The brisk evening air embraced him, causing goose bumps to rise on his bare arms and chest, as he bent to step out of the sweat lodge. Gentle hands reached out and steadied him as he stood for the first time in twelve hours.
"Did you find your answers, Blair?" Thomas Two-Feathers asked.
Blair shook his head but didn't look at the man who was once almost his father. He couldn't bear to see the sympathy that he knew would be reflected within Thomas's eyes.
"Come. Martha has made dinner to help you regain your strength."
Whispering, as if that would keep the grief from his voice, he said, "I'd like some time alone, Thomas."
"He didn't blame you, Blair. You're only fifteen years old and had over fifteen hundred miles to come. He understood."
Blair raised his hand, trying to stop the compassionate words. "I just...need...some time."
Thomas handed him his blue flannel shirt. "Don't go far. George says there'll be a storm tonight. Besides, I fully expect Naomi to show up fairly soon."
Blair nodded once and walked down the path toward the openness of the desert.
Well, he knew that bridge would have to be crossed sooner or later. Was it technically running away from home when your mom knew where you were going?
Slipping his shirt over his shoulders, he stepped off the path and headed toward the outcropping of rocks that the tribe simply called Contemplation.
One day too late. Wasn't that just the story of his life?
He picked up his pace, moving a little more quickly, needing to put some distance between himself and the rest of humanity.
It didn't make any sense. How did a man as strong as Jacob Winddancer die of a stroke?
He began jogging.
Thomas had called a week ago to let him know that Jacob was asking for him. Blair didn't blame his mother for her decision not to return to the reservation. School was still in session, they were low on funds, and she still didn't feel strong enough to face Thomas.
Thomas. One man in a long line of men who had courted Naomi, but the one man Blair had actually hoped would be able to corral the free-spirit that was his mother; the one man who Blair had opened his heart to as a father, and consequently, Thomas's father, Jacob.
When they lived on the reservation, he and Jacob had been inseparable. Lost souls looking for purpose and finding it in someone so diametrically opposite to themselves that the whole tribe just shook their collective head. What could an old shaman, a man known for his quiet presence and all-knowing eyes, find in a hyper-kinetic teenager who asked a million questions? Blair remembered the curious gazes, but Jacob had only laughed about people not being able to see outside their own boxes.
A sob caught in his throat, but instead of stopping he began to run--as if he could outrun his pain.
Thomas told him that Jacob had been beside himself with worry, muttering about how he hadn't had enough time to impart all of his lessons to Blair, how he had begged Thomas to bring the boy to him for one final lesson. Thomas had tried, but Naomi was unwilling to pull him out of school. All indications were that his application to attend Rainier the following year would be granted, and she didn't want anything to mess up his chances for the future. He understood her reasoning, even loved her for it, but that didn't stop him from packing his knapsack and hitching rides with truckers.
Jacob passed the night before he arrived.
Blair flew over the sand and rocks, finding a stride which pushed, yet didn't exhaust him.
He knew that while Jacob's body might have ceased to function, his spirit would remained. All he had to do was connect with it. Jacob knew, even if know no one else did, that Blair would come, knew that Blair wouldn't ignore his summons.
Blair had joined the tribe as they sung their farewells, but knew he had yet to have his final encounter with his mentor. Blair had fasted and entered the sweat hogan, convinced Jacob would come to him in a vision, to close the gap between them and say his good-byes.
But it hadn't happened.
Instead, all he found was a scraggily, half-grown wolf howling desolately in the canyons of his mind.
The first clap of thunder echoed around the desert as he reached the outcropping. Chest heaving, he scrambled up the rocks, climbing steadily upward until he had reached the flat rock shelf. Lightning jagged across the sky, illuminating the desert floor as if it were noon.
Clouds rumbled in and the winds danced around him, inviting him to join their race across the sand. Another round of thunder shook the night sky, one streak of lightning coming in on the heels of the last one. As the sky shouted its anger down at the earth, Blair found his own anger erupting.
"You knew I was coming. You knew it!" His fists clenched in rage. "I came as soon as I could!" he shouted at the clouds above him. "I'm fifteen, damn it. I couldn't get here any faster!"
The unsympathetic sky boomed back, and lighting struck near the outcropping, making him flinch. The air was practically electric, and the hair on his arms tingled in response.
"How dare you leave me!" Tears finally spilled down his cheeks. "How dare you! How...dare..."
A gentle touch at his shoulder made him spin.
"Grandfather," he cried, throwing himself into the waiting arms.
"Shhh, little one. You know I wouldn't leave without saying good-bye." One weathered brown hand stroked his hair while the other arm held him tight.
"Where have you been?" Blair murmured into the apparition's chest.
"Scaring the Hopis." Laughter surrounded Blair with its joyful warmth, making him take a step back to look up into the old, beloved face.
"You've been dead less than a week and already you're causing problems." Blair laughed, trying very hard not to think too deeply about that statement, knowing if his doubts stepped forward he would lose his tenuous connection.
Jacob shrugged, although in the waning light Blair could see the unrepentant mischief gleam from the older man's eyes.
Blair wrapped himself back around the older man. "I'm sorry I was late."
"I'm sorry I couldn't wait, little one."
"You're here now. That's all that's important."
The apparition squeezed him tight as if making a memory that would have to last him an eternity. "I don't have much time," Jacob said solemnly.
"I didn't figure you did."
Jacob put both hands on Blair's shoulders, turned him and guided him to a nearby rock. They sat side by side.
"When you first came," Jacob started without preamble, "I had a vision that told me it was important for me to pass on the lessons of becoming a shaman to you."
Blair nodded, since he already knew about the vision.
"I believed you would follow my footsteps and take my place when my spirit walked from this plane. But recently, I've been shown your place is not with the People, but with one specific individual and, in turn, his tribe."
Jacob nodded. "A warrior. A guardian. A man who is more than other men."
"I don't understand, Grandfather."
Jacob took one of Blair's hands and held it between both of his own. "In times past, we were guarded by men and women who could see as far as the eagle, who could follow a scent better than any fox, who could hear better than an owl on the hunt, who could taste the most minute traces of spice and who could literally feel danger crawl across their skins. These warriors were known as guardians."
Blair nodded, understanding that his grandfather was trying to impart something important, but was still confused. "Do guardians even exist today?"
"Some, although they are extremely rare. Those who do exist tend not to understand their gifts and are driven mad by their abilities."
"So what am I supposed to do?"
"You must find your guardian."
Jacob nodded. "Your guardian is lost. He has repressed his gifts in order to please those around him."
"How am I supposed to find him?"
"You aren't. At least for now," Jacob added quickly when Blair open his mouth to protest. "For now, you must learn. Learn everything you can, for you must be able to keep up with him no matter who he is or what he does." Jacob took Blair's chin in his hand and locked gazes with him. "Your path will be difficult, young one. There will be temptations and curiosities to distract you, but if you lose sight of your goal, your guardian will be lost forever."
"His gifts will drive him mad."
"What should I do once I find him?"
"Teach him, little one. Show him the path. Give him control over his abilities by making him understand them. He is already a guardian, but even warriors need protection, although they rarely think so. Treasure him, Blair, for he is a jewel among stones."
Blair nodded. "I will. I swear it, Grandfather."
"When you have found your guardian, the shaman who guided him will come to you and pass on his knowledge to help you in your duties."
"But if he already has a shaman, why will he need me?"
"I do not have all the answers, little one. I am only passing on what I can." Jacob stood and gently pushed Blair onto his back. "It is time for you to rest now."
"No, Grandfather, no." Blair struggled to sit up, but strong hands held him firmly in place. "Don't leave me," he begged.
"You will never be alone, Blair Sandburg. I know your path will be shadowed from time to time, but believe in yourself, believe you can make a difference, and know that I will be watching over you."
Tears blinded Blair's vision as he reached out and grasped the older man's hand. "I love you, Grandfather."
"As I you, young one. You have brought me such joy, given me purpose when I thought myself nothing but a relic to past ways."
Blair's voice choked out, "Never."
The rough hands petted Blair's hair, and with each stroke he found it harder to stay awake. "Make me proud," his grandfather whispered just before Blair slipped into slumber.
Warm hands pressed gently against his face. He blinked his eyes open and saw Thomas kneeling beside him, felt the rain pelting against him. "Thomas?"
Thomas closed his eyes in silent thanks. "Can you stand?" he asked, pulling Blair to his feet.
"Your mother is frantic."
"She's going to insist you leave as soon as we get back."
Blair shook his head, his voice breaking. "No."
Thomas gave him a sad smile as he guided him down the rocks, steadying him over the rough patches.
Once they reached the desert floor, Blair stopped. "I want to stay."
Thomas put both of his hands on Blair's shoulders, much as Jacob had done earlier. "Did you find your answers?"
"Then your place is no longer here, amongst the People, but out in the world." Thomas wrapped one arm around the younger man's shoulders and guided him back to the only place Blair had ever truly considered home.
"I won't ever see you again, will I?" Blair asked, heartbroken.
"I do not know what the spirits have in store for us, but no, I fear our paths will not cross again. But my heart will always walk beside yours, Blair Sandburg."
Blair swallowed hard and nodded, trying to smile at the older man.
"So what's Pop been up to?" Thomas asked with a tender smile.
"He was haunting the Hopis," Blair replied distractedly.
As Thomas's laughter boomed in counterpoint to the lightning around them, Blair looked back at the rock outcropping. His destiny had been set. He just hoped he was strong enough to see it to the end. He had two very important people counting on him: his grandfather and an unknown guardian who had lost his path.