A duty dodged is like a debt unpaid; it is only deferred, and we must come back and settle the account at last.
Jim slipped the rough-cloth cloak over the basic outfit he'd bought before leaving Patria. If anyone looked under his cloak they'd know in a second that he wasn't an outlander, but Jim was large enough to fight off any casual attacker, and gangs didn't usually come this close to the spaceport cities.
He'd picked a government office on the edge of guarded territory to switch between Jim Ellison, Sentinel Guard in search of a guide that didn't annoy him, and Jim, an outlander existing in the hinterlands of the homeworld. Shoving his uniform, money and communicator into a small bag, he came out of the bathroom.
"This is a monumentally bad idea," Simon said to him the minute he emerged. Jim handed over his bag.
"You'd rather I pick one of the garden-grown guides from the safe little enclave?" Jim answered his boss. He was lucky to have a sentinel captain who cared enough to follow him to Earth, but they just couldn't see eye to eye on this one issue.
"Hey, garden-grown does not mean we can't take care of ourselves," Rafe objected as he crossed his arms over his chest. Despite having been paired with Simon for nearly a decade, he still had the slight twang of Earth-speech.
"Some of the best guides come from good old Earth, and you saw the training they go through," Simon backed up his guide, which didn't surprise Jim at all. In fact, Simon's hand slipped to Rafe's back, offering a tactile reassurance that come what may, Simon would always back Rafe. Rafe let his own hand reach up and rest on Simon's shoulder.
"I don't feel any of them, Simon," Jim said as he turned away from the familiar scene. As his senses started veering out of control, the sight of Simon and Rafe happily bonded became more and more painful for him. And he hated that he felt that jealousy for a man who was not only his captain but also his best friend.
"Jim—" Simon started, but Rafe tightened his hand on Simon's arm.
"Let him search." Rafe faced Jim. "However, the rumors of sentinels tracking down the perfect guide—they're rumors, fantasies."
Jim glared at his captain's guide.
"On Divitia or Terra, without guide programs, maybe the old ways work. If you had caught a scent of guide there, I would say you had a chance to track one. But here? So many sentinels visit. If guides were anywhere around Patria, a sentinel would have reported it. The city guard would have tracked them. They would be in the enclave training because no one lives out there if they have a choice." Rafe waved a hand in the direction of the window.
Jim tightened his jaw and looked out toward the edge of the patrolled area. A wide fence with sensors tracked everyone in this area. The government building was in a safe zone where the outlanders could bring children and shove their dirty faces at a government doctor for immunizations or beg for the child to be tested as a sentinel or a guide or a pilot. Very few had any skills, but Rafe's own mother had lived out there.
When Jim had first insisted on wandering the outland, Rafe had talked about his few memories. He'd described the hunger and the fear and way he and his mother had slept in molding, half-fallen houses huddled together to avoid the almost constant rain. When the tester had agreed that seven-year-old Rafe had the guide gland, his mother had shoved her son at the doctor and walked away. Rafe had worms, a fungal infection in his lungs, and two broken toes when the doctor had sent him to the enclave.
"Jim, you're running out of time. Just promise me that you'll come back quickly if you don't find anyone," Simon asked.
Jim considered his options. If he couldn't find a guide, his senses would either slowly degenerate until he was left a mundane with no job training or he would zone out and die. Jim wasn't sure which option horrified him more. His father would certainly take him in if his senses failed him, but Jim had no doubt about how well that would work.
"If I don't find anyone, I'll try harder at the enclave," Jim agreed finally. A few guides had been acceptable—their unique scents hadn't offended him—so maybe he just needed to lower his standards.
"Two days. After that, I'm tracking you down," Simon warned.
"Yes, sir," Jim smiled wryly and then headed for the door. The doctor assigned to the government clinic glanced up at him and then went back to scrolling through his holonet files.
"This is such a bad idea," Simon muttered as Jim pushed the door open and stepped out into the muggy air of homeworld.
"I hope not," Jim whispered back, too soft for even sentinel ears to hear him.
Jim detoured around a fallen wall, the bricks scattered through the tall grasses north of the half-crumbled base. A few boards leaned against the wall, either to hold it up or, more likely, to create a small shelter. Jim ignored the shelter, already able to hear the lack of any heartbeat.
Instead he followed the same faint trail that'd he'd found not long after leaving the clinic. A wavering line where the weeds grew shorter and a few broken tree branches showed signs that someone had walked the path. Jim knew the clinic was on one end, but logic suggested that some sort of settlement must lie on the other.
"You new?" a suspicious voice asked from the darkness under a huge tree growing up through the middle of what might once have been a house. Now, only two walls half-stood. A mundane wouldn't have been able to see the speaker, but Jim risked a zone and focused his sight. A young woman with cropped hair and a rough-spun wrap tied around her body stood with a knife in her hand.
Jim ignored her and kept walking. God, she was a kid.
"Hey. You got any food?" she called out. Jim did have rations tucked into the inner pockets of his cloak, along with an electrical disrupter, a prod stick and a couple of explosive charges, but he didn't feel the need to share any of it.
"Sorry, no food," he answered, his eyes scanning the dark as though trying to find the source of the voice. In reality, he just wanted to make sure a gang didn't jump him. The fact was that a few rations wouldn’t change the girl's life, so Jim quashed the flare of guilt.
"Too bad. You just came from the clinic?"
Jim kept walking. He had his story ready, but he wasn't going to give it out to anyone less than an authority, if such a thing existed out here. The girl darted ahead, staying in the shadows, and Jim suddenly wondered why she'd risked revealing herself at all.
"The clinic sometimes does things they shouldn't do, you know. Especially with guys. It's so easy to slip something into a guy so he can't have kids. If you came from the clinic, you should check to make sure they haven't screwed with your penis," she suggested. That made Jim pause.
"Your penis. You should check to see if there's this little cut on the underside. They make it so guys can't have kids, you know."
Jim snorted his disbelief at her naiveté. Plenty of people might want outlanders to die out, but no one believed they actually would.
After much of the population had emigrated to other planets, the remaining dregs of society had warred until they had shredded most of the technology and culture. Now that civilization had reasserted itself in the spaceports and in a few islands of guard-controlled territory, the descendents of those warring factions kept right on warring over a tired old planet without the resources to support the population or a population bright enough to recover from the battles and plagues.
But as much as the spacers might like to wipe out the outlanders, they were a tough breed, too tough to kill off without planet-wide destruction that was expensive and unethical. Castrating a few men wouldn't serve anyone's purpose.
Ignoring the girl, Jim followed the path over a series of hills, one of which sprouted a rusted fender like a bent daisy, the little unrusted metal sparkling in the sun. The girl fell silent but she paced Jim from the shadows, maybe waiting until dark to try and rob him. God, she was so young.
A scent teased him, and Jim stopped to take a deep breath. He could smell the half-jungle that had grown through the ruined city, the rotting leaves, the slime mold that crept from one leaf to another, the stagnant water rippling with insect life. Below that he could smell the last lingering traces of rotting wood and the tang of rusted metal. Below that he could smell, so faintly that he half believed that the air lied, the musk of guide.
Opening his senses Jim could now catalogue the scent. The musk was spicy but only a few molecules still floated in the air. With more resolve than ever, Jim started down the path with wide ground devouring steps that left his watcher running through the trees.
Guide smell. Jim smiled ferally. He was never letting Simon and Rafe live this one down. A tall skeleton of a building shaded the path, glass gone and walls gone so that what remained were four metal grids leaning on each other to keep from falling down. One day it would fall, but right now, Jim ran with his senses wide open and he couldn't hear any groans that would suggested that day was today. He detoured through the middle of the structure.
This time his shadow didn't follow so Jim dismissed her from his thoughts as he held his rough cloak tight and ran over the slick moss that crept over the rough debris. Guide smell.
Jim had nearly reached the sunlight on the far side when he heard the scream. His instincts warred in him, one set demanding that he find the guide while another pulled him toward the call for help. The woman screamed again, the sound cut short in the middle, and Jim detoured south and dashed over another series of evenly spaced hills toward the sound.
Pulling his most primitive weapon from a pocket, Jim rounded the corner of a half-fallen wall and found three men crouching in the weeds. A woman sobbed, her arms held to the damp ground by two while a third knelt at her side. A child sobbed, pressing himself to the cold brick of the wall. Jim stopped.
"Let her go," he said softly, tightening his grip on his knife. None of the men seemed to be armed, but from their smug expressions, they didn't feel particularly threatened.
"Walk away, buddy. You don't want in on this fight."
"Maybe I do," Jim said as he stepped closer. One man stood, gesturing with a palm for the other two to hold the woman.
"You're new around here, but trust me, you do not want to start a fight." The young man turned his body so that Jim could see the symbol that had been carved into his arm. A rough half-circle of white scar tissue rose up from the arm.
"Not impressed," Jim shrugged as he shifted his feet, ready for a fight. Now the other two men stood up. The woman crab-walked backwards, scrambling through the weeds until she reached the wall. For a second she remained frozen, her eyes staring at Jim in shock, then she snatched up her crying child and ran.
"Fuck. Well, since you took away our fun, I guess you get to replace her," the first young man said with a nasty smile.
"It's going to take more than three of you," Jim answered smugly as he studied the enemy. Thug number one favored his left side slightly, soreness or some sort of minor injury. One hit on his left knee would take him out. Thug number two moved awkwardly. He was new at this. Jim dismissed him as a minor nuisance and focused on thug number three. This one pulled out a long hunk of metal with a sharpened barb on the end. He moved well, but he swung his weapon wildly. He would do as much damage to his friends as to Jim.
All three moved at once. Jim struck the first guy's knee before darting backwards behind guy number two. Before two could react to the prey moving toward him instead of running away, Jim shoved him toward guy three.
Awkward guy stumbled into his friend and then crashed to the ground leaving Jim one on one with the only real threat. The leader was still rolling around on the ground holding his leg to his chest and cursing.
"Are you sure you want to do that?" Jim asked calmly. The thug stopped and looked at his two fallen friends. The awkward one struggled back to his feet, blood dripping from an injured hand, but the leader wouldn't get up any time soon.
"You're marked," the thug threatened. "We'll remember you!"
"Any time you think you can take me," Jim smiled his answer. Now he just had to find his guide and get back to the city before this idiot could get the rest of his gang together. Even now the guide scent blew on the wind stronger than ever.
"You're dead," thug three promised and numbers two and three backed away. Thug one just lay on the ground moaning now.
"Nice friends," Jim commented to the fallen man as he sniffed the air and found the direction he wanted once more. Slipping the knife back into a pocket, Jim set a strong pace. He wanted his guide before darkness fell.
Jim knew he had reached some sort of settlement. The weeds grew shorter, and here they were held back from small hills sprouting with the green tops of vegetables. Most of the buildings were gone… no rubble or twisted metal jabbing up toward the sky, just small hills and low walls. But ahead Jim could see stone buildings still standing fairly untouched despite their age and crumbled corners.
All this Jim could see without being a sentinel. However, his senses also whispered to him about the smell of meat smoking and vegetables boiling over unseen fires. He could hear heartbeats in the distance, and taste the sour smell of unwashed bodies on the air. And now guide smell permeated everything. The vegetable patch he passed, the cow lazily chewing cud in the field, the wide stone basin filled with scummy water—they all smelled of guide.
Jim slowed his trot to a walk as he approached the first stone building. It was three stories, and Jim could see the rough edges of wood planks replacing the roof, but the building itself remained solid. Considering the ruins Jim had seen everywhere else, he was surprised.
"You're a stranger," an older woman said as she stepped out of the shadow of the open doorway. Her hair was pure white, and lines guarded her eyes. Jim hadn't expected to meet an outlander who had lived to such an age. He stopped and nodded toward her.
"I'm passing through," he answered respectfully. He doubted that she had any real power, but she could be speaking for the one who did, and Jim just needed these people to step aside and let him find his guide.
"He's a sentinel," a voice whispered from behind, and Jim turned around to see his young watcher from earlier standing behind him. Too far behind him. Jim flinched as he realized that he had, in fact, just outted himself. Shit, outsmarted by a twelve-year-old outlander. "He is; he's a sentinel," the girl repeated, this time loudly enough for the woman to hear.
Cringing with chagrin, Jim turned back towards the older woman. He'd grown used to his senses being dulled by his lack of a guide, and now, with a fresh and tantalizing guide scent in his nose, his sense were opening up the way they never had before. In the enclave, he'd been surrounded by guides, and even then his senses had not opened so fully.
"Sentinel, why are you here?" the woman asked.
"I'm just doing a little looking around," Jim said, holding his hands out in the traditional gesture of harmlessness or surrender. The woman's heart rate spiked.
"You search for a guide."
"Yes," Jim admitted. He wasn't the first sentinel to walk the outlands, so he shouldn't be surprised that these people had their own stories. Jim just hoped that he wouldn't get mobbed by outlanders desperate for someone to take them out of this life. More faces appeared at windows, and a young man on the edge of adolescence stepped into the space next to the old woman.
"He stopped the Marks," said a voice from an upper window. Jim glanced up and saw the woman he had rescued earlier. A red handprint sprawled across one cheek.
"Did he?" The old woman stepped forward, and suddenly Jim could hear something… one heartbeat pounding above the cacophony.
"Guide," Jim whispered as he took a step forward. The heartbeat raced erratically and grew more faint with each second.
"Sentinel, you have endangered the tribe," the old woman said as she stepped into his path. Jim shook his head as the words sunk in.
"The Marks. Our truce is very limited. They will come here seeking you, and you'll be gone, back to your city."
"Then tell them that," Jim said dismissively as he stepped closer to her and the sound of the fading heartbeat.
"They won't believe us," the boy said, his voice breaking as he stepped closer to woman, blocking the doorway.
That's when Jim knew. They hid his guide. They knew. Jim lunged forward and grabbed the boy's tunic, yanking him forward and out of his way before he darted into the dark.
Inside, the guide smell made Jim stagger to a halt. Casting a quick look around, Jim noticed the clean room, the looms with cloth half-woven, and roots hanging in the dark corners. Ignoring the glorious smell of guide, Jim focused on his hearing.
Feet shuffled above him, dozens of whispering voices gathering near the stairs. A baby cried in the distance, but all that faded as Jim found the sound he wanted. He took off toward a distant door.
Once he threw aside the thin plank blocking the door, Jim gasped. Pain. Blinking away tears, Jim could see the broken shards of glass sparkling in the dim light. The heavy spice dust still floated in the air, and Jim choked even as he forced himself to go through the room to the far side where a thin sheet of bent metal blocked the exit. This time, Jim moved it more carefully, but outside he found only sunshine and more buildings.
Faces watched him from under stone arches. Scanning the group, Jim quickly decided his guide wasn't there. His guide was running from him. Since the heartbeat had faded into the distance, Jim carefully opened his scent. Immediately, his eyes watered as the spice that clung to his clothes assaulted him. However, he caught the sour trail of fear that marked his guide's retreat.
Jim charged toward the gap between two stone buildings. Silent eyes considered him. A group of children playing in the fading light from the sunset stopped to watch as Jim dashed past them.
The buildings had obviously been part of a complex at some point with grey stone and arched doorways and pillars throughout, but Jim only noticed that in passing as he chased that elusive scent, his hearing reaching out for the sound of the guide's heart.
Jim had reached the far edge of the building complex when the scream of strained metal ripped through his hearing, dropping him to his knees. Gasping for air and struggling against an urge to vomit, Jim pushed himself up with his hands. Metal screamed again, but this time he had closed down his hearing some so that the sound just sent rough shivers down his spine without knocking him to the ground.
Growling, Jim turned east, where a thin man stood next to a tall strip of metal. He still had a stick of some sort in his hand. Jim could see the metal tremble, and the man raised the stick to strike it again.
"Don't," Jim snarled. The man dropped the stick and ran for one of the gaping doorways.
Fuck. Well, now Jim had lost the scent and the sound, but he wasn't giving up that easily. He'd found a hundred guides whose scents had soured his nose. He'd found a dozen who didn't repulse him, but this guide… this was the first whose scent had sharpened his senses and called to him. He'd find his guide.
Jim closed his hearing to mundane-normal since the heartbeat would be long gone, and he opened his scent. Immediately, he fell to the ground again. Shit. Tiny particles stung and stabbed his nose until tears ran from his eyes and he struggled to breathe.
"Sentinel, come away from there," a voice called. Wrong voice. Blinded by tears and nearly deaf and insensible as his senses all shut down at the attack, Jim couldn't identify the hands that pulled at him. He jerked away, but that simply sent him crashing to the ground, his hands pressed to the damp ground and leaves sticking to his skin.
"Sentinel. It's not safe for you here. Sentinel, come away." The voice called again, hands pulled at him, and this time Jim didn't fight as others pulled him away from the spot where he last smelled his guide, where he lost his guide. He stumbled after hands which led him into one of the buildings and up stairs, and some part of Jim panicked at being so out of control. But his hearing and sight and smell all screamed at him, and he couldn't do more than struggle to retain consciousness as outlanders led him where they wanted and guided him to sit.
In the darkness of Jim's injured senses, hands travelled over him and, eventually, Jim figured out they brushed dirt from him and washed his face and brought fresh smelling herbs that slowly soothed his swollen nose. His senses careened out of control. They fell to near nothing so that Jim could only float on the lack of sensory input and then spiked until even the fresh mint overwhelmed him. Eventually, the pain began withdrawing so that Jim could start trusting what his senses told him about the world. They were inside. The sun had set, and he ached. Reaching up, Jim wiped his face and realized that he had a significant nosebleed.
"Are you better?"
The older woman crouched in front of him, and Jim blinked at her through tear-blurred eyes as he considered the answer. He'd finally found a guide who called to him, and that guide had run like a rabbit. And even more annoying, these people had helped cover his guide’s tracks. Tightening his jaw against the curses that threatened to fall out of his mouth, Jim took the damp rag from her hand and mopped up the last of the blood that trickled from his abused nose.
"It's dark. You might want to sleep here before you walk back to the city," the woman suggested as Jim wiped the corners of his still-watering eyes.
And if I do, he'll stay out there," Jim answered her. She didn't answer, but Jim knew it was the truth. His guide was avoiding him, frightened of him. It made Jim's protective instincts jangle with apprehension.
"I'm leaving," Jim said as he pushed himself off the pile of furs where someone had led him.
"He won't come back tonight. Not even if you leave."
Jim looked up to see the same boy who had stood next to the old woman out front. He hovered near an open door and nervously ran his hand up and down the metal trimming the edge. He smelled of not just fear, but terror. Jim frowned and looked at the woman. She wasn't afraid.
"It's not safe out there." Jim took a step forward into the dim light of a candle, and the boy backed up.
"He has grown up here. He knows how to keep himself safe," the old woman stepped in Jim's path, and he stopped. "You do not."
"I can take care of myself just fine," Jim disagreed with her. She looked up at him, her eyes studying his face before she slowly shook her head.
"You attack the Marks without understanding your enemy. You cannot defend your own senses, so you must be desperate for a guide. You don't know the terrain or where to go if a large gang of Marks spots you. He knows this world; you don't. He would not want you wandering around after dark."
"He wouldn't want me out there?" Jim demanded incredulously. His anger boiled until he fisted his hands and used every bit of control to not charge past her and go searching the dark for this mysterious "him." Unfortunately, Jim's senses weren't even up to mundane-normal and he couldn't just stumble around the dark hoping to run into a man who had clearly prepared ahead.
"If he doesn't want me out there, then he should come and tell me to my face. This is a free confederation. If I make my case for why he should become my guide, and then he refuses, I can't force him. All he has to do is to say 'no' and he can stay right here in the lap of luxury," Jim snapped as he waved his hand toward the room. The floor was bare, a few threads clinging to corners where a carpet had long ago rotted away. The doors and windows had disappeared as well. In a rough wood trough something pale and bulbous grew in dark soil, and two candles weakly lit the entire space.
The old woman never flinched but simply watched Jim with a calm that just made him even more angry.
"He does his duty as he sees it," she quietly announced. Then she turned away. The boy came forward and offered her his arm, which she held as he escorted her from the room.
Jim sighed and looked up at the ceiling. Bare girders and a few metal straps decorated the underside of the metal beams making the floor of the room above. "Simon, I could really use some help on this one," he whispered to the universe as he blinked away the last of the spice. He didn't add that he could use Rafe, but without any guide to leak the necessary hormones into the air, Jim could feel his senses slide farther out of his control. Soon he would have to either head back to the enclave or risk losing all of his control.
Fuck and fuck. Jim bent down and grabbed his cloak, checking each pocket before he slipped it back on over his Patria-purchased brown trousers and shirt. So much for inconspicuous, Jim thought wryly, as he headed out into the dark hallway, carrying the last candle with him.
With his eyes still watering he couldn't open his sight even up to mundane-normal, so he walked slowly, never knowing what he might find. He found only a quiet hall with doors at regular intervals. A few doors had cloth or planks propped in the openings, but most were open. At the end was a large stairwell. Choosing to go down, Jim walked carefully, avoiding entirely the one step where the edge had crumbled to dust and a plank lay over it to make an uneven replacement for the damage.
The lower floor was moving with life, and now that Jim could see the people tending fires near the open windows, Jim's hearing decided to cooperate so that he could hear the crackling spitting of damp wood and the wild whispers that appeared when he walked into the large room. Unlike the floors above, someone had removed most of the walls on this level leaving rough lines of jagged concrete on the floor where there used to be walls. Six of the rooms from above had been turned into one large space, and at the far side, Jim could see a hallway that led to more individual rooms.
"Sentinel," a young woman breathed. She had crouched next to a nearby fire, but now she stood and walked toward him. Jim could smell her desire, and now his scent had the bad timing to open. Sweat, dirt, the sour stink of fear, the sharpness of disease, the decay of plants, the subtle rot from the various furs. Jim stepped backwards.
"Would you like food?" she asked as she held something out. Jim wavered. He had rations, but he wasn't about to eat them in front of these people who seemed to live on boiled plants and the flesh from animals.
He shook his head. She stopped advancing, but didn't go back to her own place. Slowly, Jim walked farther into the room, looking around as children sat on the floor and stared up at him.
"Sentinel," another woman said respectfully. Women tended the fires and watched him with eyes that ranged from suspicious to worshipful. A few young men and older boys gathered on the edges of the group. Little boys and girls played in the dust and ash scattered on the concrete floor. The man who had struck the metal to disable Jim's hearing stood near one wall looking like he would run any second.
The old woman sat in a corner crushing leaves with a smooth stone by the light of her fire, and Jim headed towards her. The young man from earlier had vanished, maybe joining the other boys in the shadowed corners. Jim sat cross-legged on the floor across the fire from her.
"I respect that he feels an obligation here," Jim started, far more cautious of his words. "I just want a chance to show him that he has more than one obligation, more than one choice."
She didn't pause in her grinding.
"I am not some knuckle dragging caveman who's going to carry him back to Patria."
She smiled at that, but Jim didn't especially like her smile. She coughed and kept grinding.
"If I make my case and he tells me that his work here is too important to leave, I'll respect that."
"He has made his choice."
"He hasn't given me a chance to explain my side," Jim countered. She paused.
"He understands your side as well."
"No." Jim slapped his hand against the cold floor and a cloud of dust rose into the air, a wind brushing it away. "No, he doesn't," he said more calmly, but that didn't change the fact that faces watched him suspiciously now. "I've been to four enclaves. The Earth enclave was my last chance, and it took me three months to get here. I get off the ship, and every guide smells… wrong. Some smell less wrong than others, but whatever it is that makes other Sentinels smell them and want them… I don't have it." Jim flinched at sharing so much truth… too much truth… but he needed to make her understand. He needed to find his guide.
She pursed her lips. "We all have obligations and choices," she agreed slowly. Jim closed his eyes as hope threatened to overwhelm him.
"Just tell me where he is. I promise, if he says no, I'll find my own way back to Patria."
She shrugged. "Who knows where Blair hides. The earth loves him; she opens new folds for him to hide in."
Blair. Jim rolled the word through his mind. Blair.
"I'll wait for him," Jim announced. That made the woman frown.
"No, you will not," she declared. "You have endangered the tribe, Sentinel. You have challenged the Marks and a delicate balance is shattered. You will leave when the sun first rises, and if Blair chooses you, he will find you."
Jim sat stone-faced as he struggled with an urge to grab the woman by the neck and squeeze an answer out of her. "I don't—"
"No!" she interrupted. "You have had your say, but as Sentinel, you will not endanger the tribe."
"I won't endanger—"
"You won't mean to, but you will if you stay. The Mother of All Sentinels gave birth to her children to protect the tribe, and that is your first duty," she said fiercely. "Not to yourself or to your guide, but to the Mother who calls on you to protect the people."
Jim found himself grinding his teeth at the primitive religion. In Elite Guard rules couldn't control him; mumbo-jumbo sure as hell wasn't going to work.
"Tomorrow you will leave," she interrupted him, nodded as if they had reached some agreement. "If Blair seeks you, then you will know which duty he chooses. If not, you know what you must do." She stood and took the heavy bowl with her to another woman's fire. A group of women surrounded her, hiding her from Jim, and he sighed in defeat. No matter what, Jim did know what he would have to do… stake out their village and wait for his chance to find his guide.
Three days. Jim shifted in the small space he'd claimed under a fallen pillar. It leaned precariously against a ruined wall, and anyone else would be afraid to sit in the deep shade, but Jim could hear the wind slide along the steel and concrete without any groans or shifting. He could feel the stability through his fingertips.
He sat in the shade eating a dry ration as yet another group of women swept through the trees gathering grasses or rocks or whatever the hell it was they were gathering today. They smelled of fear. The wind had shifted so Jim could only smell a trace of the cooking fires from the village. Tonight, like the last two nights, he would creep out and circle the compound as he searched for that scent. He wouldn't leave; not until he had found his guide and made the man at least listen to Jim's proposal.
Stretching his legs in the fading light of sunset, Jim watched the women look up toward the sky. One suggested they go back, and all of the women then flocked together before they headed back up the path. Jim waited. Sometimes older children would wander after the women had already gone inside, and as his young watcher from the first day had proven, they were a wily lot. Jim didn't like getting caught by a child once, but he would not be caught again.
As the sun set, the insects started chirping, creating a white noise that soothed Jim's hearing. It let him open it farther than he had ever dared, even when he was with Simon and Rafe.
He could hear the familiar sounds of outlanders breaking wood and starting their fires. The heat was such that they only did that when they needed to cook… or when they needed the smoke to drive away insects, Jim mused as he slapped his arm. As the darkness spread, the mosquitoes started eating him. He already looked as bad as he did that time he had not closed down his sense of touch fast enough when a pirate masquerading as a transport captain had tossed an acid bomb.
Opening his hearing farther, Jim could track small animals scurrying through the tall trees and a herd of something large but soft-footed pacing south of him. He couldn't hear human footsteps in the jungle.
Crawling out of his shelter, Jim prayed that Simon showed a little patience. Or, to be more accurate, he prayed that Rafe showed patience and was able to keep Simon away. Eventually Simon would track Jim down but, right now, Jim needed the time to find his missing guide.
Slapping at the bugs that landed on him, Jim headed into the jungle, slowly circling the compound as he opened his senses. Every night he could smell the faint traces of his guide all over the compound, but tonight, that musk was stronger. Smiling ferally, Jim stalked closer to the edge of the compound.
Winds blew stronger, and now Jim could smell the sweat. Young. Male. Guide. Breathing deeply, Jim turned his head toward the source and started moving silently through the jungle.
With his senses stretched farther than ever before, Jim could hear one set of footsteps padding across the cracked concrete walks of the compound. A figure appeared, and Jim crouched.
He was young. Long, curled hair tumbled past his shoulders and his clothes, unlike the others, were of leather and not spun cloth. Walking without even a candle, he went slowly to the edge of the compound and sat on a wall made from tumbled stones piled together. Pulling his legs under him, he tilted his head up.
"Moon, if you have any advice, I'm willing to listen," he whispered, but Jim could hear each soft word. Since he couldn't indulge in touch or taste, Jim settled for dialing his sight all the way up so that the moonlight turned darkness to day. Now Jim could see the brown curls streaked with red and the blue eyes.
"Naomi always told me that you would send a sentinel, but man, I'm losing some faith here. I thought this time—." Blair spoke so softly that even Jim struggled to catch the words. With every ounce of training he'd ever learned, Jim closed in on his prey. If the kid wanted a sentinel, Jim was very happy to provide one. Maybe the old woman had lied about Blair's unwillingness to bond.
Blair sat silent, staring up at the sky until Jim got within 50 feet. Then, despite the fact that Jim moved silently through the tall weeds and big trees, Blair sat up and scanned the jungle.
Jim's original plan had included grabbing the guide, hauling him back to the clinic, and then having a talk where the old woman or the group couldn't influence him. However, 50 feet was too large a gap for Jim to quickly close.
"Hello?" Blair called again, getting off the wall and standing ready to flee.
Jim stepped out with his hands raised in surrender.
"Guide," he said quietly.
"Sentinel." Blair didn't just sound surprised, he sounded stunned.
"Sentinel Jim Ellison," Jim introduced himself as he moved cautiously forward. Blair didn't run, but then he seemed more frozen in shock than anything else. "I just wanted to sit down with you and have a conversation."
"Great moon, when I pray, I don't normally get this kind of response. Moon is really more likely to ignore me than anything else," Blair answered. He also backed up so that the low wall stood between them. Jim stopped.
"You pray to the moon," Jim said, glancing up. Right. He knew that if he found an outlander they would have some strange beliefs.
"I pray to what the moon represents," Blair corrected him. "The moon is a symbol, something to focus on as I talk to the universe."
"So you pray to the universe?" Jim asked, no less disturbed by that thought. He'd flown through much of the universe, and he hadn't seen much worthy of prayer.
"My friend , you are way too literal." Blair shook his head, but he didn't look upset, so Jim slid a little closer.
"I tried to see you the other day."
"Anna was telling me. Sentinels have come before, but they don't usually hang around and talk to the little people, afterward."
"Little people?" Jim glanced toward the compound.
"That's how most sentinels treat outlanders, like we're some sort of lower lifeform—the mold growing on their shoe."
"If they thought that, they wouldn't come out here," Jim pointed out.
Blair laughed. "You are far too literal. Far. They may want a guide, but they're coming out here to rescue one, to take one out of the misery of living on earth. They don't actually think outlanders are equal or could be equal, they just want to wash the primitive right out of us, and I'm a little old to wash out the old brain."
"I wouldn't, I mean, I don't expect you to change who you are. If you want to worship the universe, I'm not asking you to stop."
"Not going to be sent away with a simple 'no,' are you?" Blair sighed. "Anna said you'd had trouble finding a guide."
"Enough that I spend three years' savings to come here," Jim admitted. "I've zoned a lot lately, and a few times, the senses have gone off-line."
"Have you zoned since you've been out here?"
Jim kept his face neutral, but inside he cheered the question. The thought of Jim zoning had bothered Blair. The first tentative sentinel-guide bonds slipped into place. "There's really not much to zone on, not since that trick with the metal noisemaker."
Blair flinched. "No way would that make you zone. You had scent and hearing going off the charts, so the one would have kept you from sliding into any zone created by the other."
"You've studied sentinels," Jim tried to keep his voice neutral, but he must have failed because Blair shot him a sharp look. Rather than try to get closer to the guide, Jim moved in an arc until he reached the wall about twenty feet south of Blair. He casually sat on a pile of square stones.
"I'm a guide; of course I've studied them."
"At the enclave?"
"Not by every traitorous star," Blair snapped, his anger stabbing at Jim as pheromones flowed. Jim could feel his own adrenaline surge and his heart pound heavily in his ears. "Great moon , I’m sorry. I studied sentinels, and I so totally know what I'm not supposed to do, but then I go and flood you with fight hormones when there's no one to fight."
"It's okay, Chief," Jim waved his hand as he struggled to tell his own body to stand down. "You haven't trained, and you didn't know."
"I did know. And if the Marks were coming over the hill ready to rape the women in the compound, I would so totally let my anger loose, but you can't do anything about a fucked up universe."
Jim sighed. Shit. This was worse than he had feared. "Chief, one of the reasons guides need training is that you can't let that gland run away with you. More to the point, you can't let that gland run away with any sentinel you might bond with. I'm sure your people have stories of sentinels, but the real deal isn't anything like the myths or legends you might have heard."
For a moment, Blair just stood looking up at the sky, probably praying to his moon again. The logical side of Jim's brain told him to run now before his last two senses locked on this guide. The rest of his brain watched the way the moonlight washed over Blair's strong features and the way he smelled of hard work and kindness.
"You have no idea where you are, do you?" he finally asked. Jim wasn't sure if Blair was talking to him or the moon. Blair sat down on the rough wall and looked over toward Jim.
"Don't you know what this was?"
"It was a city," Jim shrugged.
"It was Cascade. You're sitting at the edge of what was Rainier University, the center of the rebirth of sentinels."
"Sentinels developed as a response to space flight. Long-term space flight forces some people to develop acute sensory responses as a reaction to the lack of stimulus," Jim explained patiently.
"That's what they tell you?" Blair asked curiously. "They lie."
"And you're telling the truth?" Jim crossed his arms disbelievingly two seconds before his brain could remind him that he was supposed to be courting the man as his guide.
Blair just smiled. "Some of the records are lost. They were on paper. Some are on plastics that survive, and others my people have copied, carving the letters into metal sheets so that when the paper crumbles, the ideas won't crumble with them." Blair looked back toward the compound. "You're a sentinel, so use those senses of yours to see if I'm lying."
Jim allowed himself to violate the man's privacy as he searched for clues beyond the sound of the heart and the scent of guide gland. "You aren't."
"Exactly," Blair said triumphantly. "Rainier had a department studying the physiological effects of long-term space flight. The first sentinel was one of the returning astronauts. But after the man nearly ripped his own skin off, the program started testing for sentinels, weeding them out. They'd leave potential astronauts alone for two weeks in a small bunker. It doesn't take space to bring out the senses, it takes silence, and the world then didn't have enough silence."
Jim took a deep breath. "Astronauts?" he stalled, as he tried to figure out a way to deal with this delusion.
"The first people to explore space. The people who live here now… we've come here because this was the beginning of the end. Maybe some of us hope it can be the beginning of something better."
"Chief." Jim stopped, his words failing him. "Chief, I understand that you have your belief systems, but whether the first sentinels were in space or here, it doesn't change things today." Jim pulled one leg up and leaned on it as he watched Blair, practically feeling the moment when his words truly reached him.
Blair nodded. "Yeah, I guess not." Blair stood up and started walking back toward the compound.
"Blair," Jim called. The guide didn't turn around. This despair wasn't the reaction Jim had hoped for.
"Go home, sentinel." Blair sounded tired, and Jim could feel himself respond to that emotion as well. He reined his feelings in, hard.
"I think I've earned a right to make my case," Jim said as he stood and took a step toward Blair's retreating back. Every instinct Jim possessed told him to grab the guide and, unlike a trained guide, Blair wasn't dampening his own feelings. It made it all the more difficult for Jim to focus on the logic of his argument.
"What have you done to earn that right?" Blair asked, his voice tight with some emotion that not even Jim with all his sentinel senses could identify.
"I've worked for twenty years to protect people, I'm a commissioned officer of the Sentinel Guard, and an ethical, strong man," Jim countered. Blair turned around and looked at him.
"What have you done for the people?" Blair asked. Jim considered a dozen different answers. He knew he had one shot at this.
"I have arrested dozens of smugglers whose drugs would have corrupted and addicted millions. I've traced a ship full of immigrants who were taken by slavers by tracking the scent from a child's dropped blanket. I have fought in a half dozen battles, helping stations hold off attackers. I have inspected engines and hulls and seals and found defects so small that no instrument could have identified them, and any one of those could have led to decompressions that would have killed hundreds, maybe thousands. And this is what I've done without a guide. But now, my senses are failing me. I need help." Jim swallowed his pride on the last part, but it was the truth, and if Jim wanted a guide, he had to be willing to share more of himself than he had with others.
"So, you protect your tribe?"
Jim controlled the urge to roll his eyes at the constant tribal references. "I protect the confederacy," he agreed instead.
"Is Patria in the confederacy?"
"Yes." Jim watched as a dozen emotions flitted across Blair's face.
"So, why not me?"
Jim waited for the rest of the question, the chirp of insects filling the air between him and his chosen guide. "Why not you?" Jim prompted.
"Why haven't you ever protected me?" Blair exploded, his fury battering at Jim who dropped into a protective crouch and struggled with an almost overwhelming need to grab Blair and kill whatever made the guide so angry. "Why didn't you protect me when I was suffering? Where were the sentinels and their precious protective instincts when Naomi…" Blair's voice broke.
Blair turned and took two running steps before Jim's control shattered. He charged after Blair catching him around the waist and driving him to the ground while he pulled out his blaster with his free hand.
His senses turned on fully, Jim studied the jungle, searching for a danger. Instead he could only see trees and the silent buildings on the edge of the compound. Eventually, Jim's fear and defensiveness faded as his senses instead focused on the feel of Blair's neck under his hand.
Jim knelt in the grass next to Blair, his hand pinning the guide to the ground, and all Blair did was blink up at him. Under his fingers Blair's skin was warm and soft. The curls brushed the back of Jim's hand, catching on the small hairs on the backs of his fingers so the breeze tugged them when it ruffled Blair's hair.
"Blair, I'm sorry," Jim offered as he slowly leaned back, letting go of Blair's neck.
"My fault," Blair refused to look at Jim as he pushed himself up to his knees.
"I want you as a guide. Once you've been trained, we'll do better," Jim promised. "There's so much work to be done. You could help me do it."
Blair shook his head, and Jim could smell salt. "There's work to do, but it's here, Sentinel. These are my people."
"I could offer you something more than this."
"You could offer me something different, but if we want something better with our lives, we have to make it for ourselves, not wait for someone to ride in and rescue us," Blair disagreed. He slowly stood.
"Blair," Jim pleaded without getting up from the ground.
"Hey, you don't want some guide so superstitious that he would actually believe that the moon sent you as an answer to a prayer. I wouldn't fit in up there." Blair gestured toward the stars.
"You don't know me well, but when you get to know me, you'll find out that I don't give a shit about what other people think," Jim argued. "I could offer you a good life, a life without the Marks and with food any time you opened a chiller.”
"I don't care what most people think," Blair said slowly, "But I care what some people think. The stars and the life you offer… it's greed. That's so not my path."
"Blair," Jim called as he felt his chance slipping away.
"Go home, Jim. Go find a nice trained guide."
Long after Blair had walked back to the compound, Jim continued to kneel on the ground, his mouth open as he tasted a few random molecules Blair had shed as he’d walked away.
Jim woke back in his hiding place. He had vague memories of walking back long after the moon had vanished below the horizon. He remembered Blair praying to it last night, and had an insane moment where he felt like he could get Blair back if he could just find the moon and offer his own prayers.
Crawling out into the light, Jim knew he had to head back to Patria. "If you have any pull over him, I wouldn't mind a little help," Jim jokingly said to the sky and the bright sun that shone through the trees. He didn't expect an answer, and the universe didn't disappoint him.
Feeling more tired than he had in his whole life, Jim headed down the trail away from Blair. His senses surged out of control, first magnifying the mottled light filtering through the trees so that it blinded Jim and then fading until the trees and air and sky turned almost gray.
Jim wanted to get home. He wanted a bath and a new set of clothes. Hell, he wanted his uniform. If he was going out on a zone, he didn't want to die still dressed in clothes from his desperate and crazy search. He didn't want to die dirty.
His scent had spiked, making him choke on the smell of rotting vegetation so strongly that Jim didn't even notice another sentinel or guide. He leaned against a tree, his fingers unable to even feel the texture of the bark as he leaned over and vomited again and again. The acidic sour made his nausea even worse until he dry heaved.
"Jim?" a voice almost whispered.
Jim jerked and twisted so hard that he lost his balance and sat heavily on a rock, barely missing his own pile of vomit.
"Rafe," Jim breathed, the guide scent only partially settling his rebelling senses.
"Oh fuck. What happened?" Simon asked as he stepped close. He held out his hand to help Jim up, and Jim took it, desperate to get away from the smell of his own vomit.
"I just need to get back to Patria, Simon."
"We're going straight to the enclave, and you're picking one of those guides. Period."
"Can't do it, Simon," Jim hoarsely confessed. His stomach ached from the painful heaves.
Simon's words were angry, but his hands gently checked Jim for injures before he slipped an arm around Jim's waist. Rafe slipped in at the other side, and now the scent of sentinel and guide buffered the worst of the sensory overload.
"I can't bond with them," Jim repeated. "All five senses on another guide."
"Christ," Simon snapped. "And where is this guide?"
"He had a prior obligation," Jim joked. He could feel Rafe stiffen, the guide's anger leaking into the air before he quickly controlled the emotion.
"He didn't know I'd gotten taste," Jim defended Blair. "And I wouldn't have gotten touch, only I tackled him and held him on the ground."
"What the hell have you been doing?" Simon kept walking, and Jim let his feet mechanically move with his captain as he considered the answer.
"Fucking up," he finally admitted.
"In an impressive way," Simon joked. "Okay, forty-eight hours of isolation, and we can clear the imprint. Do you remember the names of any of the guides who didn't completely offend your precious nose?"
Jim shook his head. "Never going to make it, Simon. I'd rather go out with a little more dignity than naked and floating in a Zedgrav.
"Damn it, you are not giving up."
"Little late. Just help me get cleaned up and comfortable, okay? I'm serious; I don't want to die like this." Jim looked down at the ragged cloak. After sleeping in his clothes for so long, he smelled as bad as the outlanders.
"If you don't make it, I will pull you out of the Zedgrav and dress you myself, but you are not going to give up, is that clear Sentinel Guard Ellison?" Simon commanded.
Jim shook his head as a sound nagged at the edge of his awareness.
"Don't you dare zone now, Ellison. I will leave your stinking ass right here on the path if you let yourself slide away. You fight this."
Jim ignored that voice as his hearing stretched across the jungle.
"One foot in front of the other. Rafe, distract him with something other than hearing."
Footfalls. Angry. Shouts. Women screamed. Jim stopped.
"It's not working." Even though Rafe's voice rang so loud that it made Jim's skull vibrate, his hearing inched open even farther.
The Marks. Jim shook off the hands supporting him as he stumbled backwards on the path.
"Grab him," Simon called.
"Blair," Jim growled the word, the sound of Blair's fearful voice translating to fury in Jim's guts.
"My guide," Jim growled before he turned and charged down the path towards the compound, towards Blair.
His senses focused in a tight tunnel ahead of him, Jim pulled his blaster and thumbed it over to maximum with breaking stride. They'd hit his guide. Jim turned the last bend in the path, and now he could see an armed man between the trees. Not recognizing him, Jim took aim and fired. With a scream, the first man fell.
Closing the distance, Jim fired at the ragged men and older boys who stood in the clearing facing off against Blair and the huddled population of his compound. Something bit him, and Jim noticed with a strange detachment that a shaft of wood now stuck out from his arm. Smiling cruelly, he turned his blaster toward the attacker and fired, watching as the archer's chest exploded.
Men scattered, and Jim fired at them as they scrambled away. He didn't even realize that Simon had followed until he stopped firing, and blaster fire covered him. His eyes found Blair still sprawled on the ground with a reddened cheek.
"Blair," Jim said carefully. The women backed up, and Blair looked at him suspiciously.
"What did you call me?" he asked. "What did you say?
"Blair? Isn't that your name?" Jim stopped, confused.
"Before. What did you say before?"
"Before what?" Jim looked at the gathered women, who watched him with a cautious awe.
"When you came charging into the field blasting anyone you could, what did you call me?"
Jim turned at looked at Simon in confusion. The outlanders might all be insane, but he could trust Simon to have kept his cool. Instead, Simon stared at him with raised eyebrows.
"I think it was, 'My guide, My territory'," Rafe offered.
"I said…" Jim stopped and looked back at Blair who was getting up from the ground, his long hair flopping in his face. "I said 'My territory'?"
"Oh man, I hope you meant it because you just totally declared war."
Jim blinked as he looked at the fallen attackers. Two groaned, and one crawled toward the shadow of a tree. Six more lay awkwardly sprawled on the ground, only one had a heartbeat, and it was fading.
"Are you here to claim your territory, sentinel?" Blair walked forward, resting his hand on Jim's arm. Jim reached up with his left hand and scrubbed his face as he tried to sort his emotions.
"We could get special dispensation at Patria. Explain that I went on a sentinel rage and put your village at risk. We could force the government to relocate you, maybe even give citizenship."
Jim stopped when Blair shook his head. "You didn't just claim a guide, Jim, you claimed a territory. This is my home. This is the birthplace of sentinels. This is where we're trying to get back something that we lost a long time ago."
"Jim," Simon interrupted. "This is a dead planet. You have work to do."
"Dead?" Blair demanded incredulously. "Look at this place. This planet has more life than ever. The old pictures show miles of stone, but now the world is full of life. Life squeezed into every cranny."
"That's not what he means," Jim said as he let the hand that had scrubbed his face rest on Blair's shoulder. "This planet is mined out. You couldn't get enough rare minerals to scrape together one rocket."
"And you can't find a guide with all the rockets in the universe. The clinic… they want our children tested so they can look for sensory ganglia and guide glands and temporal math clusters in the brain. They want us to bring our best to them. Why? If you don't need us, why do you offer mothers food if they'll give away their children?"
"They're trying to help those they can," Rafe said quietly. Blair turned and looked at the other guide.
"If they were trying to help, why not just give us food? Why not do something about the Marks so that we can farm without being afraid? They don't want to help; they want us. They don't have enough guides or pilots, so they steal ours."
"Blair," a voice called. Jim glanced over his shoulder to see Anna with her white hair, her hand resting heavily on her young man's shoulder.
"We have work to do at the compound. Is your sentinel coming?" The other women accepted the tacit command and started leaving the scene, pulling frightened children along with them as they headed to the compound. Anna simply stood staring at Jim.
"I…" Jim paused, not sure what to say. He looked back toward Simon.
"Sentinel, you must choose," Anna said as she stepped forward. She reached out a trembling hand toward Blair. "Grandson," she called.
"Jim?" Blair asked as he turned blue eyes up toward Jim.
"Blair, I don't know how—"
"Take a leap of faith, man. We live here. Hell, most days we enjoy living here, although you haven't exactly seen our best side."
Jim could feel the pull of Blair's hope, guide gland leaking his emotions into the air until even Simon snorted as he caught the strong smell of pure guide emotion.
"Jim, you're a lot stronger now. You'd come through the Zedgrav just fine. Let's go find you a guide who doesn't put unreasonable demands on you." Simon emphasized the word unreasonable so strongly that Jim flinched. His life or his guide.
"Jim?" Blair asked again, but his grandmother had her hand on his arm, pulling him back. Jim's fingers tightened without his permission, holding onto his guide, but then Blair stepped back. Jim let go rather than physically overpower his guide again.
"Ellison, let's go," Simon ordered as he stepped between Jim and Blair, who walked backwards with his eyes still focused on Jim.
Jim stood frozen in time, the sunlight shining down until the grass glowed with the reflected glare.
"Ellison," Simon ordered again, this time his hand on Jim's shoulder, pushing him away from Blair and the compound.
Jim shook his head. "No," he whispered. "I can't, Simon."
Blair stopped, and right now Jim focused on that instead of on Simon's incredulous expression.
"Ellison, you're judgment is seriously impaired, so I won't press charges, but you are committing insubordination."
"Our job, Simon. What's our job?" Jim asked. Blair smiled widely as he took a step closer to Jim.
"We protect the people, right?" Jim asked, his eyes still focused on Blair's open joy and not on the confused silence from Simon. "If we protect the people, shouldn't one of us stay here and protect these people?"
"Ellison," Simon warned with a growl.
"They're inhabitants of a planet in the confederacy, and therefore entitled to sentinel protection. And as a sentinel with no defined territory, I have the right to claim a territory not otherwise covered by the Sentinel Guard."
"Jim." Simon sounded wary now.
"He's my guide, Simon. And I claim this territory."
"Ellison," Simon growled.
Jim ignored his former boss as he stepped around and met Blair. Immediately, Blair tilted his head, and Jim took the offering, sucking on the base of the neck where the guide gland lay. Feeling the bond settle over them, Jim stood and smiled down. He tucked Blair under one of his arms and turned to face Simon.
"There are a few things I need to buy and some accounts to set up. How about I meet you at the clinic in a week?" he suggested.
Simon shook his head tiredly.
"You've lost your mind, and if you think I'm filling out the paperwork for you to claim a territory, you've really lost your mind," he complained. "Rafe, let's go."
Jim watched Simon and Rafe holster their weapons and head back across the field.
"Great moon. I can't believe it," Blair breathed. Jim tightened his arm around Blair.
"Someone didn't leave me much choice. And now I'm going to stink forever, aren't I?" Jim asked, but he didn't hide the humor.
"Tell me honestly, can you smell yourself, or us, in a ‘distracting you from your sentinel senses’ kind of way?" Blair asked. Jim thought about the answer, unwilling to give a quick or incomplete answer since it was his guide asking him.
"Nope," he finally admitted.
"Thought so." Blair poked Jim's stomach, and Jim caught the invading fingers in his free hand and gave them a pull.
"Bully," Blair complained as he struggled to reclaim his fingers.
"Oh yeah, I can see you're going to be a real joy to live with, Chief," Jim joked as he finally let the fingers go only to have Blair poke attack again.
"Everyone says I'm a joy, don't they, grandmother?" Blair asked the old woman who walked slowly ahead of them.
"When you're listening they do," she agreed.
"Hey!" Blair protested, and she gave a soft laugh as they walked toward the compound, toward Jim's claimed territory. He was the sentinel of Cascade.
If you enjoyed the historical feel of this piece, you might want to support your hard-working fanfic writer by checking out some professional novels.
Shepherd, Slave and Vow
Bored with the privileges and duties of a member of the first family, Ferro finds himself in the slave tents as a consequence of his antics, knowing he’ll be rescued before long. At least, that’s the way it’s always worked before. This time, though, Ferro finds himself sold as a sheep-tender along with an intriguingly mysterious slave called Lysias. For the first time, Ferro’s met someone who seems immune to his wiles, and he’ll soon learn that Lysias has more to teach him than just shepherding.