Chapter 1: One Kind Deed
B'lair Woodfoxen cradled his gloved fingers gently around the well-worn clay mug. His eyes closed in pleasure with the first warm sip of cider, but he set the mug down as his hands began to tremble, afraid he would attract unwanted attention. His chill was not from the cold breeze which blew through the unmortared cracks of the alehouse's walls, but from the knowledge he would die before he was ever warm again.
There had been a time when he hadn't cared whether he lived or died. He wasn't even sure he cared now, but surviving had become a habit and he objected to being tracked down like a rabid dog.
Not over a box run!
He had guessed the contents of the box were extremely valuable, otherwise the parties involved would have sent it along the normal caravan route. But what possible harm could there be in carrying a small box from a wizard in Cascadia to a merchant in the port city of Lahore?
He should have paid more attention to the woman at the cheese stand who had been babbling excitedly about the prince's stolen birthstone pendant. However, he had been sight-seeing and couldn't believe the human king actually thought harm would come to his son if a piece of jewelry was damaged.
It wasn't until he saw King Simon's personal guard stationed outside the brick building which had been his destination that he realized the danger. As the significance of the scene broke through his reverie, the Ranger Ellison, the king's personal trouble-shooter, had stepped out of the house onto the elaborate porch.
In the span of a heartbeat, B'lair realized what he was carrying and accepted the fact he would soon be dead.
Paralyzed with fear, his heart racing in his chest, he watched the ranger scan the curious crowd; and, as if in answer to his worst nightmare, the blue eyes of the hunter stilled as they fell upon him. An inner voice screamed at him to run, but he had been unable to free himself from the ranger's gaze until a carriage raced between them, allowing him to slip around a corner and run.
He had been running ever since.
Raucous laughter from a nearby table startled him from his memories. Unconsciously, he touched the source of his misfortune. He had considered dropping it down a rabbit warren, but didn't relish the idea of being tortured to reveal the gem's location. He had even considered simply giving the pendent to Ellison and explaining that it had all been a horrible misunderstanding, but had pushed the notion aside as foolish. So, he decided to return the gem to the palace. He forced a cough to stop the hysterical laughter which threatened to consume him. It was a clod-pated idea, but it gave him someplace to run. He had no doubt Ellison would catch him before he ever got close to the castle.
The tavern door flew open with a bang and B'lair felt the blood drain from his face. He loosened his grip on his rapier and watched a slender figure struggle to close the door against the storm raging outside.
The tavern became deadly silent as the newcomer turned to face the crowd. The blond-haired young man scanned the room as if looking for someone while unconsciously smoothing an impossibly white shirt. B'lair wondered if anyone else could sense the power behind the opaque green eyes, but knew the only thing the men around him sensed was prey.
Conversation slowly returned, but the laughter and grunts of before were replaced by secretive murmurs as the young man moved hesitantly toward an empty table. The bartender quickly gathered his order.
B'lair closed his eyes for he knew what was going to happen. The wilderness knew no law and only the strongest or cleverest survived. He wondered briefly if the power he sensed in the young man would be enough to take a few of the trappers with him or if he was even aware of his fate. The young man looked longingly at the door as if expecting someone, but also seemed to realize any movement in that direction would only hasten the men's actions.
Innocents! Why must it always be innocents, B'lair thought angrily as he clenched his fists. Couldn't the men see the badge on the boy's cloak, identifying him as a disciple of the Unnamed One, keeper of all knowledge? But he already knew the answer.
B'lair hated the men for their brutality. He hated living in a world which allowed such cruelty, but most of all, he hated himself for not doing anything about it. He swallowed the last of his cider and looked once again at the young man, who was trying to appear calm.
"Damn," B'lair swore softly to himself, waiting for the inevitable.
It wasn't long before two of the trappers sauntered arrogantly to the end of the boy's table.
"You from around here?" the larger man asked with a leer.
The blond-haired youngster refused to look at him, but answered, "No."
"Well, meebe we can show you around," his weaselly friend squeaked.
"In this weather? Thank you, but, no thank you."
"Not terribly friendly, are you?" The big man growled as he reached for the young man, but his hands never touched their intended target. Instead, he simply fell to the floor as did his smaller companion.
"Hey," shouted one of the trappers from the fireplace, "Whadja do to them?"
The boy was already heading for the door.
"Git 'im," someone yelled.
Three more men bound across the room. The first two to grab the boy screamed in pain and clutched their hands between their knees as if the pressure would stop the agony. The third grabbed him by the neck. "One more move and you won't live to ..."
"Not today," B'lair whispered as he stared, without emotion. The end of his bolt protruded from the neck of the third attacker.
Before anyone else could react, B'lair leapt for the door, praying the boy wouldn't see it as another attack.
"Get out of here!" He spun to face the room, leveling his crossbow at the crowd. "Everyone stay calm and no one else will get hurt." The door behind him opened and closed. He would give the child one hundred heartbeats, if he could, and then he was on his own.
Bodies shifted restlessly, but no one moved. B'lair wondered briefly how he would unlatch the door and still keep his eyes on the crowd. As if in answer to his thought, the door slammed open. Instinctively, he leapt for the opening, startling the woodsman who stood in the doorway. A searing heat lanced through his side as he dodged around the newcomer and he knew he had not made it out unscathed.
He heard tables and chairs overturning as the trappers raced for the door, but he had already entered a denser section of the woods. As long as he didn't stop, he knew they’d never be able to catch him.
B'lair ran at a steady pace until his vision blurred. Using an ancient oak for support, he gently pulled on the skinning knife protruding from his side and hissed when he realized the blade was barbed. He had lost a great deal of blood and his legs were more than a little shaky. He knew he’d have to remove the blade in order to bind his wound, but that meant stopping and he didn't feel safe enough to stop. Pressing his hand over the wound and around the knife hilt, he continued forward.
His world slowly began to tilt at an angle although he wasn't sure if it was due to the storm or from the loss of blood. He had lost track of time and distance, concentrating only on taking one more step and reaching one more tree.
He stopped and tried to focus on what lay ahead of him. It wasn't until a jag of lightning briefly brightened the night sky that he noticed the two figures in front of him. He brought his rapier up to the ready, but his wrist would no longer support its weight. He watched numbly as it fell to the ground. Tossing his head back, he laughed in defiance as his legs gave way, finding comfort in the fact he wouldn't feel what they were going to do to his body.
B'lair gasped, his body arching upward in an attempt to escape the bonds of unconsciousness. He forced his eyes open only to discover the colors of his world had melded like a child's spinning top. Firm, but gentle hands, supported him, then gently lowered him back onto the mattress.
"Oh Sky . . . I had the worst dream," he whispered in the language of his childhood. Hands tenderly moved the hair from his eyes and briefly caressed his cheek. But even as he spoke, he felt the wrongness of his words. He bit his lip to prevent the cry which welled within his soul; only after drawing in several ragged breaths did he attempt to reopen his eyes.
Many facts came to him in that instant. He was in a bed in a small room; it was night; the storm had stopped; a cricket was singing loudly nearby; and someone was sitting on the edge of his bed.
Slowly, his gaze focused on the face above him, praying it was that of the boy for whom he had interceded. He froze as the face of Ranger Ellison solidified. B'lair let his eyelids fall shut as he swallowed his fear. He would not dishonor himself before he died; but thoughts of death disappeared as he wondered how he came to be in such a place.
"Where's the child?"
A look of confusion flitted across the ranger’s handsome face. "Child? What child?"
"Don't play games with me. If you've harmed the boy, I will see you burn in hell," B'lair threatened between clenched teeth.
"Calm down," the warrior said in a firm, but soothing voice. "The only one who's been harmed this evening is you. Rafael blames himself for your wound. He swore he wouldn’t rest until you were completely healed. I finally had to order him to lie down about an hour ago."
"You...know the child?"
"Of course, I know him. Why do you think you're here?"
In all of his worrying about being caught by Ellison, never once had B'lair pictured this man, one of the most dangerous warriors alive, sitting on the edge of his bed with a slightly confused and tired look on his face.
Quietly, Ellison stood and B'lair steeled himself for an attack, but the ranger went to the door apparently unaware of his discomfort.
"Taggart," he bellowed as he opened the door. "Oh, sorry," he apologized in a much lower tone to someone in the hall. "Is Rafe still up? Good. Would you send him in? Our guest has awakened."
Ellison turned and leaned casually against the wall. B'lair felt the intensity of the warrior's gaze upon him and although it made him uncomfortable, he returned it with a nonchalance which made Ellison smile. A small rap at the door drew the warrior's attention away from him.
"Come in, Rafe. Our guest seems to think I've done something ungracious to you." The ranger grinned as he ushered the boy into the room. Turning back to B'lair, he said, "Milord, may I introduce to you Rafael, or Rafe as we call him, disciple of the Unnamed One and healer."
B'lair shifted uncomfortably, trying to sit up.
"No, don't!" The boy rushed forward and gently pushed B'lair back onto the mattress. "You must conserve your strength. You've lost a lot of blood. How do you feel?" He rested a hand over B'lair's forehead, checking for signs of fever.
"Like hell," B'lair muttered. He couldn't stop the smile from reaching his face at the shocked look on the young healer's face over his choice of words, although it waned when he looked at the ranger.
Rafe followed his gaze. "James, why don't you go downstairs and have an ale with Joel," he suggested politely.
The ranger hesitated for a moment.
"Don't worry, we're just going to talk."
The ranger nodded slowly and B'lair could tell something had passed unspoken between the two men before he left.
Funny, B'lair thought, he never imagined the ranger having a first name.
Rafe smiled at his charge. "You're lucky to feel anything at all. The wound in your side was quite wicked. If James and Joel hadn't found you when they did...well, I don't even want to think about that possibility."
B'lair's gaze returned to the closed door. "Why did he permit me to live?"
"What an odd question." Rafe laughed. "He couldn't very well let you bleed to death in the forest--not after you risked life and limb for me." The young man sat on the edge of the bed, nervously fussing with the blanket. Finally, he lifted his gaze. "Why did you risk your life for me?"
B'lair looked up into the solemn face, but could only hear a joyous laugh echoing from the past. A lump grew in his throat and his eyes ached with the need to cry, but the tears didn’t come, as he knew they wouldn't.
"He was close to you."
"Was it a long time ago?"
B'lair nodded again.
"What was his name?" Rafe asked gently. "Healing will only start once you've released the pain."
"I know," B'lair looked into the young healer's face, and added, hoping he’d understand, "but the hate is what keeps me alive."
Rafe nodded. "Are there any family members I can contact for you?"
"No. They’re all dead."
"Are there any friends I can contact for you?"
B'lair's eyes widened with surprise. Surely a human, and a young one at that, wouldn't know about the Welcome. "No, there's no one."
"Do you have anywhere to go?"
B'lair smiled gently and placed an unsteady hand on the healer. "You don't have to do this, child."
"Do you have anywhere to go?" Rafe asked again, ignoring his protest.
"Please, don't," B'lair whispered.
"Do you have anywhere to go?" the healer repeated, intent on completing the ritual.
"No," he mouthed silently and looked way. He tried to pull his hand back, but Rafe held it firmly until B'lair looked back at him.
"Then I would be greatly honored if you would reside with me and mine until you’re feeling better."
"You don't even know who I am."
"I know enough. I’d really like to give you a couple days to rest. Unfortunately, we have a rather urgent matter to attend to in the capitol. But if you ride with us, I can keep an eye on your wound. Once we reach Cascadia, you may go your own way or stay with us. We won't leave until dawn so try to get some more sleep." Rafe placed B'lair's hand gently on the bed. "I need to speak with James for a moment. Will you be all right by yourself?"
"Good, I'll be right back."
As soon as the door shut behind the healer, B'lair balled his hands into fists and slammed them into the bed in frustration.
"Stupid," he hissed.
How in the Unknown One's name did he get himself into such a fix? First, he was being hunted by Ellison and now this young boy, one of Ellison's own team, gives his sanctuary. Would that stop Ellison if he discovered that B'lair was the one he was searching for? He snorted. Of course not. But what of the healer? Would he stand idly by after giving the Welcome? No, B'lair decided after a moment, he wouldn't. It had been an eternity since anyone had extended the Welcome to him and it warmed him down deep in a place he rarely visited anymore, but he couldn't have the healer in the middle when the inevitable happened. Would Ellison hurt the healer? There was affection between them, but he decided he couldn't take any chances.
Scanning the room, he spotted his belongings on a small table at the end of the bed. Throwing off the covers, he gritted his teeth as he slowly sat up and lifted his leather boots off the floor. He felt the pendent tucked safely away in a hidden pocket which he usually used for traveling money. Anyone feeling the bulge in the walls of the boot should assume it was a design flaw. Still, he was grateful Ellison had not investigated more closely.
His whole body shook with exhaustion by the time he finished dressing. Determined to leave before the healer returned, he wobbled towards the door, but as he reached for the latch, the door opened, knocking his off his feet.
"What the...I thought...oh, here, let me help you up," James Ellison sputtered as he came around the door. "I was under the impression you wouldn't be on your feet so soon."
"I'm not," B'lair sighed.
To his amazement, the ranger laughed. "So, I see. Where were you off to?" He scooped B'lair off the floor and placed him back on the bed.
"I've imposed on your kindness long enough."
"But Rafael said he extended the Welcome."
"Aye, he did," B'lair admitted. "But I have the means to take care of myself. He needn't feel obligated to me for any reason."
"We all feel obligated," the Ranger said quietly. "Rafe is a valued member of my team. If anything had happened to him..."
"There's no reason for you or the boy to feel any debt toward me. I don't want to sound callous, but it was nothing more than a whim. It's just that tonight, I couldn't sit back and watch one more..."
"Act of violence."
"Yes," he said, surprised that a man known for violence would understand.
"Then maybe I have a solution to our problems."
"Yes. You need to know you aren't imposing and I..." The ranger hesitated for a moment. "I need someone of your talents."
"My talents," B'lair repeated warily.
"Yes. To put it bluntly, Rafe found your tools while he was tending your wound. I've been in this business long enough to tell their quality and to know that only the best carry them. Although, I will admit, I was more than a little surprised to realize that one of the People would practice your profession."
"You should have seen my mother's reaction when she found out," B'lair lied blatantly. The ranger laughed. Trying to keep the warrior from asking another indirect personal question, which he’d also refuse to answer, the thief diverted the man's attention back to the original conversation. "Just exactly what would I be procuring?"
Ellison smiled at his phrasing, but sat on the bed beside him. "What do you know of the birthstones of King Simon's children?"
B'lair's mind whirled. Was this a trap? "The birthstones? Aren't they precious gems owned by the King? I seem to remember some sort of elaborate ceremony in which a semi-precious stone is presented to the king at the birth of each heir. Don't humans believe if the stone is destroyed, its human counterpart will die?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Two weeks ago, a wizard in the king's employ stole Simon's oldest son's stone. I guess he believed no one would miss it. The boy immediately took ill. The wizard, upon questioning, told us he gave the stone to an adventurer to take to a merchant in Lahore, who had promised him a great deal of gold for it."
It took every ounce of his remaining strength not to shudder when the ranger told him about questioning the wizard. "I'm still not clear as to how I can assist you," he said quietly. "Shouldn't you question the merchant about the gem's whereabouts?"
"I would, but he's dead."
"Yes. Somehow he found out I was coming to speak with him and killed himself."
"I guess you get a lot of drastic reactions when people hear you're looking for them."
The ranger seemed surprised. "You know me?"
"Yes." B'lair damned himself the second the word was out of his mouth. So little was publicly known about the ranger. There were rumors that the only ones who knew what he looked like were the king and those Ellison had killed. Some believed he was a practitioner of the black arts, others swore he was a sentinel, while others claimed he didn't really exist except as a bogeymen to frighten the king's enemies. His anonymity helped him to do the king's business. He could go anywhere, do anything, and no one was ever the wiser.
"Am I getting sloppy?" The ranger's eyebrows furled in concern.
"No," B'lair said quietly. "I'm that good." Stupid, he groaned inwardly. Even if Ellison didn't know about the stone, he’d think he was some sort of a spy.
"Good, I need someone of your caliber."
"I take it the merchant didn't have the stone?"
"No. From all indications, the adventurer never reached his final destination. My guess is when he got to Lahore and heard the rumors flying about the city, he went somewhere quiet, opened the box and found the very thing half the world is looking for."
"You think he ditched the stone?"
"That's what an average man would do and, undoubtedly, if he had, the prince would be dead now--which he's not. No, our man seems to be taking extreme measures to keep the stone safe from harm. In fact, I recently got a report stating the prince's health is steadily improving."
"So where do you think he's going with the birthstone?"
"I think he's taking it back to the capitol."
"Is it? If I'm correct in my estimation of this man's character, he doesn't want the stone for profit, but he can't just walk up to an Imperial guard and turn it over either. There would be awkward questions to answer and an inquiry in which I'm sure he doesn't want to participate. Also, I believe there's another reason he's planning to take the pendant back to the capitol."
"His trail. Professional secrets, I'm afraid, prohibit me from going into too much detail, but my team and I were tracking the stone. The storm was impeding our progress so we split up, but the trail was definitely leading north, back to the capitol. When the storm became too intense, Rafe decided the best course of action would be to wait it out and regroup. You know the rest of the story."
B'lair closed his eyes for a moment, hoping Ellison would think he was trying to absorb the information just given him, but all he could see were Rafe's eyes scanning the room as he entered the tavern. If it hadn't been raining...he refused to think about that possibility.
"I don't know if I'm up to a race to Cascadia at the moment."
"We won't be racing anywhere. I want to give our adventurer plenty of time to return the gem."
"Then you won't be hunting him down?"
"No. My only concern is the gem and the Prince's health."
"I have one more question to ask before I agree."
"You haven't even asked for my name, yet you're willing to trust me with the prince's life. Why?"
"Because you know who I am and, undoubtedly, know that no one ever betrays me."
B'lair smiled weakly. "I'll be happy to help you search for the gem."
"Good. I'll tell the others." Ellison's expression softened as he gently pushed the thief onto his back. "You should get some rest. I'll have someone look in on you in a couple of minutes." With that, he was gone.
It was a dangerous plan, B'lair speculated. More dangerous than anything he’d ever attempted. If he could pull if off, he’d be...grateful to still have his head. But could he pull it off? Could he find the gem in the castle without anyone being the wiser? No one harmed, no trusts broken. He closed his eyes and smiled. He could do this.
B'lair's second awakening was not as violent as the first, but he sensed something was wrong. Had the ranger guessed his secret? Had he known all along that he was the adventurer? No, this felt different. He stiffly got out of bed, grabbed his crossbow and quietly opened the door. The wrongness became almost palatable.
He moved silently and slowly to the end of the hallway, where the second floor looked over the common room below. What he saw boggled the imagination. A tall man garbed totally in black stood inches away from the ranger, his finger on the trigger of a deadly looking crossbow aimed directly at the ranger's heart.
Another assassin stood by another warrior, whom he assumed was Taggart. The healer was similarly covered.
"Enough games. Where is it?" the assassin in front of Ellison yelled.
"I don't have it," the ranger said quietly.
B'lair's thoughts swirled violently. He had no doubt the assassins would soon kill one of Ellison's teammates to make a point. If, by some twist of fate, everyone was killed, he’d have no protection back to Cascadia. Surveying the scene below him, he realized how desperately he needed protection.
Scanning the room, he noticed the guard on the older warrior, wasn’t paying complete attention to his prisoner. He seemed more interested in sneaking furtive glances towards the boy healer, but glared occasionally at the warrior to let him know he hadn't forgotten his task. If he timed it right, he could take the careless guard out of the equation. The question was, would the older warrior be quick enough to save the healer before a bolt found its way through the boy's heart? He had no doubt Ellison could save himself. The only reason the ranger hadn't moved was because he wasn't sure he could move fast enough to save the others. B'lair wished he could signal the warrior in some way, but knew he couldn't give up the element of surprise.
"I don't have time for your games. You're heading back to Cascadia. You must have it. Therefore, as a demonstration to my determination, Treel, kill the..." The assassin's voice trailed off as he heard the choking cough of one of his men. "Kill them," he shouted
But it was too late.
The ranger had the distraction he need. The leader's life ended a fraction of a second later.
B'lair was terrified. He had never seen anyone move so fast. Taggart, despite his girth, killed the assassin covering the healer, while Ellison spun and snapped the neck of the wounded guard on Taggart. It had all happened within the span of a heartbeat.
B'lair stumbled back a step. He had been mistaken. He couldn't possibly pull off the con he’d contemplated. He was about to bolt when a tenor voice called up to him. "That's two I owe you."
It was too much. He had to sit down. He tried to turn back toward his room, but his legs would no longer support his weight. He made a grab for the railing to slow his descent, but missed.
"James," Taggart yelled when he saw the young thief begin to fall. Ellison was up the stairs in a flash, cushioning B'lair's head with his arms before it hit the floor.
"So fast," B'lair whispered in awe.
"Rafe," the ranger shouted, ignoring his comment.
"No, please don't bother the child. He's been through enough today," he protested weakly.
"That's the second time you've called me a child today," the healer said, slightly annoyed. "You know, chronologically you're only a few years older than I am and if we were to talk to a full-blooded elf you’d actually be considered younger than I am."
Rafe laughed gently as he knelt beside him. Taking one of B'lair's hands in his own, he guided it to his left ear and let the thief feel the pointed tip.
"I'm a halfling. My facial features come from my father's side."
"I'm so sorry," B'lair said sadly, realizing how the healer knew the Welcome.
"No, don't be. It wasn't rape. It was love."
B'lair couldn't quite bring himself to believe it, but didn't want to hurt the healer's feelings.
"I'll take the trash out, James," Taggart said from below.
The ranger nodded, but didn't take his eyes off B'lair's face.
"You seem to have the most impeccable sense of timing," Rafe said with amusement. "I just hope you haven't injured yourself further on our behalf."
B'lair began to think he might’ve been apart from his own kind for too long if he could no longer recognize an elf when he came upon one? Looking at the ranger and back to the healer, he put two and two together.
"No, you're wrong," James said quietly as if reading his thoughts. "Although I care for this one as if he were my own, he is not of my loins."
B'lair didn't believe Ellison's disclaimer for a moment, but decided not to argue with him. If the ranger had a son, it would be the one and only chink in his armor, a chink which could be used to destroy him. No, B'lair decided, he wouldn't pursue this line any further.
"Are you hurt?" the ranger asked, bringing B'lair out of his thoughts.
"No...I...my legs don't seem to want to work."
"No problem." Ellison gently gathered the thief up into his arms and stood. After what seemed like only a few steps, the ranger knelt beside the bed and laid the thief upon it.
Somehow, B'lair mused, he always seemed to be ending up in bed with this man. The thought made him smile.
"You should eat more." The ranger returned his smile as he leaned forward and brushed a strand of curly hair out of B'lair's eyes. Quietly and quickly, he turned and whispered something to Rafe, who had followed them into the room, then left.
"I bless the Unnamed One for this day that he brought you into our lives." Rafe laid a hand over B'lair's eyes. B'lair tried to fight the sleep which stole up to snatch him, but found he couldn't keep his eyes open any longer. The fear he felt earlier was replaced by a deep abiding peace.
He would confess. He was sure Ellison would show him mercy and grant him a quick death. After all, he had saved members of Ellison's team not once, but twice. He’d even gladly confess to any unsolved crimes as long as they would let his off the back of the ever-moving-black-demon-spawn-from-hell masquerading as a horse.
He was tempted to tear off the blindfold, but the darkness still had a soothing effect on him as darkness always did. He knew he should try to concentrate on the smells and sounds around him, for knowing a secret way into Simon's castle could be extremely profitable. However, the pain coursing through him laid waste to that plan. Without warning, the demon came to an abrupt stop. Were they finally within the castle walls? If they were, he’d confess out of gratitude.
He flinched as hands gently touched his face and removed the blindfold, but relaxed when he heard Ellison's voice break through the pulsing in his ears. As his vision adjusted to the light, he saw a look of concern cross the warrior's face. Suddenly, the healer was in front of him placing his warm hands on his wound. B'lair felt as if he were coming out of a long tunnel as his heartbeat stopped pounding in his ears.
Taking in his surroundings, he realized he was in a stable and Taggart was gone.
"That should do it. How do you feel?" the healer asked.
Not trusting himself to speak, B'lair nodded.
Taggart appeared suddenly. "Cassie will be here within the hour. The King wants her to reestablish the link with the gemstone."
"An hour," Rafe whispered.
"We'll just have to find it before then," James said.
Knowing he wouldn't like the answer, B'lair still asked, "Who's Cassie?"
"She's an arrogant wizard who occasionally does odd jobs for the king." Rafe looked desperately at the ranger.
"Once the witch starts her spell, she'll lead a bloody parade throughout the castle. We must act now. Taggart, distract her once she gets here." The older warrior nodded and was gone. The ranger moved toward B'lair. "Are you well enough to aid us in our search?"
"Yes, I believe so."
"Where would you suggest we start?"
B'lair thought for a moment. "Our adventurer will, no doubt, look for a quiet spot; a place where he can hide the gem without someone accidentally stumbling upon him, but also needing a place secure enough where casual eyes wouldn't chance upon the stone."
"Any ideas?" Rafe prodded.
"The falconry," B'lair said with sudden inspiration. "It's up high and a place where few would venture without purpose."
"Let's go then." James grabbed B'lair's hand and plunged into the heart of the castle.
Who would have guessed the falconer would take such pride in his work? The place was immaculate. No nook or cranny existed which wouldn't make the man appear to be a total imbecile for not finding the stone earlier.
B'lair couldn’t bring himself to find the gem in his area.
"Cassie could show up at any time," Rafe said desperately behind him.
B'lair gazed out the falconry window to the courtyard below. He wasn't sure he possessed the strength to leave the tower. He decided to give the gem to the ranger. He’d made a valiant attempt, but failed. As he turned to face his doom, he saw an elderly priest exit a small door across the courtyard below them.
"Rafael," he whispered. "Where does that door lead?"
The healer leaned out the window. "To the chapel. Why?"
"Of course, why didn't I think of that?" Ellison grinned as he wrapped an arm around B'lair's waist, seeming to realize the thief was almost at the end of his strength.
As they passed one of the arches leading to another part of the castle, B'lair noticed a crowd of people talking excitedly. No doubt, Cassie had arrived and was beginning to establish her link. Taggart must have failed in his attempt to stall her.
Pushing their way into the chapel, the ranger, healer and thief looked like a party being chased by demons.
"Okay, everyone take a deep breath." The ranger slammed the door shut behind them. "Where would our adventurer hide the pendant? Split up and look."
The ranger went left, starting at the back of the chapel and heading toward the front. The healer went right and followed suit. B'lair took the opportunity to take the pendant out of his boot and slip it into his sleeve. With the switch accomplished, he looked for a good hiding spot.
Once, a long time ago, he had worshipped in the temple of the Unnamed One, had believed the message of brotherhood, but had seen that dream crushed under the reality of greed and hatred. Never-the-less, he prayed for guidance, for he had lives to avenge. However, silence was his only response--as it had been for years.
"Ellison," he called out quietly.
"What are those holes in the wall behind the altar?" His gaze fell upon the brickwork before him.
"Those," Rafe supplied, when the ranger hesitated, "are candle ledges. You see how some of the bricks jut out while others are recessed? During the celebration of the Passing, lit candles are placed on the ledges and into the crevices. It creates the most glorious luminous effect. Wonderful for losing yourself in meditation. Why?"
The ranger grinned in understanding as he and B'lair jogged behind the altar. "Can you climb up?"
B'lair cautiously tested for handholds. "Right now, I think I could fly."
"Be careful. Lord only knows how old this masonry is," Rafe warned. He then spun toward the door. "I'll check the courtyard." A small gasp ripped through the healer after he opened the door. He slammed it shut a second later. "Cassie’s heading this way."
"Stall her," James barked. The healer's eyes grew large, but nodded and slipped outside. "Any luck?" he called up to B'lair.
For a brief second, James turned toward the screeching voice raised in indignation outside the chapel. It was all the distraction B'lair needed. Slipping the pouch out of his sleeve, he found the stone halfway up the wall.
"I think I found something." He held the small leather pouch in triumph.
"Hurry," James shouted. B'lair jumped, without hesitation, into his outstretched arms.
The chapel door started to open, but slammed shut again.
"Open the pouch," James ordered.
B'lair unknotted the leather strings.
"Drop the pendant into my hands."
Without a word, he complied and watched in fascination as the ranger gently rubbed his hands back and forth over the gem. Swallowing hard, B'lair forced himself to look into the ranger's face. The warrior's blue eyes seared into his.
He knew. He’d always known.
"Now, I want to know."
"Know what?" B'lair whispered.
"Woodfoxen. B'lair Woodfoxen." It never dawned on him to lie. No matter how good Ellison was, he’d never be able to learn B'lair's secrets or find him if he didn’t want to be found.
"You should eat more, B'lair Woodfoxen." The ranger gently brushed a strand of hair out of the thief's eyes and hooked it behind one of his pointed ears.
The chapel door slammed open and a red-headed woman leapt into the room. "The pendant is here. I can feel it."
"Yes, it is." James gazed into B'lair's face and gently caressed his cheek, before he turned to face the crowd and lifted the pendant in his left hand. With his right, he pushed B'lair behind him, giving the thief a chance to raise his hood.
"My team has found it; and now, I will personally place it in our liege's hands."
The crowd behind the wizard parted and shouted their praises as James emerged from the chapel. Cassie harumphed loudly, stating she would’ve found it herself in another few minutes, but the crowd was no longer listening. They were cheering and clapping as the ranger grabbed the young healer by the waist and led the procession toward the throne room.
Ellison was letting his go. The thought stunned him. Briefly, he looked back at the altar, but refused to let his thoughts dwell on the possibility of miracles. Whatever the reason, he wasn't about to stand around and question his luck. He needed the solitude of the forest to reflect.
Slowly, he walked through the castle gates; hoping he wouldn't collapse before he reached the forest. As he reached the forest's edge, he turned to face the granite monstrosity and vowed never to take another box run no matter what the price. He started to turn back toward the woods, but stopped as he felt the ranger's eyes upon him. He knew instinctually he’d be seeing the Ranger Ellison again and although a part of him cringed in terror over the prospect, another part smiled. He wasn't really a bad sort--for a human--and one kind deed deserved another.
"Will he be all right?" the Ranger asked his young companion.
"Yes. He is healed. He just needs time to regain his strength," the healer replied.
"You're letting him go?" Taggart watched the figure in the distance disappear into the woods.
"Why? Surely you didn't let his beauty sway you."
"No, of course not."
"Then why did you let him go?" the healer asked quietly.
"Gratitude, perhaps. For doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming obstacles. I don't know really. However, I do know one thing."
"What's that?" the healer asked.
"There's a mystery to our young thief."
"Aye, there is." Taggart smiled.
"And you know how I love a good puzzle."
"Aye lad, I do," laughed the older warrior.
"Well, B'lair Woodfoxen is one mystery I intend to solve."
Chapter 2: Chance Encounters
Jaluit. A border town on the edge of an unexplored wilderness; a refuge for the hunted; a marketplace for traders, both legal and illegal; a resting place for travelers; a starting point for explorers and adventurers.
James Ellison was none of these things.
The ranger walked confidently down the middle of Jaluit's moonlit streets. Ethereal profiles paced him, recognized the aura of danger which surrounded him, then disappeared back into the shadowy depths of the city. Standing over six feet tall and moving with the grace of a jaguar on the hunt, James was not hard to spot; and in Jaluit one learned to recognize the dangerous, or die.
James stopped and looked up at the half-rotted wooden sign which quivered slightly in the breeze. The Osquip Inn. Appropriate, he thought in disgust. An osquip was a six-legged rodent that collected shiny items and lived in a maze-like system of tunnels. Like the home of the small rodent, Jaluit itself was riddled with tunnels and crawl spaces. Numerous law officers had disappeared while chasing criminals through their own element, never to be seen again. The lawless ruled the wilderness and the underworld.
With a resigned sigh, he entered the inn. The filth and squalor almost overwhelmed him, but he pressed his fingernails deep into his palms and continued forward.
Several people disappeared out the back as he entered the building--the skittish type. The rest eyed him suspiciously until they were sure he posed no immediate threat to them, then went back to what they were doing, ready to run or fight if their suspicions proved wrong.
James strode to the bar and laid a silver coin in front of the bartender. "Sandburg."
The bartender scowled at him as he picked up the coin and slid it quickly into his pocket. "Upstairs, second door on the left."
Noiselessly, James ascended the stairs and found the door he wanted.
He rapped three times, then once, then twice more. A small wooden slat opened to reveal two slanted hazel eyes. Elven eyes.
"The unicorn dances in moonlight," the feminine voice behind the door said in a husky whisper.
James frowned. "What in the hell is that supposed to mean?"
The slat slammed shut and the voice behind the door laughed before the safety latch was released to reveal Naomi Sandburg, an elven merchant of questionable background and a long-time friend. "I don't know. I once heard Henri say it at the door of an informant."
"What were you doing with Henri?" James asked, curious to know how Naomi knew the king's official advisor.
Naomi laughed again as she stepped aside for James to enter the small room, then closed and locked the door behind him. "Who said I was with Henri?"
"Then who...no, I don't want to know, do I?"
"I'm pretty sure you don't." The petite elf laughed mischievously as she indicated a chair for James to sit in. "Can I interest you in some wine?"
"What type?" the ranger asked suspiciously. He remembered, painfully, the last time he and Naomi had shared a drink.
"Why, James, you wound me. I only recommended the troll brandy last time as something that had a bite. You should know by now I only serve my friends the best. Here, look at the label. Made by priests of the Unknown One from the Trusian Abbey."
James signed, ignoring his friend's dramatics. "A small glass then."
After handing the ranger an elegant crystal goblet, which looked so out of place in the dingy surrounds, Naomi sat in a chair across from the ranger and waited patiently.
"You can still afford the rooms at the Drake, can't you?" James smiled as he waved to indicate the room.
"Yes, of course, although I do appreciate your concern over my personal finances. I am staying at the Osquip for personal reasons." The red-headed beauty took a small sip of wine. "It is an opportunity ... to remind myself of what I have risen above."
"I guess I had always assumed..."
"Most people do. It's an illusion I like to cultivate."
"I see." The ranger stared silently into his wine glass.
"What weighs so heavily on your mind, my friend, and how can I be of service to you?" Naomi asked in concern.
James blinked and shook his head slightly as he tore his gaze away from the redness of the wine. "I need a favor."
"I need some information."
"Information? That could be costly."
"Costly? You'd charge me?"
"No, of course not. It's just a good idea to be reminded of what is owed from time to time," the elf said without the slightest trace of malice.
The ranger grinned. "I surely owe you a life by now."
James laughed and took a sip of wine, enjoying the way the flavor danced across his tongue.
"So what information may I provide you?"
"I'm looking for a young man."
"James, my business dealings are numerous, but I'm afraid I cannot..."
"Not that kind of man." James huffed. "I'm looking for a specific man."
"The one who got away?"
"The one I let go."
"Ahh." Naomi grinned as she leaned forward. "Now, I'm intrigued."
"He's a thief."
"Getting more interesting all the time. A thief, you say. Well that certainly narrows down the field."
"He's also an elf."
"An elf?" Naomi sat back, startled.
"And I have a name."
Naomi nodded for him to continue.
"B'lair Woodfoxen. Ever heard of him?"
If Naomi were human, James would have sworn she was lying when she shook her head no. The ranger, however, had a hard time reading the facial expressions and heartbeats of elves, which continually got him in trouble with his young healer, Rafael.
"Is he from these parts?" Naomi asked quietly.
"I don't think so. Will that make him harder to find?"
"No, not really. There aren’t that many elves in his chosen profession."
"True. He's the first one I've ever stumbled across."
"I'll ask around and see what I can turn up."
James leaned back in his chair and drained the remaining wine with one swallow. "Thank you. I will, of course, reimburse you for any expenses you might incur."
"James," Naomi asked with sudden intensity. "What is it you want from this Woodfoxen?"
"I need his help with a job," the ranger said nonchalantly.
"And..." The merchant gazed intently at his face.
"And answers," James admitted in a quieter tone.
"To what questions?"
"I don't know yet."
"Has he broken any human laws?"
"None to which I will hold him accountable," James said truthfully. He knew his friend would find some excuse not to help him if she believed the ranger intended to do the young man harm. Even though elven clans tended to isolate themselves, even from each other, an elf would always look out for another elf, even a stranger. They had learned long ago that the only way to stand against the humans was to present a united front.
"I don't know." The ranger hesitated for a moment. "He...intrigues me."
"I see." Naomi refilled her friend's glass, grateful she was not a elven thief named Woodfoxen. "Let me check around and see what I find."
Even though Naomi knew she wasn't being followed, she still took the long way home. Caution was always best and it gave her some time to think about her conversation with Ellison. She had never seen her friend so rattled before. What was it about Woodfoxen which made the ranger unable to answer even the simplest of questions?
By the time she entered her grove, her mind was spinning with more questions than answers. She walked around the base of an ancient oak and pressed on a gnarled limb which allowed her entrance into her residence. She had stumbled across her home many years before after she had run across the remains of a dryad who had been caught too far from her tree. Dryads might be innocents in the way of the world, but they had exquisite taste in home decor.
"I ran into a friend of yours today." She shut the door and dropped her satchel to the floor.
"I hardly think that's possible," a slightly amused masculine voice answered.
Naomi walked down a small hallway and into her study looking for the source of the voice. "How else would your name be known?"
"Someone in the guild?"
"No." Naomi looked around the empty chair by the fireplace and smiled. He was in a playful mood today.
"No one knows my name outside the guild." She heard a tinge of worry start to creep into his voice.
Naomi jumped into the empty kitchen. "So how would you explain his knowing your name?"
"His?" the voice asked from behind her.
She spun and looked into an empty alcove. "A human."
Trying to concentrate on the direction of his voice, she said softly, "A human ranger."
"I see," the voice whispered.
She looked between the rows of shelved books. "I wish I did."
"I had...some trouble with my last job."
"I figured that out when you showed up on my doorstep last month." Naomi returned to the fireplace. "I didn’t want to pry then, but considering the circumstances, maybe you should tell me what happened."
She could hear his weary sigh before he started to explain. "I was in Cascadia following up on yet another dead end when I had a chance to do a box run to Lahore for a hundred gold pieces."
"One hundred gold pieces! Surely that gave you a clue there might be some danger involved," she called out in exasperation.
"Yes, of course, but there were no time limits and the wizard paid half the coins up front. It was clod-pated. I know that now, but at the time I was frustrated. I felt I was finally closing in on Brackett. When the lead fell through, my only thought was to recoup my losses."
"Ahh, I see your time with me has not been for naught."
"Yes, my beloved Aunt, you have taught me well. Unfortunately, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Fire and stars! Please tell me you weren't the one the whole world was looking to catch."
"All right, I won't tell you."
"How did Ellison get involved?"
"He caught me."
"And he let you go?" she asked incredulously.
"I don't know."
"Apparently, neither does he."
"I am sorry, Naomi. I hope I haven't caused you any inconvenience."
She sighed as she sank down into the leather chair. "I had to lie to a friend today."
"I didn't realize he was your friend."
"It's not something I boast about; for his safety and mine," the merchant explained.
"What did he want?"
"He says he needs your help with a job."
"That was all?" His voice sounded confused.
Several heartbeats passed in silence before he spoke again, almost as if he were afraid to ask the next logical question. "What else?"
"He wants answers."
"To what questions?"
"He didn't say. I'm not sure he knows yet himself."
"I see," he whispered. "Do you think he knows of our quest?"
"No. He is merely curious."
The tenor voice shook with anger. "He will ruin all of our plans."
"He will not go away until he has his answers."
"What do you suggest?" he shouted in exasperation. Naomi heard several books fall to the floor above her.
"Give him some answers."
"To a human? Never!"
"I did not say to give him the right answers."
"You would have me lie to your friend?"
"He will not rest until he finds you."
"This human could ruin everything."
"Aye, he could."
"Damn," he swore softly. "I will take care of it."
He laughed bitterly. "Why?"
"He’s an incredibly dangerous man."
"Yes, but I have nothing left to lose." B'lair appeared around the back of the leather chair and kissed her gently on the forehead before he left.
Pouring herself a glass of wine, Naomi was suddenly grateful she was not a human ranger named Ellison.
James woke as a twig snapped nearby. Barely raising his eyelids, he glanced around the camp. He hadn't lit a fire for he didn't need the warmth nor the light, which would only attract unwanted attention. But even without the light, someone had found him. A small cloaked figure crouched silently behind a tree several feet away. He could see the moonlight reflect off the tip of a deadly looking crossbow bolt aimed in his direction.
His sword lay by his side, but his own crossbow was just beyond his reach. As the figure began to rise, James' hand groped for a stone, hoping to spoil the assassin's aim. Simultaneously, the figure and the ranger loosed their missiles.
James' rock hit true, but the bolt flew past him and planted itself with a soft plop into human flesh. Someone behind him gasped once, then fell over the log which James had been sleeping against.
A red patch in the shape of the sun rising over the horizon identified his attacker as a Patriot, one of King Kincaid's personal assassins. While most royalty saw the constant espionage with fellow kingdoms as a game--a chess match to be won--Kincaid took the intrigue personally and was constantly trying to take Simon's best player out of the game.
James grasped his sword and rolled quickly out of the path of the second assassin who was intent on finishing the ranger while he was still on the ground. Silently, he rose and cleaved his attacker in two as the third assassin fell to the ground, an arrow protruding from his throat.
"I think that's all of them." James panted after a moment of silence. "Although I think we should leave the vicinity as soon as possible. Kincaid's henchmen sometimes travel in two groups of three."
The figure, shaking visibly, walked slowly toward the ranger as he gave his explanation, drew back a fist and landed it squarely on the warrior's jaw. Startled, more than hurt, James tried to step back, but fell over the body of the first assassin to die.
"Son of a succubus." The figure hissed angrily as it drew back a foot for a kick. "Just what in the name of Hades did you think you were doing?"
James caught the foot with his own and knocked it aside.
"I'm sorry," the ranger apologized. His opponent recovered quickly and tried to kick him again. James stood up, barely dodging the foot.
"If you'd only let me explain," James tried again. He felt bad because he knew he probably deserved a beating, but also knew he wasn't going to let the little guy connect again. Instead, he caught the fist aimed at his chin and held it slightly above his attacker. He heard the cloak rip as his opponent pulled away.
"Look, I'm sorry, but what would you have thought if...Woodfoxen!" He stopped, startled to find the disheveled elf before him; his delicate facial features looking like fine porcelain in the moonlight, his blue eyes seething with anger. James could scarcely believe he hadn't broken the thief's arm during the fight.
B'lair appeared to be having some trouble keeping his emotions under control and it was only after several ragged breaths that he finally spoke. "You risked much by trying to find me," he said ominously.
"I can take care of myself." James briefly wondered if he’d misjudged the thief.
"I wasn't referring to you."
"How many places did you drop my name?" B'lair demanded, anger tingeing his question.
"I only asked one woman--an elven merchant. I don't know how many people she may have asked though."
"Did you pay much for the information?"
"No. Will it cost you much?"
"It might." The thief turned and searched the body of the closest assassin. "Do we have some unfinished business?"
"No," James said quickly.
"Then why have you sought me out?" The elf moved to the next body.
"I need your help on a job."
"Why me? Surely there are others just as qualified?"
"I need someone who's...discrete and doesn't panic easily, someone who owes me a favor."
"Excuse me." The thief stood up indignantly, his hands on his hips. "How do you figure that?"
"My team provided you with medical services." James grinned openly.
"After I saved your healer."
"I let you go."
"After I saved your whole team from assassins."
"You only killed one," James said innocently. "We killed the rest."
"As I see it, we're even," the thief said in a tone that indicated he was just beginning to see the humor in the conversation. "What would we be procuring?"
"Kincaid's signet ring."
"So I've been told before." James shrugged.
"Why?" B'lair asked incredulously.
"Politics." The ranger hoped the thief meant why he wanted the ring and not why he'd been told he was crazy.
"Why?" the thief asked again.
"Kincaid's been getting a little too cocky lately. He's been testing the borders and authorizing small raids."
"And taking his ring will prove..."
"That he's not as safe as he thinks," the ranger said darkly. "Simon will wear the ring openly during the regency council. When Kincaid comments that his has been stolen, Simon, in a show of sympathy, will give him the ring as a gift. When Kincaid sees the ring..."
"He'll realize his life had been in Simon's hands," B'lair finished for him.
The thief nodded his head in appreciation. "That's cold."
"Are you interested?" the ranger asked, hoping he had tempted the young man.
"The risks will be high."
"So are the rewards."
"How much?" the thief asked, all business.
"Three hundred gold pieces."
"The risks are that high?"
"Yes," the ranger said honestly.
"When do you want to do this job?"
"Immediately. It will take us a day or two to reach the castle and the regency council is in a week." When the thief didn't answer right away, he asked, "Are you game?"
"Lead the way," was the quiet response.
James picked up his pack, gathered his personal items and started down a small deer trail. He turned once during his journey and found himself alone, but knew better. He spotted the thief moving along a path parallel to his, following at his own pace and on his own terms.
"We'll need horses."
"I know where we can get some not too far from here," the ranger replied.
James wondered briefly how he was going to get the answers to his questions now that he had managed to get the thief out of hiding. First things first, he told himself with a smug smile.
"So that's Kincaid's fortress." B'lair whistled in appreciation. "It looks impenetrable."
"Looks can be deceiving." The ranger tied the reins of his horse to a low limb. "We'll wait until dark, then I'll show you the way in."
B'lair nodded. "Good. It'll give me some time to get my pack in order."
James watched the thief remove his saddlebags from his horse. He moved to the base of an ancient elm, sat and began to organize his tools.
After two days of riding, the ranger had a profound professional respect for the elven thief. He never complained. He never got side-tracked. But unfortunately, neither did he talk. James had hoped that during their ride he might open up and let some personal pieces of information slip during casual conversation, but he hadn't. Although the young man would answer general questions and even made several very funny observations about the various races and political situations, he never volunteered any personal nor did he initiate conversation. He appeared content to ride in silence at James' side. Had he been on any other mission, James would have considered B'lair the perfect team mate, but his silence in the face of all the ranger's unasked questions was driving James to distraction.
Why would an elf become a thief? Elves looked after their own, including the homeless, lost or destitute. What code did he live by? Although he knew he was being hunted, he had saved the lives of those hunting him, not once, but twice.
B'lair had told Rafe that his hate was what kept him alive. In elven circles, B'lair would barely be considered a young adult. What sort of hate could drive the young man to turn his back on his people and their gentle way of life?
While hate might motivate the thief, James did not consider him a danger and decided he would leave his questions unasked for the time being. He could wait until the mission was completed, but then..then he would have his answers.
James Ellison watched in wonderment as the thief seemed to fly up the outer bulwark of Kincaid's castle. When he’d first met B'lair, the elf had been wounded and could barely stand without assistance. The ranger was having a hard time reconciling B’lair’s present abilities with what he knew from the past. The thief seemed to have a knack for finding the best grips and footholds in the stonework. James followed him up, amazed at how effortlessly the young elf had made it seem.
"Where to next?" B'lair asked in a voice no louder than a warm breeze.
"At the center of the castle is a massive public garden. If you go to the northeast corner of the garden and climb the wall, you will find yourself in Kincaid's private gardens. His bedroom balcony opens over the garden. He almost always has the doors open at this time of year.
"You've been here before?" the thief asked in astonishment.
"Once or twice." The ranger grinned back. "Do you have the skirt?" James ignored the sour look from his companion. "Put it on as soon as you climb down. Then count fifty heartbeats and follow me into the garden."
James waited for the young man's nod, then climbed down the wall into Kincaid's castle. When he reached the ground, he casually walked towards the public garden, looking very much like an off-duty sentry guard.
He made it to the appointed corner without any problems and crouched in the shadows to await the thief. Time ticked by slowly and he began to wonder if he’d lost his mind. He was in a very vulnerable position, partnered with someone he didn't know a thing about. If Woodfoxen chose to betray him, Kincaid would no doubt offer him his weight in gold as a reward.
He started to shift restlessly and was about to stand to leave the garden when the thief entered the garden.
"I was spotted," he whispered apologetically. "I tried to lose him, but I couldn't."
Nodding, James stood and positioned the elf in the corner, placed his hands above the thief's shoulders on the wall and leaned very close to his companion. "Play along," he whispered.
"Did you have a hard time slipping away from your mistress?" He asked his question in a low, sultry tone when the sentry was about fifteen feet away, knowing his voice would carry in the night's silence.
"I didn't think she'd ever go to bed. She kept insisting I read her one more chapter," the thief improvised in a husky, higher pitched voice without so much as blinking.
James leaned in further. His face inches away from the thief's, his hips slowly grinding forward against his companion. "Ahh, but you did manage to get away, didn't you?" he asked, his voice rough with unexpected emotion. He calculated the guard was standing about five feet behind him.
"Yes, of course," B'lair responded. "You said it was important, that you had to speak with me tonight."
"So I did." The ranger leaned down and gave the thief a gentle kiss as one hand fisted in his silky sable hair. "I have something very important to discuss with you," he murmured above the lush mouth. He leaned in again, meaning to merely give the elf another chaste kiss, but seemed unable to keep himself from fully tasting the tantalizing lips. His tongue parted the warm lips and delved in as his body crushed the smaller figure further into the corner. The thief's hands clutched at the front of his shirt and a low moan drove the ranger deeper.
"A-hem," a voice coughed behind him. The ranger spun around, chastising himself for momentarily forgetting he was on a mission that could easily cost him his life, while at the same time trying to provide a shield for his companion, knowing if the guard saw B'lair's ears he would sound the alarm.
He quickly glanced at the guard’s insignia as he stood at attention. "Yes, Sergeant," he said in a near shout.
"It's a little late to be out, isn't it?" the Sergeant asked in an amused tone.
"Ahh, yes, Sergeant," James said, appearing to stumble over his own words. "That is to say...I...uh...I... "
The Sergeant grinned openly at him. "That you were looking for a little action."
"What?" came an indignant shriek from behind him. James leaned forward slightly as fists pounded on his back. "You said you loved me. You said you had something important to talk about. I thought...I thought...oh gods." A small sob echoed from behind him. "You were using me, you brute. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you." The wailing continued as more blows pounded his back, making him fight for balance.
"I see you have your hands full just now." The Sergeant laughed without sympathy. "Sorry to have put you in a spot, old boy."
"No apologies necessary, Sergeant."
"No apologies, you unfeeling oaf. You...you..."
"I'll leave you to pick up the pieces, son," the Sergeant said as he turned to leave. "But take this inside as soon as you can. If you can. Neither one of you should be out this late."
"My reputation is ruined," B'lair wailed behind him in big gasping sobs.
"Now baby..." James sighed as he turned toward the thief, who was keeping an eye on the sentry as he left. "You've gone and blown this way out of proportion."
"He's gone," B'lair whispered.
"Let's give it another minute or two. He'll probably want to check on my progress," the ranger said quietly, then added with a grin, "You're good."
The thief grinned impishly at him. "I already told you that."
James found himself mesmerized by the smile and leaned forward again, his hands gently fingering B’lair’s long tresses. Although his hips were pressed against B'lair's, the thief made no effort to dislodge him. The ranger noted the gentle way the young man unconsciously rubbed soothing circles on his chest and closed his eyes momentarily, enjoying the sensation which made his toes tingle.
"Ahh, you were right. He just walked past the entrance again," the elf whispered against James' lips. They stood close for a moment, neither one moving forward or backward, breathing in each other's breath as their own.
"Okay, then." James cleared his throat softly. "Up and over," he said as he inhaled his companion's scent, releasing him and watching as the thief turned and scaled the wall.
When B'lair was at the top, he blew out a small puff of air with force, signaling the ranger to follow him up.
The king's garden seemed fully silhouetted in the light of the moon, making each flower and bush seem like they had been drawn out of the darkness.
"The doors are open." James barely breathed, pointing at the doors overhead.
B'lair nodded. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"I always am."
"Not always." James remembered the first time the elf had rescued his healer, putting himself in great danger and getting stabbed in the process. Even in the darkness, he saw B'lair stick his tongue out at him. The ranger lifted the lithe body towards the balcony and watched as the thief pulled himself noiselessly over the rail.
Crouching beneath the balcony, he waited, listening for any sound which might indicate the guards had spotted them. Minutes passed slowly and he wondered how B'lair would react if Kincaid awoke. Would he panic? James doubted it, then realized he had no idea how good the thief's procuring skills actually were. He had only the elf's word and the quality of his tools. He closed his eyes and shook his head, hoping he hadn't made a mistake; that in his quest for answers he hadn't completely overlooked the obvious.
Minutes languished into an hour and then slowly into two.
He cast his hearing into the room above, but heard nothing but the slow beat of three hearts. Surely, the thief hadn't been caught. James would have heard the cry for the guards or the whispers of conspiracy. If B'lair betrayed him, the ranger doubted he would be able to escape the castle alive.
He was about to climb onto the balcony himself, when two legs appeared over the ledge. James ran his hands up and over the thief's thighs and latched onto his hips. Once the ranger had a firm grip on him, B'lair let go of the ledge and let his companion lower him to the ground.
"What took you so long?" James breathed, aching with the need to shout.
"I had some trouble," the thief mouthed. He tapped the ranger's hands letting James know he hadn't released his hold on him yet.
"What kind of trouble?"
"It took me longer than I thought to get it off his finger."
"Are you insane?" James bellowed the question after they’d put five miles between them and Kincaid's castle.
B'lair peered nonchalantly at the first glimmer of sunrise peeking over the distant hills. "You said you wanted the signet ring."
"I didn't say to take the ring off his finger!" James bellowed again, feeling better now that he was able to release his pent-up emotions.
"You said you wanted Kincaid to know his life had been in Simon's hands. Well, now he'll know, won't he?
The ranger could do little more than gargle in outrage.
"I don't know what you're so upset about. Our mission was a complete success."
James stared at the thief, unable to express himself in complete sentences.
"I told you I was the best." B'lair laughed.
"Why?" James managed in a strangled whisper.
"Because you said you wanted the ring and because you offered three hundred pieces of gold for it."
"You risked everything for three hundred gold pieces?"
"You wanted the ring, I gave you the ring. It's that simple," B'lair said in a near shout of exasperation.
"It's not that simple and you know it. It's almost as if you have a death wish. Do you have so little fear of death that you enjoy putting yourself constantly in its path?"
The thief stopped his horse so that he could face the ranger. "I resent that, human."
"How else can you explain your actions?"
"It was a test of my skills and I passed. Not only was I successful, I get a reward for passing."
"Is gold more important than your life?"
"Of course not," B'lair shouted. "But I know of no better way to buy information."
"Three hundred gold pieces could buy roomfuls of information."
"I'm counting on it."
"What information could possibly be so important for you to take such risks to obtain it?"
"I don't understand your anger, Ellison. You asked me to come on this mission. What did you think? The ring would be on the table next to his bed?" the elf asked harshly.
James ignored the question and repeated, "What information could possibly be so important?"
"I don't know what you mean," the elf shouted in denial.
"Of course you do," the ranger shouted back.
"It is none of your business, human."
James closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Maybe, I could help."
"I seriously doubt it," B’lair said in a quieter tone.
"You know my reputation."
"Your reputation doesn't mean squat in this instance and I refuse to discuss this with you any further. I will accompany you to Simon's castle for my payment and then I will be out of your hair for good."
James closed his eyes, trying to gather his thoughts. How had everything gotten so out of hand? He needed to calm down before he questioned the elf again.
They spent the rest of their trip in silence.
James walked through the woods with the saddlebags containing B'lair's reward for procuring King Kincaid's signet ring.
"It's all here." He placed the bags over the horse. "The king said to throw the sorrel into the bargain as he doubted you could carry the bags very far on your own."
"I'm more resourceful than I look," B'lair said with a tentative smile.
"I'm only just beginning to realize that," James admitted quietly, returning the smile.
"Thank you for the horse though."
The ranger shrugged. "No problem."
B'lair looked at him as if he were about to say something more, but appeared to change his mind.
"I might be able to help." James took a step closer to the elf.
"I don't see how."
"Tell me of this danger you face."
"No," the elf said firmly.
"You’re telling me you don't want my help."
"And you won't tell me what information you're seeking."
"Would you, at least, let me provide you with the gold?"
There was no response to his offer for several moments. Finally, the elf looked into his eyes. "Why?" he asked quietly.
"Because you intrigue me."
"You are a dangerous man, James Ellison," the thief said cryptically. "Just what would I have to do for this gold you’re offering? For I doubt you’re offering it without strings."
"There are always strings."
"Aye. So what is it you want from me, human?"
"I want you to be a part of my team."
"Are you mad?" the elf shouted in a voice louder than anything Ellison had heard from him before. The elf recovered quickly and asked in a much quieter tone, "Why would you want me on your team?"
"Because you're intelligent and good at what you do."
"I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do." The thief took a step closer to the ranger.
"Well, you seem to have a good rapport with Rafe. He's young and inexperienced, but I need him on my team. I would be greatly relieved if someone would keep an eye on him when I can't be around."
"You have Taggart."
"Yes, but you seem to have a special connection with him."
The thief crossed his arms over his chest. "That's not the real reason, is it?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Don't lie to me, human. One does not build trust through lies."
"And what about you?"
"I have yet to lie to you," the thief said in an amused tone.
"Ahh, but you've yet to tell me anything useful either."
The elf shrugged and mounted his horse.
"I worry about you being out here by yourself. You do have a tendency to get into trouble," the ranger said honestly.
"I'm not the one who nearly got stabbed while I was sleeping," the thief said with humor, then added in a sadder voice, "Besides, I've been by myself for a very long time."
Ignoring the initial barb, the ranger pleaded quietly, "Come work for me."
"I will not answer any more questions," the elf stated firmly.
"I won't ask any more until I think you might answer them."
"Your grandchildren will be old and gray before I tell a human."
The ranger grinned. "So be it."
"I will work with your team for the gold. I will keep to myself. I will not answer any questions about who I am. However, neither will I lie to you. But know this," the thief said, his voice taking on an ominous tone, "When the time comes, I will leave. No explanations. No good-byes. And if our goals cross, I will not jeopardize mine. Do you understand?"
"Yes, but you do understand that no one ever double-crosses me?"
"I won't betray you or your team, but I have spirits to calm. If the situation comes down to following the group or fulfilling my destiny, I will choose the latter. Never doubt it. Consequences be hanged."
"Deal." The ranger held out his hand, palm flat, fingers up. The elf hesitated for a moment, then reached out and pressed his palm against the warrior's. For a moment, they lost themselves in each other's eyes, but finally B'lair pulled the reins for the horse to turn.
"How will I find you when I need you?" James called out to the slowly retreating back.
"Get word to your merchant friend. She knows the people who know how to get in touch with me."
James watched the elf leave, shaking his head in disbelief. What had he gotten himself into? Getting answers out of Woodfoxen was proving to be more difficult than he initially believed -- but get them he would.
The first time he’d spoken to the thief he’d known there was more to the young man than met the eye. He knew the elf was driven; knew he was an honorable creature. But what would drive such a fragile looking man to seek revenge? How could he possibly prevail against the evil that existed in the world? Why wouldn't he accept his help?
By the Unknown One's name, he would get his answers if it was the last thing he ever did. He shook his head in amusement as he looked at the retreating figure and realized that he would also offer his assistance again and again, until the thief accepted.
For the present, however, he wondered how he was going to explain his decision to take on a new member to the rest of his team. Maybe he could tell them that he had, by chance, encountered the thief in the forest and one thing lead to another...
Chapter 3: Reversals
The elderly hunchbacked woman turned from her cheese cart, glancing around the busy street to see who was speaking. The throng was just as heavy as it usually was every afternoon on the merchant's street in Cascadia.
"B'lair, my child!" Her eyes lit up as she wheezed in delight, holding her hands out to the young elf and gently drawing him out of the crowd. "Where have you been?"
B'lair smiled warmly as he embraced her in a gentle hug. "Here and there. Mostly working." He made a big show of breathing in the scents from her cart as he glanced over the various wheels and slices. He started to reach for a small wheel, but she slapped his hand with a deftness of having raised ten children and most of their children as well.
"As if I’d sell you something from the top." She grinned toothily at him. "I got a wheel here that's so sharp it could practically cut itself."
"You spoil me, sweetheart." He stood on his toes to see over the corner of her wagon as she stooped to open a drawer on her side of the cart. "I've thought of nothing but a slice from one of your creations for the last two days. In fact, I'm supposed to be in Hartdom tomorrow afternoon, but decided to take the scenic route just so I could see you."
"You could shame the devil with that tongue, sweet child." She handed him a six inch diameter cheese wheel and patted his cheek with her free hand. "It would do me good to see you put a little more meat on your bones."
B'lair took her spotted and gnarled hand and gently kissed her swollen knuckles. "If you’d only leave that man of yours and run away with me, I would let you fatten me up to your heart's content."
"One of these days I might just surprise you and take you up on that kind offer." Her face blushed red with embarrassment over her forwardness and she fanned herself with her hands. But she whispered conspiratorially, "He always says he knows when we’ve been together, says it puts an extra spring in my step." Her eyes twinkled, and the wrinkles deepened on her cheeks as she flirted.
"All I can say is that he must have a strong hold on your heart if I can't even tempt you away." B'lair smiled brightly at her as he pressed a gold piece into her hand. "Alas, I am doomed to wander the earth, comforting myself only with your cheese."
Natalia chuckled, her face splitting with a smile which reminded the elf that she had been a beautiful woman in her youth. Her eyes got big as she looked at the coin in her hand and started to shake her head, but the elf cut her off as he caught her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist. "If I cannot have you for myself, do not deprive me of the opportunity to give you a moment's pleasure."
Natalia sighed happily as she reached forward, her fingers gently running through his curly hair. "You would give me pleasure even if you didn't buy my cheese, young B'lair, but I am forever grateful that you take the time to brighten this foolish old woman's day whenever you're in town."
B'lair began to protest her self-deprecating comments, when he noted the hand in his hair stiffening.
"Go now, young one. You've attracted the eye of Simon's guards and while he may be a fair and just man, I do not like the way the tall one is looking at you," Natalia whispered urgently. "Please."
B'lair nodded, kissing her hand one more time. "Until we meet again, dear one." Releasing her hand, he slowly moved away from the guards, ever cognizant of their position as he looked into mirrors and shiny surfaces hanging from carts along the side of the boulevard.
The sentries seemed content to follow at a distance for several minutes, but the largest of the group eventually became frustrated and quickened his pace to close the distance between them. B'lair took the opportunity to slip around the corner into a deserted alley darkened by the height of the buildings on its sides.
Joel Taggart sighed in frustration, biting his tongue to prevent himself from dressing down the eager private until he was nothing more than a puddle of quivering sweat.
"I swear, sir, he turned into this alley. It's a dead end. But no matter how many times we've searched, we can find no trace of him. He must be in there somewhere. There's no way he could have escaped without someone noticing. We were at the entrance seconds after he turned the corner."
"Do you have any idea who you are dealing with, you..." Joel clenched his fists and clamped his mouth shut to prevent the expletive from escaping his throat. "Your orders were not to capture the man, but to find and ask him to accompany you to King Simon's chamber."
"But he never gave us a chance to get close enough to ask, sir," the young guard protested.
Joel closed his eyes, growling. "If James Ellison dies," he said slowly, deliberately enunciating each word as he opened his eyes and fixed his gaze on the young soldier, "because you scared off the one man who could save him, there will be no place safe enough for you within the ten kingdoms for you to hide. Do I make myself clear?"
The guard gulped hard, staring at the normally gentle man, and nodded, clearly frightened. "What can I do?"
"Take your men and get the hell out of here!" the dark warrior roared. Dismissing the backward stumbling man from his mind, he turned and walked into the deserted alley.
Closing his eyes, he took several deep breaths to calm his frayed nerves and spoke softly to the darkness surrounding him. "B'lair. I know you're still here. I also realize you don't know me well enough to trust me, but please...I mean you no harm. I am in desperate need of your help. You're the only one, besides James, who knows how to get into Kincaid's castle and I have to...I have to get in."
The big man rubbed both of his hands over his face, trying to prevent his grief from overwhelming him. "We were attacked by Patriots. Kincaid knew James was behind the theft of his signet ring and has sworn vengeance. Normally, Patriots attack in threes, occasionally sixes, but this time there were dozens of them. We successfully fought them off and were retreating. I don't...by the Unknown One's name, I swear I don't know how we got separated. James... James and Rafael were captured."
The warrior rolled his head back onto his shoulders, pleading. "Please. There's a chance they may still be alive. Kincaid won't kill them right away. He'll want to have his fun first. Please, come talk to Simon. He'll pay you anything you want. I'm leaving tonight, with or without you, no matter what Simon says, but I really need you. Please, B'lair, consider coming with me."
Joel stood for several minutes, listening for any sign or acknowledgment; however, nothing but the sounds from the street danced around him. His breath hitched slightly as he realized his failure. He dropped his chin to his chest, sighed, and composed himself enough to make his way back to the castle proper. He could delay no longer.
"I will not leave them, Simon!" Joel shouted as he and the king entered Simon's private chambers.
"I cannot lose you too, my dear friend," Simon said quietly. "Kincaid's castle is going to be crawling with guards. Even if you had found James' thief, I seriously doubt you could’ve found a way in." He held up a hand to forestall the argument he saw brewing in the warrior's eyes. "And even if you got in, chances are they've been tortured. Getting them out will be next to impossible. I cannot sanction this rescue."
"I'm not asking you to sanction it, Simon. I'm simply giving you the courtesy of knowing how I died," Joel said in a soft, but determined, voice. He turned and stepped toward the door.
Using his most authoritative voice, Simon boomed, "I could have you arrested."
Joel paused, but did not look back. "Do what you feel you must," he whispered as he reached for the door.
"If you arrest him, you'll delay our departure, but you cannot prevent it," a voice said from the shadows by the balcony.
Both men spun around; Joel stepping in front of Simon, his sword drawn. The robed figure stepped slowly into the light, pushing back its cowl to reveal the sable haired elven thief.
Simon rubbed a tired hand over his face. "Do I even want to know how easy it was for you to get past my guards?"
The thief shrugged. "Probably not."
"You came." Joel sheathed his blade.
The elf turned back toward the balcony. "If you wish to come with me, Joel, you must come now."
"Please," Simon said in a pained voice. "At least leave by the front door."
B'lair hesitated for a moment, then flashed the human king a mischievous grin as he walked past him toward the door.
"I would be willing to pay a fair price if you’d be willing to part with the secret of how you came to be on my balcony," Simon offered with a rueful sigh.
Tapping the older warrior on the back to indicate that he should precede him, the elf looked back over his shoulder and said, "I'll consider it."
"Woodfoxen," Simon called out. "You bring my men back to me and you can have anything that is within my power to grant."
The elf stopped, and turned to face the King. "If I bring your men back, Simon, I will be content with having the favor of a human king."
"You will have it, son. You will have it."
James Ellison paced back and forth across the length of his small cell like a caged jaguar, smooth in movement, feral.
Woe to any who should have the misfortune to open that door, Rafael thought. He wrapped his arms around his knees and watched the older warrior work off his excess energy. James had placed Rafe in the corner furthest from the door; although the healer knew it wasn't to give the ranger room to move. James was protecting him, as always.
"What are they waiting for?" the warrior demanded for the hundredth time since their capture.
"Probably for you to fall asleep so they might stand a chance when they open the door," Rafe teased gently.
James glared at the young man and continued pacing.
"You should conserve your energy, James. They haven't fed us for seventy-two hours and I suspect they won't feed us for the next seventy-two either."
The ranger stopped suddenly and knelt by the halfling. "How are you holding up?"
"I'm doing okay, James. I promise, I won't let you down again."
James sighed in frustration. "You haven't let me down, Rafael."
"I got us captured."
"We were outnumbered twelve to one, kid. While I appreciate your confidence in my abilities, even I can be overwhelmed with sheer numbers."
Rafe wearily laid his forehead upon on his knees. "You wouldn't have been if I hadn't allowed that Patriot to get close enough to put a knife to my throat." He looked up at James. "I shouldn't have called out. You would have gotten away. I'm so sor--"
The ranger gently cuffed him before he could finish. "Hush now. The past is the past, we can do nothing to change it."
"Do you think Joel got away?" the halfling asked in a whisper.
"I pray he did."
"If he made it home, Simon will mount a rescue effort pretty soon, won't he?"
The hope in the young man’s voice nearly broke the ranger’s heart. James closed his eyes briefly, wishing there was an easier way to break the news to the young healer. "There won't be any rescue attempts, Rafael."
"Wha-what do you mean?" Big green innocent eyes blinked curiously at him.
"A rescue attempt would be construed as Simon invading Kincaid's territory. As much as Simon wants to help us out, he can't risk an all out war over us."
Rafael nodded, rocking back and forth slightly, his optimism slowly wilting. "So what's the plan, boss?"
"We keep our eyes open for any opportunities, but basically we survive." The ranger clasped the younger man's shoulder, knowing that while he would bear the brunt of Kincaid's anger, the mad king would eventually use the healer as a hostage against him. James just prayed that Kincaid would be so caught up in his revenge against him that he would ignore his innocent friend until Joel came--for he had no doubt the dark warrior would come.
The healer gulped nervously.
"But no matter how bad it gets, Rafael, you cannot attempt to heal me."
"What...what do you mean? Of course..." The halfling’s protest was cut off as the ranger laid a finger on his lips.
"If they discover that you’re a natural healer," James whispered, closing the distance between them, barely breathing the words into the boy's ear, "they will find ways of torturing you and keeping you alive for months, even years, until you are nothing but a vessel for pain with no memory of who you once were. No matter how bad it gets, I will have your word now that you will comply with this command."
"Your word, damn it," the ranger snapped, ignoring the healer's flinch. "Swear it now, Rafe."
"I -" the boy hesitated.
James' other hand came up and gripped the healer's throat and growled. "Now."
Rafe looked into the ranger's flame blue eyes and understood everything James had attempted to keep from him. His friend was going to walk through the gates of hell to protect him, to keep him alive for as long as possible. But if he couldn’t abide by the older man's wishes, James was ready to kill him, here, now, swiftly, painlessly, rather than risk his charge's unending torment. Rafe closed his eyes, tormented over having failed the ranger and causing this man so much pain.
James' hand gripped the healer's throat tighter and growled. "Now."
"I swear, James. I swear by the Unknown One's holy name."
The ranger nodded, tenderly running his fingers over the boy's neck, giving him a swift embrace before he stood and faced the door, placing himself between the coming guards and the young man whose life was now in his hands.
"You intrigue him, you know?"
B'lair looked up from his task of removing the saddle from his horse to find the dark warrior quietly studying him. Lifting an arched eyebrow, he shook his head slightly as if the thought amused him and pulled the saddle from the horse, carefully laying it on the ground by his feet. When he stood again, he found himself still under Joel's scrutiny. Sighing, he realized they would go no further until the warrior had his say. "It's the ears."
"I beg your pardon."
B'lair removed the small blanket from his horse's back and began brushing the beast quickly and efficiently. "James is trying to reconcile what he knows about elves with what he knows about me and is frustrated by the contradictions. He’s a man who likes to know the answers and he's confused because he can't put me in a neat box."
"I think it is more than that," Joel protested in a soft voice as he, too, continued his tasks.
"Doubtful," the thief said, gently patting the brown roan on his haunches.
They worked in silence for several minutes, preparing for the last leg of their journey; both mindful of their surroundings and the escalating dangers of moving closer to Kincaid's castle.
"He was going to try to find a way to contact you. Simon has another job for us and James thought you might be able to help."
B'lair looked up from evaluating his pack, tied it shut and stood. "I might consider it, if the price is right."
Joel swung his satchel over his shoulder, frustration clearly written on his face, but a smile slowly blossomed as a thought came to him. "What were you doing in Cascadia?"
The elf turned. "Buying cheese. If you've never had any of Natalia's cheese, you must make it a point to seek her out. The woman is a cheese sorceress of the highest order." Looking over his horse one more time, he picked up his pack and started walking towards Kincaid's castle.
"So you have no feelings for James one way or the other?"
"Joel." B'lair sighed as he turned to face the warrior. "In all likelihood, James is already dead. My feelings, one way or the other, are pretty much moot in that case. Talking about them will not protect the man nor aid us in retrieving his body." With that, he turned and continued his journey.
Joel smiled briefly in satisfaction as he trudged after the elf. The young thief could protest all he wanted, but the warrior had seen the haunted look in the elf's face when he talked about the possibility of James' death. B'lair cared, cared enough to walk with him into hell, and for now, that was all that mattered.
Rafe paced back and forth within the small cell, his arms crossed protectively across his chest. His fists clenching and unclenching at his shoulders, digging his fingers into his palms each time his hands closed in frustration.
Kincaid's men had come eight hours earlier and removed James from the cell. One of the men had made an attempt to collect the healer, but the ranger simply stood in his way. The message was clear, he would go with the guards, but Rafe was to remain, unharmed. The guard had leered at the young half-elf, but made no further movement in his direction.
James had followed the guards out of the cell, quietly; and that was the last Rafe had seen of him or anyone else for that matter.
Voices from the hallway drew his attention and he stood in the middle of the small room, hands by his side, mentally trying to prepare himself for whatever was to come.
The door slammed open and a guard stepped in, thrusting a spear at the healer, making him stumble back against the wall. Two more guards entered the room, dragging a man between them. With little ceremony they dropped the body onto the flagstone before slamming the door shut on their way out.
Rafe waited until the door shut then scrambled to the prone body. He gently turned the man over and looked into the open eyes of the ranger. Horrified, the healer tenderly touched the bruised and batter face. "James. Fire and stars. Please, James. Are you all right? Please come back to me."
The ranger blinked and tried to focus his gaze on the younger man. Rafael pulled James' upper body forward slightly and then lowered his friend's head onto his lap. Looking around, knowing no one was around, he stroked his friend's face, feeling the power within him begin to build.
James' eyes widened slightly. Weakly grabbing the healer by the wrist, he thrust the helping hand aside. His blue eyes angrily trying to convey a message to the halfling.
"I know I promised, James, but I can't...I can't," the younger man whispered, his breath hitching.
The ranger lifted a shaking hand upwards and tenderly brushed away a tear trailing down the healer's face.
"Please, James, I beg you. Please let me--"
The hand on his cheek slid to his neck and the healer felt the pressure of the squeeze. Rafe sighed, bowed his head and nodded to indicate his compliance. The hand at his neck fell away, its brief strength gone.
"I should have let you kill me. I should have. But I was afraid. It's my fault. I should never have called out. Never." The young man whimpered as he pulled the ranger's body to his chest and slowly rocked back and forth, knowing if he tried to continue with his healing that the ranger would use the last of his resources to try to get away from him. "Please forgive me. Please. Forgive. Me."
A slight shushing noise reverberated against his chest as a large hand awkwardly patted his back. Rolling his head back onto his shoulders, staring blindly at the stone ceiling, Rafe allowed the tears to spill down his face, his heart shattering as he realized the ranger was trying to comfort him despite his own pain. Dear God in heaven, he finally understood what hell was.
B'lair stood under a birch just within the forest line, staring at the castle below. James was dead. Of that he had no doubt. Even before he had stolen Kincaid's signet ring for the ranger and his liege, Kincaid had been hunting James. Obviously, the mad king and the warrior had a long history. Surely, Kincaid would simply stick a sword into the ranger's gut and end their cat-and-mouse game once and for all. He couldn't be so stupid as to think there wouldn't be any rescue attempts. Rationally, logically, James was dead.
The elf closed his eyes. His heart told another story. James was alive. He wished by the Unknown One's name he wasn't, but every cell in his body told him otherwise. It wasn't that he didn't want the ranger to be alive, but if he was, B'lair knew he would be broken, maybe shattered beyond repair.
He clenched his fists in anger. Why should it matter to him what happened to this human? This rescue was distracting him from his quest. Why was he even here?
What were you doing in Cascadia?
"Cheese," he whispered, almost in a whimper, trying to convince himself of the truth of the statement. Hissing in frustration, he spun and hit the tree with a clenched fist. It was a lie and he knew it. He had been in Cascadia hoping to catch a glimpse of the ranger. Not that he would’ve approached the warrior, but he had wanted to see him, to try and convince himself that his growing feelings were nothing but his loneliness coming to fruition.
What a fool he was.
James was intrigued by him. Hell, even Joel knew the truth of it. So why did he keep torturing himself with thoughts it could be more? He didn't have time for these feelings. He had information to track down and souls to calm.
He took a deep cleansing breath and closed his eyes briefly. He would get Joel into the castle. He would assist him in bringing back the bodies of the ranger and the healer...
His thoughts stumbled as an image of Rafael laughing crowded out all other distractions. So like his brother, so full of life. So...
Clenching his teeth, he pounded the tree again, hissing out his frustration. As soon as it was dark, he’d retrieve the ranger and the healer and continue on his quest. Feelings be damned. He didn't have time for feelings.
James woke as he heard the guards begin their descent down the dungeon stairs. They were coming for him--again.
As gently as he could, he lifted himself off the sleeping healer's lap and stared into the young man's face. Such an innocent. He knew Rafael's soul was being shredded by his inability to heal the ranger, but James was proud of the boy for keeping his promise.
Closing his eyes, he gathered his strength and pushed himself off the floor and into a standing position. He tottered unsteadily to the wall by the cell door and leaned against it.
His gaze wandered over to the healer again. Damn it, Joel. Where are you? He knew Simon couldn't sanction a rescue attempt, but he also knew there was no force on earth which would stop the dark warrior from finding them. The question that remained was would the warrior find Rafe in time?
James heard the guards as they unlocked the gate at the end of the hall, and closed his eyes, preparing himself.
The memory of Kincaid's face seeped into the darkness. "I'll let your companion remain unscathed...as long as you don't utter a single solitary sound. The moment you cry out, he belongs to me. Do you understand, Ellison?"
James had nodded, knowing the second the question had slipped from the mad king's mouth, the game had begun. Shortly thereafter the pain had begun.
The only thing that had kept him sane, grounded, was the image of B'lair's face as the thief had allowed James to slowly lower him to the ground underneath Kincaid's bedroom balcony. For a brief second, there had been a look of such longing on the elf's face that it practically stole the ranger's breath from his body. He knew the thief had felt safe allowing the emotion to show because no one should have been able to see it--no one except James.
The door rattled as the guard twisted the key into the lock, waking the healer, who shook himself and looked about the cell, startled. For a brief moment, James locked his gaze with Rafael's and smiled reassuringly.
The guard jumped in surprise as he opened the door to find James waiting for him. The ranger grinned ferally as the lackey composed himself enough to direct him into the hallway where the other guards waited.
Hurry, Joel, James sent to the heavens as he stepped into the hall. I don't know how much longer I can hold out.
B’lair stood in front of the large human warrior. "You're going to have to hit me, Joel."
"Couldn't we just -"
"No. If we have any chance of pulling this off, my bruises must be real."
"But I ..."
"Joel! We don't have time for this! Can you imagine what they're having to endure every minute we're standing here arguing?" B'lair snarled.
The older warrior looked stricken, but instead of throwing a punch, he wrapped his arms around the slighter man and held him tight for a moment. "May James forgive me," he whispered, then released the thief.
"He will, my friend. He will."
With tears in his eyes, Joel Taggart clenched his fist and drove it into the elf's unprotected face.
His world consisted of nothing but pain.
Hadn't he cried out yet?
What harm could there be in crying out?
The shadows surrounding him promised the pain would stop once he said something.
Oh God! Pain!
There was a reason...
A reason he didn't cry...
But he couldn't remember what it was.
A face floated up from his memory.
He had to keep Rafael safe until Joel came.
Why wasn't Joel coming?
He had to keep silent until B'lair came for him.
He blinked in confusion.
Why would B'lair come for him?
Because his soul cried out for the elf.
Please hurry, B'lair. I don't know if I can stay silent much longer.
B'lair was shoved into a small cell in the dungeon. He fell hard onto his hands and knees as his feet skittered on the fetid straw. Almost immediately, he flipped himself over and looked at the giant figure standing in the doorway. He wiped his face with the back of his hand. "Please, no," he whimpered as he skittered to the far wall.
Hoots of derision echoed from the hallway.
"Don't he beg pretty, boys? You should have heard him beg last night and I was in a generous mood, let me tell you. I gave it to him all night long." Joel sneered at the pathetic sight in front of him. "I just want five more minutes with him boys and then I'm willin' to share in exchange for a little room and board. What say you?"
"Hell, yes. Go have your fun, Joel. Just come on out when you're done and we'll have all the arrangements made."
"Good men." Taggart smiled brilliantly before he slowly shut the door over the growing cries of his captive.
"No! Please. Mercy." B'lair moaned, trying to ignore the paling face of his friend. He held up four fingers as he continued his begging.
Joel nodded as he removed two small poisoned tipped daggers from a pouch hanging from his belt and handed them to the elf. "Are you sure you can handle two at one time?"
The thief nodded as he stood, never ceasing his whimpering as he secreted the weapons in his shredded shirt, then quickly removed his pants.
"Noooooooooooooo!" he screamed in apparent unending agony as he gently rubbed his friend's chest.
Joel looked at him with stricken eyes, the realism of the scream almost too much for his gentle soul.
B'lair patted the warrior on the chest before moving back to the corner and hunkering down. He pulled his arms over his head, letting his body rock back and forth. "Now, Joel," he ordered in a soft voice.
Joel loosened his belt and pushed his pants askewed. Taking a deep breath to center himself, he opened his eyes and boomed out a laugh as he flung open the door, rearranging himself and tightening his belt. "Gawd, he's tight. I swear, you will never have anything that sweet again. I always say an elf will beat a good woman any day. Whoa. Where can a man get a good beer around here. Every time I do him I swear I could drink a barrel by myself."
"Well, the tavern's across town, but we have some hooch we'd be willing to share with you," a voice squeaked eagerly.
"Good man. Good man." Joel boomed in laughter. "So which two of you want him first?"
"Two?" one of the men asked in awe.
"Sure, why not?" Joel laughed. "You can take turns and the other two can relieve you in an hour. If he survives, we'll start all over again."
"He better survive," one of the smaller guards whined as two of his friends headed towards the door. "Let's us all get a piece of that before you let loose, Dawson. You hear?"
"I hear ya," the largest guard grumbled before he shut the door.
B'lair looked up at the two men who stood by the door surveying him and whimpered. "Please. I beg you. No."
Rafe looked up from his ministrations of the ranger as a voice screamed out in agony and fear. The scream sounded close. He closed his eyes and sent out a prayer for the tortured soul. But as the scream continued, James' eyes flew open. The ranger tried to push himself off the floor, even though he didn't have any strength left.
"Shhhh...James. Easy now." The healer crooned softly as he held the ranger to his chest.
Finally, the scream quieted. James slowly worked one hand up Rafe's shirt and touched the tip of his ear.
"It was an elf?" the healer asked quietly.
James nodded, his eyes wide with horror.
"No, James. It wasn't B'lair. We don't even know where he is. Remember? He's safe. He's safe from harm," Rafael assured him quietly. He continued to rock, hoping to lure the ranger back to sleep. Dear lord, please let B'lair be safe, he thought. For he knew no matter what torture James had endured, these human swine would make it twice as bad for an elf. He finally understood the look of horror on the thief's face when he had discovered Rafe was a halfling.
Rafe suspected that James was protecting him somehow, but also knew his friend was at the end of his rope. He would not survive another session with Kincaid's chief torturer. The ranger's skin was torn, bruised and burned. The healer could sense even deeper wounds, injuries which lurked beneath the battered frame.
The halfling ran a soothing hand over the older man's arms and knew he could probably heal James now and the ranger would be powerless to stop him--but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Healing James would only force him to endure even more agony at the hands of his tormentors.
The healer sobbed as he realized he was going to allow the ranger to die. He raised his face to the ceiling. Was he strong enough to kill the man who was like a father to him? Could he end James' life now before the guards came back for him?
He laid a hand over the ranger's heart. "Please forgive me."
Joel watched dispassionately as the body of the last guard slid off his sword. With little thought, he tossed the dead man into the closest cell and pounded down the hallway, slamming open the elf's cell door, barely dodging the knife which flew at him.
"Joel? Oh my...forgive me, please." B'lair sputtered, his face growing pale, one hand holding his pants in place.
"My fault. I should have called out. Good thing I'm faster than my size implies." The older warrior grinned at him. "Are you okay? They didn't..."
"No. They didn't."
"Thank the Unknown One. Hurry up with the pants. I'm going to start checking cells." Joel spun and checked the cell closest to B'lair's only to find it empty.
By the time he reached the next door, the elf was by his side. Joel unlocked the door and opened it quietly. Both men gasped in horror as they took in the healer, rocking back and forth, sobbing over the ranger's body.
Despite the urgency of their situation, B'lair slowly approached the healer and spoke gently. "Rafe? Rafael, it's B'lair." He knelt, tenderly taking the halfling's face in his palms, waiting patiently for the green eyes to meet his.
"I...I couldn't do it. I tried...but...but...I couldn't." Rafe stared blindly at elf.
"Couldn't do what, Rafael?" B'lair tenderly wiping his thumbs over the healer's tear stained cheeks, ignoring the impatient noises coming from the dark warrior who was checking the hallway.
"I couldn't take his life. He's in such agony. He won't be able to survive another session. It’d be best if I eased his way into the next life, but I can't, B'lair. I can't. He wants so much to see you again. I just can't. He thinks Joel is coming to rescue us," the healer said in a voice which begged for forgiveness.
"Dear heart, Joel and I are here to take you and James home." B’lair’s voice was rough with emotion when realized the healer believed he was a delusion.
"Home?" Rafe stopped rocking, his face puzzled.
"Yes. I need you to let Joel take James now. Okay?"
Joel stepped forward swiftly and swept the ranger's broken body into his arms. The moment the healer lost contact with James, he seemed to collapse into himself. B'lair gathered the halfling into his own arms.
"Where to now?" the dark warrior asked as soon as the elf straightened.
"We'll go further down the stairs where we came in. James told me when we were here last that they lead to a small opening at the backside of the castle. We were going to use it as an alternative escape route if need be. Kincaid uses the opening to disposes of bodies so he doesn’t have to parade them through town. He's hired someone to pick them up and bury them. If the fates are smiling upon us, there'll be a cart just waiting for procurement."
Joel led the way down the stairs; B'lair close on his heels. The elf wanted nothing more than to run his hands over the ranger to reassure himself that James was still alive, but he knew he had to concentrate on the life in his hands. It was apparent that neither man had been fed during their captivity and were both critically weakened.
B'lair was worried by the haunted look in the healer's eyes, and wondered if the young man was strong enough to survive. Experience had taught him that emotional wounds were harder to heal then those of the body. He pressed the halfling to his chest and hurried after Joel.
The fates were indeed smiling on them as they pushed their way through the crudely hung door at the bottom of the stairwell. Joel moved without hesitation toward the cart and laid the ranger on the wooden bed. "It's empty," he whispered.
"You're driving." B'lair moved to the other side of the cart and laid the healer just out of the ranger's reach, then climbed into the cart and laid between the halfling and the human. He gestured for Joel to cover them with the filthy tarp wadded at the end of the wagon. Joel looked at him, puzzled.
B'lair sighed. "If Rafe touches James, he’ll try to heal him. In his current state, he could do himself serious harm. We can't let him make an attempt just yet. First we get them to safety, then we work on their wounds. I'll brace both of them, and keep them separated."
Joel nodded in understanding, pulling the cover cloth over the three of them.
"Don't be tempted to rush. We don't want to do anything to draw attention to ourselves," Blair said in a slightly louder voice.
Joel nodded his agreement, even though the thief couldn't see him. "Where to?"
"Do you know the road to Tacoma?"
"Yes." The warrior grunted as he climbed into the cart's front bench and took the nag's reins.
"Let me know when we're about ten miles out."
"Okay.” Joel hesitated for a moment. “Do you really think we're going to get that far?"
"Trust me. It's all downhill from here."
Taggart groaned at the pun as he encouraged the old horse with a quick slap of the reins down the hill to the main road.
As soon as the cart stopped, Joel removed the cloth above him and looked up into the blue eyes of the thief. "Where are we?"
The elf smiled as he climbed into the back and lifted the healer into his arms. "Sanctuary."
The dark warrior blinked several times, allowing his eyes to grow accustomed to the morning light. They had plodded along for what seemed like an eternity in the little cart, praying no one would stop them. Moving slowly, but ever vigilantly forward. Just before dawn, B'lair had insisted they trade places.
Joel sat up and looked around the small grove of trees and was startled to find an open door in the side of an ancient oak. "What is this place?"
"It belongs to a very dear friend of mine. She's not here at the moment, but I know she wouldn't mind our invading her home," B'lair said before disappearing into the tree.
Joel blinked, shook his head in disbelief, then sighed. He scooted to the end of the cart and stood, stretching and popping the bones in his back as he did so. He then reached back into the cart and lifted the unconscious ranger into his arms. "A tree," he snorted as he passed through the doorway.
B'lair directed the warrior into a small room. "Put him in here."
"Cozy," Joel observed as he set his charge onto a comfortable looking bed.
"Rafael doesn't appear to have suffered any physical injuries." The elf placed a small box on a stand beside the bed. "However, I worry about the wounds to his soul. No matter how much he protests once he awakens, do not let him into this room."
"Why not?" the dark man asked in confusion.
"Because he will injure himself trying to make things right for James." The thief took a small knife out of the box and started to cut the ranger's clothes off. "Joel, would you take care of the old horse. After its service to us, it deserves to be free."
"What about the cart?"
"Leave it for now. It will not draw attention to us once the door is closed. Once I’ve finished here, I will make us something to eat."
The warrior nodded and left.
B'lair worked quickly and efficiently as he finished removing the ranger's clothing. Despite the bruises, tears and burns, the ranger still had a magnificent body. The elf gulped, then shook himself. First things first. He smiled as he looked at the variety of supplies in the box, giving thanks for all the times he listened to Naomi and her lectures on healing. James Ellison would not die. Not on his watch.
"...eyes...back to me...slacking...know you're tired...miss...you..."
James gradually floated up through the layers darkness of consciousness, aware of someone moaning in the room.
"Come back to me, James. Open those beautiful blue eyes of yours. Come on. You can do it," a warm voice encouraged from the darkness.
James' eyes fluttered open, realizing the low moan did not match the voice which called to him. He moaned again and was shocked to realize the groan of protest was coming from him.
"That's it," the voice encouraged again.
James turned his head slightly and found himself staring into the smiling blue eyes of the elven thief. "B'l..."
"Shhhh," the young man hushed softly, laying one finger over the ranger's lips. "Don't talk. Just rest. You're safe now."
"You came," the ranger mumbled beneath the finger.
"I will always come for you, James," the elf vowed in a whisper the ranger knew was not meant to be heard. In a normal tone of voice, he continued, "Are you hungry? I have some broth."
The mere mention of food brought another grunt from the ranger. He watched, helpless to assist in any way, as the thief moved slightly over him, tenderly lifting him so he could place two pillows beneath the ranger's shoulders.
"There, that should help."
The bed dipped beside him and he tried to focus on the face that had been his salvation during his trial of pain. "Open your mouth just a little. That's it. It's only a clear broth at the moment. I don't want to shock your stomach any more than I need to. Tastes good, doesn't it?"
James moaned again, but it didn't sound the same to his ears.
"Made it myself," the elf grinned as he delivered another spoonful of soup to the ranger.
"Rafael is safe. He's currently resting in a room downstairs." B'lair knew he had correctly interpreted the ranger's first concern upon awaking when James closed his eyes in relief. "And you're going to be okay too." He lifted the spoon and gave James another sip of soup. "We won't be racing back to the capitol any time soon, but you will be seeing Simon soon enough."
James fought the heaviness of his eyelids, trying desperately to stay awake. A warm hand tenderly soothed his forehead and ran down his right cheek, caressed his chin, then danced up his left check and back to his forehead. "You're safe, James. Go back to sleep. I'll keep the watch." The voice was lulling and he found himself obeying.
"How is he?" B'lair asked as Joel came out of the healer's room.
"I'm afraid we're going to lose him," the dark warrior whispered. "This wound to his soul is..."
B'lair patted Taggart's shoulder. "I know my friend, but rest assured you will not lose him."
"How can you be so certain?"
"Because I won't allow it."
"You won't allow it? How can--"
"Because. I. Won't. Allow. It," B'lair repeated succinctly. "Not ever again." It occurred to him as he looked into the tired face of the dark warrior that emotional injuries were not limited to the men in the beds. He reached out and placed a hand on the big man's shoulder. "You should get some rest."
Joel shook his head. "I'm fine." He caught the elf's eyes and slowly smiled. "We did it." Joel's voice was filled with tired wonder as if he had only just realized they were truly safe.
B'lair returned the smile, then shooed the man toward the kitchen. "If you won't rest, at least go get something to eat."
B'lair sat on the edge of the halfling's bed and took a moment to study the healer's handsome features. He knew that halflings aged at a different rate than full-blooded elves; the human blood in their systems hurtling them toward death at a much faster pace.
B’lair knew the healer was correct when he’d once proclaimed that if they were to compare their ages by the standards of their separate races he’d be considered much younger than the man laying in the bed beside him. At the moment, however, the healer looked incredibly young and so very lost.
B'lair treasured the young man's innocence, the wonderment with which he viewed the world around him, and vowed he would not let those qualities slip away without a fight.
"Rafael." He gently caressed the cheek of the halfling. "Come back to me, dear heart."
Blank green eyes turned toward him with little hint of recognition.
"I need your help."
The eyes blinked.
"I've used all my various potions and salves on James and while I believe they’re doing their job, his recovery is taking too long. I really need to get him back to Simon as soon as possible."
"Simon?" The healer’s voice was rough from disuse.
"Yes, didn't you know? Simon said he has another job for your team and I've been told he can get rather cranky if he has to wait. Must come from being king and all."
The tiniest of frowns marred the blank face. "Cranky?"
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to make disparaging remarks about your liege, but he does strike me as bit of a grouch."
The healer lips twitched slightly.
"And you should have heard him complain when I came in through his balcony window. Fire and stars, you would’ve thought no one had ever dropped in on him before."
Green eyes blinked at him again. "Dropped by?" a soft voice asked incredulously.
"Well, I hate making appointments and having to explain myself to all of the court busybodies. Besides, Joel did invite me, after all. I thought it was probably the most expedient way to see man."
"What? You've never had friends drop by unexpectedly before?"
"B'lair, Simon's a king."
"And your point would be what? Oh, it has to do with the cranky thing, doesn't it?" B'lair nodded his head with a knowing smile. "It would probably also explain why he offered to pay me to tell him how I did it."
"Yes, he did. You can ask Joel if you don't believe me." B'lair paused for a moment. "Hey, you're not trying to tell me he'd welch on the deal, are you? I mean, he would pay me if I told him, wouldn't he?"
Rafe rose onto his elbows and sighed in exasperation. "Of course he'd pay you. Simon is a man of great honor."
"Do you think I should tell him? I mean, I don't want anyone to lose their jobs or anything, but I'm thinking Simon would probably pay me pretty well for the knowledge."
"I'm sure he would."
"But on the other hand, it’d be nice to have a way to talk directly to Simon if I ever needed to...you know, without having to jump through all the official hoops."
"True." Rafael nodded. After a moment of studying the thief's face, he asked, "So what are you going to do?"
"I don't know. I guess I'll have to think on it some more. It's the age old question of money versus knowledge." B'lair sighed. "Hey," he brightened after a moment of making a big show of pondering his situation, "would you help me with something in the kitchen?"
"I don't know, B'lair," the healer hesitated.
"Oh, come on. I'm not asking you to cook or anything. I just want your opinion on a stew I made. I've been feeding James broth for a couple of days and I'm thinking he's probably ready for something with a little more substance, but Joel thinks the stew is too heavy. I'm thinking if I gave him just the vegetables and perhaps tiny chunks of meat it would be okay, but I'm not a healer or anything."
Rafe looked at him suspiciously.
"Personally, I think Joel just wants to doctor the stew. But I ask you, what do humans know about the subtleties of taste?"
Rafael frowned. "I'm half human."
B'lair guided the healer's feet to the floor and gently pulled him into a standing position. "I know, but I'm willing to overlook that one flaw."
"Oh, thank you very much, I'm sure," Rafael said with heavy sarcasm.
Joel couldn’t believe his eyes as he watched the healer follow the thief out of the room and into kitchen. The boy was trembling slightly as he walked, but the true miracle was that he was actually smiling. The warrior watched the elf ladle out a bowl of stew and place it in front of Rafe.
B’lair arched an eyebrow expectantly. "Now tell me what you think."
"Oh for..." The thief sputtered as he turned and handed the healer a spoon.
Joel held his breath as he waited for the young man to take a bite. Despite all his prodding and begging, the halfling hadn't been accepting anything more than the same broth they’d been feeding James.
"Not bad," Rafael admitted after a bite.
"Not bad," the elf almost shrieked. "You're killing me here, boy. Take another bite. Tell me you can't taste the subtle blend of spices."
Joel flinched at B'lair's phrasing, but the healer never blinked.
"Look, you've only eaten the potatoes. Try some of the meat. Do you have any idea how long I've let that rabbit simmer? Come on. Tell me what you think?"
"Not a tiny chunk, damn it." B'lair moved to the counter and sliced some bread. "Take a big one. You can't appreciate the flavoring in that little piece."
The healer chewed for several minutes. "It's pretty good."
"Pretty good?" B'lair repeated in disgust as he handed the boy a slice of bread.
"Yeah." The healer grinned, averting his eyes as he dipped his bread in the sauce.
The elf put his hands on his hips and frowned. "Does it need anything else?"
The halfling took another bite. "Nah."
"Now you're just being condescending." B'lair sighed in exasperation.
Rafael laughed before taking another bite. "No, I think it's okay."
"It's those human taste buds; that has to be the problem," B'lair growled. "I mean, there's no other explanation. I'm surrounded by heathens."
The halfling's shoulders shook as he tried to suppress a laugh.
"So it's not too heavy?"
"Actually, it seems fairly light."
"Then James can have some of it?"
The healer looked up from his bowl. "Yes. I think it’d be perfect."
"Do you want to take a bowl up to him?"
The healer dropped his gaze to the bowl then looked up with tearful green eyes. "Yes. I think I would."
Joel's heart sang. The future suddenly looked a whole lot brighter.
The young healer cleared his throat as he stood in the doorway holding the tray with the ranger's stew on it. "James?" he whispered.
The older man's eyes fluttered opened and a slow smile blossomed over his face as he focused on the boy.
"I've brought you some stew."
The ranger nodded, his eyes flickering to the table beside the bed.
Rafael moved hesitantly toward the table, setting the tray on it before he sat on the bed beside the ranger.
"Are you hungry?"
"Yes." The voice was whisper soft, lacking its normal strength.
The healer smiled as he reached for the bowl. "Do you think you can eat it by yourself?"
"I'd like to try."
The younger man carefully handed him the bowl.
B’lair stood in the doorway. "I wanted to give you broth again, but Rafael insisted you could handle stew."
"Not...bad," the ranger said after his shaky first bite.
"Heathens. You’re all heathens." The elf threw his hands up in resignation.
Rafael suppressed a laugh when James winked at him, but his face grew serious again as he watched the ranger struggle to feed himself.
"I'm so sorry, James," the healer whispered in a nearly inaudible tone.
The ranger handed the younger man his bowl. "There’s nothing to be sorry for, Rafael. You did everything right."
"Then why do I feel so empty inside?"
"Because your soul screamed out to heal me; but you couldn't have, Rafe. You couldn't have. It would’ve made things so much worse than they already were."
The young healer looked blankly down at the bowl in his hands, then put it back on the tray. "I...I...tried to end your misery, James. I was going to stop your heart. I couldn't bear to see you suffer anymore."
James reached out and covered Rafe's hands with his own. "What stopped you?"
"Your faith. Your faith that Joel would come, that we’d be rescued."
The ranger gently gripped the healer's hands. "I'm very proud of you, Rafael."
"How can you say that?" the halfling asked with a hitch in his voice.
"Because you followed orders. Because you made it bearable for me. Because you believed I was right."
The healer's shoulders shook as he sobbed, clutching the ranger's hand to his chest. The human reached up with his other hand and drew the boy down to his own chest, tenderly rubbing large circles on his back. After several minutes, he murmured quietly into the boy's slightly pointed ear, "Heal me now?"
The halfling sat up quickly, an incredulous look on his face.
"Please," the ranger whispered.
The healer's hands trembled, his eyes filling as he nodded his head, unaware of the thief coming up behind him or Joel standing in the doorway.
B'lair pulled back the blankets covering the ranger's legs and directed the healer's hands towards the end of the bed. "Start on his legs, Rafael."
The halfling nodded. Slowly, limb by limb, he used his healing powers on the human. B'lair whispered encouragement and warnings to the healer as Rafe's hands moved meticulously up and down the ranger's body. The healer smiled tenderly as he reached James' face and gently caressed his cheek, healing the bruises as he did so.
Rafe sat back for a moment, took a deep breath and started to place his hands on James' chest. B'lair intercepted the hands, grasping them in his own.
"You did it, Rafe," the thief said in a warm voice.
"No, B'lair. I'm not done. He's still..." The halfling's body swayed with exhaustion.
"No, dear heart."
"But..." Rafe started to protest, his eyes half closed.
B'lair quickly scooped the healer up into his arms. "Hush. You're both safe. It's time for you to get some rest now."
Joel stepped back into the hallway, tears in his eyes. "As for you," B'lair said in a low voice as he turned in the doorway, "I strongly urge you to get some sleep too."
James grinned at the elf, but nodded his head in compliance.
James woke with a start, his hands shooting out in the darkness until they fell upon an arm. For a moment he was back in the cell and they were coming...
"I know I didn't make that much noise." The elf’s warm voice laughed, easing the fears of the dream.
"I was gathering your stew bowl."
Neither moved as if afraid to break the connection between them.
"Sit with me for a moment?"
"Only if you promise to go back to sleep."
James relaxed his grip as the side of his bed dipped under the weight of the elf.
"Would you like some light?"
They sat for several minutes in silence as James enjoyed the warmth of the elf's hand which was unconsciously rubbing small circles on his chest. "You did a good job with Rafael," B'lair said quietly. "I think, given time, he’ll fully recover."
"I was about to say the same thing to you."
The hand moved to his forehead on the pretense of checking his temperature, but James could see the longing in the thief's eyes. Swallowing hard, he gathered his courage and placed his hand over the elf's heart. "You and I are very much alike," he whispered.
"In what ways? To me, we seem as different as night and day."
"We've both been alone for a very long time."
The elf ran the back of his fingers over the human's cheek, rubbing his thumb slowly over the ranger's lips.
"I suppose we have."
"Have you ever thought about settling down?"
"Settling down? No." The fingers skimmed slowly, erotically, over the ranger's bare chest.
The ranger struggled not to arch into the roving hands, though he did roll his head back onto his pillow. "Why not?"
Feeling the muscles in the chest beneath his fingers tighten, the elf moved them slowly upward until they laid splayed over the ranger's neck. His index finger skimmed the ranger's bottom lip, then barely dipped inward until he felt moisture, and pulled back out to skim the top lip. "Guess I've had other things on my mind," he murmured in a husky voice.
James clutched the elf's shirt and slowly pulled him down, feeling the slight resistance, but ignoring it. "Stay with me tonight."
"Just lie beside me," he pleaded quietly against the soft lips.
They stayed frozen for several minutes, quietly panting, lips teasing each other at their closeness, hands pressed against each other's chests.
"Okay," the elf said at last.
The ranger moved his hips over several inches, though his upper body remained where it was. Softly, he brushed his lips over the elf's in a chaste kiss before moving back, pulling the elf with him. The thief's hands moved awkwardly as they looked for purchase, then finally settled on the ranger's chest. James settled the elf's head on his shoulder and held the lithe figure close to his body, inhaling the scents around him, imprinting them into his memory. The ranger knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the thief would be gone before he woke again, but for the moment he was content. Sooner or later the thief would lower his walls and when he did, the ranger would be there, waiting.
"There's been no word from any of them?" Simon demanded of Henri Brown as he stomped down the small hall to his private chamber.
"No, sir. Joel has been missing for two weeks. I think we must assume he's been captured," his official adviser said sadly.
"Damn." The king flung his bedroom door opened. "Damn!" he repeated in a louder, but happier, voice as he spied four bedraggled figures lounging against his far wall. A huge smile broke over his face as he walked forward and threw his arms around his missing ranger. "Damn, James, you're a sight for sore eyes."
"Thank you, sir."
"And young Rafael, I'm glad to see you’re in one piece." The king laughed as he enthusiastically pounded the younger man on the shoulder.
"Thank you, sir."
"Joel, you old hound dog." The king sighed happily as he hugged his dearest friend to him. "I can't believe you pulled it off."
The dark warrior laughed. "I had a little help."
"So you did." Simon released his friend and looked at the man, who could only be described as beautiful, beside him. "I see you utilized your back way in again."
"My apologies, Simon, but I had a bit of a moral dilemma regarding taking your money over something so easy to correct. I brought the others with me so they could give me an estimate of how much I should charge to part with my secret."
The king furled his brow for a minute then realized the foolishness behind the statement. The elf had no intention of charging him, but had found a way for both of them to save face. No doubt James would be having a talk with the Captain of the Guard very shortly. Simon boomed out with laughter. "Well, as I recall, I also told you if you brought my men back to me that I would grant any boon that was mine to give."
"I appreciate that, Simon. As soon as something comes to mind, I'll let you know."
"You do that, son. You do that." The king engulfed the younger man in a fierce hug, then released him. "For now, however, let's go wake the kitchen staff. I'm suddenly feeling my appetite returning." Gesturing for Henri to precede them out of the room, the king grabbed both Joel and Rafael by the arm and demanded they tell him all about their adventure.
B'lair raised his hood and started to turn back toward the balcony, but stopped as a hand fell on his shoulder.
"Please stay," the ranger whispered. Clearing his throat, he added, "I was going to look for you before this whole fiasco began. Simon wants us to evaluate the possibility of opening up trade negotiations with an unknown kingdom. I'd like to have you at my side."
The elf paused for a moment.
"There's good money in it. Besides, I have to do something to make up for your not being able to collect some coins for telling Simon about your back door entrance."
B'lair turned and pushed his hood back as he raised his gaze to the ranger's blue eyes. A soft smile graced his face. "All right."
The ranger's smile was nearly blinding as he clapped his arm around the elf's shoulders and guided him into the hallway to follow after his liege. James was a patient man and sooner or later the thief would be his. All he had to do was wait.
Chapter 4: Beloved
The shout pierced B'lair Woodfoxen's back and clutched coldly around his heart. Dagger in hand, he spun and raced back toward camp not bothering to protect himself from the branches and brambles which tore at his clothes and unprotected skin.
He’s not dead. He will not be dead, B'lair told himself as he ran. Rafe and the older warrior were supposed to be setting up camp while he and Ellison scouted the nearby area. He knew Taggart would protect the young healer with his dying breath, but the shout had been one of outrage and fear. Had something happened to Joel?
B'lair could not purge the image of Rafe lying on the ground, broken and battered--as his beloved brother had been. He almost faltered as the image of both bodies lay before him.
"No!" He wiped the reflection from his mind. He didn't care about Rafael. It would be unfortunate if the half-elven healer died, but it wouldn't affect him. He wouldn't let it.
He recognized the lie immediately. Jumping a small brook, he continued forward, pushing himself to go faster.
For years he’d lived by the credo, if he didn't care he couldn't be hurt. But somehow the healer had wedged himself in where only one had been allowed before him. Maybe it was his vibrant laugh, his non-judgmental acceptance or, perhaps, his gentle outlook on life. He would not lose the healer as he had lost Skylanthalus. He had grown since the massacre. He was stronger. This time he would make a difference.
He burst into camp to find three Patriots surrounding the young healer. Rafe stood over the body of Taggart, warding off the intruders with a sword which was too heavy for him to use properly, but he swung it awkwardly anytime one of assassins got too close.
Without breaking his momentum, B'lair jumped forward, planting both feet in the back of the closest Patriot, while slashing the one to his right with his dagger. Neither assassin was prepared to become the prey and both fumbled badly trying to ward off the attack. Rafe, not expecting a rescue, stumbled as the third assassin swung, knocking him to the ground.
Unsure if the healer had been seriously hurt, B'lair bellowed a war-cry trying to distract the third assassin from his victim. The Patriot sneered at him, knowing his companions would keep the elf busy while he finished his task. He swung his sword up, ready to strike.
B'lair plunged his dagger into the second assassin as he viciously kicked the one on the ground, trying to keep the Patriot from grabbing his feet as he danced outside the assassin's reach, but knowing he would not reach his friend in time.
B'lair leapt toward the third assassin. The Patriot's eyes widened in surprise as he stumbled sideways, knocking the thief to the ground. B'lair struggled wildly, pushing the assassin's body off him while slicing his throat from ear to ear.
James Ellison bound into camp, crossbow in hand. "He's already dead."
"That one’s not." B'lair pointed to the remaining assassin, then turned his entire attention to the prone half-elf. "Skylanthalus." He laid one hand over the healer's heart as the other hand searched for wounds. Then realizing his mistake, asked, "Rafael, are you all right?"
"I'm...I'm all right." The healer groaned as he tried to sit up, only to find himself gently pressed back to the ground. "I just knocked the wind out of my sails when I fell. It's rather embarrassing...to be so clumsy." He laughed, then gasped suddenly. "Joel!"
Rafe rolled to his knees, pushing the thief's hands away as he crawled to the older warrior's side. B'lair put a tentative hand out to stop him.
James pulled the thief to his feet. "Let him work."
B'lair took several large breaths, trying to calm his roiling emotions. He should never have agreed to come on this mission. He was too close to home. The memories he’d repressed for so long were starting to break loose from the depths of his mind and rise to the surface--threatening to overwhelm him. "I need to get out of here," he said finally as he staggered out of camp.
The ranger was torn between following the fragile figure fleeing from camp and making sure that the healer and Taggart were unharmed. "Don't go far!" He tracked B’lair’s flight with his hearing while he watched the young healer before him rouse the fallen warrior. When he was assured that Joel had suffered no more than a minor concussion, he looked toward the woods. "Who the hell is Skylanthalus?" he whispered to himself.
Skylanthalus Grayson sniffed the mid-morning air and smiled. He rounded an ancient oak to find four tiny wolf pups sleeping in the lap of his curly haired brother. "Hey runt," he said in greeting. "Baby-sitting again?"
B'lair reluctantly looked up from his book, big blue eyes reluctantly blinking up at his visitor. "Hmmm?"
"What are you reading this time, squirt?"
"Shon-so, a dwarven philosopher who believes the way to true happiness is through work and invention."
Skylanthalus squatted next to the young man. "What do you think?"
Scratching the ears of one of the pups, B'lair grinned. "I believe he has a wonderful way with language, but was an awful inventor."
The older boy's laughter rang out through the grove. One pup, with black ears and white paws, blinked awake, looked annoyed, then settled back down between B'lair's knees and went back to sleep. "He doesn't seem to think much of Shon-so either."
"Well, I suppose dwarven philosophy is an acquired taste."
Skylanthalus plopped down beside his brother, then took one of the pups from the younger boy's lap and gently settled it on his own. "You know the world's looking for you."
"I know...I just...that is to say..."
"You needed some time away from the hub-bub?"
"Something like that. I swear if mother makes me try on my ceremonial vest one more time I'm...I'm...gonna..."
Skylanthalus grinned tolerantly at him. "No, you're not."
"I know," the younger boy sighed heavily.
"So what's bothering you?"
"What do you mean?"
"B'lair, don't even try to kid a kidder. This is your big day--the Day of Ascension. The day you become an adult. I would have thought you'd be your normal bouncy self, getting in the way and pestering everyone to death." Skylanthalus tried to study the face of his brother, but the younger boy's long sable hair shielded his face from view. He reached out and tucked the barrier behind B'lair's pointed ear. "What is it, beloved?"
B'lair hesitated a moment before answering. "I had a dream this morning."
The younger boy gulped and took a long shuddering breath. "I dreamt I was alone. Alone and in pain, horrible, black, soul-consuming pain, but I was uninjured. I could tell I’ been this way for a long time. I was walking down a trail when I was joined by a raccoon."
Skylanthalus grinned as he picked another pup off his brother's lap and placed it on his own. "That must have been me."
"No. You're always an otter." B'lair scratched the black eared pup, who nuzzled his hand.
"Okay, so you were joined by a raccoon. Then what?"
"Then shortly after, I was joined by a bear and a big black cat, like a panther or jaguar. They surrounded me and even though I was in pain I didn't feel so lonely. The panther would lick me occasionally and every time it did my pain was lessened. The pain didn't go away, but I felt like I could breathe again, perhaps even live again. I felt such love whenever I looked into its eyes."
"Love can never be a bad thing."
"I agree." B'lair gave his brother a small smile as he leaned against the older boy and absently scratched the other pup in his lap. "But then a snake crossed our path and I was filled with such anger and hate. I launched myself at it, wanting to kill it. At first, the panther tried to keep me from attacking, but then it raced past me and attacked it first--the raccoon and the bear right on its tail. The snake tossed them aside like they were toys. I thought they’d been killed and something inside of me cracked. I plunged my knife into its body, but not before it sank its teeth into my chest."
"And then what?"
"Then I woke up."
Skylanthalus pulled the smaller boy into his arms and held him tight. "Aww, runt."
"It seemed so real."
"I'm sure it did, beloved. But what have I always told you?"
"That you’ll always be here to protect me."
"And do you believe me?"
"With my life."
"As you should, since it's mine."
B'lair grinned at his brother as they finished their old routine. "I have to know, Sky. Have you been pulling my leg all these years?"
"Would I do that to you?"
"In a heartbeat." B'lair laughed, but didn't try to remove himself from the protection of the older boy's arms.
"Okay. As my present to you for your Ascension, I'll tell you the whole story.” Sky settled against the tree, taking the younger boy with him. "As you know, our family has always been rather prolific when it comes to children."
"Humans often have more than one child. I even read where some of them have had a dozen or more."
"You can't believe everything you read, B'lair."
"It was documented in a census."
"You want to hear this story or not, runt?" When no more comments were forthcoming, he continued. "When I was three, my mother died. My father was so overcome with grief that he sought out his wife's sister and begged her to take me. Your mother already had four children who were keeping everyone on their toes, but she and your father joyfully accepted me into their life. My father then disappeared forever." Skylanthalus paused for a moment, feeling the old familiar pain, but the warm arms which squeezed him reminded him that he would never be alone again.
"While your brothers and sisters were very kind to me, I always felt like an outsider--not because of anything they said or did, just because I knew I didn't belong."
"Oh, Sky," B'lair whispered sadly.
"Shhh." The older boy smiled tenderly at the boy in his arms. "One day, about six months after I came to live with the family, mother took me aside and asked what she could do to make me feel like I was truly part of the family. I thought long and hard, as any three-year old would," he grinned, then continued, "and said I needed to have my own baby brother--not a sister, mind you, but a brother. She said she would see what she could do. Six months later..."
"Six months?" B'lair asked with a wide teasing grin.
"Hush, now. Whose story is this anyway? Now where was I? Yes, six months later, you were born. Before anyone else was allowed to see you, mother sent for me. I remember standing just inside her doorway.
“She looked up and said, 'Come see your baby, Skylanthalus.' And I crept to your crib. She asked me very seriously, 'What will you do if I give you this baby, young Sky?' And now that I was four and very grown up," he laughed as he poked his brother in the ribs, "I said I would raise him to be the smartest elf in the kingdom. He would be kind and have a generous soul and I would protect him with my dying breath. And she asked me what I would name my baby. And I said, B'lair, as he was my favorite storyteller at the time and she said, 'So be it.' And so I truly became a part of her family because I had my own baby."
"So it's true?" B'lair grinned at the older boy who was closer to him than any other living being.
"Yes." Skylanthalus smiled as he reached across his brother and gently laid the first of the wolf pups back in its den, followed quickly by its sibling. B'lair also laid his two pups onto the sleeping heap. "Now, my little crown prince, before mother has Fadril track us down, I thought I'd give you my real gift."
"Your real gift?" B'lair tried to act nonchalantly, but the waggling eyebrows ruined the effect.
"Come on." The older boy laughed as he stood and reached down to pull his brother to his feet. "I think it's time you had your cards read by Malinalda."
"I don't know if that's such a good idea. You know what mother says about cards."
Skylanthalus struck a regal pose. "Young men of good breeding do not waste their time with such mystical nonsense."
B'lair tried hard not to smile, but finally sputtered with laughter. "She would box your ears if she ever heard you imitate her like that."
"Which is why she'll never hear me do it. Come on, squirt, what do you say?"
"I say if we get caught, I'm blaming you."
"Deal." The older boy laughed as he clapped his arm around B'lair's shoulder and started toward the cottage at the very edge of the village. When they reached their destination, he knocked politely and waited.
"Your Highnesses." Malinalda gasped as she opened the door and spotted the young men. "What brings you two to my door?"
Skylanthalus grinned brightly. "B'lair would like to have his cards read on the day of his Ascension, Malinalda."
The old woman looked nervously up and down the pathway, then sighed. "I suppose if one were to choose a day when they should have their cards read, the Day of Ascension would be the appropriate day. Come inside, you scamps."
Skylanthalus gently pushed the reluctant younger boy into the cottage and shut the door behind them.
"Have a seat, your Highness." Malinalda sat in a chair behind a small round table and indicated the chair across from her. B'lair shook his head nervously as he stepped back and turned to lean his head against his brother's chest.
"Ahh, a little shy, are we?" Malinalda asked the older boy.
"C'mon, B'lair." Skylanthalus pushed aside the curly hair and looked down into the younger boy's face. Blue eyes blinked nervously back at him. "I'll tell you what. How about I go first so you can see what she does and then you can go. Would that work for you?" He grinned as the head on his chest nodded. Taking his brother's hand, he sat down in the chair and held B'lair next to him.
"Cut the deck in three," Malinalda instructed. Skylanthalus did as he was told and both boys watched in fascination as she laid the cards out in front of her. "These three cards represent your past," she explained as she flipped over the first card. "Sadness at an early age," she said with quiet sympathy, then flipped the second card, "but great joy came to you in a tiny bundle." Turning over the third card, she smiled warmly, "You have had a great responsibility for a number of years, but it’s something you take great pride in. In fact, your sense of self-worth comes from how well you've done your job." The older boy squeezed the hand of his brother and smiled into the shy face. "These middle two cards represent the present." She flipped the first card, "Again, great joy." She flipped the second card. "For so long you have forged ahead on the path and now you look forward to walking the path as an equal. These three cards represent the future," she whispered ominously. B'lair squeezed Sky's hand for reassurance which was immediately given.
Malinalda flipped the first card and frowned slightly. Without saying a word, she flipped the second card and her frown intensified. She flipped the third card and her eyes widened as if she had received a great shock.
"What?" Skylanthalus demanded. The seeress looked as if she were about to refuse, but he pressed her in a voice that brooked no argument. "No. Tell me."
Malinalda took a deep breath, then said quietly. "Your whole life has been about protecting that which you love." She shot a glance at the younger boy, knowing as the whole village did that these two were halves of the same whole. "According to the cards, you will fulfill your destiny by giving your life to protect the last heir."
"The last heir," the older boy repeated quietly.
"So your dream of becoming a great general will come true," B'lair said with a huge grin, happy for his brother, not feeling the tension that had been building in the room. "I foresee you burning your way through the ranks when we get to the capitol. While I have to learn about diplomacy, trade agreements and other boring stuff, you're going to be having all the fun. Are you sure we can't trade places?"
Skylanthalus laughed. "No way, little brother. I thought we agreed; you're going to be the brains of this outfit and I'm going to be the brawn."
"Why can't I be the brawn?" B'lair squealed in laughter as his brother pulled him close and tickled him.
"Because I'm eldest and what I say goes."
"No fair. You always pull the eldest line on me."
"Ahh, the perks of being in charge."
The younger boy rolled his eyes dramatically.
"Okay, B'lair, your turn." Skylanthalus laughed, his mood lightened, as he stood and directed his brother to the chair, his hands resting gently on the younger boy's shoulders for emotional support.
Malinalda composed herself as she watched the boys' antics and reshuffled the deck. "Cut the deck in three places, your Highness."
"B'lair," the boy said quietly as he made his cuts.
"Whatever you say, your Highness."
B'lair sighed. "No one ever listens to me."
Skylanthalus chuckled as he played with the younger boy's hair.
Malinalda turned over the first card. "Ahh, your past has been filled with great love and joy; but instead of spoiling you, it has made you kinder, gentler." She grinned as she turned over the second card. "You have always been stronger when you were with another, when someone needs you. In giving strength, you receive it tenfold."
Skylanthalus bent down and whispered in the younger boy’s ear, "See, you’re richer than I am."
The old woman turned over the third card. "You have a great love of knowledge. Everything fascinates you."
"She's got you pegged." The older boy laughed warmly.
Malinalda turned over the first card in the present section. "While you’re very happy, you do not want to leave your home."
"What?" Skylanthalus asked, startled by the revelation.
Malinalda turned over the second card. "You’ll do as is expected, but your home will always be the woods. This is where your heart is."
The older boy knelt beside his brother. "B'lair?" The younger boy tried to look away, but a gentle hand on his chin forced him to meet his brother's eyes. "Beloved?"
"I know you want to go to the capitol, Sky. You've waited so long. You should have gone four years ago."
"I couldn't. I had to wait for you."
"No, you didn't. You should have left after your Ascension...like the others."
"How could I have left my soul behind?" Skylanthalus asked tenderly.
"But you want to be a general. You need to go to the Academy for that. I don't want to stand in your way," the younger boy said in a small quavering voice.
"Wither thou goest, I shall follow or stay if thou so chooses," Skylanthalus vowed the words spoken to the first elven king by the first general.
"I can't be that selfish, Sky. I can't let you give it all up for me."
The older boy gathered the younger one in his arms and held him tight. "My most precious, B'lair. What am I going to do with you?"
"I don't know. I'm so confused."
"Well, don't be. We don't have to make a decision today. Today is a day for celebration and eating and dancing. Did I mention that Arienna will be dancing today?" The older boy looked down into the precious, now blushing, face of the younger boy. "What do you say we finish this reading and then get ready. I, for one, want to see the dress she's been working on all month."
"She hasn't," the younger boy said belligerently, although there was a tinge of hope interlaced in his tone.
"Her mother says she's been working on it every night after supper."
B'lair's blush deepened and Skylanthalus laughed warmly as he rubbed the curly head affectionately.
"Many pardons for the interruption, Malinalda." The older boy released the younger boy from his hold and stood beside him once again.
The old woman grinned at the boys. Their mutual affection was the source of many of Hathol's songs and she felt blessed to see the songs were not pure fiction. She flipped over the first card of the future pile and gasped as the death card appeared. She flipped the second card and looked in growing horror at a lone wolf standing in the midst of an empty field in winter. Shaking, she turned the last card which revealed a panther attacking a giant snake.
Skylanthalus quickly turned the chair before the last card was completely turned over and pushed the younger boy toward the door.
"What? What is it?" B'lair demanded.
"Nothing. I forgot I told mother I would return you as quickly as possible. You know she's got to fuss over you for at least an hour before the ceremony begins," the older boy said as he flung open the door.
"But what about my reading?" B'lair protested as he pushed back against his brother.
"We'll come back tomorrow after the ceremonies are done," Skylanthalus insisted.
"Your Highness," Malinalda called after the boys as they stumbled awkwardly out her door.
"Yes, ma'am," B'lair answered dutifully.
"I have a loose stone in my hearth. Behind it I keep items which aid me in my magics--wards and such."
"My future is set and I doubt I can escape it, but remember the loose stone on the right, third stone up from the hearth. It is my legacy to you."
"Thank you, ma'am," B'lair responded dutifully, before his brother pushed him down the path. "What was all that about?" he asked curiously.
"You know what mother says about magic."
"Yes, but you were the one who insisted we go. What do you think she meant?"
"I think she's hoping you'll tell Philamine to come mortar up her hearth." Skylanthalus laughed as he poked his brother in the ribs and ran a few steps ahead, but immediately grew serious as the village woodsmith crossed their path. "Good day, Ephel."
"Good day, my young princes. Happy Ascension, B'lair."
"Thank you, Ephel."
The boys nodded respectfully, then continued down the path.
"I wonder what he's making you for Ascension?" Skylanthalus asked curiously when the woodsmith was out of sight.
"He's making me a wolf. It's magnificent," B'lair said confidently, then looked embarrassed.
"And just how would you know that?" Sky demanded.
The younger boy looked into the tree branches above them, down the path--anywhere but at his brother.
"If you know what's good for you, you better spill." The older boy flexed his fingers in a tickling motion.
B'lair grinned mischievously. "Wanna see it?"
"Follow me." B’lair jogged around the outside of a large building, which would be the center of activities later in the evening if it rained. Peeking around the corner and seeing that the coast was clear, B'lair proceeded to the nearest door.
"It's locked," Skylanthalus said, pointing out the obvious.
"It always is." B’lair waggled his eyebrows as he withdrew a thin piece of metal from his belt and inserted it into the locking mechanism. A moment later, a soft click could be heard and the door opened inward.
"Where did you learn to do that?" the older boy demanded. B'lair stepped inside and pulled him in. "Is that really a skill a crowned prince should have?"
"Sure. Why not?" B'lair asked as he took the older boy's hand and led him over to the corner where a brown sheet covered a large lump on the table. "When diplomacy fails ..."
"I'm not listening." Skylanthalus started to lift his hands to his ears, then laughed. "Okay, let's see this work of art and get out. I can't even imagine what would happen if we got caught in here."
B'lair grinned cheekily. "What? You mean you wouldn't defend me to the death?"
Skylanthalus sighed heavily, but the sigh turned to a whistle of awe as the younger boy lifted the sheet off the carving. "Fire and stars! It's magnificent. Look at that detail."
The boys admired the wolf in appreciation. The statue appeared as if a real timber wolf had been caught in time, leaping forward toward its destiny. Skylanthalus reached out tentatively to see if the carving actually had fur, but found only wood beneath his fingertips.
"Ephel is a master. You can almost see it breathing."
"He should be in the capitol. He would be renowned within a decade."
"Maybe we can take him with us." B'lair put the cover back exactly as he’d found it and shooed the older boy toward the door. When both were outside again, he reproduced the metal and locked the door.
"If we go," Skylanthalus said quietly.
"We're going," B'lair insisted.
"Says me, the crowned prince."
"You mean the crowned thief." Skylanthalus laughed as he caught and threw the smaller boy over his shoulder.
"Sky, put me down."
"I don't think so." The older boy chuckled evilly as he walked around the side of the building and toward home, ignoring the amused grins of those around him.
"Hey, I still have two more hours to enjoy you as a child. I think I'm going to make the most of them."
"Skylanthalus," a feminine voice called out as soon as he crossed the threshold of their home.
"Have you seen B'lair?" the beautiful red haired woman asked as she descended the stairs.
"No, ma'am." The older boy grinned cheekily. "I'm sure he's around somewhere. He’s no doubt lost track of time because his nose is stuck in some book or another."
"Well, I wouldn't want him to miss the ceremony." She grinned back, ignoring the put-upon sigh emanating from behind the older boy. "I understand Arienna will be dancing tonight."
"I've heard the same rumor, but I don't think B'lair is interested."
"What a shame," she tried to say seriously, but failed miserably as a slap to the older boy's rear resounded around the foyer. "I suggest you, at least, go get ready."
"Yes, ma'am." Skylanthalus set the younger boy on the floor, tweaked a curl, then turned to give his mother a kiss before he jogged up the stairs to their room.
"Happy Ascension Day, little one," the princess said as she opened her arms to her youngest son.
"Thank you, mother." B'lair moved quickly into her embrace.
"Are you excited?"
"I don't know," he responded truthfully.
Taking a step back in concern, she asked, "What's wrong?"
"I don't think I want to grow up. I think I want to stay little."
Her joyful laugh echoed around the house. "Would it help to know that even if you should live to be a thousand you will always be my baby?"
"Maybe a little." He grinned as he gave her another hug.
"Go upstairs and get ready. You know what a stickler your father is for starting ceremonies on time. You are going to wear your hair down, aren't you?" she asked as she pulled his hair back experimentally, then frowned, releasing it so it flowed around his shoulders.
"I'm so proud of you, beloved. I can't believe this day has finally come."
B'lair basked in the warmth of her love for a moment, then kissed her cheek and jogged up the stairs after his brother.
B'lair growled at his brother as he straightened his colorful vest and frowned into the mirror for the fiftieth time. "Will you stop treating me like a baby?"
"I'm just saying we don't have to leave for the capitol tomorrow. We have time to discuss this with father."
"Everyone else left the day after their Ascension, including Akella who cried the whole way there."
"You know how our sister loves drama." Skylanthalus laughed. "And you also know that once she entered the city the tears dried faster than rain on a desert afternoon."
"Sky, you've already waited four years..."
"So what's another two?"
B'lair turned in frustration, throwing his hands up to the heavens. "And what's going to be different in two years, except that you're going to be two years older and still not in the Academy?"
"I'm willing to wait until you're ready to go, squirt."
"I'm ready now."
"Skylanthalus!" the younger boy said in the exact same tone and taking the exact same stance as his brother.
The older boy collapsed onto the bed in laughter. "What am I going to do with you?"
"You're going to let me have my way this one time," B'lair said belligerently.
The older boy looked up from the bed, his brown eyes growing serious. Standing, he moved forward and put his hands on the younger boy's shoulders. "We're staying for two years. End of discussion."
"I hate you."
"No you don't."
B'lair looked into his brother's eyes and saw the momentary doubt pass through them. Suddenly feeling guilty, he threw himself at the older boy and hugged him tight. "No, I don't, Sky. You know I don't. Please say you know I don't."
The older boy hugged him back and placed a tender kiss on the top of his head. "I know you don't, squirt."
"Malinalda's wrong. I’m a spoiled and hateful brat."
"Hey," Skylanthalus growled. "You're talking about someone I love. I'll kindly ask you to refrain from badmouthing this brat in the future."
B'lair giggled, then looked into his brother's eyes again. "Forgiven?"
"Anything and everything."
B'lair searched the brown eyes for the truth and found he was indeed forgiven. "Two years?"
"All right," B'lair sighed.
"Now, about that lock..."
The music which had been playing softly, slowly built to a crescendo then stopped abruptly. Prince Gelion stepped beside the bonfire in the middle of the village square.
"Hail and good evening to you all. Thank you for joining my family tonight as we celebrate the ascension of my youngest son, B'lair."
"Hail and well met," the crowd responded joyfully.
"As it has been through all time, B'lair takes his last steps of childhood and joins the community tonight as an adult," the prince continued to intone.
"Hail and well met, Prince B'lair." The crowd greeted the young man in question by clapping their hands as he entered the clearing and joined his father. The music began again and filled the square with joy.
The elder prince looked down into the huge blue eyes of his youngest child. "I am very proud of you, my son."
"It is all I could ask for, Father," B'lair responded.
The music stopped and the crowd waited expectantly for the ritual words.
B’lair cleared his throat once. "As a child, I was protected by the community. As an adult, I shall nurture the community. I set my foot upon the path, but I do not walk it alone, I look to you, my brothers and sisters to guide me."
"All hail, the newly ascended one," the crowd cried out joyfully.
"I shall catch those who stumble as I will be caught. I will share my knowledge as knowledge is shared with me. I shall live in harmony with nature, seeking to help when and where I can."
"All hail, the newly ascended one," the crowd burst forth again, then became silent.
"As the youngest son of the youngest crown prince and as my brothers and sisters before me have fulfilled the requirements set upon my parents, I have decided that I will live in the community for," he looked over at his brother who flashed two fingers at him, "one additional year before I follow their path." B'lair bit the inside of his mouth to prevent from laughing at the astonished look on Skylanthalus' face. He knew his brother said two years, but B'lair could not keep his brother from his destiny that long. He looked into the faces of his parents to gauge their reaction but saw only joy at his news. "While I know my grandparents have much to teach me, I would rather mingle it with the base knowledge I have taken from the community I love."
"All hail, the newly ascended one," the crowd shouted its enthusiasm over his decision.
"My son," Prince Gelion said as he wrapped his youngest in a hug. "Welcome to the community."
"All hail, the newly ascended one!" The crowd swarmed forward, each reaching out to touch the newest member.
Music swirled over the laughter as the party began in earnest. Women of all ages surged forward and began to dance around the bonfire. B'lair tried for nonchalance as his eyes searched for the form he was desperate to see. Gentle hands cupped his face from behind and pointed him in the right direction.
"There she is," his brother whispered from behind him. Both boys stood in wonderment as Arienna moved with flowing grace around the fire, the layers of her gossamer dress sweeping behind her, giving her movements an almost liquid quality.
The beat became a little harder as the men formed their circle outside the women's circle. Skylanthalus grabbed his brother's hand as they joined the dance. B'lair closed his eyes momentarily as he moved to the music. When he opened them, Arienna stood before him. Moving almost too quickly to see, she landed a tender kiss on his cheek and joined her circle again. B'lair's heart swelled and he lost himself in the music and the colors of those around him.
The music ended abruptly as those on the fringes gasped in horror. The dancers stopped in confusion as the crowd parted, letting a ragged figure stumble toward the bonfire. The women moved quickly to their husbands and fathers. Skylanthalus appeared behind B'lair, his hands on the younger boy's shoulders.
"They're dead. They're all dead." The elven messenger panted as he collapsed at the feet of Prince Gelion.
"Who's dead?" Gelion demanded.
"The royal family. Those in the capitol. It's in ruins. There's no one left. No one."
A disbelieving murmur ran through the crowd.
"How can this be?" Gelion demanded of the exhausted man in front of him.
"Trolls. Hundreds. Thousands of them. They attacked without provocation. They killed everything that moved. Men. Women. Old. Young. It didn't matter. Everyone was slain."
Gelion shook his head, trying to put the horrific news into some semblance of reason. "When...when did this happen?"
"Three days ago. The King sent me for reinforcements, but it was too late. Too late."
Stunned silence reigned in the clearing as the magnitude of what was being told to them unfolded for each person present. Names were quietly cried into the night sky as those in the village thought of loved ones and friends who’d lived in the capitol.
Gelion's harsh whisper was practically a shout. "You fool. You lead them to us, didn't you?"
The messenger sobbed on the ground. "I...I'm so sorry, your Highness. I'm so sorry.”
"What does he mean, Sky?" B'lair asked, turning to look at his brother, but stopped as huge figures rose from the mist surrounding the clearing.
Gelion saw the confusion in the eyes of his youngest son and looked upon the last of his surviving children with profound sadness. "Of all my children, I am the most proud of the two of you. Find a way to live."
"I will protect him, father," Skylanthalus vowed back.
"Both of you, Sky," Gelion said sternly, then turned and reached for his wife. "From the first moment, beloved..."
"As I you, dear heart," the princess replied. Her whisper turning into a cry of pain as a crossbow bolt pierced her husband's heart. Running forward, she caught him and gently lowered him to the ground and whispered over his body. "As I you."
"Now. Now. Now. Now. Isn't this touching." A sandy haired man laughed as he strode arrogantly into the clearing, sneering at the villagers who stumbled out of his path. "Please. If any of the rest of you wish to say farewell to your loved ones, I suggest you do it now."
"Who are you?" the Princess demanded as she stood, regal and proud.
"I am known as Bracket, madam, and I will be ruling this land very shortly."
"Why?" she whispered.
The human closed the distance between them and grabbed her hair, yanking her head back--exposing her throat. "Because I can." His other hand roughly roamed over her breasts, then yanked on the bodice of her dress, ripping it and exposing her to the crowd. The trolls surrounding them laughed in approval, but their laughter was cut short as a dagger flew through the crowd and cut into the captive's heart, killing her instantly.
"You may abuse her shell, but you will never abuse her spirit." Ephel snarled as he threw another dagger towards the human.
Bracket dropped the princess' body as he tried to avoid the knife, but failed to dodge it completely. "Kill everything that breathes," he screamed as he pulled the missile from his shoulder. The trolls answering bellow drowned out every sound within the village for several seconds, then all was silent as they moved forward, slowly and methodically, leaving no gaps for those inside to escape the ever-shrinking circle.
"Ephel killed Mama, Sky. Ephel killed Mama," B'lair cried out in shock, unable to comprehend the danger surrounding them.
Skylanthalus turned his brother to face him, finally understanding the younger boy's dream and Malinalda's cards. B'lair was the last true heir. He placed a tender kiss on the younger boy's forehead, ignoring the panicked screams of those around him. "There will be no rescue, beloved. Ephel saved mama's spirit. She won't feel whatever they're going to do to her body now. We’ll be extremely lucky if someone offers us as kind a fate."
"Your Highnesses," Fadril, Captain of the Guard shouted as he found the boys. "The trolls' strategy is sound. They will simply keep moving forward until they’ve killed everything within the circle."
"Then there’s no escape?" Skylanthalus’ voice trembled as he wondered if he had enough strength to end his dear brother's life.
"Not for everyone," the Captain said sadly. "I have two squads mustered around me. We’re going to attack one specific arc of the circle. Our hope is to force them to lose their spacing. Your job," he said to the older boy as he shoved a sword into his hand, "is to escape through whatever opening is available."
B’lair shook his head in refusal, his eyes never leaving the bodies of his parents. "We can't leave, Fadril."
"There's no time," Fadril told the older boy. "Run and never stop running for trolls are as persistent as bloodhounds. Remember they hate water--find a river and stay in it as long as you can." The Captain turned and nodded to his men. "Long live the line of Woodfoxen," he shouted.
"Long live the line of Woodfoxen," his men yelled in reply as they ran forward and attacked the advancing trolls.
The sounds of pain-filled screams rented the air. B'lair tried to look around, but Skylanthalus grabbed his shoulders and refused to let him move from his side. The older boy's eyes never left the battle directly in front of him. Then, without warning, he grabbed B'lair's arm and raced forward, forcing the younger boy to keep up with him.
"Don't look back," the older boy shouted as he dodged a sword whistling over his head. He pushed his brother before him, herding him through the village and into the surrounding forest. However, the younger boy couldn't ignore the screams for help and turned--the images he saw forever seared into his memory.
"Arienna!" he screamed. He started to go back, but found his way blocked by his brother. Skylanthalus viciously pulled on his arm, forcing him forward.
Tears ran down Sky’s face as he gritted his teeth. "She's already dead."
"No. You don't know that. You don't know, Sky," B'lair cried out.
"C'mon, damn it. Don't let Fadril's sacrifice be in vain."
They ran, only numbly aware of their burning lungs. Skylanthalus raced toward the rope bridge which had served for generations as an escape over the chasm that acted as a natural barrier to the back of the village. Grabbing his brother's arm, he slowed them to a stop when he realized he could see nothing over the expanse.
"No. Stay standing." He grunted as he caught his brother around the waist, keeping him on his feet when the younger boy tried to collapse onto the ground. "If you lay down now, you'll never get back up again," he said between huge gasps for air.
"What's wrong?" B'lair held his side, trying to ease the stitch.
"The bridge is gone."
"How...I can't see...how do you know?"
"Shh, little one," Skylanthalus whispered. "This attack was obviously well planned. My guess is they've left a few trolls here to catch anyone who might’ve escape the circle."
"Do you think anyone else made it?" B'lair asked, staring intently into his brother's moon-lit face.
"Surely, others have survived," the older boy said hopefully.
"So what do we do now?"
Skylanthalus remained silent for a moment, realizing he had no idea what to do next. "We can't parallel the chasm because that’ll only lead us back to the village."
"Well, we can't hide in the woods. Fadril wasn't exaggerating about trolls' sense of smell, if any of the books I've read are correct."
"I'm open to suggestions," the older boy said in quiet frustration.
"Can we scale down the chasm walls?"
Skylanthalus looked at his younger brother with awe, amusement and frustrated pride. "Perhaps at dawn, but we have at least seven hours before we can even attempt it. I don't think..." the older boy stopped as a branch nearby snapped.
Both boys were instantly on alert. Skylanthalus pushed his brother behind him, but a shuffling of ground cover behind them made him reach behind his back and pull the younger boy to his chest.
"How do you feel about flying, dear heart?" he breathed into B'lair's ear.
"We're going to run as fast as we can and when I say now, we're going to jump as hard as we can...into the chasm."
"Are you..." B'lair started, but his older brother's fingers silenced him.
"We're surrounded, beloved. There are six of them."
"Flying is good. You know I've always enjoyed flying," B'lair whispered in a surprisingly calm voice.
"Now!" Skylanthalus took his brother's hand and pounded toward the chasm.
A roar of anger went up behind him, followed closely by a swarm of arrows and bolts. Hand in hand, they jumped into the darkness.
B'lair awoke surrounded by warmth. Blinking, he rolled over and looked into the sleeping face of his brother. For a moment, he recalled what it felt like to fly. However, he decided, landings left a great deal to be desired as he remembered the pain of slamming into the cold water.
Truth be told, he never expected to wake up again, but awaken he had as his brother's voice had reached into the void and demanded his attention. They held each other as the river's currents swept them miles downriver. He had a vague memory of Skylanthalus pulling him onto a rocky bank and supporting him as they stumbled into the night. He had no recollection of laying down.
He reached out with a trembling hand and laid it over his brother's heart. The older boy blinked awake. For a terrible second, the memory of their escape was on his face, but then it was replaced by a smile which warmed his features. He lifted his hand and placed it over B'lair's heart.
"What are we going to do now?" B'lair asked quietly, his trust in his brother absolute.
"We search out Aunt Naomi."
"But she lives in Jaluit!" B'lair gasped. "How will we get there?"
"We'll walk. Fire and stars, B'lair. After surviving last night, nothing can stop us now." Skylanthalus sat up and removed a silver pendant tied to a leather strap from around his neck.
"Are you sure she'll help us or even remember who we are?"
"Of course, she'll help us. Mother said she was a free spirit and couldn't stay in one place for very long, but she's an elf. Of course, she’ll help us." The older boy leaned forward and tenderly placed the pendent around his brother's neck.
"What are you doing?"
"Father had this commissioned after I joined the family. See, it has his emblem on one side and mother's on the other. Even if Naomi doesn't recognize us, once she sees this she will help us," the older boy said confidently.
"But why are you giving it to me?"
"Because you know how I always lose things." The older boy laughed. "I'm making you responsible for keeping it safe for me. Your only concern is to give this to Naomi."
B’lair looked down at the pendant in awe, knowing what it meant to his brother. "I think you should hold onto it."
"Don't make me pull the big brother line on you again." Skylanthalus chuckled in exaggerated exasperation. "Now, what say you to some breakfast?"
"I'm not very hungry," B'lair said quietly.
"Well, tough. You're going to eat." The older boy growled playfully as he stood and helped his brother to his feet. "If we're going to walk to Jaluit, we're going to have to..." He stopped as a sickening wet sound interrupted him. His eyes widened in shock as he looked down at the arrow tip protruding from beneath his breastbone. "Run," he cried out, pushing B'lair away from him.
"Never," the younger boy screamed defiantly.
"I...I...lov...." Skylanthalus gasped, his eyes darkening as the last of his life force flowed out of his body.
James Ellison walked quietly behind the elf, who stumbled blindly through the woods. He struggled not to intrude, but it was hard when he could smell of salty tears and hear the nearly soundless gasps for breath. The ranger didn’t understand what demons drove the young man, but inner demons he understood all too well. It was obvious something was catching up with the thief and all he could do was be there when the surf of memories finished pounding over him.
He didn't have long to wait. The elf dropped to his knees, his head rolling back onto his shoulders. His mouth opened in a horrible silent scream as his hands clawed the empty air. James dropped to his knees beside him, supporting the young man's back and gently lowering him to the ground. The thief's hands clutched the ranger's leather jerkin as if it were his only lifeline to sanity.
"I've got you," James crooned over and over again as the body beneath him spasmed and jerked. "You're safe now. You're safe."
A low keening began emanating from the young man, chilling James to his very soul. The pain, the despair and the loneliness threatened to shatter both of them. Cognizant that another assassin team could be in the area, an area they knew little about, the ranger knew he had to quiet the thief. He gently lifted the young man into his arms and held him close to his chest, blowing softly onto the elf's face--something he had once seen a young mother do with a fussy baby. At first the blowing had no effect, but then the keening stopped, replaced by soft heart-wrenching sobs. Not wanting to be separated from his other team mates for very long, he stood and carried the young man in his arms back to camp--more determined than ever to find his answers.
B'lair gradually rose through the levels of consciousness, wondering why his hands were cramping. He also became aware of being held in a protective, almost loving embrace. For one brief moment, he allowed himself the memory of being five and being held by his brother after having been lost in the woods for several hours, but reality quickly reasserted itself. He blinked his eyes open and focused on his hands which were clenching a soft doe-skin jerkin. Ellison, he realized. He also became aware that they were not laying on the hard ground, but on a bed. Confused, he slowly released his grip, ignoring the pain as blood circulated back into his fingers, and looked up into the sleeping face of the ranger.
What was it about this human that baffled him so? James Ellison had the reputation of being one of the most dangerous men alive and yet all he could see was a quiet man with seemingly endless patience.
B'lair could admit, if only to himself, that he found this human compelling. There was an aura of vulnerability to him which made the thief want to protect the man. The thought made him smile--as if he, B'lair Woodfoxen, could protect the deadliest soldier of the ten kingdoms. He feared this ranger could steal his heart if he wasn't careful, although a part of him yearned to be needed and loved again.
He closed his eyes. "I need a sign, Sky," he mouthed silently. Opening them, he took several minutes to study the peaceful face before him. Why wouldn't Ellison let him go? And why was he terrified by the thought that the human might eventually do just that?
Quietly, without so much as dipping the mattress, he got out of the bed, angry at himself for losing focus. In all the years since Sky's death he had never let himself fall apart. Why now? Was it because they were so near elven lands? Was it the healer whose friendship meant more to him than he cared to admit? Or was it Ellison's calm presence, always watching, always waiting, always standing just a step behind, reminding him of everything he’d lost?
He looked over at the ranger again, only to find the light blue eyes tracking him around the room. For a moment, the human let all of his feelings shine through his eyes.
"No." B'lair stumbled backward, unwilling to accept the love and acceptance there.
"There's nothing you can do to change it," the ranger said quietly, not moving from the position from which he’d awoken.
"Is that a challenge?" the thief sneered.
"No, it's a promise," came the vow.
"I need some air." B'lair growled as he headed for the door, but stopped abruptly as he found the human blocking his way. "Move," he demanded, but the ranger ignored him, seeming to put roots down into the floorboards. "What do you want?" he demanded.
"I want to help."
B'lair spun away from the door and paced in front of the bed. "Why?"
"You know why."
The young elf's head snapped up in shock. "Don't you dare say it."
"But it's true."
"It's not true," B'lair yelled as he closed the distance between them. "You don't even know me."
"Some people know each other for a lifetime and know nothing while others meet and know everything in an instant."
B'lair growled more forcefully. "You don't know me."
The ranger laid his hand over the elf’s heart. "I don't know of your past, but I do know you."
The thief jumped as if scalded, memories crashing over him.
"I love you," the ranger said quietly.
"No!" B'lair stumbled backward.
"But it's true."
The thief launched himself at the ranger and shoved him hard against the door. "Take it back," he demanded.
"No," came the defiant whisper.
"Take it back," the elf yelled again as he slammed his fist into the door behind the ranger.
"I love you."
B'lair swung at the ranger's jaw, but solid hands stopped his momentum and wrapped him in a tender embrace.
"I love you."
"Son of a succubus," the younger man hissed as he fought the grip around him.
"I. Love. You," the words were breathed behind his ear.
He screamed in outrage, struggling against the embrace which refused to release him as the words were whispered again and again.
"Don't," the young man finally begged when his strength left him.
James scooped him up and gently laid him in the center of the bed. "Let me love you." The ranger crawled over the elf, careful not to crush the him.
The thief cried beneath him as he placed his hand over the ranger's heart, but whether he was asking him to continue or stop was unclear.
"I love you, B'lair Woodfoxen," James whispered beside the pointed ears.
"You can't," was the softly sobbed reply.
"And yet I do." He gently brushed his lips over the young man's and languidly kissed the elf's eyelids and cheeks with all the gentleness he felt within him. "You're not alone anymore," he murmured. "Not ever again."
"You'll die," came the very small voice beneath him. "Like everyone else, you'll die and I won't be able to stop it."
"No, not like everyone else." James nuzzled B'lair's neck, licking the skin and nibbling on the ear lobe closest to him. "Haven't you heard? I'm one of the most dangerous men on the planet. Besides, you've already proven that you’ll fight for my life." He purred and nibbled at the bobbing Adam's apple before him. James froze as the elf shakily reached out and gently brushed the back of his hand against the ranger's cheek.
"I won't tell you anything." The elf panted quietly as the ranger's hands moved slowly over his shirt and untied the bindings.
The ranger gently took one of the elf’s nipples between his teeth and explored it with his tongue. "I might be able to help."
B'lair's body arched off the bed, both hands running through the human's short cropped hair. "I don't see how."
James' fingers danced lightly over the elf's chest and abdomen. "Tell me of the dangers you face."
"Never." B'lair gasped as the ranger's hands pushed his pants over his hips and explored even lower. "Not even when your grandchildren are old and gray."
"So be it," the ranger whispered just before his lips closed around the object of his desire.
James awoke as the lithe figure in his arms began to stir. He remained silent, curious to see how the elf would react to him after their night of passion. There was no doubt in his mind that B'lair had been alone for a very long time; but for all the young man's inexperience, he was still an enthusiastic and tender lover.
The ranger realized he had taken the first step down a path from which he could never turn back and to a certain extent that frightened him. He had always been happy with his solitary existence. He’d never really needed anyone before, but couldn't deny the fact he felt stronger, more centered when he was with the elf. While the thief presented a facade of world-weary self-reliance, James had had his first taste of the fragile soul beneath the surface and swore to protect that unexpected innocence with all he possessed.
Fingers flexed on his chest moments before the curly head lifted and pointed in his general direction. James tenderly used one finger to push several strands of hair behind the closest pointed ear. Large blue eyes blinked shyly at him. He smiled in return and leaned down to place a chaste kiss on the elf's lips as soon as he saw the first signs of uncertainty enter the young man's eyes.
B'lair hesitated a moment, then followed the lips upwards as James began to pull back--opening his mouth to draw the ranger deeper. James moaned as he reasserted his kiss, rolling the thief onto his back and covering the smaller body with his own.
The ranger purred as his hands played in the elf's silken tresses. "Good morning."
"Good morning." The younger man yawned and stretched, then looked around the room. “Just where are we, exactly?"
"An inn called Crossroads. Apparently, this part of the wilderness is not as sparsely populated as initial reports had indicated."
"What's the plan?" the thief asked innocently as he playfully ground his hips upward.
James smirked as he kissed the younger man's chin. "Breakfast."
B'lair waggled his eyebrows, making the warrior laugh.
"The others are stirring." The ranger sighed once, before indulging himself with one last slow kiss. "Besides, you're too thin; we can't have you skipping meals."
The elf peppered his neck with small kisses. "I'm not really hungry."
James groaned and reluctantly pushed himself off the mattress. "I think you should eat anyway."
B'lair's gaze followed the ranger's form as the older man moved around the room, then sighed as he moved to the edge of the bed. "You're very bossy."
"Ahh, the perks of being in charge." James laughed as he pulled on his trousers, but stopped while reaching for his shirt when he noticed the elf's pale face and spiking heartbeat. "Are you all right, beloved?" he asked, kneeling beside the young man.
B'lair pulled back slightly, his eyes growing even larger as he nodded.
"Are you ill?"
The thief shook his head, but remained silent.
"Are you up to getting dressed?"
The younger man nodded and James helped him to his feet and watched as the elf move stiffly around the room. Something had just happened and he wasn't sure whether it was good or bad, but he intended to find out.
"Good morning, Joel." B'lair sat on the bench next to the older warrior, who was enjoying his breakfast. "How’re you feeling?"
Taggart looked slightly surprised by the thief initiating conversation. "Much better than last night. Thank you."
"Is Rafael all right?" The elf knew the healer had probably hovered over the older man until he was sure all danger had passed.
"Ask him yourself." Joel grinned as he lifted a fork across the table to where the young halfling was taking a seat.
"You look tired," B'lair observed.
"I'm all right." Rafe smiled in an attempt to reassure."How are you feeling today?"
The thief blushed slightly and looked away for a moment before answering. "I wasn't the one who held off three assassins and spent the night tending injuries."
The healer reached across the table and took B'lair's hand. "You didn't answer my question."
The elf tried to avoid the open honest eyes but found himself drawn back to them. "I'm...better now."
"Would it help to talk about it?"
"No." B'lair squeezed the fingers in his hand and released them, grateful that the older warrior seemed intent on his food.
"Three more breakfasts, please," James said to the innkeeper who was cleaning a nearby table and pointed to his team's table.
"Right away, sir." The elderly man nodded before he disappeared into the kitchen.
"What exactly are we looking for, James?" Joel asked quietly as he tore a hunk of bread in two.
"I don't know exactly. All I know is about three months ago, Simon received a missive from someone named Leigh claiming he ruled this area of the wilderness. The man said he was interested in opening up diplomatic relations and establishing trade routes. We always believed this area to be devoid of civilization, but this inn would indicate otherwise. Simon wants us to scout the area, gather what information we can, and make initial contact."
"So where do we start our search?" Rafe nodded his thanks to the innkeeper, who laid a plate of eggs and ham in front of him.
"According to the map on the wall over there, there's a village about twenty miles from here called Rainier. I thought we'd start there."
"Rainier ain't nothing but a ghost town," the innkeeper said quietly as he laid the remaining plates in front of James and B'lair.
"I beg your pardon?" the ranger asked in surprise.
"Rumor has it that a plague wiped out the entire village years ago, but darker rumors say they was all massacred. Kil't in the night," the old man whispered conspiratorially.
"Who used to live in the village?" Rafe asked curiously.
"Wells, they used to say it was elves, but I ain’t never seen none. All I ever seen around here were trolls myself. They don't actually live in the village, just patrol it. ‘Nother Rumor says Rainier was cursed by an old woman before she was kil't. Says no one can live there until the last heir returns to take his rightful place on the throne. There be stories of a larger city farther north, called Spokane. I keeps telling myself I should visit one of these days, but I ain't getting any younger and I lost my sense of adventure a long time ago. Plus, I gots to keep them trolls from eating me out of hearth and home. They pays good. Smell something horrid. But as long as you don't let them get drunk on coffee, they's manageable." He nodded once to them, then left.
B'lair stopped, fork hanging half-way between his plate and his mouth.
"So far it sounds like a bunch of rumors and supposition," Joel noted.
"I think we should visit this abandoned village first to get a feel for the land, then head on to the bigger city and see if we can find this Leigh character," James said, before digging into his food.
"Sounds like a plan," Joel agreed, satisfied that things were working out.
"Rainier and then Spokane," Rafe repeated, then dug into his plate of food.
B'lair quietly dropped his fork onto the plate before him. Home, Sky, he thought. I'm finally going home.
Chapter 5: Homecoming
James Ellison, ranger and unofficial troubleshooter for King Simon, leaned back against a small birch and studied the members of his team while they rested. Joel Taggart, a large dark warrior, was engaged in a quiet but animated conversation with Rafael, the team's half-elven healer.
Joel had fought beside James for nearly two decades. The trust the ranger had in the older fighter knew no bounds. His quiet sense of humor, his dedication to duty, and his kindness made him one of the best people James knew. Taggart would follow James into the bowels of hell if the occasion called for it and would never complain once or question the reason why.
Rafael had only been with James' team for ten years. The ranger still remembered the shy gangly youth the healer had been--so eager to please. Despite years of attempting to teach the young man how to defend himself, he was still woefully inept. Simon occasionally questioned James about the soundness of including such a liability on dangerous missions; however, James never wavered. While Rafe might not do much damage in battle, his healing abilities made him a valuable asset to his team. The halfling's innocence and bright outlook on life, despite some of the things he had witnessed during his travels with Ellison, often healed the ranger's ravaged soul.
James' gaze finally lit upon the third and newest member of his team, an elven thief named B'lair Woodfoxen, and frowned slightly. In the three forays they had undertaken since meeting, B'lair had proven himself to be a resourceful ally. While the young elf had never been overly chatty, he could usually be counted on for a humorous quip or insightful anecdote. At the moment, however, he was standing off to the side of the clearing by himself, his pale face turned northward. The thief's unnatural stillness bothered him.
"He seems to withdraw more into himself with each step we take toward Rainier," Rafe said quietly as he reached James' side.
The ranger never took his eyes off the elf. "I've noticed."
"Any idea why?" Joel asked in concern, his protective nature coming to the fore.
"Last night..." James hesitated, wondering how much he should reveal to his friends about making love to the quiet thief.
Joel placed a non-judgmental hand on his arm, and nodded encouragingly.
"He told me I couldn't love him. When I questioned him as to why, he said, 'Like everyone else, you'll die, and I won't be able to stop it’." James watched pain flash across the young healer's face and had to put a restraining hand on his shoulder to keep him from going immediately to the elf. "No. Leave him be."
"But why is he withdrawing into himself now?" Rafe questioned as he acknowledged the ranger's hand with a nod. "Fire and stars, James!" He gasped, eyes wide in sudden realization.
"Exactly," the ranger nodded.
"Do you two mind letting me in on the secret handshake?" Joel grumbled as he looked back and forth between his two friends.
"B'lair is from Rainier," Rafe said with certainty.
"How do you figure that?" the older warrior protested. "The innkeeper indicated the village had been deserted for decades."
"Joel, full-blooded elves age much slower than humans. While B'lair looks to be about twenty-five years old, he may, in reality, be closer to fifty or seventy, which is considered very young by elven standards."
Taggart shot a glance at the young man, who seemed totally oblivious to their conversation. "But if he knows what happened to the village, why isn't he saying anything."
James took in the thin sheen of perspiration on the thief’s brow and the slight trembling to his limbs. "The innkeeper also talked about a massacre," he said quietly. "I think there’s a good chance B'lair was there when it happened."
Joel gasped. "How did he survive?"
"I don't know," the ranger admitted.
"Skylanthalus." Rafe wrapped his arms around his chest for comfort as he spoke the name. "I--I didn't put it together before. After we were attacked, he checked me for wounds and whispered the name Skylanthalus. He was horrified when he realized his slip, but I was so worried about Joel at the time, I didn't think anything of it."
"So who is this Skylanthalus, and where is he now?" Joel asked, frowning slightly.
"He's dead," James answered.
"Are you sure?" Taggart pressed, but stopped when he noticed the ranger's clenched jaw and nodding head. "Okay, that answers where, but do we have any idea who he was?"
James closed his eyes briefly against the pain. "His heart," he whispered.
"Will he endanger our mission?" Joel asked, ever practical.
"I will work with your team for the gold. I will keep to myself. I will not answer any questions about who I am. However, neither will I lie to you. But know this, when the time comes, I will leave. No explanations. No good-byes. And if our goals cross, I will not jeopardize mine. Do you understand?"
"Yes, and you understand that no one ever double-crosses me?"
"I won't betray you or your team. But I have spirits to calm. If the situation comes down to following the group or fulfilling my destiny, I will choose the latter. Never doubt it. Consequences be hanged."
The ranger rubbed a hand over his tired face. "I don't know. However, I do know that the best place for him at the moment is under foot, where we can keep an eye on him."
B'lair Woodfoxen swallowed hard as he surveyed the chain and log bridge which spanned the chasm before them. It was not the same bridge as when he lived in the woods beyond. No doubt, the trolls had put this sturdier version up after their domination of the land was complete. It was no longer a bridge which swayed in the wind, but a large contraption which looked like two fully armed and armored trolls could stride side-by-side across the entire length.
The thief dug his fingernails into his palms, trying to prevent the cry which welled up from his soul. Could he cross the bridge? Could he face what lay on the other side?
Rafe touched his shoulder. "B'lair?"
"We need to cross," the healer said in an incredibly gentle voice.
For a moment, B'lair stared at the halfling, wondering if the younger man understood that crossing the bridge could rend his sanity. He opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "Okay. I'll follow you."
Joel had already crossed the expanse and disappeared from sight, scouting the immediate area on the other side. Rafe hesitated for a moment, then nodded and quickly crossed the bridge. Locking his gaze onto the healer, who had turned to face him once he had reached the other side, B'lair took his first tentative step onto the bridge. Shakily, he reached out for the support chains; however, with each step he took his feet became heavier and heavier until he was unable to move forward any further. For a brief moment, he allowed himself to look over the side of the bridge and into the chasm below. 'What had Sky been thinking?' he shuddered as he saw the river wending far beneath him.
Rafe looked as if he were about to start back, but paused, relaxing a little. B'lair could feel the ranger's solid presence behind him and allowed himself a moment to lean back against the older man for support. A warm breath caressed his ear, comforting him. "This is not about you, beloved," the tenor voice said in understanding. "It's about the need to move forward."
B'lair blinked at the double meaning of the words being spoken to him, then shaking himself, straightened, and put one foot in front of the other until he was standing by the healer's side. He turned and looked gratefully back at the ranger. James simply laid one palm against his cheek and smiled, before moving in the direction opposite from Taggart.
James paused, and raised one hand to indicate that those behind him should stop as he took a moment to survey the village which lay before him. Small stone huts overgrown with clinging vines filled his view as he took a few tentative steps forward. He reached out with his hearing, expecting to find the laughter of children and the bustling sounds of a thriving village, but silence was his only answer. With a nod of his head, he indicated the others should follow.
Joel took in the tiny, perfectly tended gardens beside most of the cottage doors. "Where is everyone?" he asked in a whisper as if afraid his words would echo in the eerie stillness.
"The innkeeper said this was a ghost town," Rafe answered.
The group continued to moved toward the center of the village.
"But it's immaculate," Joel countered.
They entered the square, which had been decorated with bright banners and streamers.
"It looks like they were having a party,” the dark warrior added.
James whirled about as he heard the thief take large gasping breaths of air as if suffocating.
"M-mmmm-may-b-be w-w-we s-ssssshhh-ould ex-p-ppp-plore the v-vvvvvvillage m-mmm-ore."
The ranger started forward, but for each step he took, the pale thief took a step back, looking as if he might bolt.
"Yes, that's not a bad idea. Why don't we each take a direction and see what we can find," James agreed in a soft, non-threatening voice. He watched as the elf nodded, turned and fled.
"James?" Rafael gasped, trying to figure out what had just happened.
"Leave him for now, Rafe," the ranger whispered raggedly. "I think--I think our suspicions have just been confirmed. Let's split up. I want to know what happened here."
The healer and older warrior both nodded as they turned in opposite directions to explore the village. A cold claw of fear gripped James' stomach as he remembered the look on his lover's face. Something had happened here. Something which had destroyed the soul of the man he loved. He cursed their timing. Their newly formed bond was incredibly fragile. Would it be strong enough to help the young elf through his waking nightmare come true?
James clenched his teeth in frustration. He had tasted the unexpected innocence of the young man, had felt the first tentacles of hope reach out toward him the night before, and by the Unknown One's name, he swore he would raze whole villages himself before he let the young man's soul slip through his fingers.
B'lair raced blindly back through the village as the memories of his Ascension washed over him, like the unmerciful ocean pounding the silent beach. He couldn't face this. How had he ever thought he could do it alone? He stumbled and fell at the edge of the village, staying on his hands and knees for several minutes as he tried to get his breathing under control.
The soft crunching of leaves from the forest made him raise his head. He glanced up into the pale blue eyes of a large wolf with black ears and white paws. The animal cocked his head and sniffed at the intruder. 'No,' B'lair thought in disbelief. There was no possibility it could be the same animal. While wolves lived long lives...
The timber wolf took a tentative step forward, and sniffed again. B'lair braced himself for an attack, but it never came. Instead the creature rolled on its back and whined plaintively, inviting him to play. When B'lair hesitated, it opened its mouth and made quiet, almost talking noises.
"It can't be you, JaJaNa," the elf whispered in disbelief, reaching forward and tentatively scratching the furry underbelly of the animal. The wolf licked his arm and wiggled in pleasure. "How can you remember me?"
The wolf scrambled to its feet, then moved closer to the thief and pressed its wet nose into his cheek. With a gasp of pleasure, B'lair threw his arms around the wolf's neck and hugged it tight, choking back a sob as a small contented whine reverberated against his ear.
After several moments, the wolf moved back and the elf released his hold. Taking several steps toward the village, the wolf looked back over its shoulder then back at the village. The message was clear. Follow me.
B'lair pushed himself off the ground and stiffly followed the four-legged animal, who led him to a petite cottage on the edge of the village.
He stopped before the open doorway. "Malinalda's home," he whispered to himself. Using his head to push, the wolf butted the young man into the cottage.
"I have a loose stone in my hearth. Behind it I keep items which aid me in my magics -- wards and such."
"My future is set and I doubt I can escape it, but remember the loose stone on the right, third stone up from the hearth. It is my legacy to you."
The wolf growled impatiently, pushing him toward the stone hearth. The elf dropped to his knees in front of the hearth. The wolf nudged his shoulder with his nose.
"I..." but he stopped when the animal growled."You're very bossy." B'lair sighed in compliance, then smiled as the wolf seemed to grin at him, tongue lolling, head pushing against him again.
Reaching forward, he let his fingers glide up over the stones. One. Two. Three. He hesitated a moment then pressed against the stone. It wiggled slightly. Moving closer, he used his fingernails to grasp the edges and pull it back. With a soft pop, the rock came off, revealing a small dark hole. Taking a deep breath, he reached in and felt a small leather pouch. He pulled it out, unknotted the strings, and spilled the contents into his hand.
He blinked in amazement as he fingered the three amulets, each consisting of a precious stone attached to a leather string. One was an opal with a small raccoon etched into its surface. The second was onyx with a bear etched into its flat front. The third was a cat's eye with a jaguar sketched into it. B'lair shook himself as an unbidden memory came floating up from his subconscious, ethereal and without form, taunting him, making him feel as if he should realize the significance of the etchings.
The analytical part of his mind understood that any one of the stones would be worth a king's ransom, but yet he knew there was a deeper significance to the precious stones. Sighing, he carefully put them back into the pouch and attached the leather bag to his belt. Standing and feeling oddly refreshed; he walked out of the small cottage.
The air around him stirred, the wind moving, picking up speed. The leaves blew upward in small eddies. Clouds rolled overhead as the winds blew harder, carrying laughing, joyful voices. "All hail, the newly ascended one."
James' head snapped up as the air around him suddenly began to move, prickling his skin, carrying the ground cover upward. Clouds rolled in as the wind blew stronger. He had found himself in many a sudden storm before, but this one felt different-- as if there was magical aura to it. He heard faint joyous laughter. "All hail, the newly ascended one."
Without thought, he ran back to the center of the village. When he arrived, the wind was swirling the leaves and the gaily colored streamers and banners around the open area. His eyes searched frantically for his teammates and sighed in relief as Joel came skidding into view. Rafael lurched into the square from the opposite direction, his confusion evident.
"James!" The healer pointed to a figure entering the square. The ranger's gaze focused on the oldest elf he’d ever seen. The man walked regally, but stiffly, looking as confused as Rafe. The old elf's gaze flickered over him and dismissed him as he turned toward Joel, who was also noted and ignored. The gaze narrowed slightly on the healer, noting the elfin features but shook his head in disappointment. He started to turn back toward the ranger, then spied B'lair entering the clearing.
The old man gasped, his mouth opening and shutting, but no sound came forth. His arm came up and pointed at the startled young man. The old elf tried to take a step forward, but his eyes rolled back in his head just before he collapsed. The winds died as suddenly as they had begun.
Joel’s eyes were wide, and his hand was on his still sheathed sword. "What in the hell was that all about?" he demanded.
Rafe jumped forward at the same time, kneeling next to the old man, checking for a pulse. "He's still alive. James, help me get him into a cottage."
The ranger tore his gaze off the pale elf trembling across the way from him and did as he was bid. Something significant had just happened. He just wished the hell he knew what.
B'lair sat on the side of the bed inside the small cottage closest to the village’s center, and studied the face of the old elf lying beside him. Ephel looked as if he had aged centuries instead of decades. Grief was always a powerful eroder, but he was shocked by the woodcutter's skeletal frame. How had he survived? The thief looked out the open door of the cottage to where the others were gathered by the fire. B'lair had convinced the healer to take a break from his ministration long enough to eat. He prayed the older elf would wake while they were alone.
As if in answer to his thoughts, Ephel's eyes fluttered open and slowly focused on his face. "Your Hi--"
B’lair pressed his fingers over Ephel’s lips. "I lost the right to that title the evening I fled."
B’lair laughed bitterly. "If you call this living."
The old man smiled. "You finally returned to fulfill your destiny."
Looking over his shoulder toward the others outside, B’lair noticed the ranger's head coming up. "I’m not here to fulfill my destiny, old man," he hissed. "You will not speak any further of this foolishness nor will you reveal who I am. Do you understand?"
The old elf started to protest, but stopped when he saw the anger in the younger man's eyes. "Yes," he said simply.
"James." B’lair acknowledged the ranger as he stepped into the tiny cottage. "Our guest has awakened."
The ranger glanced back and forth between the two elves. The older one was serene, a smile playing at his lips. The younger one was agitated, breathing hard, trying desperately to cover up the emotions obviously roiling inside of him. "Joel. Rafael," James called out to the rest of his team as he turned slightly. Both men quickly entered the hut. "Our host has awakened."
Sitting on the opposite side of the bed from B’lair, Rafe felt the older man's forehead with the back of his hand. "How do you feel?"
"Better, thank you."
Rafe took the older elf's wrist and checked his pulse. "Do you remember what happened?"
James did not miss the hesitant glance the old man gave the thief before he answered. "I was just shocked to see one of the People standing before me. I’ve been here by myself for so very long, I thought I must surely be dreaming him, but if it was a dream I was desperate not to awake from it."
The thief turned his head away from the old man for a moment before he looked back.
"Can you sit up?" the healer asked, and assisted the elderly elf when he nodded his assent.
"Who are you?" the ranger asked quietly from the foot of the bed.
"My name is Ephel. I was the village's woodsmith."
"Ephel, can you tell us what happened here?" James asked, noting the sudden discomfort of the young thief. "Why are you here--alone? Where is everyone else?"
"They're dead. All of them. I alone survived."
"Survived what?" Taggart asked.
The old man cleared his throat and shot a quick glance at the younger elf, before proceeding in a deep voice usually used by storytellers and historians. "Thirty-five years ago, the village was buzzing with anticipation. You see, the youngest son of Prince Gelion and the Princess Alexandria was about to ascend into adulthood. The child was much loved by the village and preparations for the celebration had been in the works for over a month. I, myself, had been working on his present for over six months for I had a special fondness for the boy and his older brother.
"All was festive the night of the celebration; a night which would have been the talk of the village for years to come. But in the midst of the celebration, a messenger came stumbling into the clearing bringing news of the capitol's destruction."
"The capitol?" Joel interrupted.
"Spokane," the elf replied. "It was where King Haidair resided. The messenger said the capitol lay in ruins, and everyone had been slain by trolls. Gelion, the king's youngest son, realized immediately that the messenger had betrayed the village. His last words were spoken to his family, of his love for them," Ephel said as he stared at the thief. "He was murdered seconds later. It was then that I noticed the trolls as they rose from the mist completely surrounding the clearing. They were huge and fully armored." The older elf gulped, his voice becoming shakier as he relived the events of the horrible night.
"The leader, a man named Brackett, assaulted the princess. I knew there was to be no escape. I had had...a conversation with the prince once when his father was having some diplomatic problems with one of his neighbors further north. He spoke to me at great length about how much his family meant to him, and how he could not live with the thought of their being harmed. In fact, he had intentionally moved away from the capitol, having no heart for politics. As the youngest child of the king he had no real power and decided he would not have his children shaped according to the intrigue of court politics. He had agreed, however, to send each of his children to be trained for their potential destiny," he said as his eyes flickered again over to the quiet thief, "once they had reached their ascension."
Ephel coughed, his whole body shaking as he did. Rafael gently brought a flask of water to the old man's lips and watched as he sipped, careful not to choke him with too much liquid.
"My thanks, young one. I apologize for digressing. It's just that I haven't spoken with anyone in such a long time. Where was I? Oh, yes. During this difficult time Gelion's youngest child became lost in the woods while chasing after a wolf pup. The prince had been convinced the boy had been taken for ransom. The child's older brother eventually found the missing youth after everyone else had given up, believing that foul play was indeed involved. The prince extracted a promise from me once the boys were safely at home. He made me swear that I would never allow any harm to come to his family. He--he begged me to...." The old man began to cry.
Rafe made soothing noises as he held the old elf's hand, trying to give as much comfort as he could under the circumstances.
The old man sniffed, his eyes fully upon the thief as he continued, totally oblivious to the rest of the men in the cottage. "When I saw the trolls, I knew we’d be given no quarter. When I saw what Brackett intended to do to the princess, I knew her fate would be one of humiliation and pain. I couldn’t allow that to happen. So I threw one of my whittling daggers and killed her. May the Unknown One forgive me," the old man wailed as his body contracted upward in grief. "Please forgive me."
B'lair lurched off the bed, his back against the wall, his eyes wide in horror.
After several minutes, the sobbing softened and the ranger spoke. "We can finish this another time."
"No!" the old man yelled. "I must--I must tell you what happened--for I have been marked as Witness."
The ranger nodded hesitantly, fighting the overwhelming urge to take the younger elf in his arms and flee the village.
"Brackett ordered everyone killed. The trolls moved forward as one; their circle shrinking, killing everything inside. When the circle became too crowded, trolls would fall back, forming a second circle. Those who managed to escape the first circle were unable to escape the second or third or the...
"Fadril was captain of the prince's guard. He saw the strategy early on and organized several of his men to attack one section of the circle and was able to force an opening so that the two remaining princes could escape. He was successful. At least, I never ran across the bodies," he hastily amended. "However, the gap quickly closed. We were herded closer and closer together into the center of the clearing. After a while, there was nowhere to run and we simply stood, clutching each other, waiting to be slaughtered.
"I was giving my last praises to the Unknown One for a life I had considered truly blessed up until that point, when Malinalda rose from the very center of our group. I had always known she possessed great magic within her, but she rarely used it. I think it frightened her in many ways. She began an incantation. I knew it would be powerful, horrible, for the very air around us seemed charged--like after a lightning strike. The trolls never stopped their slaughter, but for me time seemed to slow.
"In a calm voice Malinalda looked down at us and demanded we give her the last of our strength to protect our heritage and our future. People around me murmured their assent and I could feel her growing stronger as her magic reverberated around us. I was about to give my own assent when she looked down upon me and said in the most ancient of voices 'For your crime of love, I sentence you to be Witness--to see the story finished.'
"As soon as she finished speaking, an arrow pierced her chest, but she just laughed. She rubbed her hands over her bloody chest and raised them to the sky and shouted, 'A blood oath, I decree. Until the last heir returns to take his rightful place on the throne, this village will remain a curse unto all who have caused its destruction. Beware, for we are his strength to be called upon when needed and vengeance shall be ours.' She then fell back into my arms and died. I remember being hit from behind and then all was blackness."
Ephel paused, taking several stronger breaths. "When I awoke, the village was deserted. I would have thought it all a bad dream had it not been for the bodies which remained. It took me days to bury them all and every day I expected the trolls to come back and finish me off, but they did not. I see them occasionally on the fringes of the village, but they never enter."
The small group took in what the elderly elf had told them in stunned silence.
"And you have waited here ever since?" Rafael asked quietly, when the silence became deafening.
"Yes, I await the last heir to take his rightful place on the throne, so that I may pass into the peace of the next life."
B'lair sneered. "And what awaits your precious last heir once he takes the throne? He would be a ruler to a kingdom of ghosts or worse yet--trolls."
"He cannot fight his destiny," Ephel said pointedly.
"You would condemn him to a life of hell for your own peace?" the thief snapped.
The old man began to cry softly. "No. Never."
B'lair closed his eyes in pain, and strode into the darkness without another word.
James stepped out of the small cottage and raised his face to the stars, allowing the breeze to flow around him for a moment as he collected his thoughts.
B'lair was the last heir from Ephel's story. Of that, he had no doubt. But even armed with this information, he was unsure what course to take.
It was obvious the young thief did not wish anyone to know about his past, but they would all have to be blind not to be able to put the clues together.
For now, James decided, he would let the elf have his secret, but decided he wouldn’t allow him to face his grief alone. He would explain his decision to the others in the morning.
The ranger had no problem tracking the elf's meandering trail between the various cottages to the edge of the village where he found the thief hugging a large wolf. The animal chuffed slightly, causing B'lair to release him. Sitting back on his heels, he watched the wolf disappear into the cover of night.
"He's beautiful," James said quietly.
"Yes, he is. He reminds me of a pup I use to play with in my youth."
The young man stood and turned to face the ranger. "He must be Ephel's."
James stared into the elf's face, noticing the hardness in the eyes. "Are you all right?" he asked softly, when what he really wanted to ask was 'Am I losing you?'
"Yes," the thief replied, as if in answer to both questions.
The ranger moved toward the elf and was not surprised when the younger man took a step backward. However, his step brought his back against a large tree. Moving to close the distance, James looked down into the eyes of the young man who had just that morning teased him with his body. "I love you."
B'lair closed his eyes as if trying to refuse the truth of the statement. "I know."
"Let me be your strength," the ranger whispered. His lips barely brushed against the elf's. "Just for tonight, B'lair. Just for tonight."
The elf stood frozen for a moment then collapsed against the older man's chest, but did not cry. James wrapped his arms around the thief and held him tightly, as if his life depended on it. He stood watch over the trembling younger man until B'lair's legs began to collapse. Ellison picked him up and carried the elf to the closest cottage, laying him in the middle of the bed and cocooning the smaller body with his own, until the thief fell asleep.
B'lair awoke, a little shocked to find himself alone. The ranger, no doubt, was checking on the others. He stretched and got out of the bed, intent on finding the members of his party, but stopped as a shadow fell across the doorway.
Ephel stood at the entrance of the cottage. "Do you know what has haunted me the most over the decades?"
"No. What?" B'lair asked in quiet surprise.
"It was not the taking of your mother's life for, being the kind soul she was, I knew then as I know now, she would have forgiven me. No, it was a small voice crying out in pain, 'Ephel killed Mama, Sky. Ephel killed Mama' right after the trolls bellowed their initial war cry.
“At night when the wind kicks up, I can sometimes hear their voices--laughing. The laughter always turns to terror, but not before I hear that soft voice crying out in confusion.
“I knew you didn't understand why I did what I did. The thought that you might have survived all these years and might one day return only to hate me was more than I could bear some nights. On more than one occasion over the years, I have attempted to take my own life, but Malinalda's spell is a powerful one and I have never been able to complete the task."
"I don't hate you, Ephel," B'lair said in a voice rough with emotion.
"You have every right."
"No," the younger elf rasped softly. "It is I who must beg you for forgiveness. I ran like a coward. I left you all to die."
"No, your Majesty, no." Ephel strode forward and grasped the young man's shoulders. "You were a mere child. There was nothing you could have done. Had you come back, you would have been murdered."
"Better to have died with my people than to scrounge out an existence which served no purpose other than vengeance."
"No, your Majesty. Your destiny is to take back what was stolen from our people."
"Look around, Ephel. There is nothing left of our people. You and I are the only ones who remain."
"I refuse to believe that, Sire. We elves are made of stronger stuff. Once you ascend the throne and take your rightful place, they will come. You must trust me."
"Oh, Ephel." B'lair hugged the frail old man tightly. "I have so missed your kindness."
"As I you, my Prince, my King," the old man said, his eyes filling with tears. "If it had not been for your noisy baby, I would have gone quite mad."
"Then it is he?"
"Aye, he must have gotten caught up in Malinalda's spell somehow, but it is evident that he still remembers his favorite babysitter." The old man laughed, holding the younger man out at arm's length and drinking him in.
"Forgive my behavior last night?" B'lair whispered hopefully, uncomfortable under the old man's steady gaze.
"You have been alone for far too long, little one. I can see it in your eyes. Young Sky--"
"Was killed the morning after the massacre."
"Fire and stars, child! Have you been alone this whole time?"
"No, Ephel. I sought out mother's older sister, Naomi. She took me in and taught me how to survive in the humans' world. She's helped me in my quest to find the human called Brackett, but so far he has eluded me."
The old man gasped as he pulled away. "Then you don't know?"
"The man they call Leigh is Brackett. He changed his name to avoid the stigma of his evil deeds."
B'lair grabbed the old man's arms, demanding his full attention. "How--how do you know this, Ephel?"
"Rainier haunts him. He wants this land, but he cannot enter. He comes to the edge of the village and taunts me from time to time, as I cannot leave. He sees me as a confidant in some sadistic, twisted way. He hopes to expand his empire--to eventually rule all of the kingdoms. However," the old man grinned in embarrassment, "I have done my own share of taunting, I'm afraid. I've told him to stay in this little corner of the world to await his destiny--you. I have told him that I have dreamed dreams which spoke of your prowess in battle. At first he mocked me, but now--now he is afraid of you and what you represent."
B'lair laughed as he again hugged the older man close to him. "I am no more dangerous than the young healer who tended you last night."
"Ahh, but even a healer can cause pain, young one, if properly motivated."
"Oh, I'm motivated all right," B'lair said in a cold voice.
"Good," the elderly elf said as he stepped back and looked into the determined face of the last heir. "But best of all, you are not alone as you undertake this journey and for that I rejoice."
"I thought you said you could not leave the village?"
"I cannot, your Majesty. I was referring to your companions."
"My companions are human, Ephel. They will not help me kill a human king."
The elderly elf frowned. "You underestimate them."
"I cannot involve them. They are here to open trade negotiations with this Leigh Brackett."
"Then we must--"
"No, we will tell them nothing."
"But your Majesty--"
"We will tell them nothing, Ephel," B'lair's voice rang with quiet authority.
The woodsmith bowed his head in submission, but raised it once again. "Brackett is a snake, my young king. Do not doubt he will weave masterful lies for your companions if you do not tell them the truth first."
"I will not have Brackett's blood on the hands of innocents, my old friend. What I do, I'll take full responsibility for."
"But how will you protect them?"
"With Malinalda's legacy."
"I beg your pardon?"
B'lair removed the pouch from his belt and poured the amulets into his hand.
The older elf gasped. "Sire, do you understand what these are?"
"Wards, I believe."
"Once you put the amulet on its intended, it will disappear from sight. These are infused with incredibly strong magic. These will keep you safe, your Majesty."
B'lair closed his eyes, but decided not to correct the old woodcutter. The amulets would insure that the innocent would remain safe.
"Let's go get something to eat, my old friend." The thief smiled as he hooked his arm through the older man's and exited the cottage.
Rafael was surprised by the peace that seemed to settle over his friend. B'lair had been torn the day before, barely hanging onto the edge of sanity, but morning had revealed him to be relaxed, at ease with his demons. He even laughed once while talking to the old woodsmith.
The healer noticed that James also noticed the difference, but did not seem to be as happy about the change as he was.
The elderly elf explained to the group how he was unable to leave the village due to the curse and even though James was not happy about leaving him behind, had agreed to do so temporarily, so they could complete their mission. The ranger and Joel left the village shortly thereafter to do some hunting for the carpenter so he would have meat after they left.
Ephel muttered something about having a chore to attend to after the warriors left and had excused himself from the campfire. Rafael watched the thief repack his satchel for several minutes. "Who was Skylanthalus?"
The elf's head snapped up, his eyes narrowing.
"You called me by his name after I had been attacked by the Patriots," Rafe whispered in explanation, almost afraid to continue in the face of such quiet countenance.
B'lair stood and walked slowly toward Rafe, then turned and sat with his back to the healer, who had been sitting on a fallen log. "Braid my hair," he commanded quietly.
Confused, the halfling did as he was told, momentarily enjoying the feel of the silken tresses; startled when he realized the thief was speaking to him in a whispered voice.
"He was my cousin, but I considered him my brother. He was my protector and the other half of my soul."
Rafe swallowed hard as he continued to weave the hair before him. "His was the name you would not speak because it is the hatred for those who killed him which has kept you alive for so many years?"
"Yes," was the barely breathed answer.
The healer's hands shook as he accepted the leather strap offered by the elf and tied off the single braid. He remained silent for several moments, afraid to push any more than he already had, but his curiosity demanded the final answer. "You saved me that first night because..." he stopped when the thief turned and pierced him with his dark blue gaze.
B'lair reached out a hand and tenderly brushed a lock of sandy brown hair out of the eyes of the boy, who was both younger and older than he was. "Because you reminded me so much of him," he whispered. B’lair brought his other hand up and gently laid it on his cheek. "I will not allow you to die as he did, Rafael. I will not fail you as I failed him." He leaned his forehead against the halfling's, before he left the fire.
Rafe watched as the thief disappeared among the cottages. He had always believed if the thief could ever talk about his pain, he would feel relieved. So why was it that his shoulders seemed to carry the weight of the elf's admission, he thought as he rubbed his neck.
B'lair peeked around the corner of the nearest cottage in time to see the healer rub his neck. Other than a moment of irritation, there was no other indication that the younger man realized the magical amulet had been placed around his neck. One down, two to go.
James returned to camp a couple of hours later with several quail, while Joel returned with three rabbits. Ephel thanked them profusely and immediately set about preparing the animals. James' gaze instinctively sought B'lair's and was relieved to see that his mood was still light. When he looked over at the healer, however, he noticed the young man seemed to be out of sorts.
"Are you all right, Rafael?" James asked the distracted young man.
"Yes. Yes, of course, James. I--I made a stew from the rabbit Joel caught yesterday, if you two are hungry."
"In a moment, son." The ranger smiled as he ruffled the boy's hair and laid his weapons beside the fire before moving towards the elf. "Walk with me?" He was rewarded with a smile from the younger man.
When they reached the edge of the village, James stopped and faced his companion. "How are you feeling?"
"Much better, thank you," the elf said sincerely. A smile washed over his face as the wolf trotted up beside him and nudged his leg.
"He really seems to like you."
The younger man squatted down and ran his hands along the spine of the animal and listened to it make several small happy noises. "I've always had an affinity with wolves."
"He certainly talks a lot." The ranger laughed, but didn't try to stroke the animal.
"Must be why Ephel calls him JaJaNa. It means 'noisy baby'."
"We'll be leaving for the capitol in the morning," James said, changing the subject.
"I'll be ready."
"I'm not sure you should come with us."
The elf stood slowly, and whispered, "Go on," to the wolf before he turned to face the ranger, his eyes cold. "And why would that be?"
"I'm worried about you...about..." James reached for the elf, but B'lair stepped back out of his reach.
"Why did you bring me along on this mission?" the younger man demanded.
"Because I was walking into an unknown situation and I wanted someone I could trust and who wouldn't panic under pressure."
The elf frowned. "So you feel you can no longer trust me, is that it?"
"No, of course not."
"You think I'm going to panic?"
B'lair closed his eyes briefly. "In all fairness, I do understand your concern. My behavior over the last twenty-four hours has been rather--erratic--shall we say. And while I have no way to prove it to you, please know that I have worked through my demons."
James took a step closer and brought both of his palms up to cup the elf's cheeks, searching the young man's eyes for the truth. "I believe you," he said finally. He wanted to ask more, but decided not to stress the thin bond between them any more than necessary. Releasing his lover's face, he asked quietly, "Would you mind asking Joel to come here for a minute?"
"Sure." The thief started to turn, but stopped and looked back at the ranger. Slowly, he closed the distance between them and reached out to pulled the ranger's head down for a gentle but thorough kiss. "I never thought I'd ever feel this way about a human," he breathed over James' lips, before kissing him again and disappearing into the night.
James frowned. Had the elf just told him he finally trusted him or was it deeper than that--had he just admitted his love? He wondered if he was doing the right thing by letting the younger man accompany them to the capitol, but a feeling deep in his soul told him that their growing relationship would greatly depend on what happened in the next few days.
"You wanted to see me, James?" Joel asked as he unconsciously rubbed his neck. He scratched his chest lightly as he drew nearer to his friend.
"Yes, we move out at dawn," the ranger said, ready to face whatever lay before them.
B'lair rose through the levels of consciousness, feeling not only warm, but protected and cherished as well. He sifted lazily through his memories trying to remember the last time he had awakened feeling so secure. His eyes fluttered open as he realized it had been only three mornings ago at the Crossroads Inn. Ghosting his fingers above the smooth solid chest in front of his face, he wondered why the battle for his soul seemed so important to this human. Why did one of the most dangerous human men on the planet care what happened to an orphaned elven thief?
He rolled his head back to look up into the ranger's face and was startled to find the object of his study awake. Quietly, he asked, "Did you get any sleep at all?"
"Enough," was the equally quiet response.
B'lair opened his mouth to speak, unsure what he wanted to say to this human, yet feeling somewhere in the depths of his soul that he needed--desperately needed--to give this man the answers to the questions he begged to ask, but was unsure if he could.
James placed his fingers gently on the elf's lips. "I know," he said no louder than a warm breath.
"It's okay." James tenderly pressed his lips to the thief's forehead. "I'm not going anywhere. We have an eternity to say it all."
B'lair wrapped his arms around the warrior and held him tight, wanting to believe they’d have an eternity, but knowing his destiny, whether he wanted to face it or not, would be determined once they reached Spokane. He felt the walls around his heart begin to crack as the warrior returned the embrace. Biting the inside of his cheek, he tried to shore up the weaknesses in the barrier, knowing if he let his heart free all would be lost--again.
James could feel the tension rippling through the younger man's body and knew what the elf was trying to do, for he too had reinforced the walls around his heart on several occasions during his lifetime. However, unlike the thief, he never had a lover who was willing to trek across his emotional wastelands to the oasis deep within waiting for someone brave enough to discover it. He knew the elf didn’t believe his promise not to leave, although he could see the longing in the younger man's eyes. James was a patient man. He would be like the surf pounding against the rocky shore. It might take years, but he would wear the walls down.
The thief drifted back to sleep and the ranger chuckled softly, though deeply moved by the fact he was able to give the younger man such a measure of peace. "Hey sleepyhead. We need to get up and moving." He laughed again as the elf groaned his protest, but didn't budge.
Taking the younger man's chin in his fingers, he raised the beloved face and gently brushed a kiss over the full lips. The elf sighed contentedly, following the mouth upwards, opening his own to draw the ranger in.
"Oh no you don't." James scolded after indulging himself within the warm invitation for several moments. Scooping the elf up into his arms, he stood and allowed the arm holding the thief's head and shoulders to fall away, holding the younger man upside down. The rich laughter which floated upward warmed him, and he enjoyed the sight of watching the thief walking on his hands for several paces before slowly lowering his feet to the floor.
"I had no idea you were so flexible," James said with aroused amusement.
The elf threw him a look of such promise that it took allthe ranger's discipline not to grab the thief and throw him back onto the bed. "You're going to age me before my time," he whispered in a shaky voice, trying to control his need.
The elf leaned back against the wall of the small cottage, his hips jutted forward slightly. "Or I could make mere minutes seem like an eternity," he teased suggestively.
"What you do to me." James groaned as he quickly closed the distance and pressed the thief back against the wall. He leaned down and gave the elf a hard kiss, a promise of things to come, then took a step back. He growled, a mixture of contentment and frustration, before pushing the younger man out of the hut. "Go wake the others, we need to leave within the hour."
B'lair threw him a playful pout, then graced him with a smile which would have rivaled the sun had it been out, before he slipped from the cottage.
James grinned after him, then rubbed a hand over his tired face. Maybe, just maybe, their bond would be strong enough to survive the next couple of days. The smile slowly disappeared as the sense of foreboding seeped into his bones. Something lay waiting for them in Spokane, something with the power to destroy them. He closed his eyes and prayed they’d be strong enough not only to overcome it, but to survive it, together, as well.
B'lair stood with his pack slung over his shoulder as he committed the image of the old woodsmith to memory. "How can I leave you a second time?" he whispered.
"Because it is your destiny to do so, Majesty."
"I wish you wouldn't call me that."
"What would you have me call you?"
"B'lair." The old man smiled gently at the young elf. "Young Sky did a good job when he chose your name. It means 'balance,' and you certainly did give him stability."
The thief nodded, unable to speak.
"You still miss him?"
"So badly that some days it is a wonder I’m able to draw a breath," B'lair confessed.
Ephel nodded toward Rafael, who sat a short distance away and was securing the straps on his satchel. "Your young healer reminds me a lot of your brother."
"It's the eyes, I think. He also has quite a bit of enthusiasm for life. He wants so much to help, to belong."
"You do know that you changed Skylanthalus' life the day you were born, don't you?" the older elf asked with a knowing smile.
B'lair knew by his brother's own words that the statement was true, yet he also wanted to talk about Sky for just a moment longer with someone who actually knew him. "In what way?"
"It was when he started to live again. You wouldn't think that a four year old would need to be reminded to live, but he did. He needed someone to take care of, someone to love."
"In the short time that he lived, he was my world," B'lair whispered.
"You know, in many ways, your ranger reminds me of him."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your James...there is no doubt he’s a strong man, even a man to be feared; although when I watch him look at you, all I can see is a man who needs to take care of someone, to be allowed to love someone unconditionally."
"What?" B'lair sputtered.
"It's written all over his face," Ephel said in exasperation, as if he couldn't believe his young master could be so blind. The woodsmith took a step forward and gripped the thief's shoulders. "Let him love you, B'lair Woodfoxen. Allow yourself to love him in return."
"He's human, Ephel."
"So you cannot love him because of his race?"
"Wha...of course not."
"Then what’s the problem?"
B'lair took several steps away from the woodsmith, then turned back and whispered softly, "He'll die."
"We all die sooner or later. But for the moment, for your time together, however brief or long, allow yourself to feel his love while he is still with you."
"He's not Sky," the thief growled in a low voice.
Ephel closed the distance slowly as if afraid the young man would bolt. When he was close enough, he put his palms on both sides of the thief's face. "Skylanthalus died thirty-five years ago."
"I know that." B'lair tried to pull away, but the elderly man held him tightly in his hands. "You, Majesty, did not die."
"Of course, I didn't die. You're not making any sense, Ephel."
The woodsmith lowered one of his hands from the thief's face and placed it over the younger elf's heart. "Tell me your heart didn't die when Skylanthalus did, B'lair." When the prince refused to make eye contact, he whispered, "Do not let love slip through your fingers, your Majesty, for it is more rare than the most precious of gems."
The thief's breath hitched and the older elf pulled him in for a tight hug. "Take a chance, child."
"But I have a destiny to fulfill."
"Ahh, you think to win this argument by throwing an old man's words back at him." The woodcutter chuckled knowingly. "Mark my words, Majesty. When the fire is over, your James will still be waiting for you."
B'lair looked over at the ranger, who was making a last sweep around the camp, and smiled at the thought of having those protective arms wrapped around him for the rest of his life. The smile faded a bit when he remembered that he didn't expect to survive the fortnight, but the initial thought was a pleasant enough diversion. He smiled gently at his old friend and held him tight. "Be safe, Ephel."
"Be safe, my lord; but not so safe that you won't risk your heart for a chance at happiness."
"You don't ever stop, do you?"
"Not while there’s still breath in my body."
Together they laughed and hugged one last time before B'lair released him, ready to face his destiny.
"We will return, Ephel," James vowed solemnly, clearly unhappy at the thought of leaving the old woodsmith behind in a dead village.
Ephel smiled as he clasped the ranger's forearm. "And I shall be here, James...waiting for you."
"Do you have enough meat?"
"By the Unknown One's name, I have enough meat to last me a year. It'll take me the rest of the week just to turn what I have into jerky."
The ranger nodded. "Very well."
"Swift journey, my friend," the elf said as he released the human's arm.
Rafael stepped forward to say his good-byes.
"Goodbye, young one," the elder elf smiled.
"I'm really not that young," the healer sighed.
Laughing, Ephel grasped the halfling's shoulders. "To me, everyone is a child."
Rafe smiled as he grasped the woodsmith's shoulders in return. "Stay safe, Ephel."
The older elf leaned forward and whispered in the healer's ear. "You are accepted, young one. Do not fret so much over your place in life. These men are your brothers, and family accepts all in love, even self-perceived flaws."
Rafael gasped, but the older man just chuckled as he pulled away and stuck his hand out to the dark warrior. "Joel. I will try that recipe you told me about tonight. My mouth waters just thinking about the stew."
"I'll be anxious to hear whether you liked it or not," Joel said, clasping the hand. "Stay safe, Ephel."
"And you, my friend."
No words were spoken as the woodsmith walked over to B'lair and simply placed his hand over the young prince's heart. The thief returned the gesture, smiled, then turned and walked out of the village. JaJaNa trotted after him, tongue lolling happily, until they reached the forest's edge.
"B'lair." Rafe called to his friend as the wolf began showing distress, taking several steps toward the thief, and then several back toward the village.
"Bring him with us," Joel suggested as he passed the animal, who stood staring at the elf.
B'lair sighed as he walked back and knelt beside the wolf. "I didn't want to say goodbye to you, my old friend." He hugged the wolf tightly, then nudged him back toward the village. The wolf resisted. "You must stay. Someone needs to watch over the old one and I must follow the path before me." The wolf whined piteously, butting the young man with his head. B'lair scratched its ears before pushing it back toward the village. The wolf gave him one final look of longing, then reluctantly headed back.
James helped the elf back to his feet. "You didn't have to do that."
B’lair squeezed the ranger’s hand in thanks. "I cannot deprive Ephel of his only companion. Besides, we have important people to see and most humans are put off by the sight of large predators. Must be why you have such a reputation."
James laughed, playfully shoving the thief after the others, shaking his head in amusement.
Safe journey to those
who keep to the path.
Death to those who stray
"Well, that's a rather ominous sign," Rafael said quietly after he translated the wooden emblem before them.
Joel was slightly distracted as he watched the thief put his hair under a cloth, making sure his ears and eyebrows were covered. "Shall we ignore it?"
James scanned the woods around the path, his nostrils flaring, his head tilted to one side. "No. We will stick to the path."
"Why?" Rafe knew the original plan had been to observe the comings and goings of Spokane before they entered the city.
"Trolls," B'lair said simply.
"He's right. There's evidence of them everywhere. For whatever reason, Leigh is allowing safe passage to travelers, but there will be no exploration of his lands," the ranger said in frustration.
"Can't we simply elude the trolls?" the healer persisted.
"Have you ever seen a troll on the hunt?" B'lair asked quietly, his voice void of inflection. The healer shook his head. "Troll warriors have a heightened sense of smell. Once a troll has your scent there is no evading it. They may be slow, but they are tireless and will simply run you to ground. Trolls on the hunt are more terrifying than a pack of starving wolves. Your only chance of escape is to kill them, which isn't easy due to their thick, almost scale-like, skin. However, if you should succeed in killing one, you have even direr consequences to face as trolls have complex family systems, and they take the death of a family member very seriously. Few have ever survived a troll blood mark on their head."
Rafe could not turn away from the haunted eyes before him.
"So what's the plan?" Joel asked, also clearly unnerved by the quiet explanation.
"We follow the path to Spokane and knock on the front door," James said with a resigned shrug. His eyes never left the thief's face, knowing on a gut level the elf had a blood mark on his head and wondering what level of hell they would be entering when they arrived at the capitol.
B'lair was stunned. Ever since Skylanthalus had forcibly pulled him from the ever shrinking circle of death thirty-five years before, he had always believed the messenger's statement about everyone in the capitol being dead. He had no reason to disbelieve it. Trolls were ruthless, and their thirst for blood during battle was legendary. He knew to the depths of his soul that he and Ephel were the only ones to survive the massacre at Rainier, but he could not deny the evidence before him. Elves of all shapes and sizes moved around them as his small group walked through the streets toward the castle nestled inside the middle of the city.
The citizens of Spokane had a defeated air about them. They appeared to go about their lives in a quiet manner, almost as if afraid to draw attention to themselves. There were no loud noises, no bright colors, no laughter. They had the air of a subjugated people. But they were alive.
No one appeared to be paying much attention to the small group of strangers in their midst, but closer scrutiny revealed that they were very much the center of focus as they made their way through the midday crowd. Several troll soldiers noted their passage, but made no effort to detain them. They simply watched their progress toward the castle proper.
He was torn between hoping someone from his family might still be alive and hoping they weren't--terrified of the tortures they would have faced at Brackett's hands. Taking a deep breath, he reinforced the walls around his heart against the inevitable.
"James Ellison, Emissary from King Simon of Cascadia, along with my companions to see King Leigh," James told the troll who stood guard at the end of the drawbridge.
"Yeth." The creature nodded differentially. "We've been told to ecthpect an emithary. Pleathe go beneath the portcullith to the main door and announthe yourthelf to Thalian. He will make your announthement to the King."
"My thanks." With a nod of his head, he indicated to his team they should follow. The ranger glanced at the thief to see how he was handling the situation and found the young man who had accompanied him to steal King Kincaid's signet ring, a man with his walls completely up; tough; independent; competent. And yet, James suspected he knew what it would cost the man to walk through the gates of the castle and into his own personal nightmare.
They were led quietly through the castle to the throne room. But instead of stopping to announce their presence to those assembled, they were led straight back to a small antechamber to the right of the throne. Thalian asked them to wait, while he disappeared behind another set of doors.
Moments later a human stepped out from behind the door and warmly greeted the ranger. "Welcome. Welcome. I apologize for not greeting you in a more formal setting, but I wanted to meet with you first before we got the old rumor mill, otherwise known as the Court, started. I am Leigh, ruler of the territory known as Olympia."
"James Ellison." The ranger shook the King's outstretched hand. "We bring greetings from King Simon of Cascadia."
"Wonderful. Wonderful." The man flashed his white teeth at them in a smile. "Was your journey a pleasant one? Nothing untoward happened, I hope."
"Our journey was quite pleasant. Thank you."
"And who do you have with you?"
"This is Joel Taggart, one of my oldest and dearest friends, who accompanies me on my missions for King Simon."
"Welcome, Joel," the king said warmly as he shook the dark warrior's hand.
"Our healer, Rafael."
"You have your own personal healer? I'm quite impressed, James. A pleasure to meet you, Rafael. I simply must arrange for you to meet my own healer to see if you two have any information you’d like to exchange."
"Thank you, your Majesty. I’d be honored."
"And who is this man with the startling blue eyes?"
"B'lair. B'lair Sandburg," the elf said quietly. He nodded his head, but made no effort to reach his hand forward, ignoring the startled looks from his companions.
Squinting at the slender figure before him, Leigh asked, "Have we met before, young man?"
"No. I'm afraid I've never been to Spokane before."
"Hmmm." The king seemed lost in thought for a moment, then graced everyone with a smile. "I'm sure we have crossed paths before. No matter. I'll think of it eventually. In the meantime, you’ll no doubt wish to refresh yourselves after such a long and arduous journey. Thalian, please show our guests to their rooms."
"Yeth, your Majethty." The troll nodded obediently as he indicated for the group to follow him.
"We will talk more at dinner," Leigh promised James with a bright smile, although he never quite took his eyes off the thief.
"You arrived juth in time. Dinner thall be therved in half an hour. That thould give you enough time to refreth yourthelveth," Thalian said quietly as he led each member to a separate room. "I will be back thortly to retrieve you."
B'lair entered his suite and dropped his satchel onto the bed. He closed his eyes and tried to find his center, knowing his time alone would be interrupted shortly. Rubbing his hands over his face, he sank down onto the edge of his bed, his mind burning with the face of the man who was responsible for the death of his family. Ephel was right. The human known as Leigh was Brackett. He was about to have dinner with the man who had murdered all those he held dear and destroyed his home.
A knock on his door broke his concentration.
"Come." He wasn’t surprised to see the ranger enter his room.
"Do you want to explain what happened in the antechamber?" James asked quietly as he stood before the thief.
B'lair sighed, not really wanting to explain, but knowing he didn't have much choice. "I don’t normally use my true name while out in the world. And while I gave it to you, I’d rather keep it private for professional reasons."
"I see," James said quietly, although his tone indicated otherwise. "I know of an elven trader by the name of Sandburg. Do you by chance know Naomi?"
B'lair swallowed, wondering briefly if he should admit to knowing his aunt but decided to keep to the truth. "Yes. I know Naomi."
James stood in front of the elf for several minutes, wanting the young man to make eye contact with him, but the thief refused. Finally, in frustration, he sighed. "B'lair--"
"James, would it be a terrible breach of protocol if I didn’t attend tonight's supper? I haven’t felt well since we entered the city, and would like to take the opportunity to rest. Unless, you feel you need my presence tonight?" the elf asked as he finally looked up at the ranger.
The ranger noted the younger man's pale features and tenderly cupped one cheek with his palm. "No. You should rest. Tonight will simply be chit-chat, an exchange of informal information. Tomorrow, we’ll hammer out the details of the trade agreement. Get some sleep. I would like you by my side tomorrow."
"Thank you for understanding," the elf said quietly.
James nodded and lowered his head. B'lair leaned his head back on his shoulders and received the kiss, tenderly returning it as his fingers stroked through the ranger's hair. James gently pushed the elf onto his back, never withdrawing his lips from the elf's.
James brushed the back of his hand over the elf’s forehead. "I will stop by to check on you before I retire." Satisfied, the ranger turned and left the room
When the door was knocked upon again, it was not the ranger who came in, but the healer.
"How are you feeling, B'lair?"
The elf turned from his seat by the window. "I'm feeling much better. Thank you."
Rafael closed the distance between them and felt his forehead. "Have you eaten anything?"
"Yes. One of the trolls dropped off a dinner plate a few hours ago."
Rafe nodded. "King Leigh is a very fine host and actually quite charming. I had no idea what to expect of a man who has troll warriors as servants. It's a little disconcerting, I can tell you. But he seems to be a good man, intent on opening his borders to trade with the other kingdoms. I'm beginning to think this might be a good thing for both Cascadia and Olympia."
B'lair closed his eyes in frustration. Ephel had been right. Brackett was a master of weaving lies, already catching the healer in his net. B'lair could only conclude that James had also been similarly swayed.
"I think I'm going to go back to bed," B'lair said quietly.
"Of course." Rafe inclined his head. "Get some rest. Tomorrow's going to be a big day." And with that, the healer turned to leave. "Leigh is going to introduce me to Charles, his personal physician, tomorrow, so I guess I better get some rest myself so I don't come across as a complete country bumpkin."
"You could never come across as a bumpkin, Rafael."
The healer graced him with a smile before slipping out of the room.
James knocked on the door and slipped in an hour later. The elf appeared to be asleep and so he gently kissed the young man's forehead before he left.
As soon as the door shut, B'lair opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. He would have to act tonight. If Brackett were killed during negotiations, things could go very badly for James, Simon and Cascadia. No, he would do it beforehand, before the others got further enmeshed in Brackett's web of lies.
James awoke the moment the door handle moved. He palmed the sword hilt leaning against the bed, but relaxed as soon as B'lair's lithe figure slipped silently into the room. He watched the thief lock the door behind him and move to the center of the room, stopping within a shaft of moonlight. The ranger's breath caught at the vision standing before him, seemingly unmarred by any physical imperfections.
James knew the elf could not see him, but it didn’t keep B'lair from speaking to him as if he knew the ranger was awake.
"I have known love."
Such a simple, and yet complex, statement; saying so much and yet nothing at all. "From Skylanthalus," James said knowingly, unable to prevent a slight thread of jealousy from coloring his voice.
"He was the center of my universe." B'lair slowly reached up and removed the cloth which hid his hair and ears.
"I gathered as much."
"I learned to walk because I could not bear the thought of him leaving me behind." The elf unfurled his braid and ran his fingers through his curls, separating them until they cascaded around his head and shoulders.
"I learned to talk because there was so much he seemed to want to tell me." The elf removed his sword belt and lowered it to the floor.
"I learned to read because he wanted to show me the world." He slowly untied the bindings of his shirt, letting the garment slip from his shoulders onto the floor.
"I learned to love because he showed me what love was." The thief explained as he stepped from his trousers, allowing the moonlight to caress his skin.
"My brother was everything to me."
"Your brother?" James asked in astonished relief.
"His last words, even though an arrow had pierced his chest, draining the life from him, were to tell me that he loved me."
"Beloved ..." James whispered the word, feeling the pain emanating from the young man.
"I closed my heart off at that moment, never allowing anyone to be close to me again for I knew I would never be able to survive such devastation a second time." B'lair moved to the side of the bed. "For thirty-five years, I have devoted every waking moment to finding the man--the human--responsible for his death. I’ve never had much use for humans. They are a race motivated by greed, caring little for those around them."
James drew in a ragged breath as the young man placed one knee on the bed. "What changed your mind?"
"I have not changed my mind about the race. I have, however, changed my mind about one or two individuals, one specifically."
James wet his suddenly dry lips. "Why?"
"Skylanthalus used to stand behind me. He would watch me run ahead and make my mistakes. While he loved me and wanted to protect me, he understood that I must learn some lessons on my own; but he was never so far away that he couldn't reach out and touch me." B'lair crawled slowly over the recumbent ranger, straddling his hips. He gently touched the ranger's face with his fingertips. "He always seemed to make me feel as if I were wrapped in a blanket of warmth and security. His death left me cold. I've been cold for so long...until..."
The elf leaned down and brushed his lips over the ranger's. "Until I met you. No matter how hard I pushed, you remained; always watching, ready to reach out and give me comfort and security if I needed it." His fingers brushed lightly over James' chest, circling each nipple once and then butterfly danced down the older man's abdomen. "Why?" he asked with a whisper.
"Because I love you." The words were barely breathed.
"Because my whole life I’ve felt as if I were missing half of my soul. When I met you, broken, battered and yet strong of spirit, I felt complete, as if the universe had suddenly shown me the piece I’d been missing for so long." James' body arched everywhere the elf touched him.
"The universe has an ironic sense of timing." B'lair covered the ranger's body with his own, kissing the larger man's neck and gently lathing his Adam's apple with his tongue.
James brought his hands up and fisted them in the elf’s hair. "What do you mean?"
B'lair moaned as James' tongue plunged gently but deeply into his mouth. The ranger pulled the elf's head back and nipped his neck, shuddering as the younger man's fingers gripped his chest.
The elf whimpered. "Love me."
"I already do." The ranger rolled the younger man onto his back, but was startled when the elf continued the roll and ended back on top.
Panting, the thief thrust his hips forward, gasping as their cocks aligned. "Let me..." he ground out between gritted teeth as he thrust again, the friction building with each movement."Let me...love...you." The words were spoken in a soft sob of need.
"Yes." James hissed in pleasure, arching upward. "Take what you need, beloved. Take...everything you...need."
B'lair's hands flared out, his fingers entwining with the ranger's. James moved his hands away from his body, lowering the elf's twisting frame until he could suckle the closest nipple. B'lair cried out and his rhythm became faster. James worried the nub with his tongue until it was hard, until the thief's head whipped back and forth, his hair stinging the ranger's face. James bit his way over to the other nipple, refusing to let go of the elf's hands; his hips rising to meet each plunge with equal force. His tongue circled teasingly around the nub until B'lair's moans became silent screams as he came. Joyously, James joined him in release, his arms reaching up and pulling the younger man down in a hard embrace, holding the trembling body.
The elf sobbed against his chest, and James rolled until he had cocooned the younger man beneath him.
"Beloved?" he murmured as he stroked the curly mane beneath him, trying to calm the younger man.
"It's not fair." The thief pounded one fist weakly against the ranger's chest. "It's just not fair."
James leaned down and tenderly licked the salty tears from his lover's face. "Shhhh, dear heart. It's okay. Everything's going to be okay."
"I can't lose you...now that I've found you." B'lair’s hands clenched over the ranger's back, lightly scratching the older man's skin.
"You won't lose me, B'lair. I swear I won't leave you. I swear on the Unknown One's holy name," James vowed. He gently brushed his lips over the younger man's lush mouth until the elf opened to let him in. "You're mine." He teased the roof of the thief's mouth with his tongue. "To have." He tasted the younger man's mouth. "To hold." He licked up the elf's jaw line. "To protect." He nibbled on the tip of the closest ear. "Now and until I take my last breath."
B'lair blinked up at him in surprise and then tenderly cupped the ranger's face in his palms. "And you shall be mine," he vowed back. "To have," he whispered before kissing the older man's right eyebrow. "To hold." He shuddered as he brushed his lips over the ranger's forehead to his other eyebrow. "To protect." He kissed each eyelid. "Now and until I take my last breath." And with the vow complete, he gently kissed the mouth above him as if it were his only lifeline. Wrapping his legs around the ranger, he panted, "Take me. Take everything you need."
James groaned as he moved slowly down the elf's body, preparing him, and filling him so deeply that B'lair could never believe himself to be alone again.
B'lair bent over to pick his shirt off the floor, his eyes never leaving the sleeping form of the ranger. He shrugged into the garment, momentarily enjoying the soreness of the places where he’d been marked by his lover.
The elf's gaze slid over the head cloth lying on the floor. He would have no more need of it. There would be no more hiding who he was.
He moved quietly to the door, making no more noise than a butterfly over a flower in spring. The last amulet had been placed around his lover's neck as he slept, ensuring his safety during the upcoming battle.
"I will love you until I take my last breath." He moved his lips silently, not wanting to chance waking the ranger. Burning the image of the sleeping man into his memory, he slipped out of the room as silently as he had slipped in hours earlier--ready, at last, to face his destiny.
James woke as the door clicked shut. He blinked his way back through the layers of sleep, smiling at the memory of holding his sated lover in his arms. He sighed happily as he moved to once again gather the young man to him, but woke abruptly when he found the bed empty and cool.
He quickly scanned the room, but found no sign of the elf except for the swatch of cloth lying in the middle of the floor.
A chill ran through him as memories rolled over him.
But I have spirits to calm. If the situation comes down to following the group or fulfilling my destiny, I will choose the latter. Never doubt it.
The universe has an ironic sense of timing.
I can't lose you ... now that I found you.
And suddenly he knew. B'lair had left to face his destiny--alone.
Swearing, James jumped from the bed, throwing his sword onto the mattress as he gathered his clothes. Whatever the elf's future held, he would not face it alone--not after James had finally found the other half of his soul. He would protect what was his. Damn the costs or the consequences.
B'lair slipped silently down the vaulted hallways which led to Brackett's private chamber, ducking behind suits of armor and hanging tapestries whenever anyone ventured too close. The thief within him was surprised not to find trolls patrolling the hallways. But after seeing the denizens of the village surrounding the castle, he knew anyone who might’ve had the courage to slip in and slit their conqueror's throat had long since died trying.
Adjusting the small crossbow attached to his wrist, he slipped into the unlit and empty throne room, intent on reaching the antechamber on the far side, then reconnoitering the area before he entered the king's personal rooms.
"So...the last heir returns to claim his birthright." A clear baritone voice echoed around the elf, stopping him as he reached the center of the room.
"No," B'lair answered simply, understanding that the hunter had just become the prey.
"No?" The voice sounded amused.
"The last heir returns to kill the man responsible for the death of his family and his people."
"So you have no interest in ruling?" The voice seemed to be circling him, but the elf knew it was just the acoustics of the room and continued to face forward, refusing to be distracted.
"I never wanted to rule. As the youngest son of the youngest son, I never would have been in a position to rule. I wanted nothing more than to find a place in my village and to study."
"Come now, are you telling me that the thought of ruling has never crossed your mind?"
"It has never crossed my mind."
"Well, let's have a better look at such a noble man."
B'lair raised his arm to shield his eyes as the torches in the room flashed magically to life.
"Gods, you are the spitting image of your father," Brackett said conversationally as he leaned forward on his throne. "Gelion was probably the most beautiful man I’d ever seen; although I must say, he would look merely pretty standing beside you. You know, it honestly pained me to end his life, but The People would never have surrendered if they believed an heir still survived. Ahh, I see the anger on your face, young one, but before you consider raising that crossbow of yours, look around you."
Damning himself as six types of fool, B'lair barely moved his head, but took in the trolls interspersed along the walls, crossbows in hand, all pointing toward him.
Brackett chuckled as he stood and circled behind his throne, resting his chin on the back of the ornate chair. "You have nothing to say?"
B'lair remained silent, his eyes never leaving the human responsible for the death of everyone he held dear.
"No, I suppose not. Elves are a rather stoic lot. It took my best troll two hours to break your grandfather. No matter what we did to the man, he simply would not make a sound. It wasn't until I gave your grandmother and your sisters to my best warriors that he finally spoke. And then," Brackett chuckled, "then I couldn't get him to shut up. Well, not until I had his throat slit, that is."
B'lair trembled in rage, his whole body shaking with the effort to control his raw emotions, knowing the human was trying to taunt him into a mistake.
The door creaked open behind the elf, but he refused to turn, refused to take his eyes off his intended target.
"What’s going on here, Leigh?" James' voice echoed around the throne room; but B'lair still refused to turn, even to face his lover.
"Why, I should be quite vexed with you, James," Leigh Brackett said as he straightened behind the throne. "Bringing a killer into my midst is not King Simon's standard procedure for opening trade negotiations, is it?"
B'lair could hear Rafael's gargle of protest and Taggart softly swearing under his breath, and closed his eyes briefly, praying the amulets hanging from their necks would be enough to protect them from whatever magic Brackett was about to unleash upon them.
"I can assure you we’ve brought no killers into your midst," James said quietly, obviously struggling to find the right words to defuse the potentially volatile situation in which his team now found themselves.
Leigh Brackett grinned maliciously. "Then how do you explain this armed man creeping into my throne room? Is this how Simon gives his greetings?"
"There has obviously been a misunderstanding. May I have a moment with my man to ascertain what his intentions are?" the ranger asked as diplomatically as he could.
The human made a magnanimous sweep of his arms as he circled around his throne and sat down. "By all means. This should be highly entertaining."
"B'lair." James called quietly to the frozen man, who was the center of everyone's attention, but the elf did not move. "B'lair, come here. Please."
Never taking his eyes off the grinning human face in front of him, the thief whispered, "Go home, James."
"B'lair." The ranger took a step forward, but several trolls around him also took a step forward to discourage any more movement on his part.
"He killed them, James. He killed my father. My mother died in his arms. He is responsible for the death of my village, of Rainier. I shall not leave here until he is dead by my hand."
"Hmmmm. We do seem to have a bit of a quandary here, don't we?" Brackett crossed his legs as he stared at his opponent. "I would certainly say that sounds as if he intends to do me harm. The question now becomes, did he come here with Simon's knowledge?"
"Simon knows nothing of my plans," B'lair shouted, drawing Brackett's gaze back to him. "These men were nothing more than a means to get into this castle." B'lair's heart shattered as he told the lie, knowing he was destroying his friends' trust in him, but needing to protect them from the human's wrath.
Brackett examined his fingernails as if bored. "Is that true?"
"Yes." The answer seemed torn from James' throat. "Simon knows nothing of this."
"Well, that's a relief." Brackett slapped his hands against his thighs. "I'd hate to have to declare war on the very nation with whom I was trying to open trade relations. That just seems so...gauche. I guess the question now becomes, what are we to do with this young man? It’s obvious he believes what he's saying, even if he’s mistaken."
B'lair sneered. "Are you saying you didn't have everyone in Rainier massacred?"
"Well, not everyone.” Brackett clapped his hands loudly together. “For instance, I didn't kill this old man."
A door to the left of the throne opened as a troll shoved an elderly man in tattered clothing into the room. The man stumbled then fell to the floor. "Majesty," he whispered as he raised his upper body off the floor and looked at B'lair.
"Ephel," the younger elf whispered in horror. "You told me you couldn't leave the village."
"I’m sorry, child. I didn't think I could. But I’ve been cursed with the mark of Witness and as Malinalda decreed, I must see this saga through to the end. When you left, the spell must have broken because the trolls came into the village and dragged me here."
B'lair's voice choked with grief and rage, "If you harm him--"
"I have no intention of harming the old man," Brackett said, cutting off the elf's protest. "I’m merely pointing out the errors of your beliefs. Did I conquer Rainier? Yes. The history of the world is one where the strong rule the weak. Haidair had grown weak, complacent, and it was time for a new ruler. I was a man with a vision and I sought to make it real."
"You murdered everyone who stood in your way," B'lair shouted angrily.
"No. I eliminated those who would not bow to change."
The elf's voice was raw with emotion. "Are you saying you gave those in Rainier a chance to change?"
"Someone had to be made an example. Unfortunately, for you, Rainier was chosen. I couldn't very well kill everyone in Spokane or one of the larger villages. Rainier was small, isolated, but tied effectively to the capitol. It was a perfect choice."
"You killed--you murdered my family as an example?" B'lair lowered his chin to his heaving chest, trying desperately to find his control.
"Well, not all of them," Brackett said casually.
The elf's head shot up. "What do you mean, not all of them?"
"You don't think the people of Spokane would let me rule if I killed every descendant to the throne, do you? It's tedious, but I have someone from the royal family who publicly backs my plans for growth and industry."
B'lair closed his eyes, determined not to ask, knowing he’d only be playing into Brackett's hands, knowing James could understand this human's philosophy of war; but a part of him had to know who would sell out their people for their own life. "Who?"
"I believe you know him. While he wasn't a member of the direct blood line, your parents took him in and made him one of their own." Brackett smiled, like a cat playing with a frightened mouse.
"No," B'lair whispered.
A door to the right of the throne opened and a troll gently guided a fragile looking elf into the room.
B'lair's wail echoed around the room, growing in pitch and agony, as his gaze fell upon his brother walking toward the human on the dais.
"I believe you know Skylanthalus Greyson." Brackett smiled triumphantly as he watched his opponent fall to his knees, holding his chest as if it would explode.
"No. No. No. No. No. No." The thief whimpered hoarsely, trying to look away, but was unable to draw his gaze away from his brother. "You died. I saw you die. I felt you die," he moaned, rocking back and forth.
James started forward, not caring what his fate would be, but stopped when Rafe grabbed his arm and hissed into his ear. "No, James."
"I can't--" The ranger started forward, but stopped again as the halfling's fingers dug into his muscles.
"Listen to the boy, James. Does he have a heartbeat?"
The ranger looked at the healer as if he’d lost his mind, but turned his attention back to the young blond man standing beside the throne and found he didn't have one.
"No. But how..."
"A necromancer can animate the dead using another spirit or demon to inhabit the body," Rafe explained quickly, knowing they’d have to act soon. "While the soul is gone, the body may still retain some memories of its life, memories a demon could use to confound."
Joel's hand moved slowly to his sword hilt. "We have to get him out of here."
"It may already be too late," Rafael whispered. "B'lair may be broken beyond repair."
"No," the ranger said, his voice rough, as he shook his head in denial. "I can't...I won't believe that."
Rafe whispered urgently, "Only you can reach him now, James. Only you have a hold strong enough on his heart to combat Brackett and that--that --thing and bring him back from the brink."
The ranger nodded, his entire attention focused on the young man in the middle of the room. "Be prepared."
"Say the word, boss," Joel said quietly as he stepped closer to the healer. "I hope you've been studying up on your spells, kid."
Rafael gulped. "I've always wanted to go out in a blaze of glory."
"Just make sure the blaze is hot enough to take us all to hell," James said quietly as he stepped toward the elf.
James managed to take two steps toward his lover before he was stopped. "B'lair," he called to the young man on the floor. "B'lair, I need you to come to me."
It wasn't apparent if the figure gasping for breath heard him or not.
Brackett nudged the young elf beside him.
"Beloved," the young elf said in a sad, but understanding voice. "I know this must be a shock. Come to me. Let me explain what happened."
B'lair stopped his rocking and raised his tear stained face toward his brother.
"B'lair. Dear heart. It's a trick. Skylanthalus died thirty-five years ago. You saw the arrow protruding from his chest. His last words..."
"Were to tell you that I loved you. Do you remember? I wanted you safe. I told you to run. What did you tell me?"
The thief sniffed. "Never."
"Braver words I’ve never heard." Skylanthalus sat on the edge of the dais.
"H-h-how?" B'lair asked.
"How did I survive?" the younger elf asked gently.
"I don't remember. Honestly."
"He doesn't remember because Skylanthalus died in front of you that day. This man, this monster, reanimated his body, but Sky is gone, beloved. He left his body quickly so you would run, so you would have a chance at survival," James countered in a strong voice. "Skylanthalus' whole life was dedicated to protecting you. Why wouldn't he have sought you out after he recovered?
The child-like elf by the throne turned to look at the human king, who nodded almost imperceptibly.
"I did try to find you, B'lair. You must believe me. I looked everywhere for you."
For the first time, the elf turned his head and looked over his shoulder to glance at the ranger, his eyes clouded with grief. James squatted and held out his arms. "Come to me, beloved."
"He's human, runt. His heart may be in the right place, but you were meant to be with me. Remember, you were going to be the brains and I was going to be the brawn," Skylanthalus countered.
"Sky knew where you were supposed to go, didn't he, beloved?" James asked, suddenly understanding the confused look on the thief's face.
"Yes," came the barely audible reply.
"Look at him, B'lair. Look at Sky." B'lair slowly turned his head to look at his brother. James continued, going for the heart of the matter. "He hasn't aged a day since he died, has he? I know elves age slower than humans, but surely he would have aged as much as you have, wouldn't he?"
"Beloved," Skylanthalus whispered softly, holding his hands out toward the thief.
"Even if this really was Skylanthalus, we made vows last night, B'lair," James reminded the elf quietly.
"Vows he wouldn’t have made if he knew I was alive," the young elf shouted.
"Is that true, B'lair?" the ranger asked quietly. "While Sky raised you, taught you and protected you, wasn't he willing to let you grow, to find your own love?"
"Arienna," B'lair whispered, looking back at the younger elf, who only looked confused. "You told me Arienna had worked for over a month on her dress for my Ascension. You helped me find her in the crowd of dancers."
"That was a long time ago, dear heart," the blond elf countered.
B'lair twisted back to face the ranger.
James poured his heart and soul into the next words. "I love you, B'lair Woodfoxen. Body, mind and spirit."
"But I left you."
"You always told me you would if our paths ever diverged. But remember, I also promised that you’d never be alone again."
"Never be alone again," the dark haired elf repeated. Looking at the ranger, his eyes searching for the truth, B’lair asked, "You can still love me?"
"Now and until I take my last breath."
"Now and until I take my last breath," the last heir repeated.
"Come to me, beloved. Make me whole again."
"Whole again," B'lair whispered as he turned his body, and began to push himself off the floor.
"Well." Brackett slapped his hands against his thighs as he said in an almost conversational tone, "That does it then. Kill them all."
"Now, Rafael," James shouted as he threw his body over his lover moments before the building shook, knocking the trolls to the floor.
"Stay put." The ranger put his hand in the middle of the elf's back, then jumped to his feet and pulled his broadsword from the sheath on his back as he raced toward the dais. Trolls scrambled to protect their leader and the clash of swords rang through the air.
Joel bellowed a war cry and ran forward, replacing the ranger, straddling B'lair's prone body. Rafael moved forward at the same time and placed his back against Joel's. He turned to the closest troll, raised his hands, closed his eyes and whispered, "Sleep."
"I'm very disappointed in you, James Ellison." Brackett shook his head, watching the ranger slip beneath a sword swing and plunge his own weapon into the closest troll's stomach. "I really had hoped we could open up trade relations, but I see that’s not meant to be. Maybe Kincaid would be interested."
James' only reply was a snarl as he carved his way closer to Brackett, intent on his target. Rafe and Joel held their own against the onslaught, trolls falling at their feet, covering the floor.
"Well, enough is enough. Young Sky, behind the throne please. Thank you." Rolling back his sleeves, Brackett closed his eyes, raised a clench fist, and began chanting; his voice growing in pitch and volume as he did so.
James killed another troll then turned to face the human ruler at the same time Brackett opened his eyes and unclenched his fist. Everyone in the room, trolls and humans alike, were flung like rag dolls to the back of the room. The sound of bones breaking and last breaths filled the air, then silence.
"Never send a troll to do a man's work." Brackett slapped his hands together. He turned when he heard a low moan near the dais. "Are you still alive, old friend?" he asked of Ephel, who was pushing himself up into a sitting position. "Just what in the world is it going to take to kill you?"
Ephel began to chuckle. "You can't kill me, Brackett, for I have been marked as Witness. I am beyond your powers; for my task is to see the story completed."
"Ahh, and therein lies your mistake, old one. You, I, and the boy are the only things living in this room. Your precious last heir is dead. There is no tale to tell; therefore, you are expendable."
"And that is where you are mistaken, human." Ephel gestured toward the center of the room.
B'lair coughed as he pushed himself to his feet, using the body of the troll that had fallen in front of him for support. He stood, pale and trembling, as he gazed at the bodies around him. The silence of the room echoed the void of his heart. His gaze snapped to the human on the dais, then over to his old friend. "Bear witness, old friend, for your task is not yet finished."
B'lair advanced on the throne, his eyes clear and bright.
"Ahh, the heir who would not die." Brackett laughed nervously as he pulled a satin rope beside the throne. The doors around the throne room immediately opened and trolls poured into the room, swords drawn. "But, alas, I believe your time has come to an end."
B'lair graced Brackett with a beatific smile. "Bring them on. Bring them all on." He stepped closer to the human interloper. "A blood oath was decreed upon all those who had caused Rainier's destruction."
"Ahh, but as you said, you have no wish to rule." Brackett immediately pointed out the flaw in the young man's logic.
"I changed my mind." B'lair smiled ferally as he stepped onto the dais. "Malinalda! Hathol! Arienna! Mother! I have come seeking that which was taken from us. I need your strength. The time for vengeance is at hand!" He took a step forward and thrust his knife deep into Brackett's chest.
"Kill him!" the human king gargled. The trolls started forward as one, but the room exploded as torrents of air surrounded each troll, voices whispering and shadows reaching out to taunt the minds which had destroyed them. Weapons clattered to the floor as the huge creatures grabbed their ears, blood running from every open orifice.
B'lair watched the human's eyes dull as he let the body fall slack and roll down the steps of the dais. He looked over to Ephel, whose face shining in hope quickly turned to horror.
B'lair turned in time to watch Skylanthalus plunge a knife into his chest.
"No." He shoved his brother’s body off the dais and collapsed against the throne.
Ephel scrambled forward, kneeling beside the fallen heir as his hands tried to cover the wound.
"Majesty...no, no, don't go..."
B'lair ignored the quiet plea, ignored the pain as he looked over into the silent room. With fading eyesight, he sought out the one body he wanted to see, hoping for a last glimpse. He had failed. James was dead. Rafael and Joel were dead. B'lair closed his eyes, and welcomed his pain before sinking down into oblivion.
"James. You must wake up. James."
The ranger moaned trying to focus on the voice which filtered down through the levels of darkness.
"There's not much time, James. You must save him before it is too late."
James blinked awake, focusing on the grief-stricken face of Rainier's woodcutter. "Wha..."
The ranger sat up, moaning as he did so, taking in his surroundings. The bodies of trolls lay strewn about the throne room as if a child had had a tantrum and thrown all of her dolls on the floor.
James shook his head to clear it and slowly stood with the old elf's assistance. "We need Rafael."
"Go to B'lair. I will find the young one."
The ranger focused on the heartbeat of his lover, and turned toward the dais when he found the erratic source. Pushing himself forward, he stumbled to the elf's prone body.
"Beloved," he whispered, collapsing next to B'lair. He cradled the elf's head in the crook of his arm as he pressed his other hand against the open wound on his lover's chest, trying to staunch the bleeding.
The thief's eyes fluttered opened. "James, you're alive," he whispered in joy.
"I told you I was a hard man to kill."
The elf smiled at him even as his eyes closed.
"Beloved." James pressed his body closer, trying to warm his lover's cooling flesh.
"Not fair...to find...only to lose you," was the barely audible reply.
James swallowed his grief and tried to speak through a throat choked with fear. "You're not...you are not going to lose me. I will be by your side through all things."
The elf's smile slid to one side of his face. "Even death?"
"You will not leave me, B'lair Woodfoxen. Do you hear me? You will not leave me," James cried out as he pulled the elf's body tight against his chest.
"I'll....t-t-try." But even as he spoke the words his head rolled back, leaving his eyes dull and lifeless.
"Noooo!. This can't be happening," James roared to the ceiling, tears running freely down his face as he clenched the beloved body closer to him. "This can't be happening."
"James. James," Rafael shouted as he fell to his knees beside the pair. "Go after him. James, go after him. Anchor on me, but go after him."
The ranger clenched the healer's arm as he closed his eyes and concentrated on the fading heartbeat of his lover. He could hear Joel and Ephel falling beside them, adding their strength to the healer's to keep him grounded. Then taking a deep breath, he plunged into the darkness after the fading light.
His body slowly morphed into a large black cat and he ran through the forest screaming for his mate to stop. He raced to the edge of a chasm, watching as a wolf slowly trotted into the underbrush on the other side. The cat screamed its anger at being left behind, demanding the wolf's return.
Miraculously, the wolf stopped and turned its blue gaze upon the cat. Hesitantly, it returned to the edge of the chasm, whining as it looked over the edge. The cat mewled, raising its paw toward its mate, encouraging it to return. Behind it, a small raccoon, a bear and an owl also called for its return.
The wolf looked back and forth between the underbrush and the cat on the other side, indecision clearly written in its stance. The cat purred loudly, trying to convey thoughts of comfort and warmth.
The wolf slowly moved toward the underbrush and the cat screamed its defiance and prepared to leap the chasm, to the dismay of those behind it, but stopped as it noticed the wolf turning, gauging the distance between them. The cat backed up several steps, and as if by some unspoken cue both animals raced toward the edge of the chasm and jumped, merging into one as they met in the center.
B'lair's body arched off the ranger's lap, gasping, hands flailing. James' eyes flew open at the gasp, his hands catching those of his lover's, bringing them to his chest.
"Even in death," James vowed. Looking into the elf's eyes, he leaned back slightly, letting the healer move forward to do his job, but never releasing his grip.
The thief's smile, though weak, was brilliant with love for the ranger as he was gently lowered back to the floor.
"I still don't understand what they are." Joel looked at the stringed jewels lying on the small table beside the bed James had slept in only hours before.
Rafael touched the sleeping thief’s forehead with the back of his hand. "They're amulets, wards of protection."
"And B'lair put them on us?"
"Why?" Joel asked, still confused.
"To protect you," Ephel said quietly from the other side of the bed. "He told me they were his legacy from Malinalda. He believed they’d keep you safe during a magical attack."
"Well, he believed correctly," the healer said quietly. "We would’ve ended up smashed like those trolls if he hadn't."
"I still can't believe Brackett killed his own followers."
"He was quite mad," Ephel said in reflection.
"But when did Woodfoxen have time to put them on us and why didn't we see them?" Joel demanded irritably.
"You didn't see them because they were magic," Ephel said with a smile that said the warrior should have been able to figure that part out by himself.
"And we didn't see him put them on us because he's good," James said from the doorway.
"So are all the trolls, indeed, dead?" Ephel asked quietly.
"There isn't a live troll anywhere in the vicinity of Spokane," the ranger said as he closed the distance. Rafael got up from the bed, letting James have his position. "From the reports I've received, the same thing happened to the trolls in the city as happened to the ones in the throne room. They appeared to be surrounded by talking wind, went insane, then dropped dead, bleeding from their ears, noses and mouths."
"Not a pleasant way to go," Rafe said quietly.
"They sowed what they reaped," Ephel said philosophically.
"Any sign of Skylanthalus' body?" Joel asked in a quiet voice.
"No. All traces of the boy are gone," the ranger replied, turning back to the sleeping elf. "Has he shown any sign of waking?"
"No, but do not be concerned, James. He is simply healing. When he is ready, he will awaken."
"In the meantime, I suggest we all get our rest," the ranger said, giving Rafe a significant look.
"But I want to be here when he awakes to make sure everything is all right," the healer protested. "I owe him so much."
"I will send for you if he needs assistance. For now, both you and Joel need your rest. I suspect that the next couple of days are going to be hectic. Ephel, there are people who are going to want answers and I suspect you’re the only one who knows most of the story."
"Aye, I'll do what I can until he awakes." The old woodcutter stood and walked around the bed. Gently taking the warrior's and healer's arms in each of his own, he steered them out of the room. "I think they need some time alone," he whispered conspiratorially.
James stood and walked to the other side of the bed, laying his sword within reach. He stripped and climbed into the bed and spooned himself around the sleeping elf. "Take all the time you need, beloved. I’ll keep the watch until you are ready to return to me."
B'lair awoke, feeling safe and warm. He tried to stretch but found himself in a secure hold. He blinked as he looked down at the arm holding him. "James," he whispered.
The ranger was instantly awake and leaning over his shoulder. "How are you feeling?"
"Alive," was the quiet response. He rolled onto his back and stared up into the face of the man he loved. "You...you came after me."
"I will always come for you, beloved. Always."
"It wasn't Skylanthalus, dear heart. He died thirty-five years ago. Brackett kept his body animated to ensure his control over the People."
"He...he stabbed me."
"No, B'lair. The thing that lived within his body stabbed you. Sky would have cut off his arm rather than hurt you. I know the image will be hard to block, but it wasn't Sky," James crooned softly as he slowly gathered the elf into his arms. "It wasn't your brother."
The elf laid his head upon James' chest, over his lover's heart, reveling in the ranger's warmth. He could definitely get use to a future of waking in this man's arms. B'lair reached up to cup his lover's cheek with his palm. "I can't believe you came after me."
"How could I not? I love you. After looking for you my whole life, you didn't think I'd let a little thing like death come between us, did you?" James asked softly, smiling tenderly down at the young man.
"I love you," the elf said quietly, placing his hand over the ranger's heart. "Now and until I take my last breath."
"Now and until I take my last breath," the ranger whispered, sealing the vow with a kiss.
"I don't think I can do this." B'lair’s chest heaved in anxiety as he paced back and forth in the small antechamber. "What am I going to say to them?"
James stood in the elf's path, then wrapped his arms around the younger man, tucking B’lair’s head under his chin. "You'll do fine, dear heart. They just want to meet you."
"I'm not a king."
"Yes, you are, beloved."
"I'm a thief."
"You're a king with procuring skills." James grinned as the elf snorted in amusement against his chest.
"I wonder what they'll think about that." B'lair sighed, enjoying the sense of protection he felt within his lover's arms. "I can't believe they want me to be king."
James clasped him tighter. "You're the last of the royal family, beloved. While your past may be...colorful, you are the only one with any legitimacy. If not you, then who?"
B'lair looked up. "Duty. Honor. Responsibility. They expect that from a thief?"
"What say we find out?" James chuckled, but stopped as firm hands clutched in his jerkin. Gently taking the elf's chin, he raised the beloved face until they were looking at each other. "You can do this." He leaned down and gently brushed his lips over the elf's.
B'lair returned the soft kiss. Releasing his hold on the ranger, he closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, trying to calm his ragged nerves. "All right, let's do this."
The ranger nodded and reached for the door knob, but stopped when the elf asked anxiously, "You will come with me?"
James cupped the younger man's cheek gently in the palm of his hand and nodded, then opened the door to B'lair's future.
"King B'lair has a nice ring to it," Rafe teased from the edge of James' bed as he watched his friend pace back and forth.
The elf rolled his eyes, but did not stop his pacing.
"This whole mission has been like a children's fantasy, although I don't think I ever realized before just how violent children's fantasies were." The halfling watched the elf quietly for several minutes, trying to compare the calm young man who had competently answered all questions put to him by the town elders earlier in the day to this anxiety ridden man pacing a groove into the flagstones. Rafe frowned, puzzled. "What exactly did you think would happen once you’d calmed your spirits, B'lair?"
The elf stopped his pacing and stared out the window beside James' bed for several minutes. "I...I never expected to...survive."
"In all the times you thought about your confrontation with Leigh Brackett, you never thought about what might happen if you won?"
"I...thought...maybe...I'd join Sky."
Rafael blinked several times, shocked by the admission and unsure of what to say next. "And now?"
"I don't know."
"No, of course not." The elf turned and surveyed the city through the large window. "Rafael?" B'lair asked barely above a whisper, not turning from his view.
"Do you think I'll make a good king?"
The healer closed the distance between them, wrapping his arms around the thief's waist from the back and resting his chin on his shoulder. "I think you're going to make an excellent king because you care. You weren't raised above the people, you know what life is like on the streets. You'll listen to the people and their concerns and try to do the right thing."
"How can you sound so confident?"
"Because I know you."
"Hush now," the healer said quietly. "I know the man who helped save a complete stranger, injuring himself in process. I know the man, who although he had a terrible secret, saved the men who were following him. I know the man who walked into the bowels of hell and not only saved his friends physically, but emotionally as well."
"I did have help on that last one." The elf chuckled self-depreciatingly.
"Don't." Rafael physically turned the elf to face him. "You keep trying to hide behind this facade that says you don't care but you care more than anyone I've ever met before, B'lair Woodfoxen. Skylanthalus raised you to care. It's who you are. And I, for one, think you're going to make an excellent king."
The elf blinked at him with owlish eyes.
"I just wish I was going to be here to observe you while you get on your feet."
B'lair shook his head as if trying to clear his vision. "Where are you going?"
"We have to go back and report to Simon. I'm sure he'll still want trade negotiations to take place, but we really need to apprise him of what has happened here."
The elf dropped hard onto the window ledge, his legs no longer able to support his weight. "When do you go back?"
"Probably not until after your coronation, so about two days from now." The healer looked at him in concern. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, of course. I'm just...I'm very tired, Rafe. I don't want to run you off, but--"
"No. No. Please get some sleep. You're still recovering from your wound. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have worn you out," the halfling said quickly, but not before he pressed the back of his hand against the elf's forehead.
B'lair allowed himself to be fussed over and guided to the bed on the healer's way out of the room.
"I'll come back in an hour or so to check how you're doing. All right?"
The elf nodded and watched the healer leave.
Two days and James never said a word. Of course, he was leaving. He served Simon. And to the ranger, honor and duty were everything. B'lair closed his eyes against the tears.
I will be by your side through all things.
Through vengeance. Through death. But apparently not through life.
"I don't want my heart back, Sky," he whispered brokenheartedly as he curled into a small ball on the bed. "It hurts too much."
James Ellison sniffed the mid-morning air, and smiled as he walked through the woods which surrounding Spokane. He moved slowly around the base of an ancient oak and found the heir apparent lost in a book. A large wolf, with black ears and white paws, rested its chin on the elf's lap, its eyes closed in contentment as the young man scratched between its ears.
"Is that your JaJaNa?"
B'lair reluctantly looked up from his book, big blue eyes blinking up at his visitor. "Hmmm?"
"Is that the wolf from the village?"
"Yes. He apparently followed the trolls here after they captured Ephel."
"How did you know he was here?" The ranger eased himself down beside the elf.
"I heard him singing to the moon last night."
James reached over and scratched the wolf's muzzle. "You know the world's looking for you."Tears stung his eyes and he turned briefly to look further into the woods. 'Damn it, Sky, I don't want any more signs.' "I know," he said finally. "I just...that is to say..."
"You needed some time away from the hub-bub?""Something like that." B’lair swallowed hard as he closed the book and laid it beside him.
They sat for several minutes in silence, simply leaning against each other and enjoying the other's warmth.
Finally, B'lair asked quietly, "When were you going to tell me?"
There was a long pause. "Tonight. After the coronation."
"Afraid I might not go through with it if I knew you were leaving?"
"No. I just didn't want to take away from your day."
The elf scrubbed his face with the palms of his hands, making him look incredibly young. "My day. What a laugh."
"Skylanthalus would be very proud," James said softly.
"Sky was supposed to be my general. We had a deal. I was going to be the brains of our operation and he was going to be the brawn." B'lair sniffed, then looked up into the ranger's face. "I was sort of hoping you wouldn't mind taking his place. I think wherever his soul resides, he would approve."
James inhaled quickly and looked up at the canopy above their heads, willing the tears not to fall. His chest heaved with the effort to control his emotions.
"It's all right, James." The elf gently pushed the wolf off his lap and turned to face the ranger, tenderly laying his hand over the human's heart. "I knew...I knew it wouldn't last forever."
The ranger gasped out in pain, his jaw clenching and unclenching.
"Ephel, told me before we left Rainier that I should take a chance and allow myself to feel your love, no matter how long or short our time together might be." B'lair stopped for a moment, trying to reign in his own emotions. "I understand now what he was trying to tell me. I just want you to know that I love you, James Ellison. I will always love you, and I thank the Unknown One for the day he crossed our paths."
James cried out as he gathered the elf into his arms and held him tight. "I've wrestled with this for days. I have my duty, my responsibility, and yet..." He buried his face in B'lair's curls, and drew in a deep breath. "I tell you to accept your obligations and yet deep in my heart I cry out at the thought of accepting my own."
B'lair reached out and drew James' head down until he gazed into the wounded blue eyes. Leaning in, hovering over the lips pressed together in pain, he whispered, "Love me."
"I already do." The ranger's breath hitched before he devoured the elf's mouth, gently moving the younger man beneath him; losing himself in the blue eyes which shone with love until a gentle hand on his cheek brought him back. James moved with an aching slowness as he moved down B'lair's body, preparing him and filling him completely. They moved as one, content in their connection, neither rushing towards completion, simply committing every feature of the other to memory to last them through the long lonely nights ahead of them. When they finally gave themselves over to their release, they held each other for a very long time before heading back to the castle and their separate destinies.
Joel watched with almost a fatherly pride as the newly anointed king slowly rose to his feet and turned to face the crowd.
"This is not an office I sought," the young man said quietly. "As the youngest son of the youngest son, I was content in my village. However, in memory of my grandfather, Haidair, and my father, Gelion, and my brother, Skylanthalus, who died protecting me, I accept this mantle. As a people throwing down their yokes of repression, we will share our knowledge as knowledge is shared with us. We shall catch those who stumble as we will be caught. We shall live in harmony with nature, seeking to help when and where we can. We shall rebuild our lives."
The crowd roared with approval.
"Ranger Ellison, please tell your king we welcome the opportunity to open trade negotiations with his people and we look forward to your return to hammer out the details," the king said flawlessly.
The ranger moved to the dais, flanked by the dark warrior and the healer, all three bowing formally. "We look forward to our return, Sire. We shall endeavor to return by the next full moon." With that, they turned and walked back through the crowd.
As they reached the doors, the ranger stopped as he heard a soft whisper over the excited murmurings of the crowd. "Hurry back to me, beloved."
James turned, his gaze caught by the sad blue eyes, and nodded before leaving.
"How are the troops coming along, Melthius?" B'lair asked his newest commander quietly from his desk, not looking up from the papers he was reviewing.
"Amazingly well, your Majesty."
The commander shifted from foot to foot before catching himself and standing at attention. "But, I'm not sure we could withstand an all out assault at the moment."
B'lair looked up, rubbing the heel of his hand against his forehead. "I appreciate your honesty, commander, but we cannot expect crack units three weeks after the formation of our army. You're doing a good job. When Ranger Ellison returns I will ask him to give you some pointers in defending the city walls."
"All suggestions will be gladly received, Majesty."
"Thank you, Melthius. That will be all for now." B'lair went back to reading his papers, overwhelmed by the details of running a small kingdom.
An hour later, a small knock at his door interrupted his thoughts. "Enter."
"Majesty," his aide tsked disapprovingly. "It’s after midnight."
"Thank you, Jochiam," he said in a voice heavy with sarcasm.
The aide ignored him as he came further into the room. "A missive just arrived from Cascadia. I thought you’d want to see it as soon as possible."
B'lair's hands trembled as he accepted the envelope.
"Will there be anything else, Majesty?"
"Jochiam, when it is only the two of us, couldn't you call me B'lair?"
"Maybe," the smaller man smiled, "in time. But you have been B'lair for a long time, you need to get used to being a Majesty."
The king closed his eyes, trying not to sigh in frustration, already tired of the conversation he had had once too often in the last few weeks. "Very well, Jochiam." His attention was drawn back to the envelope. He quickly slit the seal and read over the very formal writing, informing him that King Simon was anxious to negotiate a trade agreement with him but it would be yet another three weeks before he could send an emissary. B'lair closed his eyes as the wash of pain flowed through him.
The king's eyes snapped open, a determined look growing on his face. "In the morning, tell Lenardo that I will meet him in Cascadia six days hence. As Minister of Trade he is going to have the opportunity to test his skills. Tell Melthius I wish a full squad to accompany him on his journey."
"You sound as if you will not be accompanying Lenardo on his journey."
"I won't be."
"I leave tonight."
"Then I shall inform your guards."
"You will do nothing of the sort."
"But where are you going? What will you be doing?"
The king turned and brought his full gaze upon his aide. "You have your orders, Jochiam. I will meet Lenardo in six days in Cascadia."
Simon Banks, ruler of Cascadia, leaned back in his very plush chair and sighed deeply, glaring at the sea of scrolls and documents covering his desk. It never got any easier, not even after twenty years of ruling.
"The minutia is a bit overwhelming, isn't it?" a warm voice asked from the shadows.
Simon started, pushing back from his desk as he looked toward his balcony, then relaxed. “I thought James corrected that little problem."
"Do I even want to know--"
A shadow detached itself from the darkness on the far side of the room and stepped closer. "Probably not."
"I guess it's a handy skill to have." Simon grinned. "Although you're going to have to learn how to play the intrigue game; if for no other reason than to drive Kincaid insane."
"By coming in this way, you missed all the pomp and circumstance."
"Well, if it's any consolation, my Minister of Trade and a squad of my newly formed guards will be arriving tomorrow morning. I'm sure Lenardo will be very impressed with any ceremony you wish to put on for his benefit." The elf pulled back his hood and sat down in a chair directly across the desk from the human king. "I'm just afraid that after a while he might start expecting it."
"I like you, Woodfoxen." Simon smiled at the younger man. "I hope we can be great allies."
"I hope so too. I truly do."
"So what brings you through my backdoor at this hour of night?"
"I'm here to collect my boon."
James Ellison paced back and forth in the small antechamber like a large cat in a small cage. When his team had arrived in Cascadia earlier that morning from their latest mission, rumors were sweeping through the streets like a windstorm across the desert. A small elven contingency had arrived from a kingdom long since forgotten two days ago hoping to open trade negotiations with King Simon. It was said their ruler had personally come to talk with Simon, although no one had actually seen the man.
James had been summoned to Simon's personal office, but had been kept waiting in the antechamber for several hours. The tension rolling off him took on an almost physical manifestation. Simon's aides, frightened by his intense stare, had refused to check on his comfort for the last two hours.
Finally, a door opened and the King beckoned him into his study. "I apologize for having kept you waiting so long, James. As I'm sure you know by now, a small contingent from Spokane arrived a few days ago and we have been negotiating ever since."
"To the benefit of both kingdoms, I hope."
"That is the hope." Simon released a small tired yawn. "The elves are tough negotiators, but I think we finally reached an agreement which will serve both kingdoms equally." He moved to his desk. "However, the whole agreement hinges on one subparagraph. If I cannot deliver upon my promise, then the whole thing may be null and void. That's where you come in."
James furled his eyebrows in confusion. "Where I...how can I help?
Simon picked up several sheets of paper, although he only handed the ranger a single sheet. "Part III, Section 12, Subparagraph 3(e). By the Unknown One's name, I hate Ministers of Trade. Why can't they make things simple?" The King sighed as he flopped, very unregal-like, into his chair.
The ranger looked down at the paper in his hand and began skimming the appropriate section.
In an effort to promote self-reliance for the kingdom of Olympia, and to aid the security of both realms, Cascadia hereby offers to the newly appointed king, two permanent advisors who will act as Cascadia's liaisons in Spokane. King Simon appoints the ranger, James Ellison, and the healer known as Rafael, to fulfill these positions. Their responsibilities...
James' head snapped up as he sought his king's face.
"Do you accept the appointment, James?"
"What about Joel?"
"If you accept the appointment, Joel will be promoted to your current position," the king said with a smile. "Don't worry, if everything goes as planned, he will be traveling quite a bit between the two kingdoms. The elven minister argued for nearly two hours for him to be included in the paragraph, but I had to put my foot down somewhere. I am giving you and Rafael and some old woman up, but I cannot lose my childhood friend. Being king is what I do, it is not necessarily who I am and I need people around me from time to time who understand the difference."
James blinked, shaking his head a bit.
"Do you accept the appointment or do I need to take this agreement back to the bargaining table?" the king asked as he moved slowly around the desk.
A slow smile spread across James' face. "I accept the position of permanent advisor to Spokane."
Simon stood and wrapped his arms around the younger man. "I shall miss you, James, and that scrawny little kid you insist on taking everywhere with you."
James laughed and returned the hug.
"Well, then," the king said as he leaned over the desk and signed the last page of the agreement with a flourish, "I suggest you go into the other room and meet your new boss."
The ranger's gaze snapped over to the far door.
"Go on. Go on. I'll take care of the paperwork."
Without another word, James strode across the room, opened the door and moved quickly down the small hallway. He opened the door without knocking, his eyes searching for the beloved face.
B'lair gulped nervously as he turned from the window and looked at the blue-eyed intruder. The ranger shut the door behind him, never taking his eyes off the elven king.
"James?" came the worried whisper.
A sexy smile slowly blossomed over James Ellison's face as he slowly crossed the room and gathered his soul mate into his arms. "Reporting for permanent duty, Majesty," he whispered into the pointed ear closest to him.
"Permanent, unless I declare war on Cascadia," the elf teased as he turned and brushed his lips over the human's, opening his mouth to draw the older man in.
James moaned as his hands clenched in the elven king's hair, delving deeper into the moist warmth until they both had to break for air.
"I think I can get used to taking advice from Cascadia's best." B'lair grinned, rubbing his nose against the ranger's, their breaths intermingling as one. "So, what will Rafael advise me on?"
Sounds of laughter reverberated around the castle.
"I hear he's beautiful."
"I hear he actually bargained to take Simon's best merchant with him."
"I wonder who it’ll be."
"It's probably Orlin. No one does silversmithing better than that man."
"I wonder if he's taking volunteers."
Natalia closed her eyes briefly against the conversations whirling around her. She sat by her cart and stared idly at the hands in her lap. Ever since her husband passed away unexpectedly five weeks ago she found herself unable to enjoy the marketplace gossip. Food had lost its flavor, and she hadn't made any new cheese in a week. She wondered again for the hundredth time if she should retire. Her children were all grown and making names for themselves in various fields. She could stay home and take it easy, but the thought of rattling around the old cottage by herself depressed her. She wondered if there was such a thing as living too long.
"Fire and stars, look at that entourage."
Natalia looked up, curiosity burning through her depression. A group of elves was moving with purpose through the crowded street. People began whispering excitedly. She stood up, catching the cart for balance.
"It's the elven king!"
The cheesewoman was standing on her toes trying to get a glimpse of the man everyone had been talking about, when the entourage stopped at her cart and parted, revealing two men inside the protective circle.
"B'lair?" the old woman asked, squinting to get a better look.
The young elven king stepped forward and wrapped the woman in a warm embrace. "James, you must meet the greatest cheese sorceress ever to walk the face of the planet." The young man released her from the hug, but did not remove his arm from her hunched shoulders.
"Madam, it is my great pleasure to finally meet you. His Majesty has spoken of nothing but your wondrous wheels for the last two hours," a handsome man with blue eyes said as he took her hand and gently kissed her gnarled knuckles.
"The boy always did have a soft spot for my cheese," she cackled, a smile blinding those around her.
"When I first came to Cascadia I was very young and had little money. This woman, despite having her own children to feed, refused to take my money for years, but still insisted on feeding me."
The taller man smiled at her with such tenderness she almost swooned. "For such kindness, you shall ever have my undying gratitude."
"Pshaw. He was always too skinny for my liking," she laughed as she rubbed the elf's ribs. "Still is for that matter."
The elf grinned at her, but then his smile slowly faded. "I heard your man passed away a short time ago."
Natalia nodded. "Bless his soul, he went in his sleep."
The elven king looked to his right, then to his left, taking in all the people who were watching the scene unfolding in front of them. With a mischievous smile, he lowered himself to one knee in the dirt before her. "Then for the final time, I ask thee, to please come away with me. I promise to let you feed me to your heart's content and in exchange you will want for nothing."
Natalia looked down into the bright blue elven eyes and noticed, despite the mischievousness, the sincerity behind the request. She looked up at the king's human companion. The man nodded his encouragement in a barely perceivable motion.
"Oh what the hell," she laughed.
B'lair leapt to his feet and twirled her around in joy as the taller man directed the guards to take care of her cart. The elf guided her to a small carriage behind the contingent of soldiers.
James gently lifted her onto the seat. "Welcome to the family, Natalia."
"You're a little too thin for my liking," she smiled as she patted his cheek. "I think I'll fatten you up too while I'm at it."
"As you wish, dear lady."
Natalia looked over at the astonished faces of her long time friends and competitors, smiled and waved. Maybe, just maybe, there wasn't such a thing as being too old.
B'lair walked the parapet along the top of his castle, looking down into the city below. The dull colors of only months before were gone, replaced by colors which spanned the rainbow. The silent streets were filled with laughter as people called out greetings to their friends as they bartered for last minute goods before the sun set.
Soldiers patrolled the outer city walls, ever vigilant. Melthius had been overjoyed to learn of James' permanent assignment to Spokane and cornered the ranger every chance he got to discuss strategy and defense.
Rafael was just as sought after by the cities' apothecaries, midwives and healers, not to mention a number of single women.
Natalia had taken it upon herself to take over the kitchens. While the staff had grumbled at first, they had all grown to love the tiny whirlwind.
JaJaNa had caused quite a stir when he decided that he had had enough of the solitude of the forest and made himself at home in the castle, splitting his time between the king and the old woodsmith.
Ephel had gone back to his woodworking, losing himself in projects for days at a time; surfacing at appropriate times to continue to act as witness, but more often than not, to follow the cheesewoman around with love-struck eyes.
Jochiam still insisted on calling him Majesty, but the man was too efficient to let go over something so trivial. Although B'lair had to admit, he finally understood why Simon refused to permanently assign Joel to the advisory group. He didn't know what he would do without James, Rafael and Natalia's friendship. All three were aware of his position, but couldn't seem to reconcile their memories of the lost soul with the king in their midst, and for that he was forever grateful.
"Well, Sky," he said as the first star appeared on the evening canopy. "I think you’d be proud of me." He stood silent for several minutes as a warm breeze embraced him. "There are still days I miss you so badly I can scarcely take a breath. Ephel was right. My heart died the day you did, but you chose well when you picked James. There are times when I hear your voice in his, see your smile in his. He stands back, just like you did, and watches and advises, always there for me. Your death ripped my soul in half. I never thought I would recover, but James' soul melds so perfectly with mine, I don't believe the scars can be seen anymore. They will always exist, but they will fade in time." The breeze played gently with his hair. "Thank you for your blessings, brother."
And with that, the breeze faded, leaving him bereft. However, strong arms soon enfolded him from behind and a warm cheek nuzzled his.
"You finally escaped Melthius?" he asked with a small chuckle.
The hands gently rubbed long arcs up and down his chest. "You should be grateful you have a soldier as dedicated as that man."
"Oh I am, believe me, I am."
"What are you doing up here, beloved?"
"Just pondering how life works."
"Deep thoughts," the ranger hummed contentedly behind him as he languidly ground his hips forward.
"And you thought I was just another pretty face."
The ranger chuckled as he looked down at the streets below them. "You've done well."
"I couldn't have done it without you, wouldn't have wanted to."
"Won't ever have to. I am here, by your side, through all things."
B'lair turned in the ranger's arms, his hand resting on the human's chest over his heart. "I love you, James, now and until I take my last breath."
"And I love you, thief of my heart, now and until I take my last breath."
B'lair took a deep breath and released it slowly, realizing for the first time in a long time that he was truly happy. Taking the ranger's hand in his, he headed towards the door. "Let's go in, James. I feel the need to celebrate."
Chapter 6: A Celebration of Love
"James! Put the cookie down and step away from the counter!"
James Ellison, ranger, former right-hand man to King Simon of Cascadia, current liaison and lover to King B'lair of Spokane, and most feared warrior of the ten kingdoms, did the only reasonable thing a man of his stature and importance could--he stuffed the rest of the cookie in his mouth and quickly chewed the remaining evidence.
Natalia, former cheese merchant and current unofficial ruler of King B'lair's castle, did the only thing she could do under the circumstances. She laughed. "You're worse than my own children, you are," she said, shaking her head with affection.
"They're good," James mumbled, his mouth still full, his tongue darting out to pick up stray crumbs.
"Well, of course, they're good. Like I'd be feeding the boy anything that didn't meet my standards." She frowned at him. Everyone in the castle knew it was her mission in life to put a few more pounds on their liege. "So, why are you skulking around my kitchen?"
James drew himself up to his full height and raised a haughty eyebrow, but his eyes danced with mischief. "Skulking, madam?"
"Yes, skulking, you scamp. At least when the boy stole from me he had a good reason."
James' eyebrows rose in shock. "B'lair stole from you?"
The headwoman stirred the various kettles hanging over the cooking hearth, testing vegetables and adding just a tiny pinch of spice here and there. When she was done, she stood as much as her hunched frame would allow her and quietly looked at the ranger, who was nonchalantly stuffing another cookie into his mouth. "How long have we known each other, James?"
The ranger covered his mouth as he spoke. "Almost ten months, ma'am."
"And in those ten months you have never come to me for a story. Why is that?"
James took a deep breath, his eyes growing serious. "At first, we were too busy, trying to restore the capitol, trying to build our defenses, trying to establish some sort of order. But, more importantly, his past is his and I didn't want to intrude. I figured he'd start sharing stories eventually, as I have."
"But he hasn't?"
"Not a one."
"It's not because he doesn't love you."
"I know. I think, sometimes, it's just too much for him to remember. It's almost as if he's afraid that if he lets one memory out, the rest will drown him."
The little woman nodded. "And you want something of his past so you can understand the man he is today?"
"I don't know much."
"Then pull up a chair while I rest a spell." She sat by the stone hearth in a wooden rocking chair that looked almost as old as she was where she could still supervise the various activities in the kitchen.
James quickly snagged a chair and pulled it close beside her, knowing she would never allow her voice to carry to the other workers.
"The first time I met our liege," she began quietly, knowing the man beside her could hear every word, "he couldn't have been more than a child. I understand that elves age differently than humans, but I swear he looked twelve. I literally caught him stealing one of my cheese wheels. Now mind you, it wasn't a big wheel, just a six-incher, but it would have brought in a silver piece--even back then I had mastered cheese-making and could demand whatever prices I wanted."
She rocked back and forth a couple of times, lost in the memory. "There I was, holding his arm, his hand still clutched around the wheel, and he didn't say a word. He didn't try to distract me, didn't yell his innocence, didn't plead, just looked at me with those sad blue eyes of his. I saw a world of pain in those eyes, for back then he hadn't learned to shove his emotions down deep like he does now." She sighed quietly. "I must admit the boy intrigued me. He was beautiful. His eyes spoke of great intelligence, but he was dirty, nothing but skin and bones."
James leaned back in his chair, easily picturing the child his lover had been.
"So I asked him, 'Why would you take food from my children's mouths?' While his face revealed nothing, his eyes were horrified. It was then I noticed his ribs. They were sticking out under his skin, practically poking through his shirt. And to this day, I don't know what made me do it, but I guided his hand to a three-incher and let him go. He never said a word. Not 'thank you'. Not 'by your leave'. Nothing."
James leaned forward. "I sense that's not the end of the story."
"You would be correct, young man." She chuckled as she patted his cheek. "I decided to follow him. Marissa, my eldest, was old enough to trust with the cart, so I followed him through the crowd to an alley not far away. I watched as he handed the wheel to a woman who was even thinner than he was, if that was possible. She had two ruglings around her ankles. They started mewling as soon as they spotted the cheese. The boy gave her the wheel and she tried to refuse it, but he was having none of her nonsense. She tried to give him a piece but he backed up several steps out of her reach. She wept, and I have never seen anything as heartbreaking as her accepting that wheel. Seconds later, he was gone."
James swallowed hard. "It's still not the end of the story," he said with certainty.
"Aye. It's not."
"What did you do?"
"I did what any good merchant would do."
"I stomped down that alleyway, picked up her ruglings and demanded she follow me. Since she was the recipient of stolen goods, she could work to pay off the debt."
James reached forward and gently laid his hand on the old woman's cheek. "You, the love of my life, did no such thing."
Natalia opened her mouth to protest and James slid his thumb over her lips to silence her. "You marched down that alleyway, picked up her ruglings, and took her home, didn't you?"
"Well, yes. That's how she paid off her debt."
"And how did she do that?"
"She watched my children while I was in the market."
"In other words, you gave her a home and fattened up her children."
"Well, that might have happened along the way." James chuckled and Natalia sighed. "Are ye trying to ruin my reputation, James?"
"Not at all, my love. So what happened to this slave of yours and her children?"
Natalia tried to sigh again, but chuckled instead. "Sienna was with me for nearly ten years. She was an elf, from the mountains, not like the boy, who was from the forest. She had been traveling with her husband who died in a freak accident. Cascadia, at the time, didn't have much outside trade and she couldn't find an elf or anyone she trusted."
"Yes, until the boy." She rocked a few more times. "Finally, her brother came. He was beside himself with joy at finding her and the children alive."
"How did he find her?"
One of Natalia's eyebrows raised and he had the good grace to blush. Of course, B'lair would have tracked him down.
"Nearly broke my heart when she and her young'uns left."
"She sounds like she was a dear friend."
"A daughter, practically," Natalia whispered, then frowned over her admission.
"Was she able to shed any light on B'lair's past?"
"No, not really. She knew his name and said that he had rescued her children from men who meant to do them harm. He had become their guardian, of sorts."
"So when did you see him again?"
"I didn't see him for ages, but that doesn't mean he wasn't around."
"What do you mean?"
"Things started appearing on my cart. Almost a week after being caught, a silver piece was found in the straw by the three-inchers. When things got tight, coins would mysteriously appear."
"And you think it was B'lair?"
"I think no such thing. I know what I know."
James rubbed his chin with both of his hands. "So when did he finally speak to you?"
Natalia remained silent for a moment, as if trying to decide if she was going to share this precious memory or not. Finally, she spoke, "It was about October, like it is now, probably a year after our initial meeting. The trees had already turned color and bright leaves blew through the marketplace. It was near closing time and I had already stored all my cheeses within the cart. I was sitting on a little stool by the wall, just catching my breath before I wheeled the wagon home, when the boy appeared."
She rocked a bit faster, took a deep breath and released it slowly, then stopped her motion all together.
"The grief on his face was overwhelming. I...to this day...I cannot bear to think of it." She shook her head and swallowed hard. "He moved slowly toward me as if any movement on my part would send him fleeing, knelt beside my stool, and laid his head in my lap."
Tears ran down Natalia's face, but she did nothing to brush them away. "We stayed that way for a long time. I remember running my fingers through his beautiful tresses, whispering nonsensical words, trying to comfort him the best I could. Finally, after the sun set, he sat back on his haunches and said in the most lyrical voice, 'I've made you late.' As if I should be worried about such a thing." Natalia finally wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her gnarled knuckles. "He picked up the handles of my cart and escorted me home, with me giving him nary a direction."
"So he's always been melancholy in October?"
"Aye," she nodded. "For years he came to me."
"Do you remember the date?"
"Aye. 'Twas the twenty-first."
"Any idea what's significant about that date?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I never asked. I simply knew he would come to me on the twenty-first. We never spoke of the reasons."
"You do realize that today is the twentieth?"
"Aye," she whispered. "And he's been blue for nearly a week."
"I don't know what to do," James whispered, desperately wanting to make it better for the man he loved so dearly.
"Talk to Ephel, love. I suspect he has the answers."
James nodded, then grinned mischievously. "So when is Ephel going to make an honest woman of you?"
"Never you mind, you fresh thing," she said indignantly, shooing him from her kitchen, but not before he snatched two more cookies.
James smiled as he entered the old woodsmith's outdoor work area and took in the absolute chaos surrounding him. Ephel had set up his shop on the outside of the castle, which drove Melthius, B'lair's captain of the guard almost mad. Ephel had argued that it made no sense for a woodsmith to work inside a stone fortress; for proper inspiration, he needed to work under the canopy of the forest. Melthius had countered with the fact that it was too dangerous, leaving the castle vulnerable. Both men were at constant odds until James had devised a way of making this particular entrance the most secured portal of the entire castle.
Several young guards stood watch over the woodcutter, everyone knowing his importance to the young king. But as was often the case, Ephel had conscripted half of them into service. James had to calm Melthius down on several occasions by pointing out that they had assigned twice the guards necessary to protect this area and if Ephel made half of them work, the entrance was still secured. Besides, Mathies and Jorel were becoming quite proficient at woodworking. He would give them a few more years of this duty, before he would suggest they take it up as a full-time vocation.
James found Ephel contemplating a large chunk of walnut. The elderly man held his right elbow in his left hand. His chin rested in the open palm of his right hand as he walked slowly around the wood piece, studying it from every angle.
"So what's this one going to be?" James asked quietly, not wanting to startle the elderly man, but also used to the way he worked.
"It's singing 'bear' to me, but I don't know what type of bear."
James adopted a similar stance on the opposite side of the wood. After a few moments, he said, "I'm thinking Northern Brown."
Jorel's head pop up from his sanding project a few feet away. "That's what I told him yesterday."
James grinned at the young guard, who simply rolled his gaze and went back to work when Ephel turned and frowned at him.
"One does not rush into these things," Ephel informed all those in the clearing.
"You've been contemplating it for a week," Mathies protested.
"Children," the old woodcutter sighed, looking to James for support.
James schooled his features, so as not to let the smile he was feeling show. "They'll understand in time," he said sympathetically.
Finally, Ephel dropped his hands and smiled at the ranger. "And what can I do for you on this fine autumn day, James?"
"If I'm not intruding, Ephel, I would like a moment of your time."
"You, dear friend, can never intrude," the old woodsmith smiled as he closed the distance between them and pounded the ranger on the back good-naturedly. "Come, let's have some hot apple cider while we talk. Contemplation is thirsty work."
James followed the old man, but not until he indicated that the two young guards should go back to their duties--of woodworking.
He gratefully accepted the warm mug of cider from the woodsmith and took a seat in the exquisite rocker to which Ephel indicated. "I made that for Natalia, but she won't give up that ratty old thing in the kitchen."
"You know as well as I do that her son made it for her when he was a child."
"She's going to hurt herself on it one of these days," the old man grumbled. Then remembering the task at hand, he asked, "What brings you out to my shop, James? Don't tell me that Mel is whining again."
"No, Melthius is fine at the moment," James said, trying not to smile, not wanting to encourage the old woodsmith in his antagonization of the young captain. James stopped and cleared his throat, not sure how to frame his question. After a moment, he decided just to blurt it out. "I was hoping you could tell me what significance the twenty-first of October has to B'lair."
"Tomorrow is the twenty-first?"
Ephel leaned back in his own chair and sighed. "My time flies."
"Then you know its significance?"
The old elf's blue eyes turned to face him and James was struck by how piercing they were. "Aye. 'Tis Skylanthalus' birthday."
"Ahhh," James said quietly, before sipping his cooling cider.
"So you've noticed our liege's unhappiness as well?"
"Yes, and I'm at a loss as to what to do?"
The old woodcutter leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "I have an idea."
B'lair Woodfoxen closed his eyes and counted to ten. He was normally a patient person, but he swore silently if Jochiam, did not stop his nattering he wasn't going to be responsible for his actions.
"You know, kings are allowed to behead people," he said, almost casually.
His aide stopped in mid-sentence. "Majesty?"
"Is that not true?"
Jochiam swallowed hard. "Why yes, I suppose it is."
"Do we have a chopping block anywhere on the grounds?"
"N-n-n-no, Sire, I d-d-don't b-b-believe we do."
"Hmmm, curious." B'lair pushed himself from his chair and walked to the window that overlooked Ephel's work area, allowing the sun's rays to bathe him with their warmth. He opened the windowed doors and let the crisp morning air surround him. The day looked as if it would be a clear one, but then this day almost always was.
"S-s-sh-should I procure one, Sire?"
Jochiam was still behind him. Of course, he was. A part of him felt bad for startling his aide; he was a good man after all, very efficient in his job, dedicated to helping restore the kingdom. But Jochiam also got under his skin faster than anyone else on his staff. It wasn't that he was pompous or even unlikable, just a reminder of everything B'lair didn't want to be--namely the king.
"No, I suppose not," B'lair said, never turning to face the elf. "That will be all, Chiam."
B'lair heard the door open and close, but kept his eyes on Mathies and Jorel. James was right. The two young guards were obviously enjoying their time with Ephel. He was fairly certain neither of them had been scheduled for duty today, and yet, both were down below working on various projects. For a moment, B'lair envied them.
Warm arms enveloped him from behind.
"Hello, lover," he whispered as he pressed back against the chest of the ranger.
"You really shouldn't have scared Chiam like that," James said, taking any rebuke out of his words with his warm chuckle.
"I can't help it if he took my perfectly innocent question the wrong way."
B'lair slowly left the security of his lover's arms and moved toward the window on the opposite side of the room. James let him go, remaining where he was, knowing that B'lair would talk when he was ready.
Several minutes passed in silence, each man studying the view out of their individual windows.
"He would have been fifty-seven today," B'lair finally whispered.
James nodded, but did not look at his lover. "Still practically a baby in your people's terms."
"I wish you two had met."
"Do you think he would have approved of me?"
B'lair looked over at his lover and smiled gently. "I guarantee it."
"So why so sad, beloved?"
James watched the young elf fight to control his emotions; his eyes burning with unshed tears. "I want to celebrate his life."
"Then we'll celebrate."
B'lair shook his head, angrily. "I can't ask these people," he said, raising his arm to indicate the shoppers in the square below, "to celebrate the birth of the man used to keep them oppressed for thirty-five years. As far as they're concerned, Sky was one of the trolls."
B'lair wrapped his arms around himself and rocked back and forth. James quickly closed the distance between them and engulfed the young king in a warm, loving embrace.
"They don't understand that the body used against them was not Skylanthlus'."
B'lair released a ragged breath, but said nothing for several minutes. "They think I'm covering up for him. They think--"
"Shhh," James said quietly, tightening his hold on the smaller man. "It doesn't matter what they think. We know the truth."
"But no one else does," came the raw, hoarse reply.
"Then we'll change that, a little bit at a time." James tenderly pushing back the sable hair from his lover's face, to see the dark blue eyes. "I have a surprise for you."
B'lair frowned. "What sort of surprise?"
"Come with me and find out."
B'lair dutifully followed the ranger to the War Room, as James liked to call it. Not that B'lair had ever declared war, or ever intended to, but the name made James happy so he didn't protest. He suspected the ranger had named it such to give Melthius confidence in their ability to defend themselves, although B'lair had serious reservations about the army and its ability to keep Spokane safe.
In front of the doors, James stopped and waited for him to catch up. Without warning, he found himself engulfed in the ranger's muscular arms and his lips gently plundered. He deepened the kiss, but when his hands moved to the ranger's chest, James stopped. "I love you, you know?" James whispered, trailing the back of one finger over B'lair's cheek.
The young king swallowed hard and nodded. "As I love you."
"Then come." James grinned, resting his hand on the small of B'lair's back and guiding him into the room.
The War Room was packed. The large table, which usually sat in the middle of the room, was pushed against the far wall and laden with food. Chairs were crammed everywhere. Blair searched the faces of the people in the room as he entered. Rafael. Natalia. Ephel. Melthius. Jochiam. Jorel. Mathies. All the leaders of the community. And Joel.
"Joel!" he cried out as he crossed the room and embraced the large warrior. "When did you get here?"
"I only just arrived, Sire, or I would have made my formal presentations to you."
"Oh, stop with the 'Sire' crap," B'lair whispered. "You just call me that to watch me squirm."
Joel chuckled warmly. "You and Simon have a lot more in common than you'd ever guess."
"So why are you here, old friend?"
"I don't have the faintest idea. I arrived for my monthly conference with you when I was hustled into this room." Joel clapped his arms around the younger man's shoulders as they both turned to face the crowd.
Ephel stood in the middle of the room and cleared his throat. "My Liege. Friends. Family. You few, have been chosen to share this special day with your King. We remember, with love, his brother, the man responsible for molding our ruler into the man he is today. Today we celebrate the life of Skylanthalus Greyson."
B'lair's eyes narrowed as several townspeople in the room shifted nervously.
"I know the citizens of Spokane have no reason to love the name I have just spoken. But I am here as Witness, to state once and for all, that the creature who walked beside Leigh Brackett was not the brother of our king. It was not the boy who gave his life to save that which he held most dear. While your disbelief is understandable, know that it injures your liege on levels he will never show. He could have declared this day a holiday, but would never ignore his people's pain in such a callous way. So he has contented himself to suffer in silence. Well, no longer! For as Witness, it is my job to share the truth and that is why I have gathered you all here today."
B'lair blinked in confusion but did not protest as James gently guided him to a chair and sat him down.
"Young Skylanthalus came to Rainier after the death of his mother. Never had I seen such a serious three-year old. Babies are meant to laugh. But there was no laughter in this toddler's heart, especially after his father disappeared. The princess would not give up on the child. She took him in as her own and found out his heart's desire, to have a child of his own so that he would truly belong to her family. As luck would have it," the woodsmith smiled gently at his king, "this was a wish the princess soon granted."
James laid a hand on B'lair's shoulder and squeezed it gently. The elven king took a very quiet deep breath and laid his head on the ranger's hand before releasing the air in his lungs ever so slowly.
"You might suspect that the princess would have given the baby to the toddler in name only, but that was not the case. Young Skylanthalus was completely and totally responsible for the child in his care. Under proper supervision, of course," Ephel added with a smile.
"Skylanthalus' interests were varied and he soaked information up like an Altrusian sponge. He had declared that his charge would be the smartest elf in the land. Their dedication and devotion to each other was the source of many of our storyteller's songs." In a quieter voice, he added, "Ahhh, Hathol, dear friend, I miss the way you turn a phrase."
Ephel turned to face the others in the crowd, drawing them into his story. "When our liege was five, he became lost in the woods chasing after a wolf pup. The entire village looked for him for several hours, but no sign of the child was found. Prince Gelion was beside himself with worry, convinced that some outside force had harmed his youngest son. Everyone gave up hope of ever seeing the little prince alive again. Everyone, that is, except Skylanthalus. When everyone else returned to the village, he went out into the woods."
Ephel stood in front of the town leaders, his eyes wide with the wonder of his story. "I'll never forget that dawn, with the fog rolling in around our ankles. Skylanthalus, exhausted, bruised and hungry, came stumbling into the village with the missing child in his arms. An exultant cry resounded around the village," Ephel sang out joyfully, then quieted suddenly and spoke in hushed tones, playing to the crowd. "Skylanthalus never stopped putting one foot in front of the other until he was in front of the Princess herself. His voice ragged with emotion, he whispered, 'I found him, mother,' handed her the child and collapsed at her feet. Gelion roared, demanding that the village healer appear at once. When the boy recovered, Gelion declared young Skylanthalus his full son with all the rights and privileges therein."
Ephel moved back to the center of the room. "And, of course, there was the time that young B'lair decided he wanted to learn how to fly."
"No, Ephel!" B'lair called out, his face reddening with embarrassment.
"Oh, yes, my liege." Ephel laughed joyfully as B'lair put his face in his hands and shook his head. "At the age of seven, our king, having just learned how to swim, decided he also needed to know how to fly. And, of course, whatever young B'lair wanted, Skylanthalus arranged. After pondering the situation for several hours, Skylanthalus appeared at my cottage with drawings in his hands, wanting to know if I could build what he had designed. After declaring I could, I asked him to give me a week to which he agreed. After much climbing in trees, all was in place. Young Skylanthalus created a harness and with a system of pulleys and tracts gave B'lair his very first flying lesson. His mistake, of course..."
"I'm begging you, Ephel," B'lair moaned, although the huge grin on his face did little to help his cause.
"...was to have the first flying lesson after lunch," Ephel continued as if B'lair had never said a word.
"He didn't?" James called out.
"Yes. He lost his lunch on those beneath him."
The room exploded with laughter and B'lair buried his face in his hands again, as Joel and James pushed at him playfully.
Ephel grinned fondly down at his liege, his arms held out like wings at his sides. "For such inauspicious beginnings though, he actually did become quite a proficient flyer."
"But lest you feel this devotion was one-sided, let me share a story of our liege's devotion to his brother. A caravan of mystics came through our small village. Skylanthalus was intrigued by their promises of being able to see into the future. He worried incessantly about what would happen to his charge and begged them for their assistance. We thought the matter done, but several days after they had left, Skylanthalus laid immobilized, very near death. To this day, no one knows how or why it happened. Our healer, after trying a myriad of different remedies, gave up. The young man was delirious with pain. He cried out in his sleep that he couldn't die, that he had to protect B'lair until the jaguar came, how he couldn't rest until the black cat understood his place."
B'lair's gaze shot toward James' face. The two stared at each other in wonderment as Ephel continued.
"Our liege never left Skylanthalus' side. He read him stories and talked to him until he was hoarse. He pleaded with him to stay, and in the end, Skylanthalus did, later saying that he could never refuse our liege anything."
B'lair blinked as the memory of those awful days rolled over him. He looked back at his lover. Sky had somehow known, had always known that James would be part of his life.
Ephel clapped his hands once then rubbed them in anticipation of the next story. "Then there was the time when the boys caught themselves in their own hunting trap. It all began..."
James quietly trailed behind his lover to their suite. While B'lair had laughed numerous times during the celebration, he was now silent as he carried Ephel's gift back to their room. It was a wooden sculpture, memorializing the brothers. Skylanthalus was leaning back against the trunk of a tree, with B'lair leaning back into his chest. Sky had a book opened in front of them and it was obvious B'lair was reading aloud. The look of love on their faces was haunting.
James locked the door behind him as he entered the room. B'lair paced back and forth in front of the bed and the ranger leaned against the door and waited.
Finally, the younger man stopped and faced James, love shining through his bright eyes. "I believe the memorial was the most precious gift I've ever received."
"It was Ephel's idea."
"But you helped in its execution."
"Thank you, James," B'lair whispered as he closed the distance between them. "Thank you for understanding...for celebrating his life with me."
"I owe him so much." James wrapped his lover in his arms and murmured softly into his hair, "He gave me everything I hold dear in my life."
"He knew. Somehow, even then, he knew," B'lair whispered in awe.
The ranger nodded. "I only wish he was here today to see how happy you are, how happy we are."
Blair nodded, the tears finally running freely down his cheeks. "Love me."
"I already do." James purred as he swung the lithe body up in his arms and gently laid him in the middle of the bed. "And I love Skylanthalus, too."
"You what?" B'lair blinked up at the ranger in surprise.
James smiled as he removed the leather tie which bound his lover's hair. "I love that he made you the center of his universe." He unfurled the young elf's braid, running his fingers through the strands, separating them until they cascaded around B'lair's shoulders. "I love him for giving you the strength to walk alone."
The ranger nuzzled the elf's neck as he slowly untied the bindings of his lover's shirt. His fingers began to gently caress the nubs which were begging for attention. "I love him for opening your mind and challenging you to learn all you could; not only about elves, but about all the people around you; for seeing people as individuals."
"I love him for teaching you to love. A lesson, while buried for survival sake, remained an essential element of your being." The older man slowly removed the elf's trousers, purring as the moonlight caressed his lover's flawless skin.
"I love him because his last words spoken to you were of love." James kissed each of B'lair's slanted eyebrows.
Straddling his lover's hips, he gently touching the elf's face with his finger tips. "I love that he stood behind you and watched you run ahead; that he loved you enough to want to protect you, but understood that some lessons had to be learned on your own. I love him for never being so far away that he couldn't catch you when you fell. I love him for teaching you to take a chance, even on a human."
James brushed his fingers lightly over B'lair's chest, circling each nipple once, then butterfly danced down the younger man's abdomen. B'lair's body arched beneath him, silently begging him to deepen the touch.
James leaned forward and gently lathed the elf's Adam's apple with his tongue. B'lair moaned and James sought his lover's mouth and plunged in deeply, burying his hands in the elf's hair to hold him in place.
B'lair's hands ran up and down the human's muscular arms, until James entwined his fingers with B'lair's. James slowly moved their hands out from elf's body until the ranger could suckle on the closest nub. B'lair cried out and thrust his hips upward. James worried the nub until the king's head whipped back and forth. The ranger then bit his way over to the other, refusing to let the elf's hands go.
"Swear to me I'll never lose you," B'lair demanded.
"I swear, beloved. You're mine." Renewing their vows of almost a year previous, he teased the roof of the king's mouth with his tongue. "To have." He tasted the younger man's mouth. "To hold." He licked up the elf's jaw line. "To protect." He nibbled on the tip of the closest ear. "Now and until I take my last breath."
B'lair blinked up at him in surprised remembrance. "And you shall be mine," he vowed back. "To have," he whispered arching upward and kissing the older man's right eyebrow. "To hold." He shuddered as he brushed his lips over the ranger's forehead to his other eyebrow. "To protect." He kissed each eyelid. "Now and until I take my last breath."
Their vows once again exchanged, B'lair gently kissed the mouth above him as if it were his only lifeline. Wrapping his legs around the ranger, he panted, "Take me. Take everything you need."
James groaned, moving with an aching slowness as he slid down B'lair's body, neither one of them rushing towards completion, simply moving as one, content in their connection.
James watched the early morning sunlight stream through the open windows to frame his lover's lithe form. For months after meeting the elf, he was certain that B'lair was actively seeking his own death. But now James understood he was looking for what he had lost. Skylanthalus had celebrated each day with B'lair as a day of discovery and love, had understood that his time with his charge was limited, but poured everything he was into the young man who was to become king. James vowed to do no less. Each day was a testament of love's spirit over adversity. The ranger vowed to honor the birthday of the young man who had raised his lover, to celebrate the love that knew no bounds. Skylanthalus Greyson would never be forgotten as long as James Ellison lived and breathed.