert. Part of him -- the part that wasn't frozen -- recognized the three tiny gold hoops in her ear and made a note that she had to be a dironan.

The old woman gripped his arm with gnarled, clawlike fingers. She hissed at him. "Be careful, boy. The jackal seeks his prey. You must learn from neeli'el if you wish to live." Then she scuttled away, disappearing into the crowd before Blaen could get his breath. He shook himself, looking around to see if anyone had noticed. No one had.

A shiver stole down his back, and he felt a sudden need to be with Jydan. Strange woman. Jackal? Prey? And what's a neeli'el? He didn't recognize the word and wasn't even sure what language it was. Oddly energized, he shook his head and hurried on his way.

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

Jydan pushed open the door of The Happy Pig and stepped gratefully onto the minuscule landing, squinting as his eyes readjusted to the sun, but very glad to be away from the stench of the tavern. Nat followed him out and let the door close, keeping the discordant mix of drunken conversation and bad singing inside. Before either of them could say anything, a man pushed past them to the door. Jydan and Nat stepped away, watching him enter, then looked at each other and laughed.

Falling into step together, they headed at a leisurely pace down the street toward the boarding house where they'd found lodging earlier that day. Kinesti wasn't big enough to warrant an actual inn. The boarding house had an attached stable, was reasonably priced, and the owner provided breakfast, so the three men found it quite acceptable.

Nat jerked his thumb over his shoulder back at the tavern. "How that place stays in business, I don't understand. The name alone -- The Happy Pig -- doesn't inspire confidence. And that ale!" He shuddered dramatically.

Jydan shrugged. "I'm betting the local folk have lived here most, if not all, their lives. Maybe they don't know any better." He grinned. "And Blaen told me the original owner was a pig farmer, thus the name."

"No wonder!" Nat huffed, rolling his eyes, then quickly smiling politely at a pair of passing townswomen. "Speaking of Blaen..."

"I know." Jydan frowned and idly scratched his ear. "I'm debating whether I should go find him. I know I promised not to, but I--" He stopped when a distinctive whistle pierced the air. Turning around, the two men spotted Blaen on Ghost coming toward them. Blaen raised a hand and waved.

Ignoring the relieved sigh from Jydan, Nat crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the side of a building. "He looks okay."

Jydan nodded. "Yeah." He reached up to grasp the front part of the reins as Ghost came to a halt in front of them. His eyes scanned his tayaerra, searching Blaen's face for a clue to how his time alone went, to know if he was okay, to see if he needed anything. He seems ... jittery. A little too happy. But okay.

Swinging down easily, Blaen smiled up at Jydan as he swivelled to face him. "Hey."

"Hey." Jydan kept his voice quiet, absently petting Ghost's nose. He depended on Blaen's familiarity with him to know what he wasn't asking but still wanted to know. He wasn't disappointed.

Blaen moved closer and laid a hand on Jydan's arm. "I'm good. I'm fine. I feel ..." His voice wavered.

The older man fought the urge to push him for answers. He didn't want to go through another incident like the year before. And there was something about Blaen that spoke of heavy emotions.

He finally settled on a word. "... better." Blaen's hand tightened fractionally on Jydan's arm, finishing in an even softer voice. "I know I'm not alone."

Jydan relaxed and a smile crept across his face. "Good." Meaning the rest will keep...for awhile. And that he's going to be okay regardless.

Releasing Jydan, Blaen reached for the nearest saddlebag on Ghost. "So how was The Happy Pig? Have a good, uh, drink?"

Nat appeared at Jydan's side, brown eyes glinting. "No. Their so-called ale was terrible. As I'm sure you knew." He scowled at the younger man.

"Uh...well, yes, I did." He held up his hands in defense at Jydan and Nat's exclamations. "Though not from first-hand experience. My father said once that it was 'vile'."

Jydan snorted. "Vile. That's putting it nicely."

Opening the saddlebag, Blaen drew out a small jug. "Well, then, might I suggest we have the Alante with supper. I hear it's pretty good. I got it and a loaf of fresh bread from some tent shops back that way. I thought maybe fish with those herbs I picked up last week ... unless you wanted to brave The Happy Pig's renowned mystery meat stew..."

Jydan and Nat looked at each other in horror, then at Blaen and said in unison. "Fish."

Blaen laughed. And ducked the resulting swat from Jydan.

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

After a quick stop at the boarding house to collect the other horses, fishing tools, and assorted eating and cooking implements (and Blaen's vaunted herbs), the three men rode down to what Blaen had heard was a prime fishing spot -- one of the many rocky inlets on the shore of the Emerald Sea. Riding between the two other men on Eri, Blaen listened quietly as the two mercenaries debated fishing tactics and traded "the one that got away" stories. Some of them he'd heard before, and commented to himself that the "it was this huge" fish kept getting bigger as time passed. It was times like these that he could truly see and feel the friendship between Nat and Jydan. Nat, he knew, still wasn't quite sure what to make of him. At the same time, Blaen occasionally sensed a similar "protect" feeling from Nat, not as strong as the one from Jydan, but it was there nonetheless.

As the beach came into sight through the trees, Blaen spoke up softly in a lull of conversation.

"My father and I used to lay fishnet traps along the beaches. It was my job to come out later and check them. My mom ... she always ..." Blaen blinked several times and swallowed hard. The wall he'd put up between himself and the emotions of the day was breaking down. In deciding to remember that particular duty he had as a child, the emotions he'd pushed aside an hour earlier had chosen to force their way back to the center again. "She always worried about me. The last time I--" He broke off abruptly, looking down at his hands where they clenched Eri's reins.

He didn't see the looks that Nat and Jydan exchanged, but he glanced up briefly when Nat kneed his big brown bay to speed up even as Jydan reached over and covered his hands gently. Eri and Ghost slowly came to a stop at Jydan's direction.

"Blaen?"

He swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut. "Sorry. The day's been...it's been a bit much, I guess. I haven't thought about the...the l-l-last time in so long..."

Strong fingers rubbed over his knuckles, encouraging him to relax his grip. "It's okay. Tell me."

Opening his eyes again, he stared out in front of him, his eyes unconsciously tracking Nat and his mount before they vanished over a hill. His tale spilled out in clumps. "The last time I saw them, my whole family, was just before I went out to check the traps. Rik caught up to me by the water and I ran to a friend's house across the cove. When I returned, Kinesti was burning." His vision blurred as the images of years ago whirled past him.

"Dad tousled my hair. Mom kissed me on the cheek and told me to be careful. My older sister was visiting with her husband and baby. My two brothers were helping my dad fix fishing nets. My younger sister stuck out her tongue at me; she hated fish smell. The baby ... the baby tottered over and sat on my foot; she needed a diaper change. I just ... waved and promised to be careful and said I'd be back soon." His throat felt tight and wetness spilled over onto his cheeks. "Socks were hanging by the fire to dry. Mom was making cornbread--" A sob overrode his voice, forcing him to stop. He released the reins and covered his face with his hands.

Turning toward Jydan, his friend and partner was already there, enfolding him in an awkward hug. Eri shifted beneath him, adjusting to the change of balance, but he barely noticed. He buried his face in Jydan's shoulder and gripped his tunic tightly. The rush of sorrow and renewed loss stung him, trying to overwhelm him as his barriers fell. But then Jydan's own emotions closed in, supporting him, giving him the courage to mourn and the strength to overcome.

Regret. Empathy. Security. Protection. Warmth. Solidness. A constant presence.

And most of all, a caring that went beyond family or brothers. Tayaerra. Soulmates.

Jydan whispered, echoing with words what Blaen could feel. "I'm here. I'm always here."

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

Several long minutes later, Nat looked up from the firepit he was creating when Jydan and Blaen came into view through the trees just beyond the sandy beach. He sat back on his heels, watching the two men with keen eyes. Blaen looks better. Guess he still had some mourning to do. Maybe Jydan was right. Maybe this little visit will help the kid put the last of his demons -- his regrets -- to rest. Light knows he deserves it. He made a face. Anyone who's had to deal with Rik deserves it. He could tell Jydan was feeling a bit over-protective when the two had a tug-of-war over Blaen's saddlebag after their horses had been tied next to Nat's in the shade.

Chuckling at the consternation on Jydan's face and the patient amusement on Blaen's when the younger man seemed to win the argument, Nat returned his attention to stacking the kindling for the fire just so. Picking up two flint rocks, he struck them together several times, igniting the kindling quickly. He focused on carefully adding to the flame to build the fire.

"...because I am perfectly capable of carrying it myself, Jydan." Blaen's voice drifted to him, and Nat glanced upward to see the two of them approaching him. He rose to his feet, absently dusting sand away from his pants and hands, just as they stopped by the firepit.

Blaen lowered the saddlebag to the ground, then snapped out a blanket next to the low-burning fire. Nat noticed the redness of the younger man's eyes and the shakiness in his voice and hands. Even more noticeable was the way Jydan barely held himself back from assisting. Nat caught his eyes and shook his head once, willing Jydan to understand what he couldn't say right then. You've been there for him. You are there; he knows that. Now let him be strong for himself. He'll be okay. Jydan's jaw muscles tensed, then forcibly relaxed as he nodded curtly.

Ignorant of the silent conversation going on above his head, Blaen waved a hand at Jydan. "Go, oh mighty hunters. Catch fish." He plopped down on the blanket and promptly began tugging off his boots.

Nat raised his eyebrows in amusement at Blaen's words. He picked up their poles and turned to Jydan.

Jydan finally sighed in agreement and pulled off his cloak. "Fine. We'll go fish." He dropped said cloak on Blaen's head. "Hold onto this for me."

"Hey!" Blaen's indignant protest was muffled underneath the heavy cloth.

This time it was Nat's turn to laugh.

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

Leaning against his saddlebag, Blaen turned the crinkling pages of the almost-book carefully, reverently. Bolstered by the memory of Jydan's care and distracted by the promise of information about the Dolphin Clans, he felt ready to tackle almost anything. Including this tattered packet of pages. The text was old; that he could tell by the mix of Gurodellan words and occasional older words that he didn't recognize. Fortunately, the scribbled notes in the margins clarified the meanings of most. The first chapter was mostly an introduction to family clan system in Gurodel, discussing its beginnings. He scanned through it quickly, stumbling here and there over unfamiliar words, but since he already knew most of the history, he'd go through it more carefully at a later date.

The second chapter, however, shifted its focus to the Dolphin Clans. Blaen angled the book toward the firelight and kept reading with eager anticipation.

Dolphin Clans are sea and shore-abiding folk, protectors of the green waters that lap against the coves and rocky shoals of Gurodel. Once many, they dwindled rapidly as the country grew beyond the scope of its leaders to lead. They became a ready target for invaders, the first to die in the battles that eventually split the country into disparate factions. Those that remained scattered throughout the land; most lost their ties to the sea, to the waters, and to the mysterious creatures that dwelled within.

Blaen's eyes widened. Creatures?

Much to his disgust, the chapter skipped past that tantalizing hint of knowledge and continued with the history and tracking of the remaining Dolphins Clans as they spread throughout the land. All rather pedestrian. So-and-so begat so-and-so. They moved here and there and back again. Where's the good stuff? Adding those pages to his "go through at a later date" column, he impatiently flipped rapidly through the pages, scanning the short chapters for more of the "mysterious creatures."

A phrase caught his eye and he stopped, one finger coming to rest in the middle of a page.

...these creatures once lived peacefully with the sea-dwelling folk.

He kept reading, ignoring the sounds of the water and of Nat and Jydan's distant voices.

Some ancient tales claimed that gifted ones could speak with the creatures, that they were guided to areas of bountiful fish or away from danger or to new hidden coves along the shore. Because of these stories, these creatures, called 'sea spirits' or dolifinas, became the root of the name of the families living by the sea -- Dolphin Clans. Originally given in jest, the clans grew proud of the name and fashioned their crests to show the image of the dolphin. They--

"Blaen? Blaen!" A loud whistle pierced the air, and Blaen jerked his head up to see Jydan waving at him from the water. He had a feeling that Jydan had been calling for a while.

"Yeah?"

Jydan motioned to himself and Nat and then pointed over a slight rise of rocks, signaling that they were going to the other side where they would be out of sight. Blaen nodded and waved back. The older man stared at him a moment longer, pointing his finger emphatically at him, then at the makeshift campsite in general. And that would be the 'you stay put and don't go running off' sign. Grinning, Blaen nodded again, shooing them away with his hand as he refocused on the book, not bothering to watch as Nat and Jydan clambered over the rocks and disappeared from view.

Now where was I...?

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

Water lapping at the edges of his boots, fishing pole grasped lightly in his hands, a cool breeze blowing past his ears, one friend next to him, the other absorbed in a book just over the rocks...nearly perfect. Jydan closed his eyes and took a slow, deep breath.

"I don't think anything's biting." Nat's low, somewhat disgusted voice came from his right.

Jydan grinned, but didn't open his eyes, just shifted his weight as a wave rolled over his feet.

"Not that you seem to care."

This time, he glanced to the side and saw Nat giving him an amused look.

Chuckling, Jydan shrugged. "If we don't catch anything, there's always the traveling rations. Blaen says I make a mean stew." He released the pole with one hand to jerk his thumb in the direction of the rocks. "I think this was mostly to keep us busy so Blaen could read in peace."

Nat grunted. After a minute or so, he spoke up again. "So...is Blaen..." He hesitated before finishing, "...okay?"

Jydan moved his line to a different part of the water. "Yeah. I think so." A slight frown slid across his face. "It's been a rough year. But he's ... he's stronger than he used to be. Probably why he decided to come back here and face all this." He waved a hand in the air.

"It take guts to return to somewhere that brings so many memories of pain." Nat stared at the fishing pole in his hands, his knuckles tightening briefly. "Or of death."

"You did it," Jydan commented quietly.

Nat's lips thinned. "Not at first, really. I returned mostly out of anger. And hatred toward those that killed my Jennet. I hunted down a lot of raiders."

Jydan nodded. "I remember."

"I'm sure you do." Nat smiled wryly and the big man's body relaxed. "You're the one, if I recall correctly, who shoved me into that river to 'cool me off' and 'make me think about what I was doing.' I've never been so surprised -- or mad -- in my life." He laughed. "But you were right."

"Of course I was." Jydan grinned impertinently and laughed with Nat. The memory of Nat's wife and her ready smile and vivacious soul flashed through his mind. "Jennet would be proud of the Keep and what you're doing with it. It's a fine memorial to her."

Nat smiled easily, staring out at the water. "Yes, it is."

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

After tossing another few pieces of driftwood on the fire and dragging Jydan's cloak over his knees, Blaen picked up the sheaf of papers again. Whoever had written the book wasn't much for organization. He grinned to himself as he scanned the margins. And whoever wrote these notes agrees with me! Near the end of the book, he finally found one of the original sources of the dolphin myths -- an old hero's journey tale. Written in Old High Gurodellan, it was highly stylized and filled with symbolic language. However, between his own knowledge and the scribbled notes in the margins, he was able to unravel the absorbing tale.

...and Ti'aki fell, bore down by the dying body of his enemy. Voices rang out in frightful alarm, but no hand could save him. His beloved Aimie stood at the very edge of the rocky cliff, wailing and pouring out her sorrow into the whistling wind. And though she so yearned to join him in the green waters below, the babe at her breast forbade such a journey. Uncomforted and alone save for Ti'aki's son, Aimie descended the cliffs to wander the sea pathways. Grieving, Aimie spoke through her tears, telling the babe of his father.

Far below, in the great waters of green, deep in the darkness of the sea, Ti'aki's eyes opened. Much amazed to be yet living, he twisted against the strength of the water. Something unlike water touched him, twining around his legs and upward. And a voice like bells and thunder spoke within him. 'Man. Gifted. We are neeli'el. You must not--'

Blaen jerked, thrown out of the story. Neeli'el? What? The old woman's words, already nearly forgotten, rang through his mind.

'Be careful, boy. The jackal seeks his prey. You must learn from neeli'el if you wish to live.'

His fingers tightened even as a thread of anxiety wove its way through him. He glanced toward the rocks, knowing that Jydan would come back if he asked. Ascribing the reaction to the weird old woman and the high emotions of the day, he shook it off and pushed onward. He searched the margins around the story for any hint of what a neeli'el was. Finally, at the bottom, he found a smudged notation that said only "neeli'el -- unknown language; perhaps error in original source; check archaic." Not a lot of help there. Blaen returned his attention to the tale.

He turned the page, eager to read more.

And so ends the tale of Ti'aki.

"What?!" The word slipped out in surprise. "Where's the rest?" he muttered, examining the pages again and finding that two were stuck together. He fingered the pages carefully and pondered trying to separate them with his bootknife. Too risky. Frustrated, he blew out a heavy sigh. I'll have to steam the pages or something. Loosen them a little.

Reluctantly stuffing the book in his saddlebag, Blaen stretched his arms upward, then leaned back a little, watching the waves roll in over the sand. A sudden urge to feel the water of his childhood village and haunts hit him. He tugged off his socks and stuffed them in his boots. Standing and wrapping Jydan's cloak around his shoulders, he strolled closer to the water's edge, digging his toes deeply into the sand with each step. Dry, loose sand turned wet and packed as he neared the surf; soon he was leaving shallow footprints as he wandered down the beach, being careful to stay within sight of the campsite in case Jydan popped his head up looking for him.

He finally stopped at a low cluster of rocks where the shoreline began to turn away. A stiff breeze blew past. The sun would be setting in less than an hour, leaving the air a bit chilly. Blaen stilled and lifted his head, closing his eyes and letting the scent of the sea air fill him. So many memories ... so many of them good. It's not all pain. He stood there for a few minutes, arms wrapped around himself, remembering the times he spent with his father by and on the sea; frolicking with his siblings and friends in the sand and in the water; his mother's laughing smile as she watched him play and her proud smile as she watched him learn.

Releasing a quiet sigh, he opened his eyes and again watched the water. Something bobbing in the tidal pools amongst the rocks snagged his attention. Curious, he removed Jydan's cloak and draped it over the dry rocks. Then stepping carefully onto the wet rocks -- happy to find out he still retained the balance and knowledge to do so without slipping -- Blaen crouched down to take a closer look at the object. Fishing it out, he stood up and shook the water from the wet, oddly-cut piece of fabric.

He turned the item over in his hands. "This looks like--"

Hands grabbed him and yanked him hard upwards. His lungs emptied in a shocked gasp. The fabric slipped from his grasp, forgotten in the rush of fear that overtook him.

A hot foul breath whispered in his ear. "I've been looking for you."

"No--" Blaen got only the barest chance to struggle against the unrelenting grip before something hit him on the head and everything went dark.

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

"--and by then I was more than a little worried about how Blaen was doing with the other two." Jydan chuckled around his words. "What I didn't expect to see was Blaen sitting calmly on the stone wall, examining the stolen gemstones for quality while the two thugs were sitting on the ground, tied-up, groaning, and nursing a rather large assortment of bruises."

Nat burst out into laughter. "Didn't know Blaen was that good with a staff."

Jydan grinned slyly. "Neither did I. 'Course it did help when he threw a bunch of ground seasonings in their faces. A little distraction and ... and--" He stopped and frowned.

"What is it?" Nat glanced at him from across the water.

"I don't know." Jydan shook his head. "Something doesn't feel right." He strode through the churning water to the large rise of rocks.

The other man followed, rapidly tugging on the fishing line. As he moved, he swept an expert eye over their surroundings. Everything looked okay to him. His attention switched forward again when Jydan swore under his breath and nearly jumped over the rocks. Nat's eyes widened -- only something wrong with Blaen could cause that much concern. He pulled himself up and muttered his own swear words.

Blaen was nowhere in sight.

Jydan called Blaen's name several times, but received no answer. Nat hurried after Jydan, arriving just after him at their little campsite -- which, to his eyes, looked fine. The blanket was on the sand next to the still burning fire. Blaen's boots, socks peeking out of the top, rested next to his saddlebag.

Stepping closer, Nat said, "Maybe he had to answer a call of nature. Or he went for a walk."

Lips tightened into a thin line, Jydan shook his head and swept his eyes over the beach. "Maybe." He headed toward the water.

Nat followed him slowly. "Jydan..."

Jydan ignored him, intent on pacing down to the other end of the beach.

Hurrying after him, Nat asked, "Why this way? I didn't see any footprints."

The other man shrugged once, saying shortly, "Instinct."

A tense silence fell between them. In the distance, the bottom edge of the sun touched the surface of the water, scattering golden light across the rippling waves. Jydan stopped suddenly and grabbed Nat's arm. With his other hand, he pointed toward a low rise of rocks. "Look."

Nat nodded. "I see it."

The two men jogged to the rocks where Jydan's cloak lay in a crumpled heap at the base. Jydan's hand hovered over it and then he scooped it up.

Nat glanced downward as something fell from the cloak's folds. "What's that?"

Jydan followed his pointing finger and crouched down to pick up the object in question -- a disfigured, stemless black silk rose. He stared at it, blinking, then jerked upright.

Cold blue eyes met Nat's. "Rik has him." He turned to head back to where they'd left the horses.

Nat bit off another curse, striding after him. "I thought a black rose was your calling card."

"It is. Rik's taunting me," Jydan said shortly. "I left them the two times I took Blaen from him. He wants me to know."

They stopped at the campsite long enough to douse the fire and collect Blaen's boots and saddlebag, then hurried on to where they left the horses beneath the trees. Ghost started prancing nervously as soon as Jydan appeared, sensing on his master's turmoil. Mounts were saddled. Saddlebags were secured. Jydan decided to leave Eri behind, hiding the smaller horse further back in the trees, depending on lack of interest from any local thieves and the mercenary-trained horse's own intelligence to keep the gelding safe.

Jydan adjusted his sword sheath on his back, then mounted Ghost with determination. Another creak of leather echoed his and he looked over at Nat, finding him ready as well. He asked, "You with me?"

Nat just nodded. "Let's go."

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

*bang*

The depths of blackness released him abruptly. It took a few moments for the noise to overcome the dull ringing in his head, but Blaen was finally able to convince his eyelids to cooperate with him and open. He blinked several times, squinting at his surroundings.

Cave walls surrounded him, with a few packed-up chests scattered here and there upon the sand-strewn floor.

Bed rolls and weapons lay stacked in one corner. He glanced down at himself, eyes widening as he saw his ripped shirt and the manacles on his wrists. Gritty sand rubbed between his bare toes. Memory of those few seconds before something hit him over the head rapidly reappeared.

"Hello, Blaen."

Blaen jerked his head up. Rik stood several feet away, framed by the edges of the cave opening, the same smile twitching on his lips, the same unholy gleam in his eyes. Swallowing hard, Blaen instinctively tried to move away, scrunching further against the cold wall at his back. The chain between the wrist manacles jangled with the movement. He focused on what he could see behind Rik -- more sand and trees. He could smell the water and even hear the waves, and surmised they were in one of the caves pocketing the shoreline of the Emerald Sea. His eyes shot upwards when Rik came to stand in front of him.

Rik gestured to the manacles. "Wanted to make sure you stayed put. And figured I'd better make sure you hadn't learned any fancy tricks from that mercenary friend of yours. Not that you have any weapons left on you anyway." He grinned and jerked a thumb behind him. Blaen followed the motion to see his few other knives protruding from a piece of driftwood across the cave. "I made sure of that."

Blaen shuddered, feeling his skin crawl at the thought of Rik searching him for weapons. Don't think about it. Don't think about it. Jydan will know you're gone by now. He'll know. Just be calm. He squeezed his eyes shut, frantically searching for the connection with his tayaerra. Breathe.

His concentration shattered when Rik grabbed one arm and levered him roughly to his feet. Rik leaned closer to Blaen, smirking at him. "I have another buyer for you, Blaen, my boy. A very ... interested buyer. I would keep you myself, but sadly, I need the money you're worth." He raised his other hand and pushed away the remains of Blaen's shirt to run a calloused thumb over the brand on Blaen's shoulder, then slowly drift down his bare chest.

"Don't touch me!" Blaen jerked away, succeeding in displacing Rik's vile touch. His shoulder blades hit the cave wall, scraping against it.

Rik just laughed. "I've already taken partial payment for the delivery. Your new owner will be here shortly to pick you up." He lowered his voice to a mock confidential tone. "I hear that he -- or she -- I'm not sure which -- has their own brand to put on you. And that they have ... interesting tastes." His free hand shot upward to grasp Blaen's chin, digging his fingers into his jawline. "How does that sound, boy?"

Blaen spit in Rik's face. Two seconds later, his face burned with the harsh sting of Rik's hard fist. Stiffening his knees to keep upright, Blaen watched as Rik stepped away, wiping his face with his sleeve. His anger at Rik's continued obsession with him overcame panic and fear, and Blaen rode those emotions to strike out at the source of so many nightmares. He knew that anger would give him the strength to withstand the slaver's dark emotions. For a time. He snapped, "I don't belong to you or to anyone else. I am not your slave. Or your property to sell. Jydan will find me. And when he does--"

Another blow across the face rocked him back on his heels, smacking him back into the cave wall, knocking the air from his lungs. He tasted blood in his mouth where he'd bit the inside of his cheek. And then Rik was there, pressing him against the wall, holding his chained arms above his head with one meaty hand.

Any pretense of friendliness dropped out of Rik's voice. "You cost me a great deal of money, Blaen. You and Jydan and that woman," Spittle flew from his mouth as he ranted. "Some stupid minstrel is singing about it over half of Rillanda. And the song is drifting southward."

Blaen squinted at Rik. "Oh, The Naked Slaver, you mean?" He forced a carefree laugh. "I kinda like it my--"

Rik shook him, hard enough to make Blaen's teeth clack together and his head hit the wall behind him. Blaen then heard the unmistakable sound of a knife -- a big knife -- being pulled from a sheath. Before he had a chance to struggle away, Rik brought the knife up to rest on Blaen's cheek.

"I should have taken your tongue when I branded you," Rik hissed. "The buyer wanted you whole, but this new one ... he said a little maiming is acceptable."

Blaen froze, hardly daring to breathe. He flinched when he felt the knife edge cut a thin line down his cheek, just barely breaking the surface of the skin. The temporary respite the anger had given him was already fading. Jydan, now would be a really good time to come riding to the rescue. Anytime. His eyes widened when he felt something...no, Rik battering at his inner barriers, bludgeoning his way through with fierce determination. Uncaring of the knife held so close to his face, Blaen instinctively tried to move away, even as he threw all his strength into holding those barriers up. He'd long privately wondered if Rik had a dironan-like ability to tear down barriers, considering how easily they shredded before him last time. And if he was right, it was only a matter of time.

"...no..."

I'm supposed to be free of him! The Lightsisters promised!

Rik laughed darkly and held him more tightly. "That's right. Be scared. You know what I can..." He frowned, trailing off. "...what I can... It's not working."

Fighting down his panic, Blaen forced himself still and took stock of his barriers. They were still up. He could feel Rik on the outside, but his emotional attacks were the pings of pebbles against an armored shield. There's something... A yellow light pulsed. And then he felt the warmth wrapping around him, supporting him -- and his barriers.

A whispery voice spoke in his ears. <<...we are here ... we will do ... what we can, Blaendironan ... you must ... persevere...>>

"NO!"

Coming back to reality, Blaen flinched at Rik's yell and the increase of pressure from outside his barriers. Rik growled, breathing hotly on his face. "No matter. You are mine." Tossing the knife aside, he tore the remnants of Blaen's shirt from his body, exposing the double-headed axe fully. "This mark proves it."

Blaen struggled to push Rik away. "It proves nothing. Nothing." The pressure grew, seeping through fractures. He could feel the barriers buckling.

<<...see your strength...>>

The yellow light wavered. Blaen struggled against the tide. See my strength? What? Thick cords of silver flashed into view, and he immediately grasped them.

Rik grinned at Blaen's obvious pain and placed his hand on Blaen's bare shoulder, fingers digging into the muscles. "You are--"

The world pulsed yellow.

<<...this one ... is not yours...>>

"AGH!" The slaver flew backwards as if pushed, landing in a sprawl in the dirt several feet away.

Blaen wobbled unsteadily on his feet, striving to keep from falling over, panting from exertion. His arms hung helplessly in front of him, deadweights as blood streamed back into them. Hard rocks poked painfully at the bottoms of his bare feet. He stared at Rik who stared back at him, impotent rage filling his eyes. Blaen had time for one brief, elucidating thought. He can't hear it.

Undaunted, Rik rose to his feet and strode back towards Blaen. As he did so, he pulled a sword from the sheath on his back. Blaen's eyes widened and he stepped backward instinctively, sliding sideways along the cave wall as he moved further into the cave.

"There's nowhere to go, Blaendironan." Rik paced slowly toward him. "This is a rather shallow cave. No other exits."

Rik's face was suddenly inches from his nose, and one hard hand was wrapped around Blaen's neck. "I don't know what that was," Rik hissed, "but I don't give up easily." He tightened his grip on Blaen's neck fractionally. "I will find that swordswoman someday and deal with her. But first..."

The battering was back, stronger this time, expertly finding the cracks and fractures in the barriers. Oily tendrils slid through, poking at Blaen's unprotected self. Vainly trying to bring his manacled hands up, Blaen hung in Rik's grip. Breathing was difficult, and he could feel himself folding from his own panic and the malevolence streaming from Rik.

<<...as you wreak ... so shall it be ... visited upon you...>>

The hold on his neck vanished abruptly, leaving him gasping and coughing. Blaen doubled over, but managed to stay on his feet. Glancing several feet away, he saw Rik sprawled again in the dirt.

Straightening and awkwardly rubbing one hand over the bruises he could feel forming on his throat, Blaen eyed the slaver curiously. Rik had pushed himself up to a sitting position and then had stopped, both hands pressed to his head, a low moaning arising from him. Still, Blaen was wary. No matter what was going on or what his condition, Rik was very dangerous, even if it appeared he couldn't hurt Blaen directly, at least not the way he wanted to.

When it appeared that Rik wasn't going to move, Blaen began creeping toward the cave opening, grasping the chain between the wrist manacles to keep them silent. He bit his lower lip and concentrated on breathing as shallowly and quietly as possible. As he reached the opening, he glanced once more at Rik, then turned to peer outside the cave as he made his escape.

He almost made it.

"Eager to meet your new master?"

Blaen froze, then moved forward again, but it was too late. Rik was on him, tripping him to fall into the dirt, arms outstretched past the cave entrance. He cried out when the slaver hauled him up by his hair and smashed him into the sharp rocks lining the opening face first, his cheek and chest pressed uncomfortably against the coldness.

Rik panted in his ear. "Escape is not an option. Your new master would be very upset with me if you got away."

His voice is shaking. Blaen tried to get a better look, but only managed a brief glimpse of red-rimmed eyes. He's in pain. Emotions he didn't want to name, hot anger, and, oddly enough, some fear radiated from Rik in heavy doses. Whoever this buyer is, he must be pretty powerful. He spoke through gritted teeth. "You know, I really don't care how upset he gets with you. But I am not going to be sold--"

A loud wailing horn call interrupted Blaen's words.

"Time to go."

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

Nat jerked upright from where he was examining tracks on the forest floor. "What was that?"

Jydan, still on Ghost, narrowed his eyes. "Sounded like a horn. One of those long ones that they use on ships sometimes."

Standing and dusting off his hands absently, Nat remained unmoving for a moment, then slowly turned back to Jydan. "I've heard rumors of a new pirate vessel in the Sea. Comes to port late in the evenings or at moonrise. It's evaded all attempts of capture and those aboard are adept as using the rivers and overland routes to escape with their ... cargo."

"Cargo?" Jydan stiffened. "Slaves?"

"So I've been told." Nat grabbed the reins of his horse from Jydan and quickly mounted. "I've also been told about a landing they've used more than once. Jackal's Cove." He gestured at the ground in front of him. "It's in the direction these tracks are headed."

Jydan nodded shortly and flicked Ghost's reins. "Then let's go."

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

Blaen struggled as Rik, using the chain between the manacles as a leash, hauled him outside. "No!" He absently noted the sun was all but gone.

Rik ignored him and relentlessly pulled him forward.

Digging his heels into the ground, wincing as sharp rocks and twigs likewise dug into soles, Blaen resisted, yanking backwards. His hands came free abruptly, and he stumbled and fell. Before he could gather himself and get back to his feet, Rik stood before him, lips twisted in a sneer as he bent down, hands reaching for Blaen.

"C'mon, you little b--"

Blaen swung out his hands, connecting with the side of Rik's head with the manacles. The impact reverberated down Blaen's arms. He watched, eyes wide as Rik toppled over, landing with a thud on the ground right next to him. Inching away and getting slowly to his feet, Blaen stared a moment longer. Did I kill him? He swallowed hard, even as he continued backing away, heading for the trees, away from the beach and whoever was down there waiting. I didn't mean--

Rik moaned and his arm moved.

Blaen turned and ran into the trees, heading up the slope.

It wasn't long before he heard Rik's angry voice roaring after him.

"I'll kill you myself, boy!"

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

Jydan pulled Ghost to an abrupt stop as the echo died away. "That was Rik."

Nat nodded, shifting as his horse pranced nervously underneath him. "Sounds like Blaen got away from him."

"You said there were some caves along the shoreline," Jydan glanced at Nat. "It'd be reasonable to assume Rik would use those."

Picking up the thread, Nat continued, "And if Blaen wanted to get away, he couldn't run to the beach, not with the ship waiting."

Jydan looked around them, scanning the trees and the landscape. "No, he'd run the opposite direction. Which would be--"

Nat pointed ahead of them, through the dense foliage. "Up there. To the cliffs overlooking the Sea." He hesitated, then finished. "He's headed for a dead end."

Eyeing the hill, Jydan dismounted from Ghost. "We can't take the horses up there. Not enough room." He tied the reins up out of Ghost's way. Nat followed suit. Jydan took a moment to whisper something in Ghost's ears, then he and Nat took off at a run through the trees.

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

His tired, sore feet finally betrayed him and Blaen fell, tripping over a downed tree. It took valuable seconds to rise back up, only to fall again when his feet refused to hold him. He could hear Rik's taunting voice as he neared him, the cracks of tree branches and leaves.

"There's nowhere to go, Blaen. Nowhere."

Gritting his teeth, Blaen crawled forward, blinking when he found himself in a small clearing. Moonlight from a three-quarter moon and the residual glow from the sunset lit his way. There was a gap in the trees up ahead. A big stick lay to one side of him and he grasped it with both hands, using it to lever himself to his feet. He squeezed his eyes closed in pain. Shuffling forward, he approached the gap -- and gasped as he realized he'd reached the sheer cliffs above the Emerald Sea. Which means I'm trapped. Rik behind him, just seconds away. The cliff in front of him. Dense foliage to either side. He knew he couldn't run anymore. His feet felt shredded. Far, far below, Blaen could see the churning water as it struck the sea walls, crawling upwards, reaching for the sky.

A crack of tree branches heralded someone's arrival. "There you are."

Blaen stiffened and slowly turned to face Rik. His knuckles tightened on the stick.

A heavy bruise was already forming on one side of Rik's face. Blood caked his hair to the side of his face. Rik drew a knife from the sheath on his belt and began to approach Blaen. "I think it's time to cut my losses, namely you."

Heart pounding, muscles shaking, Blaen lifted his head. He would not give Rik the pleasure of frightening him with death. There were worse things, that he knew. His one regret....Jydan. Jydan, I'm--

Then a strong, wonderfully familiar voice thundered into the tiny clearing, echoed in Blaen's inner sight by the sharp thrum of silver cords.

"RIKONDJA!"

Surprise and hope tearing through him, Blaen took a deep breath and yelled back. "JYDAN! I'm here!"

Rik twisted to look behind himself. Crashing sounds in the underbrush revealed that his pursuers were almost upon him. Blaen shuffled backwards, glancing behind himself, realizing with horror that the edge of the cliff was only a few steps away. He froze when Rik whirled back sharply to face him, pinning him with a deadly gaze.

Swallowing hard, Blaen said, "Jydan's almost here, so if I were you, I'd get out of here while I still had the chance."

The slaver didn't move, then abruptly threw himself toward Blaen, knife raised in the air, his mouth opening in a scream of rage.

Blaen gasped and reacted without thinking, moving away from the descending blade...

...and then the ground disappeared from beneath his feet.

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

Jydan shoved the last few branches aside and pushed his way through to the small clearing. He inhaled to call out to Rik, but then his breath caught in his throat as he saw Blaen slip off the edge of the cliff, plummeting out of sight. "No!"

At his side, Nat swore.

Still at the cliff's edge, standing between Jydan and where Blaen used to be, Rik whipped around to face them, knife still raised, eyes crazed.

His very soul screaming in pain and anger, Jydan rushed forward, throwing himself at Rik. All he would remember later was an intense few minutes of fighting, wrestling, and blows being exchanged. His memory lacked any real details -- until he found himself atop of Rik, pinning him to ground, with his hands around Rik's thick neck, choking him. The faint echo of Blaen's prophetic words about how and when -- and by whose hand -- Rik would die flitted briefly into his mind, then out again. It didn't matter anymore. None of it did.

Rik's face suffused with color, his eyes bulged, and his hands fought vainly for purchase against Jydan's greater strength. The knife had disappeared sometime during the fight, lost forever in the surrounding foliage.

Jydan snarled at Rik. "You killed my friend. My brother. My tay--"

<<...he yet lives...>>

His hands freezing in their grip, neither tightening further or loosening, Jydan's head snapped up and he scanned the forest. The words echoed loudly in his ears, shunting everything else aside in their path, including his pain and anger.

A sword drawn from its sheath sounded behind him. Nat (who he'd forgotten) spoke quietly. "What is it?"

"You didn't hear that?" Jydan asked. The voice was unfamiliar to him. Yet somehow he knew it. It sounded ... ethereal but also commanding. A faint hope rose within him, struggling against the tide of sorrow and grief -- and doubt.

"Hear what?"

Jydan looked back down at Rik. The man was unconscious, eyes rolled up in his head. Bruises were already forming on his face. His nose looked broken. One eye threatened to swell within the next day or so. Jydan slowly released his grasp on Rik's neck and relaxed, flexing his stiffened fingers. Airway clear again, Rik's chest rose and fell in automatic, shuddering breaths.

"It's over, Rik. Over," Jydan whispered to the unhearing slaver. Shoving himself away and to his feet, he leaned down and rolled Rik's body from the clearing -- right into a tangle of nettle bushes at one side.

Straightening, Jydan's eyes swiveled back to the cliff as he strode quickly towards it. A stout piece of wood half-rested on the edge. Drying brownish-reddish marks decorated the dirt in places -- Blaen had been barefoot and running and obviously injured. His stomach clenched in response to his tayaerra being hurt. Jaw set, Jydan stood at the very edge of the cliff. He rubbed his sore knuckles and warily peered over the edge. All he could see was churning water and deadly rocks. Hopes crashed, fizzling into ashy smoke. No one could survive that. Impossible. He's just...gone. He felt like screaming. I'm imagin--

Then Jydan felt ... something ... tugging at him, interrupt his thoughts. What was that? It was faint. It was familiar. He hesitated. Blaen was the empathic one in their partnership. But maybe... Acting on impulse, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, pushing past the strong emotions of anger and sorrow. Although he didn't fully understand the strong bond between himself and Blaen, he could try. A endless moment passed. His eyes flew open. The emptiness he would expect to feel if Blaen were truly dead wasn't there. He could be alive.

Soft footsteps heralded Nat's arrival next to him. "You okay?"

"Yeah."

"Then do you want to explain why you didn't kill Rik?" Nat asked in frustration and angry confusion. "He doesn't deserve to live."

Jydan glanced at Nat. "I won't kill in cold blood. Not like that. Not even Rik." His gaze went back to the water. "If Blaen truly were dead, maybe. But he could still be alive."

"What!?" Nat peered over the sheer drop in disbelief. "No one could survive that. Jydan..." He looked back at Jydan, who had craned his head downward to examine the cliffside carefully. His features were intense and determined but calm, not features of someone grieving or lost in his own reality. Then he heard Jydan muttered something about needing a rope. Nat grabbed Jydan's arm, pulling him back. "Look, Jydan, I don't--"

Blue eyes flashed. "Blaen. Is. Alive." Jydan yanked his arm from Nat's hand. He didn't know if his emphatic words were more a statement, a belief, or just a deep wish, but right then, he simply knew them as truth.

Nat held up his hands. "Just let me finish. I was going to say that I don't think climbing down the cliff is a good idea. There's another way. A better way." He waited until he had Jydan's attention, then continued. "There is a pathway, steep but passable, that leads down to the shore. The horses should be able to manage it. All right?"

Jydan nodded curtly. "All right." He stared at the water a moment longer. "Do you believe me? That Blaen's alive?"

"I--" Nat touched his shoulder. "I believe that you believe." His lips quirked upwards into a brief smile. "You and Blaen are unique. If you say he's alive ... who am I to say differently?"

"Thanks." Jydan rested his hand over Nat's momentarily, then both men turned and hurried toward the mountain path.

As they ran past, Nat jerked a thumb at Rik, still unconscious and lying in his bed of thorns and bristles. "What about him?"

Not bothering to spare the slaver even a glance, Jydan said shortly, "No time. Let him rot." His thoughts lay elsewhere, focused what he hoped waited for him at the end of the mountain path. Be alive, my friend.

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

Blaen fell. And fell.

The water rose up and accepted the gift from the high cliffs, swallowing him in its depths.

The cold water stung and shocked Blaen. It twisted around him, tossing him from one direction to the other until he lost all sense of balance, of up and down, of anything. It was all he could do to gasp in the occasional gulp of air when his head breached the surface. The last time he was above water, he glanced upward to see the cliff face approaching -- or so it seemed as the waves carried him toward it. Blaen squeezed his eyes shut, preparing to be smashed against the unyielding surface.

Instead, he was yanked further down into the water. Something slick curled around his legs, dragging him against the currents. He stretched out his arms awkwardly, still restrained by the manacles, but they too were captured. Wherever he was, the water wasn't as rough but it was also nowhere near the surface. It was getting darker the further down he went. And he needed air.

And then a voice like the roar of the surf and the softest tinkling of flutes spoke.

<<"Gifted. You must not fear.">>

Panic rose. I have to breathe!

<<"We sustain. If you would live, you must not fear. We are neeli'el.">>

The voice finally pierced his thoughts, and Blaen stopped struggling. He tried to look around but all he could make out was vague shapes in the darkened waters. The need to breathe faded. Neeli'el. Sea spirits? He fumbled for words, then remembered the book's description. Dolphins?

<<"Some have called us such names.">>

You can hear me? What--Who are you?

<<"We are neeli'el. We are the life of the sea.">>

I ... I have read of you. I am Blaendironan of the Three Dolphins Clan, tayaerra to Jydan of Eirena.

<<"The Light shine upon you, gifted.">>

A second voice spoke.

<<"Long has it been since we have spoken to man, to such as you, Blaendironan. We sensed great turmoil and rose, seeking the source.">>

A third voice entered into the conversation.

<<"We cannot heal your wounds, but we can return you to above.">>

Slowly, he felt himself rising. Thank you. His fingers twitched, aching to reach out and at least touch these mysterious creatures.

<<"Such can be done.">>

The manacles loosened and slid from his wrists, falling rapidly away to the bottom of the Sea. Again, thank you. Blaen's thirst for knowledge spun upwards. I have so many questions.

<<"We cannot answer your questions, but to such as you, we can allow this. Stretch forth your hand.">>

Blaen did so. Something soft and hard slid along his palm. His fingers curled inward instantly, cupping the silky warmth gently. Without thought, he smoothed his hand down the surface in a petting motion. He smiled, almost chuckled, at the resulting movement from the neeli'el -- if it had been Ghost, he would've called it a nuzzle. The darkness dissolved and a glow radiated outward from hand, sliding up his arm and out past his fingertips.

His eyes widened.

The neeli'el surrounded him as they buoyed him upward. So many. All bathed in warming blue-green light. As for their physical form ... he now understood why the term 'dolphins' had eventually been chosen. It was the closest anyone could come to the truth. He didn't have the words to adequately describe their sinuous, transparent and yet not, shining shapes. So he settled for the only word that could come close.

You're beautiful.

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

Swiftly dismounting, Jydan tossed Ghost's reins over the saddle pommel. The path leading downward had forked part of the way down. Nat had taken the other path, heading back to their campsite to retrieve Eri at Jydan's request. Now that he knew there were more pirates and slavers in the area, Jydan hadn't wanted to take the chance of losing the horse. Nat would return with both horses, thought Jydan hoped he would find Blaen before that and meet Nat halfway instead.

He petted Ghost's ears. "You think he's here, boy?"

Ghost whinnied softly and turned big eyes at the water.

"I know, but..." Doubts were rising in him. A voice tells you he's alive. You have a ... feeling. You want to believe he survived. His jaw muscles tightened. More fool you. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, then looked out at the water.

The path had led them to an inlet. Small waves rolled in, hitting the shoreline, intersecting with circular ripples created by fish and insects. Frogs called to each other. A nightbird flew over. Thick foliage simply stopped at the edge of the water rather than a gradual slope. Roots of spindly trees clung to the bumpy edges of the lake basin. Moonlight shown down from above, reflecting off the becalmed water. He could hear the water crashing into the cliff wall to one side.

Blaen, where are you?

By stepping right up to the edge, Jydan could just spot the aft end of the pirate vessel anchored in the cove. Although he couldn't see the beach itself, the glow of beach campfires was clearly visible. He had the sudden frightening thought that perhaps Blaen, if he actually was alive, had surfaced at the beach and was now being held by the pirates. It would make sense since the currents of the water would lead him that direction. And in the darkness, he wouldn't know until it was too late. Jydan's hands clenched into fists. Maybe I should--

The sea burbled.

Jydan grasped the skinny trunk of a nearby tree and watched as something slid just beneath the surface of the glassy water in a long smooth glide before disappearing again. The motion was echoed several feet away. Then he noticed the water's wake was heading directly toward him. Behind him, Ghost whinnied nervously and stamped one hoof on the ground.

Before Jydan could take more than a half-step backward, the water bulged upwards and spilled outward as the gasping form of a man broke the surface.

"Blaen!" Jydan yelled without thought.

Coughs answered his call and then a familiar voice. "Jydan!" A few more coughs followed and a hand waved in the air.

The mercenary jumped into the water, which rose halfway to his knees, and immediately began wading further out. Some part of him noted that Blaen wasn't really swimming, but seemed to be ... carried through the water by shapes on either side. Most of him, however, was focused sheerly on getting to his friend. And then Blaen was suddenly there, in front of him in the knee-deep water. Jydan grasped Blaen's arms and aided him to his feet. Bright but tired eyes in a bruised face met his.

"Hey." The word seemed to take all of Blaen's energy.

Jydan blinked away the moisture in his eyes. His voice eluded him. He wrapped both arms around Blaen tightly, needing to truly feel that he was alive. Two hands fisted in his tunic. A shiver ran the length of his body, echoed in the next moment in the friend he held. He lowered his head, whispering in a choked voice, "I saw-- I thought-- You fell."

"I know." Blaen's voice was muffled but understandable. "So did I."

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

Blaen let himself sink into Jydan's strong arms, relaxing into his tayaerra's physical form and into the protective emotions that hummed steadily through their bond. The terror of the evening slid to one side, and he was content to let it. He could deal with Rik and the threats and his touch and the chase and the run through the trees and the fall ... later. A shiver shook his frame. No, no, don't think about it now. Later. His barriers, weak and frayed, had dissolved as soon as Jydan touched him. His whole body felt drained. Keeping Rik out had taken almost everything he had. Though he'd like nothing better than to hand everything off to Jydan, he couldn't do that. He had to remain strong and present -- and awake -- until they'd gotten back to town where it was safer. Another shiver struck.

Jydan whispered, "We should get back to shore. Get you warmed up a little."

"Yeah."

Neither moved -- until the neeli'el swam past, curling around their lower legs. Jydan jerked away from Blaen and stared at the water. "What was that?"

Blaen patted him on the chest. "It's okay. They're friends." He chuckled at the disbelieving look on Jydan's face. "I'll explain later." Lowering one hand onto the water, he waited. One of the neeli'el brushed upwards, stroking along his hand.

<<Blessings, gifted.>>

"Thank you," Blaen said. "And farewell." He straightened and watched them swim away, heading back to the deeper water that was their home.

Jydan curled an arm around Blaen's shoulders. "Ready to head in?" Subdued curiosity filled his voice.

"Yeah." Blaen took a step, then winced, abruptly remembering his injured feet. "Ow."

"What is it?" Jydan asked, then shifted as Blaen leaned more of his weight on him. "It's your feet, isn't it?"

Blaen just nodded. He tottered when Jydan withdrew his arm from around his shoulders. Then blinked and bit off a surprised cry when Jydan hefted him over his shoulder. At least I'm off my feet. Before he realized it, Jydan was gently setting him down on shore, sitting him just at the edge. Feeling a bit dizzy, Blaen leaned against a cluster of skinny trees. "A little warning would have been nice..."

A pair of fat horse lips slobbered on his cheek. Turning his head, Blaen stared upward at Ghost. "Yuck! Yeah, Ghost, I missed you too." He wiped futilely at his face. Ghost just lowered his head against, butting at Blaen's shoulder. Blaen petted the stallion's nose. "Overgrown pet." His gaze slid over to Jydan who grinned at him while rummaging through a saddlebag.

Jydan withdrew a roll of bandaging, something Blaen knew Jydan kept in his saddlebags where he went. A second later, he took out a pair of heavy socks as well. And he pulled out a haphazardly folded lump of black cloth which Blaen recognized instantly as Jydan's cloak.

Settling at Blaen's side, Jydan absently pushed Ghost's head away and wrapped his heavy cloak around Blaen's shoulders. "There. That should help some. Now as for these feet of yours... I'll look at them more closely later. I just want to get them covered right now."

His energy sapped, Blaen couldn't do much to help. Instead, Blaen asked how Jydan found him. Jydan gave him the brief version of tracking and finding -- and fighting -- Rik as he wrapped Blaen's feet and carefully tugged an extra pair of thick socks over the bulky bandaging.

Blaen chuckled softly as Jydan described where he'd left the unconscious, beaten Rik. "I don't think he'll be bothering us again. At least not for awhile."

"He'd better not," Jydan muttered.

"Not just that." Blaen shivered as a breeze blew past. "He told me he'd already taken ... half-payment from that pirate who won't be happy to discover Rik isn't delivering. It'll send him into hiding."

"I hope so." Jydan stood and held out his hands. "All done. Up you go."

Once on his feet again, Blaen had bare moments to sense the pressure on the soles of his feet before Jydan was urging him to mount Ghost. Jydan slid into the saddle in front of him after Blaen found his balance and had the cloak securely wrapped around his torso.

Jydan turned his head slightly. "Hold on."

Blaen immediately threaded his arms around Jydan's waist, holding on as Jydan clicked his tongue at Ghost. One of Jydan's hands came down to cover his, squeezing warmly. Lassitude swept over him and Blaen rested his head against that strong back. Jydan would keep him safe.

*************************
Epilogue (picks up a bit after the prologue above from Searches...)
*************************

*thud*

Jydan stood and dusted his hands. His lips twitched in disgust. "I would've left him here to rot or for the carrion eaters, but I don't want to cause problems for Fariedel." He picked up the shovel next to the shallow grave. "And he doesn't deserve the honor of fire."

Blaen chuckled. "I have a feeling he'd be affronted enough just to be tossed unwrapped into an unmarked grave facedown."

"Tough," Jydan snorted. He dug his shovel into the pile of dirt and transferred most of it back into the grave, covering Rik completely. Blaen stood by, watching, letting Jydan take out his final anger on the slaver who'd pursued them for years. Jydan was somewhat displeased that he wasn't given the pleasure of killing Rik himself, but he said he'd be satisfied with the knowledge that the man was finally dead.

Task finished, Jydan patted the dirt down rather emphatically with the shovel head. He hesitated, then jammed the shovel into the dirt before saying, "I'll get Ghost. Be right back."

Knowing that "getting Ghost" simply meant walking to the other side of the clearing, Blaen just nodded. Jydan was taking a few moments for himself to rein in his hotter emotions associated with Rik while giving Blaen those moments as well to deal with his own thoughts.

Blaen walked over to the edge of the cliff and stared at the water below. It was a different cliff in a different country. But it was the same sea. A wave hit the cliff and water sprayed upward, reaching toward him. He wondered if the neeli'el knew he was there. And knew that his greatest foe was finally gone. He remembered the story of Ti'aki and how he and his ancestor (perhaps linked only by their gift, if not by blood) had both fought against an enemy and survived -- aided by their clan's namesakes. He'd finally been able to read the rest of that particular tale while he was recuperating, letting his feet mend. Ta'iki had fought and then fallen into the sea, presumed lost, until...

'....We are neeli'el. You must not fear'

Ti'aki struggled, wanting only to live. 'You must not fear!' The voice echoed. 'We sustain.' Finally, sensing the truth, Ti'aki ceased moving. He reached out a trembling hand, his fingertips grazing something hard yet soft. 'Who are you?' Another voice, lighter, repeating the other's words. 'We are neeli'el.'

The first voice spoke again. 'The one who would do harm is gone. Dost thou wish to live, gifted?' Ti'aki said that he did and felt himself rising to the surface of the sea. Arms outstretched and head lifted, he rose. 'Why do you call me gifted?' Something touched his face in a feathery caress. 'Because thou are.' And then his head broke through the surface and he gasped, taking in great droughts of air.

On the shore, Aimie stopped under the shelter of a weeping tree and stared as arcs of silvery white sprang up, glinting, hanging in the air before diving back into the waters. Beneath those arcs, she saw someone swimming towards her, buoyed and guided by indefinable shapes on either side. Her hope grew into uncontained joy as Ti'aki rose from the water, whole and alive. Rejoicing with kisses and tears, Aimie begged to know how he lived.

Ti'aki said only, 'The spirits of the sea bade me not to fear.'

Blaen grinned. Trying to explain to Jydan just what a neeli'el was had been entertaining. And difficult. Finally Jydan had proclaimed them as "benevolent water spirits who look sorta like dolphins but not" and left it at that.

After one more solemn visit to the memorial stone of Blaen's family early the next morning, they'd left town, anxious to put distance between themselves and Rik and the pirates. Nat had continued on his journey to Eirena while the two of them went north up to Fariedel. While they traveled, Blaen had told Jydan his side of the story, from Rik to the Lightsisters. Jydan had relayed his tale a bit more slowly, hesitating when he'd mentioned that voice telling him that Blaen was alive. He murmured the words spoken by that voice to himself. "He yet lives."

"I almost didn't believe it."

Blaen glanced to his side as Jydan stepped up next to him. He wasn't surprised that Jydan was also remembering a different time at a different cliff. Or that he knew just where Blaen's thoughts were drifting. Jydan could be surprisingly intuitive ... if and when he felt like it.

"But you did."

Jydan lips curled into a smile and he draped an arm over Blaen's shoulders. "Yeah." He tugged Blaen a little closer, hugging him with one arm as they looked out at the sea. "But I did."

- The End -


Prophecy Story Index || The Sentinel Fan Fan Fiction || special disclaimer