Disclaimer: The Characters of The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, The SciFi channel and others. No copyright infringement is intended.
Thanks to Mary Ellen for reading this one for me many years ago. Lory, I hope you enjoy your part in this one. Especially, this goes out to Arianna. I'm so glad we discovered our shared ancestry and that became part of this story. You'll know what I mean.
Note: A double line of ~~~~~~~ indicates a flashback sequence that takes place in the 1300s.
In TS universe time, Celtic Storm would take place after the original three 'Celtic Connection' stories. In those pieces, I was writing from a canon perspective, in that Blair would be entering the Academy soon after their return from the British Isles. However, I've since developed an AU plotline beginning with the story "A Matter of Perception". For continuity's sake with the original three tales, in 'Celtic Storm', Blair is now Detective Blair Sandburg. However, as you'll see, those who don't enjoy Blair–as–cop stories shouldn't have trouble with this one. It's much heavier on the sentinel/guide partnership than the cop one.
The door to the bullpen flew open, and the young man blew in like a storm. With long chestnut hair flying wildly behind him, his intense blue eyes flashed with excitement. He paused only long enough to scan the room, his quicksilver gaze not lingering on any of the familiar faces turned to look at him with blatant curiosity. When he didn't find the object of his search, the young man's shoulders slumped slightly as a bit of the excitement dimmed in his eyes. For an instant, he resembled a lost child more than the police detective he truly was.
A heavy hand clapped his shoulder as a friendly voice boomed out. "Hey, Hairboy! Where's the fire? You come in here all guns blastin' like that, you're gonna scare off the witness Rafe's interviewing, babe!"
Blair Sandburg perched on the corner of his desk. "Where's Jim, Henri?" His blue eyes raked over the neat piles of papers on his partner's desk next to his own. He'd long ago concluded that police paperwork was like rabbits. It multiplied prodigiously. Blair winced at the sight of the files waiting for his attention. "Doesn't look like my partner has been hitting the paperwork today, that's for sure."
Henri chuckled. "Ellison do paperwork? Not with you around, Sandburg. Nah, he and Simon ran down to forensics about an hour ago. Should be back any time now. I take it your interview up in Vancouver went well."
Blair nodded. "Got all we needed to close the file. Man, Jim will be glad to hear that. He's been working this missing person case since before I got here. Now that we've positively ID'd the body as that of Frank Tanner, the book's finally closed."
Henri's dark brown eyes regarded Blair curiously. "Something wrong, babe? You sure seemed all worked up when you burst in here."
Blair shook his head and grinned. "Everything's fine, H. I just had some news to share with Jim. That's all." He glanced at the clock on the wall. "It's nearly time for us to get off anyway." Reaching for a pad and pen he added, "I'll leave him a note. If I hang around, he'll just try to get me to work on those reports piled up on his desk. Tonight, that's the last thing I'm in the mood to do." He scribbled a quick note, then he tossed the notepad in the center of Jim's desk. "Will you make sure he sees this?" As if Jim wouldn't notice the smallest thing misaligned on his meticulous desk.
"I'll tell him it's there, Hairboy." Henri glanced over at his partner, who was typing furiously on his computer. "Speaking of reports, if I don't get myself over there and help Rafe, I'll be in the doghouse until my next promotion."
"And we all know how long that'll be," Blair joked. He deftly avoided the good–natured swipe Henri made at the back of his head.
With a quick wave at his friends and co–workers, Detective Blair Sandburg exited the Major Crimes' bullpen in only slightly less of a hurry than when he entered.********************
Jim Ellison stared down at the note lying on his desk, wishing his sentinel abilities extended to reading between the lines of his best friend's often cryptic messages.
You're not going to believe who I heard from today! I'll have a couple of beers waiting out on the balcony, so hurry home, okay? Oh, and would you go by and grab some take out? I so do not want either of us to have to cook tonight! See you in a few!
That was all. At least nothing seemed to be wrong, regardless of how little the note actually revealed. Jim's sensitive fingers could almost feel the heat of excitement burning from the page long after its author had left it behind.
Whatever's going on, Chief, at least this time, it seems to be a good thing.
The detective glanced at his watch. It had been a rather slow day. He did have plenty of paperwork to catch up on, but the next day Blair would be back in the bullpen after his two day trip to Vancouver, and his partner had more talent for completing reports in his little finger than Jim did in his entire body.
His decision was made.
Grabbing his leather jacket from the back of his chair, Jim picked up Blair's note and headed for the door.********************
By the time Jim arrived home after stopping by for some Italian take–out, the sun had disappeared, and the stars were brightly shining overhead. At least, to his sentinel eyes they were bright. That was one of the things Jim had learned to appreciate most about his enhanced senses – the lights of the city no longer kept him from enjoying the beauty of the stars. The early fall air was crisp, but not too cold to make the outdoors unpleasant.
True to his word, Blair was waiting on the balcony, sitting with a beer in one hand, an envelope in the other, and a huge grin splitting his face. His blue eyes shone with excitement. "Jim! Hey, man, about time you got here!" He handed his partner a bottle, still cold from the refrigerator.
Dropping into the chair next to Sandburg, Jim took a long drink. "Sounds like you've been waiting for me, Chief. Say you've got some news?" He looked past the balcony wall out at the city of Cascade, idly wondering if somewhere at that very instant a crime was being committed that would occupy his mind for the next day and beyond.
Let it go, Ellison, he chided himself. You're home. Check the job at the door for once. Relax. To speed up the process, he took a deep breath, willing his muscles to relax, coaxing his mind to unwind.
If Sandburg noticed Jim's efforts to ease into the relaxation of the evening, he gave no sign. "Oh, man! This is just so cool!" He stared at the envelope in his hand as if looking at a pot of gold.
Grinning affectionately at his friend's exuberance, Jim slapped him lightly on the back. "Okay, Chief! I give. What's your big news?"
Inexplicably, Jim cringed inwardly as chill gripped his heart. What if...?
Memories of a long–ago message on an answering machine came unbidden to his mind. Could this be another Borneo? Blair was his partner now, a gold shield–carrying detective, but still...
If the possibility ever opened up for Blair to resume his doctoral studies in anthropology, Jim wasn't sure what his decision would be. Rainier wouldn't take him back – Blair's press conference had cut those ties permanently – but there were plenty of other universities.
Universities far from Cascade.
Jim's reverie was cut short as he sensed Blair's bright eyes watching him closely.
"Jim?" The younger man's voice was warm with concern. "You okay, man?"
Forcing himself past his concerns, Ellison nodded. Whatever was happening in Blair's life, it wasn't going to disappear even if he ignored it the rest of the evening. "Yeah. I'm fine. Tell me, Chief. What's going on?"
"This came in today's mail." Blair held out the envelope, and Jim took it from him.
He studied the writing. Slightly shaky and varying in pressure. Maybe written by an older person? The return address was written neatly in the upper left corner.
Jim looked up at Blair, surprised at the familiar name.
"Fiora?" His eyes widened. "How did she know where to reach you?"
Smiling guiltily, Blair admitted, "I gave her our address at the airport in London the last time we saw her."
"Not surprising, Chief. You two hit it off pretty well."
"Look who's talking! Seriously, I don't think I've ever met anyone with as much natural insight about people."
The words especially about us hung unspoken in the air.
Silence reigned comfortably for several moments while both men recalled the elderly Irish woman they'd met near Killarney when Blair had been asked to return an old friend's ashes to his homeland. Almost instantly, Fiora had understood the deep friendship they shared, even giving them the gift of a wonderful Irish legend to explain their unique relationship.
" 'Anam cara'," Blair said softly, his eyes fastened on a single, bright star overhead. That was what Fiora had called them. Anam cara, friends of the heart, soul mates joined forever.
Jim glanced at his companion and smiled. "Anam cara. She had us figured out pretty well, didn't she, Chief?"
Blair nodded toward the letter in Jim's hand. "Wait until you read what she has to say."
Without waiting any longer, Jim unfolded the single, thin sheet of simple ivory stationery and began to read.
My Dearest Blair and James,
Though it has been long since last these old eyes beheld your smiles, I have not forgotten your visit nor your kindness in bringing my dear brother home to Ireland for his final rest. It is good hearts you have, and it is hoping to return your kindness I am now.
Not long ago, I journeyed over the sea to visit friends in bonnie Scotland. Whilst there, I encountered a place I believe would be of interest to you both. The castle rests on a high cliff overlooking the North Sea not far from the city of Aberdeen. 'Tis not sure I am whether you believe in the powers that we cannot see, but the whole time I was there, I felt a strong sense that I must tell you about this place. Called Blair Castle, it is. In the Gaelic, the word means a beautiful meadow, and it is also a family name, but I have no idea if you are of Scottish descent, dearest Blair.
Be that as it may, I felt a powerful connection between the castle and you both. No mere old woman's fancy it was. I had a premonition that the two of you would walk in my footsteps there one day, and that your blood had already known that place. The feeling was undeniably real. Perhaps there truly is some Celtic blood running in both your veins?
Even my dreams spoke to me of your connection to the place. Thrice I dreamed of seeing you walk the castle's halls, and when I awakened with the dawn, the feeling was again strong in my heart that you must visit Blair Castle. Truth be told, I believe you have much to learn there. In the library, there rests a certain journal, written many centuries ago, that you must read. Take my words as you will, my friends, but know that this old woman would not trouble you had she not believed it important.
I hope that you are well. Who knows? Perhaps we will meet again. Good luck to you both in your journey.
Blair didn't look at Jim as the older man read the letter. He continued watching his star. Was it really still there? Or had it died thousands of years before, its light only now reaching this small blue planet so far away?
Blair's gaze wandered. There was Orion and there...Cassiopeia. Years ago, he and Naomi watched the stars. She would teach him the constellations and tell him stories about huge hunters stalking giant bears in the sky. He smiled at the memories and waited.
Jim cleared his throat. "This is all very interesting, Chief, but what do you think it means? Couldn't it just be Fiora's sense of the romantic running away with her? She's a very old woman, you know."
Blair's voice was soft and gentle. "Is that what you really believe?"
There was no hesitation in Jim's reply. "No. Fiora knew too much about us too soon for me to believe this is merely an old woman's imagination. But, what did she really tell us, after all? That she found herself thinking of you while she was a guest in a Scottish castle? That she had some dreams? That's really not a hell of a lot of information, Darwin."
Considering his friend's words, Blair pointed out, "True, she didn't give us many details, but it's obvious that Fiora definitely had a very strong feeling, a premonition even, that we would visit the castle, and that we had something important to learn there. Do you doubt her?"
Blair shifted to look at his best friend and read clearly the resignation in Jim's eyes. Accepting the mystical side of their relationship wasn't easy for the practical, no–nonsense James Ellison. Blair felt a strong surge of pride at the way Jim had eventually come to accept, and even honor, the spiritual connection between them. Their mystical bond had grown stronger through the years as they learned and experienced more and more of what it meant to be a sentinel and guide.
Jim leaned back and rested his head back against the chair. "See that star, Chief? The brightest one? Right there – to the right?"
Of all the stars in the sky, Jim had pointed out the same star he'd been watching. Wild. Smiling secretively, Blair whispered, "I see it."
"We don't really know, do we, that the star even still exists? It could have exploded or burned out a thousand years ago, and yet, because its light is still reaching us, we look at it and believe that what we see is real." Jim didn't speak for a few moments, and his inward struggle to express his thoughts was painfully obvious to his guide.
At last, he spoke reflectively, "You've taught me a lot, Chief. You...Incacha...and a certain jaguar and wolf. Not everything that's real can be seen, and a hell of a lot we see and believe is real isn't." Jim turned his head and smiled apologetically at his guide. "I may be a little slow, Darwin, but I have learned to trust you. If you think Fiora's onto something here, then...well, I'll be there right beside you every step of the way."
Blair smiled, grateful for Jim's trust. It had been a long time coming and hard won. "I don't know, yet, Jim. I think it's worth investigating, though." He considered his options for a few moments. "I think I'll start with Naomi," Blair said thoughtfully. "I really don't know that much about my heritage. Naomi always felt that those kinds of things weren't very important, and that we should be concerned about developing our inner selves for a better here and now and for the future, not worry about the distant past. I asked questions when I was a kid, of course. I know, of course, that we're Jewish. She never said much about her grandparent's family, though, on either side. I think they butted heads a lot when Naomi was growing up. When she ran away from home as a teenager, it was to get away from her parents. And to stretch her wings. I don't think she ever looked back, and I'm sure she never investigated her family tree." Blair shot Jim a wry grin. "A family tree means roots, and my mom's never been one to settle for a life planted in the suburbs, you know."
Jim's laugh was warmly affectionate. "You got that right, Chief. I just can't imagine Naomi with a white picket fence and baking cookies." He reached over and patted Blair's arm encouragingly. "Do your research, Darwin. If anyone can find out if there's really some connection between your family and Fiora's castle, it's you."********************
Fall blended into winter, then winter turned to spring. Cascade experienced its usual share of criminal activity, but on the whole, the Major Crimes team couldn't complain about their workload. Compared to times in their past, things had been relatively quiet.
By early May, Jim was beginning to think the criminal element had packed its bags and moved to LA. He had come home early that evening, a welcome end to a day which had required him to spend the entire afternoon in court. If there was one thing Jim disliked more than paperwork, it was court appearances.
Jim jogged up the stairs to his bedroom, unknotting his tie on the way. He smiled as he dialed up his hearing to listen to the sounds of the gulls down by the bay, accompanied by the deep bass drone of the buoy bells farther out to sea. As Jim stripped off the more formal trappings of his job, he considered how fortunate he had been to find this place. The loft suited him perfectly. Open spaces. A great view of the city and the water behind it with the mountains towering in the distance. The perfect home.
He pulled on his jeans and looked out over his loft and grinned. Sandburg claimed that the sentinel in him had selected this place as a lookout point over the city. Even his bedroom was perfect for a sentinel, Blair had theorized enthusiastically one evening as they had discussed the idea. Jim had scoffed at the theory then, but secretly, the thought had pleased him. The sentinels of old might have chosen to reside on a cliff or hillside or to use the canopy of the jungle to keep watch. This sentinel had his loft in the city that had become his to protect.
Tucking an old, soft pale blue t–shirt into his jeans, Jim headed barefoot back downstairs. He checked his watch. Sandburg would be home in an hour or so. Blair had gone down to the forensics lab to pick up a report they'd been waiting for. He'd insisted that Jim go on home, promising that he wouldn't be far behind. Blair had mentioned picking up a video on his way home to go with the popcorn they'd bought at the market a few days ago. A nice quiet evening at home with a good movie, hot popcorn, and a warm, spring night.
Life was definitely good.********************
Jim was humming to himself in the kitchen when he heard Sandburg's key in the lock. The smell of steaks sizzling on the grill permeated the loft. Jim dropped the last of the tomatoes into the salads and called out to his partner. "Hey, Chief! Chow's almost ready. Get yourself cleaned up, and let's eat. Got some great looking steaks down at Miller's Meat Market, and they're gonna be ready in just about four minutes. Hustle, Junior!"
"Hey, Jim?" Blair leaned against the counter, arms crossed, with a thoughtful expression. "Do you believe in synchronicity?"
Jim set the salad bowls on the table. "You want to eat in here or outside?"
"In. There's something I need to tell you."
"You said something about synchronicity?" Jim reverted to Blair's earlier question, hesitant about proceeding too quickly into whatever it was his friend needed to tell him.
"Yeah, you know. Order in the universe. No such thing as coincidences. Everything happens for a reason. That sort of thing."
Jim took the baked potatoes from the oven. As he sliced them open, he commented, "Maybe. Guess I haven't given it much thought. Why?" Even as he asked, he felt the old familiar tightness grip his heart. Once again, his mind flashed back to the message about Borneo.
Blair moved toward the bathroom. "I'll tell you in a sec. Let me wash up a little and change clothes. Back in a minute, okay?"
Swallowing the urge to grab his best friend by the shoulders and shake an explanation out of him, Jim calmly replied, "Better hurry, Chief. Don't want that steak to get cold."
Why was it every time something got Blair excited, he remembered that damned message on the answering machine so long ago? Even then, Sandburg had turned down the chance to go to Borneo because, as he had put it so wonderfully, "It's about friendship. It always has been. I just didn't get it before."
If the kid had felt that way then, why did Jim's over–active imagination seem to be eternally fixated on the possibility that he might accept such an opportunity now, after all they'd been through in the years since?
"The old fear response rearing its ugly head again," Jim muttered as he expertly turned the steaks onto a platter. He's not leaving. He promised you that a long time ago, and if there's one thing about Sandburg you can count on, it's his honesty. He's not going anywhere.
Mentally crossing his fingers, Jim went back into the loft and awaited his guide's explanation.
It wasn't long coming.
As Jim watched Blair move about the kitchen as they finished dinner preparations, he was taken back to their first few years together. Then, whenever Sandburg had been excited or nervous or happy or worried, he bounced. As the years rolled by and the young man matured, the bouncy occasions had been fewer and farther apart. Jim hadn't realized just how much he'd missed that energetic show of enthusiasm until he saw a full–fledged display of Blair–bouncing once again.
He flitted from living room to kitchen, setting the table...lighting at least a dozen candles...putting soft Celtic music on the stereo. One task was barely complete before he flew to the next.
Grinning, Jim reached out and snagged his friend, grasping his shoulders firmly. "Chief. If you don't stop bopping around, you're gonna wear out the floorboards. Sit. Eat."
"Yeah, you're right, man. Sorry." Blair sat down and took a bite of salad. "Good salad, Jim. The steaks smell really great, too. Makes me glad I haven't had red meat for a while so I can splurge. You really should try giving it up occasionally, man. That way, when you eat it again, it's something so special, not just..." Blair caught Jim's eye and grinned sheepishly. "I'm babbling, right?"
Arching an eyebrow, Jim asked, "Really? Hadn't noticed, Chief."
Blair's laughter rang through the loft. "I'm sorry." He took a deep breath, followed by a sip of water. "It's just that today has been not your normal, run–of–the–mill day."
Jim waited a few moments, just to be sure Blair really had calmed down enough to discuss whatever was on his mind. When he saw that the younger man was managing to cut his steak, chew, and swallow without uttering a single word, Jim asked, "So, what's going on in that head of yours, Junior?"
"I heard from Naomi today."
"Really? How is Naomi? We haven't heard from her in a while."
Blair smiled warmly at the mention of his mom. "You know Naomi. Busy. Happy. She's been in the British Isles."
Jim's eyes rose to meet Blair's. "England?"
"No." Unwavering blue eyes held Jim's firmly, singing with barely contained excitement. "Scotland."
Blair's eyes were dancing, blue flames in the soft light of the candles flickering throughout the loft. "You are so not going to believe this, man" he cautioned with a smile.
Quietly, Jim replied, "Try me, Chief."
Now that his initial excitement was under control, Blair was calm, presenting his story carefully and clearly. "You know I've been trying to get in touch with Naomi to ask her some questions about what Fiora wrote us a few months back. We've talked briefly a few times, but either the connections weren't good, or Naomi was in too big a hurry to really talk. But today, I found out what I wanted to know."
Jim took a drink of water, then glanced at Sandburg's steak. "I've got a feeling this is going to be a long story, Junior. Why don't we finish these steaks, then move to the living room and get comfortable? I want to hear everything, but I think once you get rolling with this, that steak's going to be forgotten."
Blair grinned. "Got a point there, partner. I guess can hold my news a few more minutes." He looked down at his steak as he began slicing the tender meat. "Anything happen on the Morrison case after I left?"********************
Blair settled back on the couch, a glass of red wine in his hand. Jim sat in the chair beside the fireplace and sipped his wine as he waited for his partner to begin. A sense of anticipation settled over the sentinel, as if he already knew that the first step in an important journey was about to be taken.
"There definitely is a Celtic connection in my family, Jim," Blair began quietly. "Naomi told me so much I never knew. Her paternal grandmother's side of the family is Scottish; in fact, her father's mother came over from the countryside near Aberdeen in the early part of the 20th century. Her family name was Blair, and I was named for that side of her family."
Jim listened carefully, but he didn't comment or question, for fear of breaking the spell. Blair's voice had slipped into the melodic tones he once used when teaching, full of enthusiasm and enchantment for his topic, and like those former students, Jim was captivated.
"The family was centered in Ayrshire and was probably of Norman origin. The clan motto is pretty appropriate, I guess. Amo probos: I love the virtuous."
Jim smiled at that. More than appropriate. Blair respected truth above anything else. He remembered his friend's anger at the rich student, Brad Ventriss, granted special consideration by Rainier even in the face of his cheating.
I love the virtuous. Definitely a Blair thing.
Sandburg continued his story. "One ancestor, Roger de Blair, was a comrade–in–arms of Robert the Bruce. After the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, he earned royal favor as a result of the part he played in the Scottish victory. It was the defeat of the English at Bannockburn that insured Scottish independence, an independence which lasted until Mary Queen of Scots' son James ascended the English throne to become king of England. The various branches of the family owned several castles, including one now known as Blair Castle." The glowing blue eyes grew wider. "The same one Fiora visited and described in her letter."
The words the elderly Irish woman had written whispered in Jim's ear.
"...Whilst there...I felt a powerful connection between the castle and you. In fact, I had a premonition that you would walk in my footsteps there one day, and that your blood had already known that place. The feeling was undeniably real. Perhaps there truly is some Celtic blood running in both your veins?"
"That's not all," Blair continued, interrupting Jim's reverie. "Naomi visited Blair Castle last August. She and some friends were in Edinburgh to attend the Military Tattoo – that's the yearly presentation of drums and pipes held at Edinburgh Castle – when she read that Blair Castle wasn't very far away. She said that was too good to pass up, so she took the train to Aberdeen, then a bus on to the castle."
Jim waited for the words he could already hear in his head. If there was ever a case of déjà vu, he was experiencing it as Sandburg spoke. When on earth had he managed to take up full–time residence in the Sandburg Zone?
"Jim, she experienced the same thing as Fiora!" Blair was definitely less scholarly now, and much more excited. "She felt a connection there as well, but not for herself and her own heritage really, which is really a little weird when you think about it. More for me, and, as strange as it sounds, for you."
Blair hesitated a moment, he eyes locked on Jim. "She felt it has something to do with us both." The Celtic music played softly on the stereo, its hauntingly familiar melodies an appropriate backdrop for the drama unfolding.
"What do you want to do, Chief?" Jim watched his friend for any clue as to what this all might mean. Or was Blair as much in the dark as Jim felt?
"I have a feeling this all has to do with the sentinel thing, Jim. Don't ask me why. I'm not sure how I know, I just...know."
The intensity in his friend's voice caught Jim off–guard, and the older man tilted his head as he studied Blair's face carefully. Since when had this thing become so important to Sandburg? Yet, Jim wasn't really surprised. Anything involving sentinels immediately had Blair's undivided attention.
Blair grimaced. "I know...I know. This sounds really crazy, doesn't it? I just can't help feeling there's something to all this, Jim. I mean, things like this don't just happen, you know? There's gotta be a reason, a synchronicity to why it all's coming down with such perfect timing."
"You haven't answered my question," Jim pointed out. "What do you want to do?"
Blair looked up with a guilty smile. "Yeah. I haven't, have I? I didn't really know what I wanted to do until today, but when I talked to Naomi, it just all became clear. I know I haven't built up a lot of leave yet, but I have put in hours of overtime even before I became 'official'. If you talk to him, then maybe Simon will let me off for a while and..." Blair's rapid–fire words slowed, then stopped.
"You want to go."
"I...I guess so," he stammered. "I mean, there may be something to learn here, right? I could write the laird, you know, and ask him for a copy of this journal, but what if there's more? Something that isn't written down? Or something else that Fiora just wasn't aware of? Nothing can take the place of field work, right? I might..."
Jim's laughter stopped the flood of words. Looking at his partner curiously, Blair blurted, "What?"
Shaking his head in amusement, Jim chuckled. "Just you, Chief. You're really fired up about this, aren't you? Of course we should go. You don't have to give me your Anthro 101 lecture on the importance of field work in any investigative study."
Smiling, Blair shrugged. "Guess I just didn't figure you'd be convinced quite so easily, man. I mean..." As if Jim's words had only just begun to sink in, Blair stopped and looked at his friend with wide blue eyes. "We...? You said we should go?"
Jim leaned back in his chair. He took a slow sip of wine, regarding Blair over the rim of his glass with a bemused expression. "If you think I'm letting you take off for parts unknown to do sentinel research without your number one research subject, then you don't know your Blessed Protector as well as I thought you did." A small smile played around the corners of his mouth. "We're a team, Sandburg. Partners. Remember?"
His voice warm with emotion, Blair agreed. "Partners. Right. Thanks, Jim."********************
"You want to what?" Simon Banks asked, his brown eyes wide as he stared at his friend.
Jim's gaze never wavered. "I've got plenty of vacation time, Simon. I'm just asking to take two weeks in a block this summer."
Simon scrubbed his hand across his hair. "Of course you've got the time, Jim, and if all hell doesn't break loose between now and then, it shouldn't be a problem, but why Scotland? And what about Sandburg? He certainly doesn't have two weeks built up yet."
When Jim didn't respond immediately, Simon had to bite back a smile. Jim could use a touch of his partner's talent for obfuscation; sometimes Ellison was too straight forward for his own good.
"Well? Okay, if you can't answer that one, then tell me this. Why the hell do you two suddenly feel the need to visit Scotland?" Simon recognized clearly the signs of discomfort his best detective was exhibiting and purposefully kept his 'captain's face' on. He fully intended to approve Jim's request, but out of pure stubbornness, Simon refused to make it too easy for his friend. There were some advantages to being the boss.
Jim leaned forward and rubbed his jaw. "You see, Sir, it all started with a letter from an elderly Irish lady we met on our last trip..."
As Jim spoke, Simon knew his disbelief was obvious, but he couldn't help himself. Would there ever be an end to the strange events directly connected to this sentinel thing? Of course, compared to visiting dead shamans, invisible black jaguars, and bringing your partner back from the dead, a story about a castle in Scotland seemed rather tame.
"...Sandburg thinks there might be something to learn there, Simon. Anyway you look at it, the kid's earned some time away, don't you think? Even if it's not officially? Working two jobs for all those years, not to mention doing so much of my paperwork here, and..."
Deciding Jim had groveled enough, Simon cut him off with a wave of his hand. "You're preaching to the choir, Jim. Take your vacation time, go visit this castle, see what happens. Just don't send me any postcards about séances or visits from the other side." He gave a mock shiver. "Don't want to hear it; don't want to know."
With a rare Ellison grin, Jim jumped to his feet. "Thank you, sir. We'll take a couple of weeks to wrap everything we can up before we go. I really appreciate this, Simon. It means a lot to Blair." The words ...and to me hung unspoken in the air.
Turning his attention back to the open file on his desk, Simon ordered, "Go. Tell your partner, then both of you get back to work. You're not off–duty yet, either one of you." He shot Jim his best captain's glare.
Simon looked up after Jim closed his door behind him and chuckled. Ellison and Sandburg. What a team.********************
The days passed quickly as May turned to June. Jim and Blair prepared for their time off by closing out as many open cases as possible and briefing Rafe, Henri, and Joel Taggart, who'd be covering their open cases while they were gone.
As their departure date grew nearer, Blair's excitement grew. He carefully planned their route and itinerary, laid out his laundered and ironed clothes, ready for packing, and organized their passports and tickets into the new leather document wallets Jim bought for them both.
The week before the trip, Blair looked up to see the sentinel entering the loft, a large package wrapped in brown paper balanced in his arms. "Hey, Chief!" Jim called. "Get in here!"
Dropping his old duffel bag on the floor outside his room, Blair scurried to help Jim with the big box. "What's this, man? You starting your Christmas shopping early?"
"Not quite, Darwin. It is a gift, though." Jim maneuvered the box onto the couch. "Open." He gestured to the package.
Confused, Blair looked from Jim to the package and back again. "Me? That's for me? It's not my birthday, man."
Ellison shrugged. "I know that. Does there have to be an occasion for a friend to buy you a gift? Just a practical something I thought you needed. Go on. Open it."
Like a child at Christmas, Blair ripped into the brown paper wrapping. Tearing open the box, he gasped as he withdrew a brown leather suitcase. "Jim! This is...Oh, man, this is so great!" He ran appreciative fingers over the softly tanned leather and eyed the shiny brass locks. "It's too much, though. You shouldn't have done this."
Ruffling his guide's curls affectionately, Jim teased, "That old duffel of yours has definitely seen better days, Chief, and you know how hard the airlines are on luggage. It probably wouldn't survive the trip over. Then we'd have to spend half the trip dealing with the airline and the other half shopping for appropriately grungy clothes for you. Look, just consider this a thank–you gift, okay?"
Turning curious blue eyes upward, Blair asked, "Thank–you gift? For what?"
Jim looked suddenly embarrassed, and he looked down at the suitcase, running a sensitive fingertip over the close, tight stitches and the supple leather. "For everything. The last few years. All you've done. Everything."
Understanding what his normally reticent friend was trying to say, Blair smiled gently. Resting his hand on the small of Jim's back, he said quietly, "You're welcome, man. And thanks for the suitcase. It's beautiful. Really great."
Reaching out, Jim cuffed Blair gently. "You're welcome, Chief. C'mon. Let's go grab some supper. I'm not in a cooking mood tonight. My treat."
"Hey, man, did you come into an inheritance? New luggage. Dinner." Blair joked as they closed the loft door behind them. "I'm not complaining, you understand, it's just..."
"Watch it, Sandburg," Jim warned. "Didn't your mother ever tell you not to look a gift horse in the mouth?" He jogged down the stairs. "Let's eat! We've got packing to do."
It really is all about friendship, Blair thought as he followed his friend, awed by the message behind Jim's seemingly simple gesture. Once again, the man was willing to put his own life on hold and follow his guide on another of his unorthodox hunches. Blair shook his head as he considered his friend. Jibes, jokes, and gentle horseplay, accompanied by a new leather suitcase – just because. All wrapped up in a seemingly tougher–than–nails exterior and all part of the complex package that was Jim Ellison.
And Blair wouldn't have wanted to live his life in any other place than at his side.********************
They were leaving the next day. As Jim settled his shaving kit into the one remaining empty corner of his suitcase, he sighed heavily. He could no longer put off one thing he'd been dreading ever since they had decided to travel to Scotland.
He had to call his father and Steven.
Blair was still at the station putting the finishing touches on the last of their reports. This would be the best time to get the dreaded phone calls over with. Jim had no desire for his best friend to overhear whatever fireworks might erupt during his call to dear old Dad.
To warm up, he called Steven first.
His brother was in his office and after Jim explained that he'd be out of town for a while on a vacation to Scotland, Steven wished him well in a rather distracted voice. An important meeting in less than half an hour, his brother pointed out, and he'd had little time to prepare.
Like father, like son. At least you have one 'chip off the old block', Dad.
He dialed the second number.
Jim wandered around the living room as he listened to the ringing phone in his hand.
Sally answered. Jim smiled warmly as he chatted with the older woman who had practically become a surrogate mother after Grace Ellison had disappeared when he had still been a child. Sally told Jim to wait while she called his father to the phone.
"Hello?" William Ellison's voice never changed. Always filled with authority, certain, and unwavering.
"Dad, it's Jim." He drifted over to the bookcase and looked over Sandburg's collection of artifacts and the pictures displayed there.
"Hello, Jimmy. Anything wrong?"
Did he detect a note of suspicion in the tone? Give him a break, Jim scolded himself. You seldom call the man unless there is something wrong. What else should he think? Of course, he never calls you either, so...
"No, everything's fine. How've you been?"
Jim studied a photo in a blue frame. Sandburg on a dig, apparently in some hot locale. A young Sandburg, probably not a day over eighteen, eyes full of excitement as he looked up from the dry sand where he'd been working, a trowel clutched in his hand. Same long hair, same azure eyes, same joyous enthusiasm. Jim smiled back at his friend's image. Some things never changed. Thank God.
He forced his attention back to his father's voice.
"...investments are doing well. You should have taken me up on those tips I gave you." When Jim didn't respond, William changed the subject. "The doctor says my heart condition's stabilized with the medication. Shouldn't need surgery this year anyway."
"That's good, Dad," Jim said sincerely. What a damned shame he and his dad had never found a way to bridge the chasm between them to become close. Some his fault, some the old man's.
"So, why did you call, Jimmy?"
Cut right to the chase, Pops. We've exchanged pleasantries. Enough small talk.
"I'm going to be out of the country for a while, and I wanted to let you know. I don't have a number yet where I can be reached, but if you need me, Simon should have the number in a day or so. I'll call him as soon as we settle in."
Jim's gaze wandered to another photo, this time of the two of them playing two on two basketball against Simon and Daryl. Joel had snapped it with his new camera. After they had scored the winning goal, Blair had run up to Jim and wrapped his arms around the larger man in a big bear hug. Joel had taken the picture just as Jim's arms tightened around Blair, and they beamed at each other with huge, silly grins. Good times.
"I can't anticipate any reason I should need to call, Jimmy, but it was good of you to let me know. Is this trip business or pleasure?"
Jim could hear his father turning the pages of his newspaper as he spoke. Probably the Wall Street Journal. Never missed a day reading all the latest economic news.
Business or pleasure? Good question.
Dad, Blair and I are traveling to Scotland because an elderly Irish lady and his off–beat mother believe we have something to learn at an old castle. Jim grinned as he imagined what his father's reaction would be to the truth.
"It's a vacation, Dad. We're going to drive through the Highlands and see the scenery. We didn't get to see Scotland when we went to Ireland and England a couple of years ago."
Immediately, the air was almost palatably heavier. "So, your friend is accompanying you?"
Jim felt his defensive hackles rise. "If you mean, Blair, yes. He's going with me. There are some places there we both want to visit." The challenging note in Jim's voice was unmistakable.
"Jimmy, do you really think it's such a good idea to spend so much time with that young man? What do we really know about him, after all? About who he is, who his people are?"
Too perfect. Jim chuckled. "Believe it or not, Dad, that is exactly what this trip is all about. As for my spending time with Blair, don't look for that to change. It hasn't in the past six years, you know." Before his father could start another of his arguments, Jim managed to squeeze in a quick lie, "My cell's going off. Probably Simon. We'll be back in a couple of weeks. Bye, Dad."
When he broke the connection, Jim breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe the conversation with his dad hadn't been the casual, caring visit he would have preferred, but at least he'd managed to avoid a major confrontation. Reaching out, Jim fingered one of the old pieces of pottery on the middle shelf of the bookcase. Sandburg had told him where he'd found this old pot, but he couldn't remember the location. Pretty thing, though, all the same. He'd only been able to keep it because they had found dozens just like it in the area. Broken, yet mended and still able to perform its intended function.
If such an old vessel could be put back together after a thousand years, why the hell couldn't he and his own father manage to mend their relationship?
Tired of contemplating the unanswerable, Jim turned from the pottery and resumed his packing.********************
The next morning, as they were finishing a few last minute chores, the phone rang. "Sandburg!" Jim called from the kitchen and his chore of cleaning out the refrigerator. "Get that, will you?"
No response. Jim stretched out his hearing and zeroed in on the familiar 'Blair sounds.' The kid was out on the balcony, muttering something about the neighbors and how they'd better remember to water his plants.
When no response was forthcoming, Jim hurried into the living room himself.
"Hello?" He glanced out the sliding doors at Blair, calmly picking brown leaves off a potted plant, blissfully unaware of Jim's attempts to gain his attention. Ellison smiled when Blair caught him watching and tossed a thumbs–up and a grin in his direction.
"Yeah, Dad, it's me. What's going on?"
His father hesitated a few moments before responding. "I was thinking, Jimmy. There's probably something you'd want to know before you take off on your trip. I mean, it's not important, really, in the grand scheme of things, but you might find it interesting, I don't know."
Jim leaned against the couch. C'mon, Dad. We gotta leave for the airport in an hour. Pick up the tempo a little.
Trying not to let his impatience creep into his voice, he asked, "What's that, Dad?" Probably another investment tip. He caught Sandburg watching him this time, a hint of concern in the expressive blue eyes. To reassure him, Jim shrugged and grinned, giving him a thumbs up sign. Immediately, the shadow of concern vanished. Jim could hear him whistling a bright tune as he worked with the plants.
"You've got some Scots in you, Jimmy."
Now, his father had Jim's attention. Interesting. Probably meant nothing, but interesting just the same. "Really, Dad? I never knew that 'Ellison' was a Scottish name."
"It is. The name Ellison is part of the clan MacPherson." A slight hesitation followed. "They do call that a clan, right? I don't know much about my side of it all. My parents were never into that sort of thing. There's also a Scottish connection on your mother's side, Jimmy."
William Ellison's voice hardened a bit at the mention of his wife. "Her mother was a Montgomery, and Grace knew all about her family's history. Grace's grandmother came over from Scotland in the early 1900s. The family was from somewhere near Aberdeen, I think. Her mother used to talk about it some. She was into all that genealogical stuff, long before it became so popular. Anyway, that's about all I know." William sounded uncertain now that the factual part of the conversation had been taken completed. "I just...I just figured you might want to know."
Jim was genuinely touched by his father's consideration. He stared out the window at Cascade, trying to keep the emotion from his voice. Reminders of his mother never got easier, especially when they came from his father. Jim knew the phone call hadn't been easy for the elder Ellison to make. "Thanks, Dad. Really. Blair has some places he wants to visit that are connected to his family, and it sounds like they might be in the same general area. He has some reference books on the clans. We'll see what they have to say about the Montgomerys."
Jim could almost hear the battle his father waged before managing to force the next words out. "Good. I..." He stopped, then started again. "I hope you...and Blair...have a nice trip, Jimmy. Call me when you get back?"
"Sure, Pop. And, thanks. It was nice of you to call, and remember that if you need me, Simon will know where we are. I'll let you know when we're home. Bye."
Blair came back inside just as Jim was settling the phone back in its cradle. "Who was that, man? I take it from the thumbs up that it wasn't Simon ordering us in to work some really hot case. Right? Please, man, tell me it wasn't Simon!" Blair grabbed his upper arms and looked upward with pleading blue eyes, only halfway joking.
Jim playfully slapped both Blair's cheeks. "No way, Junior. We're on our way to bonnie old Scotland, as planned." Jim headed back toward the kitchen. "That was my dad. He had some news for me."
Following his sentinel into the kitchen, Blair grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator and popped it open, leaning back against the counter. He eyed his Coke, then grinned guiltily. "Any chips left?"
Reaching up to the cabinet where they stored the snacks, Jim tossed a half empty bag to Sandburg. "Junk food, y'know, Chief."
Munching on a handful of chips, Blair muttered, "That's the pot calling the kettle black, man. How often do I get a craving for this stuff?" Washing down the chips with a swig of Coke, he added, "Tell me the news."
Jim looked purposefully confused. "News?"
Blair swatted his shoulder lightly. "C'mon, Ellison. You're not that forgetful. Yet. Your dad. You said he had news."
"Watch the age cracks, Junior." Jim reached into the refrigerator and check a couple of storage containers. "You still got that reference book on the Scottish clans around?" He tossed the contents of one container of leftovers into the trash, then added the second one to it. No point in keeping anything in the fridge while they were on this trip.
"Yeah, sure. Why?"
Satisfied with the cleanliness of the refrigerator, Jim turned to face Blair and shrugged. "Turns out I've got some Scots in my family tree, too, Chief."
Blair's grin was a mile wide. "See? I told you this trip was gonna be great! I've got my book packed in my carry–on bag. We can read all about your family on the way over. What's the name anyway?"
"The name Ellison is linked to the clan MacPherson, but there's also a connection on my mother's side. Montgomery, Chief. My mom's grandmother's name was Montgomery."********************
Blair had the book out before the jet had even leveled out to its cruising altitude. Watching Blair turn the pages in obvious excitement, Jim grinned at his friend's enthusiasm. He hadn't seen the younger man so worked up about anything in quite some time.
As Blair devoured the pages, Jim leaned back and closed his eyes. It was going to be a long flight – first to New York and a change of planes at La Guardia, then on into Edinburgh, and flying was never comfortable for him. Long legs and the closely spaced seats in coach equaled a cramped journey. Might as well try to rest a bit while he was still fresh.
He was just dozing off when he felt Blair's elbow dig into his ribs.
"Hey, Jim! Listen to this."
Jim ignored the intrusion. With any luck at all, Blair would settle down if he though Jim was napping. He concentrated on breathing deeply and feigning sleep.
"C'mon, man, you can't be asleep yet. We've got lots of time for napping. Right now, listen up."
Slowly, Jim's blue eyes opened, and he stared over at his best friend, hoping the glare he shot in Blair's direction was suitably intimidating. "I was resting, Junior. This better be good."
Blair just smiled broadly, ignoring Jim's attempt at intimidation. When the hell had Sandburg stopped fearing his patented Ellison glare? The kid was getting way too comfortable with his place in Jim's life and heart. He'd have to work on that.
"This is fascinating stuff, Jim. Really." Big blue eyes stared at Jim with obvious hope. "C'mon, man... you know you want to hear this."
Unable to keep up the facade of irritability, Jim gave up and grinned at Sandburg. So what if Blair knew that underneath the rock hard exterior he presented to the world, Jim had a soft and vulnerable heart? His secrets – each and every one – couldn't be in better hands. "I'm listening, Chief. Tell me."
Immediately, the look that Jim had dubbed Blair's 'professor face' fell into place. The younger man settled back in his seat, reference book open on his lap. "Okay, let's start with the Ellison side of things. You already know that the Ellisons came from the clan MacPherson. You won't believe what's on your crest, Jim." Blair waited a moment before springing his surprise. "A cat! But this doesn't look like just an ordinary cat. Look!"
Blair held out the book, pointing to the illustration. A rather ferocious looking feline was pictured with one clawed paw outstretched. Jim studied the illustration for a moment then looked back at Sandburg.
"That's called a 'cat sejant Proper'," Blair noted with an air of authority. "At least that's the heraldic term to describe it."
Jim's eyes narrowed. Sometimes the kid tended to talk way too fast. And too far above his head, truth be told. "In English, Sandburg."
"Okay, man. Take all the fun out of it, why don't you? 'Sejant' means the cat's seated. 'Proper' signifies that it appears in its natural colors. Anyway, that picture combined with your clan motto is a real kick."
When Blair paused, seemingly in no hurry to complete his explanation, Jim prodded, "And this family motto is...?"
Blair chuckled. " 'Touch not the cat but a glove.' In other words, don't mess with the jaguar, man!"
As Blair's words sank in, a slow grin turned up the corners of Jim's mouth. He stared down at the illustration of the crest. Touch not the cat but a glove. Don't mess with the jaguar... For an antiquated family motto, it wasn't bad. Not bad at all. "Appropriate enough, isn't it?" he mused thoughtfully.
Blair's words poured out in an excited rush. "That's not the best part, though, Jim. Like the Blairs, the Montgomery clan – your mom's side of things – is also of Norman descent. In fact, there's a line tracing all the way back to William the Conqueror, and several of the family members were with him at Hastings in 1066. Anyway, the Montgomerys lived in the same area of Scotland as the Blairs, even owning, from what I can tell from this limited source, adjoining lands!"
Jim cocked his head to the side. "What are you saying, Chief? Our families could have known each other?"
"Not could have. Must have, Jim! Both families had men who fought side by side with Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314. The Montgomery family had an estate called Eglinton Castle." Blue eyes twinkled as he asked, "Guess where it is?"
Jim stared at him. "No. It can't be."
Blair laughed quietly. "Yep. Less than two miles from Blair Castle."
Both men sat in silence for a moment, absorbing the new information, then Blair looked up at Jim with wide eyes. "There's one more thing. Jim, guess what the Montgomery family motto is?"
Silently, Jim shook his head.
"You are so not going to believe this, man. Jim, it's...Garde bien.
Ellison shook his head. "My French isn't too great, Sandburg. That means...?"
In a voice reverberating with quiet awe, Blair whispered, "Watch well. It means watch well, my sentinel."********************
Jim passed the rest of the two long flights in a surreal fog. In some strange way, the other passengers, the flight attendants, and the general, quiet commotion that accompanies an international flight faded away, leaving him alone with his thoughts – and with Blair.
For even as the rest of his surroundings became less clear, less real, the reality of Blair never wavered. Once they departed New York City, after the in–flight dinner was served and cleared, Sandburg slept.
Jim tried to sleep, but his thoughts refused him rest. He tried focusing on the peaceful rhythm of Sandburg's breathing and the accompaniment of his steady heartbeat. He tried controlling his own breathing – deeply and slowly – tried imagining himself in a quiet, restful place. He even attempted to relax each part of his body, beginning with his toes, just as Blair had taught him, but abandoned the routine on the third time through.
His mind, steadfastly refusing to be calmed, whirled around and around the possibilities lying before them. The clan mottos...the seemingly undeniable truth that their ancestors had known each other...the strange feelings experienced both by Fiora and Naomi.
What the hell did it all mean?
What were they going to find there in the Scottish highlands?
Frustrated at the lack of answers and his inability to take any kind of action for the next several hours at least, Jim shifted in his seat, turning slightly on his side toward his partner and smiled.
Blair had curled into a ball, his face turned toward Jim, the thin airline blanket tucked high under his chin. In a deep sleep, his eyes quivered beneath the pale lids as thick, curly lashes lay dark on his cheeks – wisps of coal resting on a blanket of snow. One hand was tucked up beneath his head; the other lay open on the seat between them.
"Who are you, Chief?" Jim whispered. "And why the hell are you here with me? What did I ever do to deserve you, huh?" Reaching over, he smoothed a stray lock of hair from his friend's forehead. "Seems like just when we've got this whole deal figured out, someone – or something – throws us a curve, don't they?"
Blair shifted slightly, moaning softly in his sleep. "Jimm...?"
Instinctively, Jim captured Blair's hand in his and squeezed. "Shhhhh...easy, Blair. It's okay. I'm right here." His thumb stroked the soft skin between Blair's knuckles, and he smiled when his partner immediately calmed at the familiar touch.
Safe in his warm cocoon, seemingly shut away from the rest of the people on the jet, Blair slept peacefully again. "Hey, Chief," Jim whispered, confident no one could hear him above the sound of the engines. "Whatever happens over there, whatever we discover, it's not gonna change anything, is it?" He tightened his hold on Blair's hand. "It can't change this, can it? Listen, what I said before? I know..."
Jim hesitated, reluctant to verbalize the words to his sleeping friend, words he would never have the courage to speak aloud were Sandburg awake. "I know I've never done a damned thing to deserve your friendship, but I'm eternally grateful to whatever power gave me these senses then brought you into my life."
Jim stared at the sleeping face for several long minutes. A trace of a smile flickered on Blair's lips, and Jim smiled softly in response. "Sleep well, Chief. Sleep well."
A few minutes later, Jim was asleep, his hand still curled loosely around Sandburg's.********************
Blair was enchanted by the old city of Edinburgh. Dominated by the great stone walls of Edinburgh Castle, rising high above the town on the remains of an extinct volcano, the city retained its old world charm while still moving forward into the 21st century.
They spent two days exploring the old city and letting their bodies adjust to the time difference. Strolling along the Royal Mile, Blair entertained Jim with stories of John Knox, Scotland's religious reformer, Mary, Queen of Scots, and the origins of the legend of Jekyll and Hyde.
"Jekyll and Hyde? I thought that took place in London," Jim commented.
"Hey! You remember your college lit, Jim. I'm impressed." Blair deftly dodged the hand that darted out to swat the back of his head and laughed. "Deacon Brodie. An upstanding, respected councilor by day. A thief by night. So begins the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although you're right, Stevenson did set his tale in foggy London rather than here." Blair looked around him in appreciation of the city. "Isn't it amazing, Jim, how much history there is all around us here? So many stories, so many lives lived and lost right here in old Edinburgh."
They turned a corner and spotted a pub across the street. A statue of a small Scottish terrier stood guard out front. Grabbing Jim's arm, Blair hustled them both across the street.
Watching anxiously for oncoming traffic, Jim chided, "Sandburg! Slow down! What's the hurry?"
Blair ran an appreciative hand over the statue. "Have you ever heard of Grayfriar's Bobby? It's a true story. Disney made a movie about him a while back."
Slipping into his 'teacher's voice', Blair began the story. "There was a policeman in Edinburgh who walked a beat with his little dog alongside. This little guy here. Every day at the same time, they'd stop by the pub here for lunch, the policeman and his dog. A few years passed, and then the policeman died and was buried. His little dog, Bobby, spent the rest of his life at his master's graveside, going around to the neighbors for food, visiting the pub at exactly the time he and his master had while the policeman was alive, and returning faithfully to the grave every night. This is the statue erected to honor Bobby's faithfulness, and when he died, he was buried just outside the cemetery where his master lies."
"That kind of loyalty is rare," Ellison said softly, still looking at the statue of Bobby. "It's right to honor loyalty when it's found. Maybe Bobby's story will keep someone from taking it for granted one day."
Blair stole a quick look at his friend. Jim's stare was focused on the statue of the little dog, and for an instant, Blair thought he caught a glimpse of moisture at the corner of the sentinel's eye. Jim's hand found the small of his back, resting there in warm communion, saying more than words ever could. After a few more minutes of contemplation at the shrine to enduring friendship, Jim and Blair continued their tour of Edinburgh.********************
By the time they picked up their rental car on the third day, both sentinel and guide were relaxed and looking forward to venturing from the city into the rural countryside of Scotland. It was a short drive from the bustle of Edinburgh through the pastoral lands of Scotland to Blair Castle. Jim drove through small villages as the road wound through the countryside. In pastures, sheep grazed peacefully as creeks tumbled over gray rocks.
During the trip, Blair was uncharacteristically quiet. Jim glanced over at his friend often, but the younger man seemed not to notice. "Deep thoughts, Chief?" he asked at last.
"I guess." He gestured out the window with his right hand. "I mean, look around us, man! Hundreds of years ago, our ancestors lived right here. This is the land where they were born, grew up, fell in love, married and bore their own children. If someone in our pasts hadn't immigrated to the U.S., this would be our home, too."
Blair shook his head slightly as he continued. "It's so not like anything else I've experienced, y'know? I've been pretty much around the world, seen the cradles of ancient civilizations, and yet this place..."
Blair fell quiet for a few moments, and Jim allowed him time to gather his thoughts. With a deep sigh, Blair continued quietly, "I feel connected to this place, Jim. In a way I never have before." Shrugging, Blair added, "I can't explain it, but I feel like I've been here before. Like I belong here, man." After a moment's hesitation, he added quietly, "Guess you think I've lost it, huh?"
Jim looked out the window at the gently rolling green hills. Gray boulders lay strewn about as if cast there by the hand of some ancient giant. He looked at the neat, tidy cottages scattered about distantly from each other. Long, low walls of stone separated the fields of neighbors, looking like gray ribbons twining the landscape.
This wasn't the emerald loveliness they had seen in Ireland, but Scotland had a wild beauty all its own. This was a strong place, a country that knew well the ravages of war and had gained strength in the knowing. Jim could sense a quiet strength lying about him, a power in the land as well as in the people. "I don't think you've lost it, Sandburg," Jim said at last. "I feel it, too."
The sentinel expected his friend to jump on that statement, to begin dissecting their experiences to figure out what was happening to them.
But he didn't.
Blair's gaze returned to the waters of the North Sea, lying off to their right, and he remained silent for the rest of the journey.
Within an hour, they saw the signs directing them to a small, unpaved road turning off toward the sea.
The towers of the castle rose above the green fields like a white cloud hovering low above the earth. The main section of the castle stood five stories high, with a square keep or watchtower lying off to the left. Cone–topped turrets broke the flat planes of the old walls, and notched battlements crowned the roofline. To the left was a clock tower, its hands showing half past five o'clock. From the original center portion, latter day additions sprawled out in both directions, their gray pitched roofs lower than those of the main structure. Above the arched front door, the coat of arms of the Blair family graced the entryway. Even though the castle itself did not perch directly on the coastline but stood back from it, separated from the sea by several acres of pasture, the smell of brine was strong in the air.
Jim and Blair stood in dwarfed silence before the imposing structure, gazing upward at the ancient, white castle. At last, Blair looked up at Jim. "Man! Would you just look at this place, Jim?"
Ellison's gaze remained focused on the towering walls. "It's impressive, Chief. That's for sure. Do you...?"
The wide, heavy oak door swung slowly open, interrupting Jim's question.
"May I help you?"
An elderly gentleman stood in the doorway, blinking rapidly in the bright sunlight. What hair he had remaining was totally white, a vivid contrast to the deep tan of his wrinkled skin. At least in his mid–eighties, his blue eyes were watery and showed signs of cataracts, although he wore no glasses to correct his vision.
Blair took three steps forward, holding out his hand in greeting. "I'm Blair Sandburg, and this is my friend, Jim Ellison. We're from the U.S. Some of my family was Scottish and from the Blair clan." He flashed a bright smile at the elderly man. "That's where I get my name. Anyway, we traveled here to visit the castle. An Irish friend of ours was here a few months ago and told me about it. She seemed to think that it was very important that I visit here."
The dour old man stared at Blair without speaking and didn't raise his own hand to take Blair's. The younger man let his hand fall to his side.
Jim glanced at his partner briefly then stepped forward himself. "There's a journal in the library here that Fiora felt Blair should see. We wondered if we could spend some time..."
The old man interrupted. "We let out flats. By the week or month. Got one left. Can be yours if you want it."
Surprised, Blair and Jim exchanged glances. At Blair's quick nod, Jim smiled.
"We'll take it, Mr...?"
Snorting, the elderly Scotsman nodded curtly. "Blair, of course. Who else would I be but a Blair, this being Blair Castle? I'm Laurence Blair, currently chief of the clan and laird of this castle." He turned and entered the darkness of the entry hall, calling back to them, "Bring your cases. Come on inside."********************
Laughing, Blair stretched out full–length on the soft feather mattress. He studied the vaulted ceiling high above them.
"Oh, man, Jim! Just look at this place! Those are frescoes, you know. They'd have to be at least seven hundred years old."
As he arranged his clothes in the drawers of the antique wardrobe in his room next to Blair's, Jim called, "What's a fresco, Chief?"
Blair replied in a normal conversational tone, knowing full well his sentinel could hear every word. "It's painting done directly onto wet plaster. Like in the Sistine Chapel. You couldn't afford to make a mistake. If you did, you had to plaster over the whole area and begin again." He shook his head in amazement at the artwork above him. "Look at the colors in this thing. Still so vivid after so many centuries. Amazing."
Closing the heavy wardrobe doors, Jim ambled into Blair's room. Gazing up, he studied the heavily decorated ceiling. "Mine's plain. Just dark wood beams on a white plaster ceiling. What's the lettering say, Chief?"
Blair looked where Jim was indicating. Around the edges of the vaulted ceiling was calligraphy. "It's Latin. Give me a minute, and I'll see if I can translate."
A few moments later, Blair sat up on the bed. "I think they must be Scottish sayings. Listen to this." He read from the wall directly over the door leading to Jim's room. " 'Many's the men who've battled foe...many the number slain...many the lads have fallen, though Scotland shall rise again.'"
Jim sat down next to him. "Not bad," he said with an approving nod. "What else?"
Blair laughed. "Hey, man, here's one for you! 'Those that board with cats may count on scratches.' Maybe that explains why I'm always ending up in the ER."
Cuffing him gently on the head, Jim growled, "Watch it, Junior. This jaguar's got claws."
With a flash of hurt in his deep blue eyes, Blair turned his attention back to the ceiling. "How about this one, then? 'The worth of a thing is best known by the want of it.' "
Now the pain flared in Jim's light eyes. "Ouch," he said softly. "I guess I asked for that one, didn't I?" Laying his hand lightly on Blair's leg, he apologized, "You were right both times. You've been scratched way too many times on my account, and I never did appreciate what I had until I almost lost it."
"It's okay, man. Forget it." Blair looked at the antique grandfather clock by the window. "The laird said dinner is promptly at seven. Think we've got time for a quick stroll around the grounds?"********************
The castle was surrounded by acres of forest interspersed with rolling green pastures. Docile sheep grazed contentedly as Jim and Blair strolled along the narrow paths leading between the rock walls.
Blair wrapped his lightweight jacket around himself more tightly. "Cooler than I thought," he commented with an exaggerated shiver. "Of course, we're on almost the same parallel with the southern tip of Norway. What did I expect?"
Jim chuckled. "Shame I can't share the dials, Chief. One of the blessings of being a sentinel. Never too hot, never too cold."
Blair elbowed him gently in the ribs. "Shut up, man. You don't have to rub it in."
A half hour later, they stood on the rocky cliffs high above the North Sea. Blair crept as close as he dared to the edge and watched the waves crashing in onto the gray stones below. The wind had picked up, and his long, loose curls were tossed freely in the strong breeze. He really hadn't expected Scotland to be quite this chilly.
Such a rugged place, he mused. Ireland, in his memory, was gentle emerald knolls and peaceful, winding roads. A peaceful, dreamy country. Scotland, in contrast, was a warrior's land – tried and tempered by struggle and conflict... baptized in the blood of its clansmen.
A sudden crash of wave upon rock brought captured Blair's wandering attention. He shuddered at the realization of how far he'd have to fall should he take misstep, and Blair moved back from the edge of the cliff. "Long way down, isn't it?" He turned to his partner, but the look on Jim's face erased his smile immediately.
Jim was standing absolutely still, his sky blue eyes focused intently on the rocks below them. A puzzled look, bordering on confusion, darkened his chiseled features. He did not respond to Blair's comment.
Ghosting his hand along the small of Jim's back, Blair moved closer to his partner. "Jim? What is it? Are you with me here?"
Jim's eyes flickered to Blair's face, then back to the sea. "This is strange, Sandburg."
So it wasn't a zone. "What, Jim?" Blair kept his voice purposefully calm and reassuring. "What's strange?"
"This place." Jim gestured down to the rugged shore. "It's...familiar. Almost like I've been here before, but that's not quite it either. Those, rocks... the waves... I..." Jim hesitated, then shook his head and spread his hands helplessly. "I can't explain it."
Blair knew his friend was relying on him to interpret the strange sensations he was experiencing. That was his job, after all, as guide to his sentinel.
Perhaps even more important, it was his role as best friend to the unique man that was Jim Ellison.
"Jim?" Blair said quietly, "if it's true that your ancestors lived in this place, then maybe..." He thought for a long moment, trying to organize his bustling thoughts. "You saw Molly, right? And the little girl in York when we were in England."
Jim didn't reply, but he nodded slightly, his eyes still fixed on the gray boulders below.
More sure of himself, Blair's words picked up speed, his tone authoritative in his certainty. "You're connected to the spirit world, there's no denying that. Besides Molly, you've seen Incacha, the wolf, and the jaguar. You used the energy they provide to solve a murder case. To save my life."
Excited by the possibilities, Blair turned to Jim, grasping his friend's biceps and forcing him around to look at him. "Maybe you're picking up on some kind of psychic energy here, man. You're sensing the presence of your ancestors in this place. Maybe through some kind of sense memory I hadn't even considered until now, you're able to feel what happened here so long ago."
He waited for the eruption of denial, but it never came.
When Jim didn't argue, Blair pressed on, encouraged by Jim's seeming acceptance of what he was saying. "What kind of feeling do you get about this place? How does it make you feel to be here?"
Jim held his gaze for a long moment, then turned back toward the sea. "I..." He stopped and tilted his head upward, his eyes closed, and a slight tremor went through his body. The cold? Or something more?
"I feel fear. Desperation. A sense of hopelessness. But nothing that is recent. It all feels like...leftover emotions...remnants of energy...from a very long time ago."
Without warning, Jim suddenly turned back to face his partner, his blue eyes wide with confusion, maybe even shock. "Blair, I..." He stopped as quickly as he'd begun and stared down helplessly at Sandburg.
Blair's heart leapt into his throat. What was happening here? "Jim, what is it? What are you feeling?" Again, Blair's hands grasped Jim's forearms, holding on tightly.
"An overwhelming sense of death, Chief. A strong sense that someone...no, a feeling that I nearly died... right here on this cliff." Jim's voice took on a tone that sounded suspiciously close to fear. "What the hell went on here, Blair? What could have happened to make me feel it this strongly centuries later?"
Before Blair could respond, Jim's head snapped around as he stared intently toward the forest bordering the sea.
"Jim? What is it, man? What'd you hear?"
Without taking his eyes off the forest margin, Jim replied quietly, "They're gone now. We weren't alone, Chief. Someone was definitely watching us."********************
During dinner, the six other guests staying at Blair Castle carried the conversation, leaving Jim and Blair the welcome privacy of their own thoughts. Chatting about the villages they'd visited and the shops they'd seen kept the others from noticing the silence of the two men at the far end of the long, dark oak table.
After their meal, the other guests disappeared for a game of billiards in the game room. Jim and Blair sought out the laird, Laurence Blair.
They found him in his study, working on the estate's books. He looked up at Jim's knock on the paneled door, obviously annoyed to be interrupted.
"Good e'en," he said curtly.
"Good evening," Blair replied politely. "Sorry to disturb your work, but I wondered if you could show us the library. I'm interested in the history of the castle, and I figure the library might be a good place to begin."
The elderly Scotsman stood up slowly, stretching his cramped limbs. "The library hae many books. I dinae know if any of them could help you, but I will show you the way." Passing Jim and Blair, he led the way down the long corridor toward the rear of the castle.
Stopping before a huge, heavy oak door, Laurence Blair waved them inside. He followed and began searching the shelves lining three of the four walls. Each shelf was filled with leather bound volumes, and the smell of old paper permeated the air. A warm fire blazed in the massive stone fireplace, knocking the chill from the air.
The old man muttered to himself as his crooked forefinger touched each spine. "'Twas history you said you are interested in. I do believe there are some old journals here. I ne'er read most of them myself. Too busy tending to the business of the present to read much about the past. My gude wife organized this library. A blithesome woman she was, my Annie, and a more organized female you'll ne'er find."
A smile threatened to crack his perpetually dour expression as the old man's finger paused on a series of thin volumes bound in rich red leather. "Here they are. Each one hae got the dates of its writing on the cover here." He traced the spine of one volume with a shaky finger. "You may gae through them all if you like." Turning away from the shelves, the elderly gentleman headed out the door. "I wish you well. G'night."
Blair smiled broadly as the elderly man departed, closing the massive oak door behind. "Not one for needless conversation, is he? I've told him I'm a distant relative, and he hasn't asked a single question of me or tried to hold a conversation."
Jim gently slapped Blair's cheeks with both palms. "Guess your gift for gab isn't an inherited trait, is it, Junior?"
"Smart ass," Blair muttered with a smile, turning to the shelf Lawrence Blair had indicated. "Let's start looking through these journals. It may take quite some time to figure out which ones, if any, we might be interested in.."
After a few minutes of browsing, Jim turned to Blair with a helpless shrug. "It would take me forever to find the right one. These things aren't even in English."
They were sitting in two soft leather wing chairs before the crackling fire. Blair looked over at the sentinel. "Yeah, I noticed. They're in Latin."
Ellison closed the book he was holding. "You speak more languages than I ever knew existed. Can you read this?"
Blair studied the page before him. "Yeah, probably. Eventually. I've studied Latin, of course, but I haven't had to use it in several years. I'm more than a little rusty." He looked over at Jim. "This could take a long time."
Seeing the disappointment in his friend's eyes, Jim thought for a time, entranced by the crackling flames, as Blair read slowly from his book. "Chief? Don't sweat it. You've forgotten more about Latin than most of the world will ever know. It'll come back to you. Just like riding a bike. Didn't the laird say there were dates on these journals?"
Blair nodded and indicated the dates neatly written in gold on the rich red spine of the journal he held. "Right. This one's from 1228 – 1231. These people had to be wealthy to have been able to even afford books with parchment pages like these."
Jim thought carefully. "Why don't you start with some of the earliest ones? They're bound to be interesting for you."
His eyes growing bright, Blair smiled eagerly. "This is what we're here for, isn't it? I've been interested in the time period around Bannockburn. After all, my ancestors were there. I guess that would be a place to begin."
Jumping from his chair, Blair hurried through the thin volumes. "Here!" he announced triumphantly. "But there are two that might be considered from the early 1300s. One starts in 1301, and this one begins in 1310." He opened the second small book, and a single sheet of lavender stationery fluttered to the floor. Blair bent to retrieve it, then returned to sit beside Jim.
So you have arrived, my dears. It touches my heart to know that you have heeded the words of such an old woman. You are well on your way to the answers you seek. I believe that here in this place you will find a rich affirmation of what you already know to be true, yet another connection to your gift of anam cara. Good luck with your search, James and Blair. May it strengthen the bond already between you.
As Blair's wide blue eyes rose to meet his own, Jim smiled gently. "I guess we're on the right track, Chief. I think we've found what Fiora wanted us to see."********************
An hour later, Blair stood up and stretched. "This is gonna take some time, man. My Latin is way past rusty."
"Why don't you take that volume with you, Chief? I don't think Laurence Blair would mind, and you can work on it as you get the chance." Jim stretched his hands out toward the flames.
"Sounds good," Blair agreed. "I have figured out a little." He moved to stand in front of the fireplace, facing Jim. The warmth on his back felt wonderful. One thing about old castles – they were definitely cold and drafty.
"Tell me. I'm in no hurry to head back upstairs. Those smaller fireplaces in our rooms don't seem nearly as inviting as this one."
Blair's face grew animated as he outlined what he'd read in the journal so far. "Okay, get this. The journal was written by a Colum Blair, beginning in 1310. Even though I haven't read the prior volumes, there's enough in the beginning of this one to piece things together. I've translated it into what would have been the spoken language of the time. Listen."
"I have settled into my father's house at last. Even now, it is difficult to believe that my dear minny is gone and that for the mercy of my laird and father, I would find myself lone. I shall never forget the last view of her puir clay–cauld corp as it lay in the kirk. My heart keens yet.
Laird Roger de Blair has provided for me a roof over my heid, but more than that he hast not offered. My brothers, the bairns of his wife, are the true sons of the house de Blair. I find myself naught but a puir relation in need.
The lady of the house, the lady Elaenor, my father's true wife, looks at me as if I were diseasit, and..."
"Hang on, Chief," Jim interrupted. "I'm sure what you just read makes perfect sense to you, but if you'll remember, I'm a mere Neanderthal throwback. I want to hear this story – I really do – but I think I'll understand it better if you just translate it into modern English."
Blair grinned. "Sorry, Jim. I did translate a lot of it. I just thought it added some, I don't know...color...if I left in some of the old Gaelic words."
Jim waved a dismissive hand. "Forget the color. Just tell the story."
"Okay, man. If you want the modern version, then this is what Colum was saying." He winked at his partner. "In English you can understand." Blair began to read again.
"I have settled into my father's house at last. Even now, it is difficult to believe that my dear mother is gone and if not for the mercy of my lord and father, I would find myself alone and destitute. I shall never forget the last view of her poor, dead corpse as it lay in the church. My heart mourns yet.
Laird Roger de Blair has provided for me a roof over my head, but more than that he has not offered. My brothers, the children of his wife, are the true sons of the house de Blair. I find myself nothing but a poor relation in need.
The lady of the house, the lady Elaenor, my father's true wife, looks at me as if I were diseased, and..."
Blair glanced over at Jim as he settled back down in his chair. His backside was getting too warm, an unusual occurrence for the perpetually cold young man. "Better?"
Jim smiled. "Much. Makes sense now. So Colum de Blair was the illegitimate son of the laird?"
"Right. As such, he had no claims to his father's estate. The eldest son inherited. A second son was fortunate to inherit anything at all. He was expected to go out into the world and make his own way. That's why so many of the early settlers of our country were second, third, and fourth sons. So Colum, as a bastard, wouldn't have rights to Roger's estate at all." Blair's eyes clouded over briefly, lost in thought. "Guess we had something in common, huh?"
Jim smiled affectionately. "Your father's the one who missed out, Junior. Trust me."
A gentle and appreciative smile curved Blair's lips at the familiar pet name. "Thanks, man," he said softly. In his entire life, he'd never had a nickname before, at least not from a friend. He'd heard the other kids joking around, using the familiar shorthand of nicknames in which he had never been included. Oh, they'd called him names all right, but never had they been said in friendship. Hippie...punk...long–hair...freak...nerd. Names that stung, that cut deeply whenever they were uttered.
Like so many other things in Blair's life, Jim had changed all that. Jim's nicknames for him were terms of affection. Chief... Darwin... Junior... buddy... my little guppy. How had Jim managed to hang so many on him so quickly? That was Jim, though. Stoic though the world might see him, the man had a heart as big as the Cascade Mountains. His nicknames, along with the little pats on the cheeks, the tugs of his hair, and pats on the back, were just Jim's way of showing his feelings. He might not always say how he felt, but to those versed in Jim–speak, his emotions were clear.
Pulling himself back to the present, he asked, "Want to hear more?" At Jim's nod, he continued.
"I almost prefer the treatment of my 'brothers' who look through me as if I were but a shadow. Even so scorned, I have a place to lay my head at night, and they feed me well. Most happily of all, those of this house leave me to my studies, at least for the most part. My brothers, Philip and Roderick, go out of their way to disturb my reading, and I must hide my manuscripts for fear that they would mean them harm.
I have found sanctuary, however, in a place where none from my lord's house ever tread. It is a clearing in the forest at the edge of the sea. The sounds of the waves cover my steps, and it is far enough from the fields that my tormentors do not ride there. Each day after the morning meal I slip away with my few books and my few sheets of precious parchment to spend the day in the pursuits that please me best.
I asked of my father if I might have a tutor to complete my studies, but I was denied. His own sons have only a rudimentary knowledge of numbers and words, and it is his opinion that I should be satisfied with the same. I was not greatly disappointed as I harbored no great hopes. Had I not once studied for the priesthood, until my mother's illness called me home, my own education would be no better that that of Philip and Roderick. Whatever wisdom I gain henceforth shall be acquired through my own efforts or not at all. So I escape to my sanctuary.
Surrounded as I am by those of kinship and not, I am utterly alone in this place. Yet I harbor within me a secret knowledge, a surety that in time, I shall find the one who will stand beside me and call me 'brother'. My dear mother spoke of her anam cara, her best friend, Rachel. They grew up as sisters, although from different blood, and both lay still inside the church walls within the same month. I can only pray that the Great God will grant me the same favor in His own time – to go to my rest beside my own anam cara."
Blair closed the thin leather–bound journal and sat silently staring at the flames.
At last, Jim said softly, "That's...amazing, Chief." He reached over and took the journal as Blair handed it to him. Opening it, he stared at the old words scratched on the pages so many centuries before. Jim ran his fingers over the words. "Fiora knew what she was doing, didn't she?"
Eyes glittering brightly, Blair nodded. "Jim? I don't know what else we're going to find in those pages, but I think we've just touched the surface."********************
While Blair spent much of the next three days at work in the library translating Colum's ancient journals, Jim grew restless within the great stone walls. He ventured out on the castle grounds, exploring a little farther each day. Somehow, the countryside called to him in a way no land had before, with the exception of the jungles of Peru.
He had felt at home there in the Peruvian rainforest, more alive and more himself than he had before or since. It had been in Peru that his blood burned, and all his talents joined forces with powerful instincts he'd never known existed to produce the legendary sentinel that Sandburg nearly worshipped.
Jim knew he could never live in the jungle; he understood that Cascade was his home. He was resigned to only reach back into memory to recapture those feelings of power, of oneness with...
With whatever it was that made him so unique. Jim had never dared hope to experience that sensation away from the jungle, and he hadn't.
Just as he'd done for the last three days, Jim found himself drawn to the cliffs overlooking the turbulent gray waters of the North Sea. Staring down at the crashing waves far below, he closed his eyes, letting himself drift farther and farther away from himself. Giving himself permission to let go.
The sensation was close to a zone, yet substantially different. Jim felt if he could only reach a little farther, the answer would be within his grasp.
The answer to what question, he was not certain. That, too, danced just out of sight, somewhere in the mist hovering about in his mind.
He could taste fear and fell pain in every fiber of his being. Pain he knew did not reside in the present, but was oh, so determinedly calling out to him from the past. The distant pain and fear became more and more intimate, enveloping Jim, cocooning him within its darkness, wrapping its fibers around him.
Deep in his soul, the despair grew.
The rocky cliff called to him, beckoned him closer, ever closer, tempting him with the possibility of ending the desperate hopelessness.
Jim took two steps forward toward that blessed relief, his eyes still tightly shut.
His toes touched the margin of earth and sky, and he flirted with the nearness of deliverance. It would be so very simple, infinitely easier than the alternative of never–ending misery. Lost in a fog of despair, Jim shifted infinitesimally closer to the abyss.
From behind him, a quiet voice whispered to him, calling him back.
Somehow, even without taking that final step, the hopelessness retreated ever so slightly.
"Jim? I need you to open your eyes, man."
There was a hand at his back, a gentle pressure against his spine, its warmth seeping through his wool sweater to warm his skin.
"C'mon, Jim. Open your eyes. Come back to me."
Like the mist at the emergence of the sun, the despair evaporated.
Jim Ellison opened his eyes.
And stared out into nothingness.********************
Jim jerked back a step, jerking his body away from the edge of the cliff, his feet once more planted firmly on solid ground. Blair's arms moved quickly around him, supporting his weight as he sagged, his knees unexpectedly buckling.
"It's okay, man. It's okay. I'm here, Jim. I'm here." Gently, Blair eased Jim down to the grass, following him to earth and sitting beside him facing the sea. "What happened? That must have been one hell of a zone." Blair shivered as he looked down over the edge of the cliff. This was way too close, Jim. Way too close. "Just another couple of inches and..."
"It wasn't a zone." Jim's voice was neutral, showing no sign of the fear he'd felt so strongly only moments before. "It was like nothing I'd ever felt before, except..." Puzzled blue eyes met Blair's. "Except that first day here. Remember? I told you that I sensed...death? My own death?"
Another shiver shook Blair's slender frame. For a long minute, he could not answer. The sight of his best friend standing on the edge of that cliff, his eyes closed, his body swaying ever so slightly, had shaken Blair to the core. He didn't want to consider what might have happened had he been only a moment later. "Yeah, I remember," he replied weakly.
Jim forced a smile. "It's okay, Chief. It's only a feeling, remember? I'm fine."
"Sure, man. If you call being inches away from taking a plunge into the North Sea 'fine'." Blair jerked his head toward the cliff. "What was going on with you, Jim?" Shivering, he wrapped his arms around himself for warmth. The sun was lower on the horizon, and the temperature had fallen several degrees already. Dark clouds loomed in the distance, and it looked as though rain was on the way.
Ellison scrambled to his feet. "It's getting colder. Let's head back to the castle, and I'll tell you after we've warmed up by the fire."********************
Blair stared in disbelief at the calm face of his best friend. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, man. We should cut our losses, go home, and forget the whole thing."
Jim chuckled. "Just because I'm having creepy feelings?" The fire popped loudly, echoing off the tall ceilings of the castle library. The room had quickly become their favorite in the castle. It offered warmth and privacy, two valuable commodities in an ancient bed and breakfast.
Blair's hands gestured emphatically as he paced nervously in front of the huge, stone fireplace. "They're not just 'creepy feelings', Jim, and you know it. You were a couple of inches from...dying...today, and frankly, that scares the hell out of me! What if I hadn't come looking for you, huh?"
"Why did you come, Blair?" Jim asked softly.
"What?" Blair looked at him in confusion. The question caught him off guard.
"Why did you come after me? You didn't yesterday or the day before. Why today?"
Seeking escape from the question, Blair walked over to the bookcase on the far wall, absently fingering the old leather bindings. "I don't know. I just did, okay?"
"No," Jim insisted. "Not okay. You do know. Why did you come for me?"
Blair whirled around to face him across the cavernous room. "Because I knew you needed me, all right? I knew you were in trouble! Don't ask me how, 'cause I'm clueless, man!" Suddenly realizing how loud his voice had become, Blair grew quieter and moved to sit in the chair next to Jim.
His intent blue eyes focused on Ellison's face. "I was here in the library, translating some of Colum's writings, and I just got this uneasy feeling. About you. I tried to ignore it, but it got stronger and stronger until..." Blair forced the words out past the catch in his throat as he added weakly, "I had to find you, Jim."
Reaching over, Jim patted his knee. "It's okay, Chief. I'm glad you came. You said that maybe I was sensing some kind of psychic energy. Can it be as strong as what I was feeling? Strong enough to make me...do what I did tonight?"
Blair shrugged slightly. "I don't know. Maybe. I guess so. I mean, nobody else was able to see Molly. I've never seen the spirit guides, except for the vision we both had at the fountain. You're obviously highly in tune with psychic energy, man." He hesitated, then said softly, "Plus, it ties in with what I discovered today."
"What was that, Chief?"
A hint of a smile broke through the clouds that had darkened Blair's face since the incident on the cliffs. He picked up his notebook from the table beside the chair he now thought of as his. "Listen," Blair said simply.
He began to read.
My life changed forever on this day...
Colum de Blair had never met a more gloomy day, yet despite the steady rain and the chill that permeated the air, he ventured through the forest.
He had to escape his father's house. Another moment spent within that prison would be completely unbearable. As always, the outdoors sang to him, and Colum answered the call.
Colum had never been acquainted with the luxury of an easy life. While his mother still lived, they had toiled in poverty, struggling to make a living in the growing town of Edinburgh. At least then, however, as dark as his existence had been, he had known love. With his mother's death, that single light had been extinguished, and Colum's life had become immeasurably darker.
He was not wanted here. Of that, there was absolutely no doubt. His father tolerated him only because he was an honorable man, and Colum was, after all, his son – in blood, if not in heart. As for the others in the household...
That was another, much sadder, verse in an entirely different song.
Colum had no doubt that his father's wife, the Lady Elaenor, would celebrate his death. Her joy at that momentous event would be second only to her profound relief had he never drawn breath. His half–brothers, Roderick and Philip, had been at their worst on this dreary day. His ribs still ached from Philip's elbow, jabbing painfully into his side this morning as they'd passed in the great hall.
Lady Elaenor and his half–brothers needed no excuse to administer pain, no matter be it physical or emotional.
It wounded Colum in his deepest soul to know that his very existence was cause for such strife in his father's household.
At times, Colum couldn't help but wonder if perhaps the Great God had erred in gifting him his life.
Colum drew a long, sobbing breath and ran on through the downpour. A moment later, he breached the edge of the forest and emerged into the clearing bordering the high cliffs that towered above the North Sea. The wind moaned through the treetops, its haunting cry echoing the pain that stabbed mercilessly at his own heart. For an instant, the cry of the wind sounded almost human, and Colum's heart tightened with fear.
On such a night, might spirits be about?
Then he spotted the man, and within him, his heart leapt. With what nameless emotion, he was not certain.
A tall figure stood alone at the edge of the cliffs. Even through the deluge, Colum could make out the broad, powerful shoulders and the proud carriage of the head silhouetted against the darkness of the afternoon sky.
The wind's howl could not obscure a second cry, as the stranger tilted his head back and let fly a howl so filled with anguish that Colum felt a surge of immeasurable empathy mixed with wonderment.
This man's pain ran as deeply as his own.
The tall man took another step closer to the edge of the cliff, and with a flash of insight, Colum understood.
This man meant to end it all.
In an instant, that thought became intolerable. "No!" With a cry of denial, Colum plunged forward through the mud and the rain. If the man poised on the edge of oblivion heard him, he gave no sign.
As Colum drew closer, he could see the tremors wracking the powerful form, and he heard clearly the tiny cries of pain that mingled with the sounds of the raindrops plummeting to the saturated earth.
The young man pulled up short a few feet from the stranger. The man didn't turn to him, but he didn't move any closer to the edge either. Now that he had come this far, Colum suddenly didn't know what to do.
'Reach out to him...touch him...comfort him...protect him. He is yours.'
Where had those words come from? Colum wondered, looking around in a near panic. He did not know the bedraggled stranger standing in such obvious pain before him. Why should he touch him? In what possible way was this man his?
Yet, despite his mind's questions, inexplicably, his heart soared and raised its voice in a song of joy. It was the first time his heart had sung since his beloved mother's death. Pushing aside any doubts, Colum de Blair slowly raised his hands toward the trembling shoulders.
"It's all right now," Colum whispered in a voice he'd never before heard from his own throat. Low and resonant, brimming with warmth, comfort, and affection, his voice rumbled through the sounds of wind and sea, of rain and waves. "You will be safe, I promise."
When the intensity of the tremors quieted and the soft cries eased into low moans of pain, Colum let his hands settle on the broad, muscular shoulders. Without knowing why he did so, his strong fingers began a gentle massage of the tightly corded muscles. His words flowed of their own volition, as though he had spoken them a million times before, had uttered the soothing sounds to this man not only in this lifetime, but in an infinite number of lifetimes that had come before.
Or perhaps, even after. Ridiculous thought, Colum chided himself, as the comforting words continued to flow forth.
"Harken to my voice. Hear only me. There is no wind. No rain. No sea. Only me. Only my voice and my hands. The rain cannot harm you any more. I am here now, and I will take away the pain, if only you will allow it."
Colum knew not from whence the words sprang, and even as he spoke, he marveled at his own eloquence. Perhaps even more astonishing was the clarity of mind and purpose that rose bubbling from within him, a fresh, clear spring of certainty and power.
Again the inner voice whispered to him:
'Do not question. This is the gift you must discover, just as he must discover the gift bestowed upon him. Accept these gifts, cultivate them, and learn to cherish them, and you both shall thrive.'
As the day dragged onward toward nightfall, there were more words, more sounds, some of them with meaning, but others holding meaning only within their power to soothe. At length, the man's breathing became smoother, and the soft moans of pain ceased.
As though directed by a master conductor, the pain of the man and the ferocity of the storm abated in perfect harmony. Large raindrops still fell, scattered and clumsy, but the late afternoon sun peeked occasionally through the weakening black clouds. The man slowly turned away from the sea, away from the death that had beckoned him so alluringly.
Colum's hands fell away from the broad shoulders, the feeling long before drained from them. He looked up into the man's face at last and discovered to his amazement that it was not that of a stranger after all.
Lingering raindrops blended with the salt of drying tears as the intense blue eyes burned into his own. As Colum gazed into those pale blue eyes, he understood beyond the shadow of a doubt that he had discovered the treasure he had sought so long.
The bastard son of the house de Blair knew that he was staring into the soul of his anam cara.
"It hurts. It has for a long time now."
Those nine words broke the silence that had stretched between them since they had left the cliffs. Following the tall man, Colum never asked where they were going. They were together. For the moment, it was enough.
After hiking through the woods for some time, they reached a small hut. Tucked beneath the sheltering arms of an ancient oak, the tiny dwelling looked safe and protected. Very much the way Colum had felt from the instant he locked eyes with the older man.
As they sat before the fire, he studied the face of the man sitting across from him. Perhaps in his mid–thirties, the man's features were chiseled from stone. His sharp, pale blue eyes seemed to gaze straight through Colum to his very heart, as though reading from a book he had read many times before.
He was James Montgomery, eldest son of the laird of Eglinton Castle, Lucais Montgomery. A better heritage could not be bred in all of Scotland, for James' bloodline rang with power. First born son of a powerful laird. A trained warrior. Respected among his own clan and beyond.
James Montgomery could not be more opposite from lowly Colum de Blair, illegitimate son and unwanted intruder at Blair Castle. For the moment, however, such differences were unimportant.
The man who sat before him had been at the brink of death – a chosen death – only minutes earlier. Now, he spoke of some strange pain. The student dwelling still within Colum was intrigued.
"What manner of pain are you in, James? Are you ill?" Concerned cornflower eyes watched studied Montgomery closely.
James laughed aloud, though bitterness tainted the sound. "Ill? In body, no. In mind, no doubt." He rubbed his temples as though to ward off encroaching pain.
Colum's confusion intensified. What was the man saying? "I...I'm sorry. I do not understand."
"Nor do I." Running his fingers through his nearly blonde hair that fell to his ears, James hesitated. "I have spoken of this with no one. Neither my own father nor my mother know of my affliction. Why I should feel driven to share it with you... " He spread his hands in a helpless gesture, then James fell silent.
"I know not why I found you today," Colum replied gently. "Yet, I do know that had I not, you would likely be lying at the foot of the cliffs. Is that what you sought to do? Plunge from the summit to the rocks below?"
"No!" The denial was immediate, almost as fast as the uncertain rebuttal that followed. "Yes...Maybe... Truthfully, I do not know."
Colum waited patiently. He sensed that pushing James would gain him nothing. This was a man accustomed to a position of power. He would not yield easily to pressure.
At last, the soft reply came. "You...reached me somehow. Your words found a path past the pain, and I heard you. No one has ever done that before. No one else has ever come close. How did you manage it, Colum?"
"You know my name?" Surprise was evident in the younger man's reply. "You have told me yours, but I have not revealed the same to you."
James' unguarded smile was unexpectedly brilliant, and in that flash of light, Colum could sense the magnetism of the older man's personality for the first time. "I have seen you before."
Colum's brows knitted in concentration. "Have you? When? I do not recall our meeting before today."
The tall man stretched his legs out before the fire, warming his bare feet. "I did not say that we had met, only that I had seen you, and so I have. You come to the forest almost daily, do you not?" James asked, almost lazily.
"To the forest on my laird's estate," Colum pointed out. "How did you come to see me there? On my father's land?"
James shrugged. "I often feel the need to be away from my father's house as well, young one. Do not deny that you know this feeling well yourself."
When there was no denial, James added, "You are an educated man. I have seen you reading, writing even upon parchment. How does a man such as yourself come to know these things?"
"And come to afford costly parchment?" Colum snapped. Resentment flared momentarily, but quickly subsided, replaced by a feeling of shame at his harsh retort. James had surely meant no insult.
Calmly, Colum explained, "Yes, I am educated. I once trained for the priesthood. That is where I learned the art of language. I have an inbred curiosity about all things." He grinned wryly. "At least, that's what my mother called it. Others have used words not nearly so kind. As for the parchment, it was a gift."
James asked, "It came from your father then? Such a gift is quite generous. He must think highly of you."
Colum's reply was little bitter laugh. "My father think highly of me? I think not. It did not come from him. Nor from any other at Blair Castle. I had a friend at the monastery, an elderly monk named Matthew. It was he who gave me the gift of parchment when I had to depart."
Seeing the unspoken question in the clear blue eyes of James Montgomery, Colum added softly, "My mother was desperately ill. She had no one else to care for her. After her death more than a year later, I found there was no place for me back at the monastery. I was fortunate to have been accepted the first time. Matthew died during my absence, and I had no other hope for being taken back. So..." He shrugged. "I ended up in my father's house." It was the first time he'd recounted his story to anyone, Colum realized suddenly. No one else had cared enough to inquire.
"Your mother died?" James seemed confused. "Then the lady Elaenor...?"
"Not my mother," Colum replied succinctly. "Nor is she likely to become a mother to me in any way, regardless of how long I remain under the same roof." He changed the subject abruptly, not wishing to dwell upon his own misfortune. The sage of this former stranger interested him much more. "You have not yet told me of your pain."
Colum perceived his discomfort as the older man shifted restlessly in his hard–backed chair. "It began some time ago. I had gone on an extended hunting trip into the hills. Alone. I became ill with a fever and nearly died. For many days, I lay burning. Near death and unable to go for help nor to help myself. Miraculously, the fever left me, but in its place..."
Haunted eyes burned into Colum's. "I...hear things...see things...that I should not. Sometimes the simplest foods will burn my tongue, and often the faintest of odors will drive me to my knees."
James' hands skimmed across the soft cotton shirt he wore. "My own clothes betray me. I can only wear the softest of fabrics, the lightest of garments. Some days, it is not so horrid. On other days, such as today..." James' voice grew softer. "It is unbearable agony."
Colum's brow creased with sympathy. "So you went to the cliffs to end your pain."
"Anything is better than such an existence. I fear..." For a long moment, he fell silent. "I fear I am going mad. Or that I be possessed." The last words were spoken in a fearful whisper with eyes diverted.
"No. You are not." Colum's voice was firm in its assurance.
Cocking his head slightly, the older man studied him and asked, "How can you be certain? Do you know what is wrong with me?" A note of hope crept into James' voice.
Colum hesitated. Did he have the right to offer hope? Hope that might well prove false? "Perhaps," he replied carefully. "I cannot be certain yet, but I have heard..."
James' intent blue eyes bored into Colum's darker ones. "What? What is it that you have heard?"
The younger man ran the fingers of his right hand through the luxuriant mahogany curls that fell to his shoulders. "There was another priest at the monastery where I studied prior the death of my mother. His name was Father Sime. Except for Matthew, he was my only friend. Sime became a priest because of his interest in matters of the spirit, but he was not only interested in the spirituality of the Holy Church. He studied the beliefs of others, as well. All in secret, of course."
Colum laughed bitterly. "While I believe our God is a tolerant God, His Church is not always so. Sime knew that his 'studies' could cost him his life, should he be discovered."
Colum leaned forward, his indigo eyes glowing. "Sime spoke to me once of men born with special talents among the Celts and other tribes. Gifts, he called them. Their births were rare, but when a clan was fortunate enough to claim such a man, its safety was ensured. Sime called them the 'guardians'."
"What was so special about these guardians?" James inquired, leaning forward.
"It is much as you describe," Colum said eagerly. "Their senses – their sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch – were far above those of ordinary men. They could hear an army approach from across the most distant hills, smell the smoke of a smoldering fire long before it could destroy a castle, and see the features of an approaching rider in ample time to determine whether he be enemy or friend."
James' face grew thoughtful, and Colum could tell he was weighing his words carefully. "Such a man would truly be a gift to his clan. But my own pain is nothing so useful, Colum. It...it drives me to the fringes of insanity."
"Only because you have not yet learned to control the gift, James!" Colum insisted.
"Can such a skill be learned? If indeed such is the source of my misery." James' eyes reflected his internal doubts.
"We could find out, I suppose. How do you feel now?"
James shrugged. "I am all right. Nothing amiss."
"Perfect." Colum looked about the tiny cottage. "Come to the entrance," he said, standing up and leading the way to the small doorway. Opening the creaky, wooden door, he looked out into the gentle rain. "Listen for the sea, James."
The older man regarded him as though Colum had gone daft, arching one brow above his crystal blue eyes. "The sea? It lies too far from this place to be heard. Truly, do you expect me to heed the sound of its waters from here?"
Gently, Colum rested his hand against James' lower back. For an instant, he wondered at the wisdom of touching the son of the house of Montgomery in such a familiar way, then Colum banished all doubt from his heart. He had felt the rightness of being with this man as they stood at the cliffs. He refused to doubt that instinct now.
"Listen," Colum said softly. "Move past the sound of the rainfall and the wind in the trees above. There are no birds calling. No leaves rustling. Journey beyond those sounds and hear the roar of the sea."
Still the other man resisted. "What if the pain returns? What if I... drift away... and cannot return? It has happened before," James said accusingly.
Mildly, Colum replied, "Then I shall bring you back. I do not believe the pain will return this time. Please, will you try?"
The two stood still, each one taking account of the other, one asking for trust, the other debating the wisdom of bestowing it. At last, James turned his head to face the direction of the ocean. For a long time, he did not speak. His eyes closed, and his head tilted slightly to one side.
Close at his side, Colum whispered to James. As he spoke, he realized that the words themselves bore no importance. It was the sound of his voice that relaxed James, that had led to this attempt to hear what should be impossible to hear. Somehow, Colum knew that James would be successful. He was a guardian, Colum realized with growing excitement. A man gifted with five heightened senses and the ability to use them for the benefit of his people.
If only he could learn control.
"I hear it!" Wondrous blue eyes opened wide. "I can hear the sea! The waves. The sea birds. It is as if they lay right outside the door." Grasping Colum's thin shoulders, James asked, "How is this thing possible?"
Colum replied with honesty. "I know not. I only know what I was told by Sime, the wise priest." He turned his attention back to the forest outside the doorway. "Look up into the highest tree, James. What do you see?"
Concentrating, James stared into the branches. "Leaves. Bark."
"Go higher," Colum coaxed. "Let your sight join with your hearing to carry you where it is you wish to go. They must work in tandem." He did not know where the words found their source, only that they felt right.
"I see a bird's nest," James whispered breathlessly, "with tiny speckled eggs. One appears to be hatching. I can see the tiny beak pecking away at the fragile shell."
For long minutes, both men stood in awe at the new world opening up before James' eyes. One finding that new world in the tiniest of miracles, the other discovering an entire universe in that man's very presence.
"My anam cara," Colum breathed so softly that even the guardian did not hear.
Jim watched as Blair closed the journal reverently, his fingers skimming across the ancient leather bindings as if to soak in the emotions felt so strongly by his ancestor all the many centuries before. Sandburg stared silently into the flickering flames of the roaring fire, just fingering the old book, lost in thought.
Jim wasn't in a hurry to break the silence. He needed time. Time to digest exactly what the journal had revealed. The words his guide had read astonished him, and for the moment, words failed him.
Sandburg has always said there was a genetic component to this sentinel thing. He wasn't kidding.
Before he could recover, another thought stole his breath away with its implications.
If Colum de Blair was destined to find James Montgomery, then Fiora was right. Blair and I were destined to find each other. It really didn't matter how much I doubted him in the hospital that first day or how hard I shoved him against the wall. Nothing I did to drive him away could have made a difference in the end. It never was in my control. The decision was never mine to make.
And if that vital episode in his life had been out of his hands all along, what other false illusions of control – delusions of self–determination – had there been?
"Jim? You okay, man?"
The concern in Sandburg's voice drew Jim's attention back to the surroundings of the castle's library. He lifted his eyes from the flames to stare directly at his partner and nodded, but he didn't speak. It was impossible to form words. He could only sit in silence, trying to come to grips with the realization that his precious control had been no more than an illusion all along.
Blair's voice was sharper now, demanding attention. "Jim!" He leaned forward in his chair so his face was only inches from the sentinel's. "If you've zoned, man, so help me..."
The irritation in Blair's tone snapped the trance. Jim's mouth crooked into a half–smile. "I'm okay, Sandburg. Just...processing... everything."
Blair grinned at Jim's choice of words. "Naomi would be proud, man." He stood up and warmed his backside at the fire. "So, what'd you think?"
"I'd rather know what you think." Jim spread his hands helplessly. "You're the expert on all this."
"It's amazing, Jim." Blair quickly warmed to his topic, and his words flowed freely. "I've always known – in fact, Burton was positive – that the genes for sentinel traits were passed on. What I never was sure about was how it all worked for the guide. Did he inherit certain traits that enabled him to be an effective partner for his sentinel? Or was it mainly an acquired skill?"
Blair's energy seemed to build and pick up speed along with his train of thought. He began to pace around the library, his hands gesturing emphatically like birds fluttering through the air. "I mean, sometimes I just know what to do! It isn't something I've read or even thought about really. It just is, like a part of my soul I didn't even realize was there until I called upon it."
"Now," Blair explained as he held up the small journal, "I know why. My ancestor was a guide, Jim. I carry part of Colum inside me, and it's those traits he passed on that make me who I am. What I am." Blair turned to gaze at Jim with wide, wondrous eyes. "Your guide, man. I was born to become your guide." The final words were a near–reverent whisper.
Jim knew Blair awaited his own reaffirming words, but he held back. He'd just realized exactly how thin his illusion of control had always been, and his first instinct was to either run like hell or attack. That was the famous James Ellison modus operandi, after all, wasn't it? Hurt first, before he could be hurt. Leave first, before he could be left.
The sentinel drew a deep, unsteady breath, remembering. Snippets of his life flashed through his mind like scenes from an oft–viewed film.
Blair in a hospital coat with the wrong nametag...a much–younger Sandburg bopping to the music in his basement office, and the smile that lit up his eyes like the sun when he looked up and saw Jim standing there...the nearly–destroyed loft and the fear that filled Jim's heart when he returned one night only to discover that David Lash had raped his home and stolen his guide...the paralyzing terror in the police department garage as he blindly cradled Blair in his arms and prayed fervently that his young friend be spared a golden death...Alex...the reoccurring nightmare of shooting the wolf – of killing his very soul...a vision of tear–filled blue eyes staring into a camera as his best friend sacrificed his life to save Jim's own.
The final vision, however, was not from Cascade. Jim remembered sitting in the cathedral in York, England on their previous trip to the British Isles. He could almost taste the peace that had flowed through him as he listened to the heavenly harmonies from the choir and thought about his life. He had almost lost Blair again on that trip; it seemed they couldn't take a vacation without their lives being in jeopardy.
They had survived, however, and on that day in the majestic cathedral, Jim had fully realized exactly how much a part of him Blair had become and how much he needed his presence in his life. The acknowledgement that he loved Sandburg as a brother brought no sense of weakness or of denial. Blair's rightful place was at his side, and anyone who couldn't accept that fact be damned. A wave of gratitude had washed through Jim, and he had felt a rush of release. That release seemed like a long–anticipated surrender that, once accomplished, no longer seemed painful after all. After all was said and done, Jim sat silently in York Cathedral in awe at the peace that surrender could bring.
Returning to the moment, Jim realized that Blair was too quiet. Ellison could sense the euphoria seeping out of him second by second as his sentinel remained silent. Realizing what Sandburg must be thinking – that Jim wasn't comfortable with the new insights the journal had brought – he stood up and moved to stand beside his partner and friend. Blair's words from moments before were still singing in his ears... "Your guide, man. I was born to become your guide."
"And I," Jim said quietly, his warm voice thick with affection, "was born to be your sentinel. But I didn't need Colum's journal to show me that, Chief. I've known it for a long time."
The reward for his candor was a blinding smile and the warmth of Blair filling his arms in a grateful hug.********************
For the most part, the following days spent at Blair Castle were peaceful and stress–free. For Jim, that was a welcome respite from his job as detective for Cascade P.D.'s Major Crimes unit. He could truly unwind, and he did just that, becoming more relaxed with each passing day. Yet at the same time, being in the Scottish countryside and castle brought Jim closer to his own center, and he felt himself becoming more focused upon his heritage and upon his senses.
One of Jim's favorite pastimes was strolling through the ancient castle, and early in the evening on the day that marked the end of their first week, he found himself doing exactly that. The old castle was a cornucopia of sensory input. Scents teased the sentinel with tendrils of memory reaching out from the past, tickling him with distant recollections of what might have been.
As he climbed the steps leading to the keep, Jim placed his hands flat against the walls. The stone was cool to his touch, even cold, and Jim found himself touching the walls often, as though he were touching the heritage of his best friend.
And perhaps, brushing against his own history.
How many generations of Blair's ancestors had walked these very halls? What if Naomi's grandmother had feared immigrating to America and opted to stay here in Scotland? What courage it must have taken for the young Scottish woman to leave her home and family to face life in a strange, new world! Much like Naomi, he thought with a smile. It couldn't have been easy to leave everything behind and venture across the wide Atlantic to an unknown country. Just as his own ancestors had done, he supposed.
What if... ? So much could have happened, so much might have gone wrong, and he'd never have met Sandburg at that crucial crossroads in his life.
Such were the fragile twists of fate that had conspired to link his life with Blair's.
Or, perhaps, it had not been fate at all. Wasn't that exactly the lesson being taught through the journal of Colum de Blair?
Too much analysis of the unknowable made his head hurt.
Jim abandoned his musings in favor of a visit to Blair at work in the library. He jogged quickly down the wide, stone stairs, then took the hallway leading to the wing of the castle containing the library. As he turned left, something behind him caught his attention.
Footsteps, following closely behind. He inhaled deeply and caught a whiff of lavender in the air.
Whirling around, he glimpsed a flash of scarlet disappearing behind a heavy drapery hanging at the window.
Stealthily, Jim crept to stand beside the drapery and waited. Long minutes ticked by, during which the sentinel stood in motionless silence. His military training had taught him well how to wait unseen... undetected by the enemy.
Jim could hear faint breathing from the other side of the heavy fabric, and again, he could smell the scent of lavender. At last, the drapery stirred, and a gnarled hand reached out to draw it aside.
"Why were you following me?" Jim asked casually.
The hand jerked in surprise, revealing the face behind the drapery. It was the visage of an elderly woman, at least in her nineties, by Jim's best judgement. Rather than appearing startled that she'd been found out, her leathery skin stretched out in a welcoming smile.
" 'Tis my own fault, I suppose, for trying to hide from the likes of you."
Emerging from the coverage of the drapery, the elderly woman straightened her full skirts with all the dignity she could muster. No more than five feet tall, she was dwarfed by the tall sentinel. "I was overtaken by curiosity, that's all."
Jim cocked his head, regarding her carefully. "Curiosity? About what?" Spreading his hands wide, Jim added, "I'm just a tourist, like the others here."
A bright, cackling laugh shattered the silence of the cavernous hallway. She laughed for a long while, then, wiping tears of amusement from her damp blue eyes with the corner of her apron, the elderly woman looked up at Jim. "You are like no others, sir, and that is no lie. My name is Bridget de Blair."
It was Jim's turn to be caught off guard. "You are related to Laurence, then?"
Wise blue eyes studied his face boldly. "Brother and sister, we are. The last of the family to reside within the walls of Blair Castle. Long have we awaited your arrival – you and the young one."
At the mention of his guide, Jim's expression grew wary. Who exactly was this woman, and why was she so concerned with him and with Blair? "You must get plenty of distant relatives visiting here. We're not so special that you would wait for us to arrive."
The sound of the dinner bell chimed from outside, calling all to the evening meal. Bridget's head turned toward the sound. "I must go and help serve our guests. Just know that in many centuries none such as yourselves have trod here. I bid ye welcome." With a quick nod of respect, she turned and hurried down the corridor on her strong little legs, her long skirts billowing behind her.
...none such as yourselves...
What the hell had she meant by that?
Jim stared after the departing figure. Could Laurence and Bridget know? If so, how? His mind whirling, Jim tried to imagine how he or Blair might have given away their secret in the short time since their arrival at Blair Castle. He could think of nothing. They had been alone in the library as Blair read the translations from the journal of Colum de Blair. They had been alone; he was sure of it. He would have heard the presence of another, sensed an unfamiliar scent in the room.
Breaking from his reverie, Jim hurried toward the library to find his guide.********************
They skipped dinner, settling instead for some wine and cheese in their suite. Keeping his voice low, Jim filled Blair in on his encounter with Bridget.
"She couldn't have heard us," Blair insisted after Jim had finished. "We were alone in the library. But how else could she possibly know...?"
Jim shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe she meant something completely different, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it would be. I do know this much. We can't risk anyone else finding out. From now on, we don't speak of the journals outside of this room."
Blair agreed. "I can't think of a time that we have, but you're right."
"How are you coming with the translation anyway?"
Blair's grin almost erased the knot of tension that had tied itself around Jim's stomach.
"I'm almost half done." Blair tossed Jim a brochure. "I was thinking. Why don't you take advantage of some of the superb Scottish fishing that brochure describes over the next couple of days? Let me have some uninterrupted time with Colum's journal? I should be done in another day or two. Or three."
Three was probably more like it. Jim studied the illustration of a man wrestling in a large trout on the cover of the pamphlet. "Fishing? Me?" He looked up at Blair and completely failed to conceal his delight. "I think I could handle that, Chief. For the sake of your research, of course."
Blair's serious expression was belied by the twinkle in his blue eyes. "Of course, Jim. For my research. Thanks for your sacrifice, man."
Their serious expressions collapsed, as both men dissolved into laughter.********************
The next three days passed in a blur. Except to crash into bed for each night's fitful sleep, Blair barely left the broad oak table in the castle library, not even to have tea with the other guests in the morning room. Laurence de Blair entered silently each day, bearing tea and biscuits. His distant relative placed the silver tray silently on the table, merely nodding when Blair expressed his thanks. The old man slipped from the room as quietly as he had entered.
Late on the third afternoon, Blair's eyes were tired from the hours of concentrated reading and staring at his laptop screen. There was no way he could stop, however.
The words he'd begun translating that morning were haunting him, challenging him to complete their translation so that he might discover the truth of what had transpired so long ago in 1314.
It was one of those times best described as bittersweet.
What he was discovering about the relationship between another sentinel and his guide – between his own ancestor and Jim's – captivated Blair, filling him with an excitement he had rarely experienced either personally or professionally. Only the beginnings of his relationship with Jim had given him such exhilaration.
However, what he was discovering also filled Blair with a profound sense of foreboding, and he frequently found himself dreading the turn of the next page. If what he sensed was true, Blair knew that eventually, the knowledge would cut him to the center of his soul.
By the time darkness eclipsed the sun on the third day, he was on the final page of the journal. After typing in the last translated word, Blair stared at the screen of his laptop for a long minute. "No," he whispered, his head slowly shaking in denial. "No."
Burying his face in his hands, Blair wept as he had not since he was a child.********************
By the end of that third day, Jim was concerned about his partner. As he worked on translating the journal of his ancestor, Colum de Blair, Sandburg had grown more and more withdrawn. At first, Jim marked it up to his intense focus on his subject. He'd seen Sandburg delve into something too intently before.
Yet, that just didn't seem to be the problem this time.
There was something about the expression in those blue eyes that bothered Jim deeply. A look of sadness. A haunted shadow dimming the familiar brightness.
After returning late in the afternoon from his day at the river, Jim had waited in their suite for his friend to arrive. He'd considered going down to the library and checking on Blair's progress, but he'd promised the younger man uninterrupted time to work.
Jim always kept his word.
That didn't stop him, however, from regretting that the word had been given in the first place.
As evening completely darkened the Scottish skies and the huge clock downstairs chimed seven, Jim stalked to the door, ready to find his guide regardless of his promise. As he reached for the knob, he heard familiar footsteps plodding slowly down the hall, and Jim returned to sit in one of the chairs by the arched stained–glass window in Blair's room.
"Hey, Chief," Jim greeted his friend as Blair entered the suite.
"Hey, yourself," the younger man said glumly. "Catch anything?"
"A few. Dropped them off downstairs for Bridget to serve for dinner." He studied Blair closely. His friend looked drawn, a little pale, as though he might be coming down with something. Yet, Jim sensed it wasn't physical pain that his guide was experiencing. Casually, he asked, "Did you finish?"
The sudden lightning bolt of sheer pain in Blair's eyes struck Jim full–force and he covered the distance between them in three long strides. "Blair? What's wrong?"
Dropping his laptop on the bed, Blair sank down beside it. "I finished," he said quietly. "I'm sorry, Jim. It's just that... It wasn't quite what I expected, that's all."
The sentinel waited for a full minute before replying. "Tell me."
The haunted blue eyes of his guide rose to hold his own. "Are you sure? This thing's pretty complicated and long. We might miss dinner."
"Dinner's not important. Whatever has you upset is. Talk to me, Sandburg." Jim sat down beside Blair on the bed and waited.
Without another word, Blair opened his laptop and moments later, he began to tell the story.
Colum de Blair had found the bedrock of his life at last. Ever since the chance encounter with James Montgomery on the cliffs that stormy day, Colum devoted himself to learning as much as he could about the remarkable gifts his new friend possessed. His father's house contained few books, so Colum's research was conducted directly with James, often to the irritation of the older man.
The months and the years had sped by quickly, and James had learned much. His senses had increased in their strength, and with their amplification, his control had grown. Yet, the guardian still occasionally balked at Colum's efforts.
No matter how often Colum patiently explained that the only way they could hope to maintain control over James' increasingly powerful senses was by understanding what triggered problems with them and what methods were most effective, James quickly grew impatient. Colum had learned to see the storm clouds brewing in the intense blue depths of his friend's eyes, but he could not bring himself to cease trying to assist James with whatever methods he believed would work.
One spring day, Colum had cajoled James into a working afternoon out on the hillside overlooking Eglinton Castle, the Montgomery estate. They had been working for more than two hours when James' patience ran out. "I'm a man, Colum, not some trained dog!" James tossed up his hands and stalked away.
Colum watched the larger man's broad shoulders disappear over the crest of the small hill. They had been working with James' sense of sight, trying to determine exactly how far the man could see. James had been able to count the individual petals on the spring blossoms on the favorite rose bush of his mother, Molly Montgomery, in the courtyard of the great house in the valley below. Only a few months ago, that would not have been possible. As Colum encouraged him to reach out farther, the guardian had grown increasingly irritable, finally breaking off their work and stalking away.
How did James hope to learn if he would not practice? Colum shook his head in helpless frustration.
While it no longer happened as often, the older man still fell victim to trances occasionally while using his gifts. Thankfully, Colum had been present each time and had been able to talk him out of the nearly sleep–like state. But what if one of the strange trances should befall James when Colum wasn't there? That thought frightened the young man more than he wanted to admit, even to himself. Shaking his head, Colum hurried after him.
"You can't run away from your self, James!" Colum called after his friend when they were but a few paces away. James did not reply, but instead turned away from Colum, his head tilted to one side in a pose his young friend now understood indicated that the guardian was listening.
Two horses approached from the east.
Both men turned to watch the approach of Lucais Montgomery, James' father. In the three years since their friendship began, James had carefully and diplomatically steered Colum away from his family. Instinctively, Colum understood.
The Montgomerys were a powerful, respected family. He was just a bastard, living at Blair Castle only through his father's good graces. A friendship such as theirs would be frowned upon by James' family, without doubt. As for his own family, they cared little where Colum spent his time. He had needed to offer no explanations. As Colum glanced over at his friend, he could almost see the wall going up around James.
"Good morning, Father," James greeted the older man calmly. "How was the hunt?"
Reining in his stallion, Lucais Montgomery stared down at his son. His younger son, Duncan, pulled up at his side.
Duncan was James etched in shadow. Nearly the same height and build, both were handsome men, but that that was where the similarity ended. Where James was possessed of light hair accented by those striking blue eyes, Duncan's jet–black hair descended past his shoulders, and his eyes were as dark as ebony. They had the same full mouth, but where James' often turned upward in a hint of amusement, Duncan's seemed locked in a perpetual sneer.
"Who is your friend, Brother?" Duncan inquired, a disapproving edge in his tone. "Why, I do believe I recognize him! Isn't that the bastard son of our neightbor, de Blair?" He laughed heartily, a cruel laugh that reminded Blair of his step–brothers. "I've heard his own father has little enough for him to do. Why is it you are keeping his company, my brother?"
"Hold your tongue, Duncan!" the elder Montgomery commanded. "I'll be the one asking the questions of your brother."
"And what is it you wish to know, Father?" James asked forcefully, taking a step forward and to the side, effectively putting himself between Colum and his family.
Without a thought, Colum's hand found the small of James' back. "It's all right," he whispered, almost without sound. "You do not have to defend me to them."
"I wish to know why your presence has been lacking in your own home, James. Your mother commented only last night that you spend more time away from your family than ever." His father regarded James with questioning eyes.
James' reply was without hesitation. "Perhaps it is because I find greater acceptance elsewhere with those who do not ridicule me to my face. With those who accept me as I am, Father."
Duncan's chuckle was dripping with venom. "You must admit, Brother, that your behavior of late has been worthy of ridicule. Doubling over at the merest taste of seasoning in your food...unable to tolerate the music of our mother's harp. Strange behavior, is it not, from the supposed heir to my father's estate?"
Beneath his hand, Colum could feel the tightness of the powerful muscles. "Don't..."
His warning came too late.
"My time is my own! I will spend it however I deem best and with whomever I so choose!" James' blue eyes flashed dangerously as his fists clinched at his side.
"You are still my son!" Equal fire burned in the eyes of the father. "I expect that you will show yourself at your mother's table this evening, and that in the future, you will conduct yourself as one worthy of inheriting the lairdship of the Montgomerys!"
The flame of defiance flared higher in James' eyes. "Perhaps you'd prefer to allow dear Duncan to claim the title, Father?" He nodded at his brother. "Surely you know how capable he would be of caring for your estate."
The look of stunned disbelief on Lucais Montgomery's face faded quickly into subdued tolerance. He glanced quickly at his younger son, then he shook his head sadly but did not reply.
When no answer was forthcoming, James added, "I thought not. You know as well as I that Duncan Montgomery is no more capable of leadership than a cat is capable of song."
James' head tilted slightly in the pose Colum had come to understand signified that the guardian was listening. A moment later, James smiled tightly. "My mother summons her maid to call for you both. She has need of your advice, Father. I suggest you see to her request."
A moment later, the clear tones of a ringing bell sounded from the castle lying in the glen. The faces of father and son reflected a combination of astonishment and fear.
Lucais whispered, "How did you...?"
Duncan's reply was simultaneous but much more bitter. "Another of your unexplained 'talents', Brother? Anticipating my mother's wishes?" He whirled his horse around in anger, but he reined in the tall black stallion before letting it have its head. "I suggest you be careful, James, to whom you show off those talents of yours. Some might interpret it as sorcery."
Casting a long look at Colum, Duncan laughed. "We all know what can happen to those accused of dabbling in the occult, my dear brother. Your pretty young bride would be left alone to raise your son and what a pity that would be." Duncan grinned maliciously. Releasing his horse, he leaned down low over the animal's neck, turning for Castle Eglinton at a full gallop.
Lucais Montgomery stared at his son in silence. At last, he said quietly, "I do not fathom how you come to do these things, James, and normally, I do not hold with the opinions of your brother. Yet, in this matter, I fear he is correct. You have family obligations of your own to consider. Do not show off your...abilities...to outsiders. It could cast the family name in an evil light."
Lucais turned his horse homeward as well, then held the reins tightly, wheeling the stallion back to face his son. "Be at dinner tonight. As for the company you are keeping, you would do well to disassociate yourself from the bastard of the house of de Blair. Turn instead to the true sons, Philip and Roderick. Theirs would be by far the better alliances." He urged the horse into a full gallop, heading toward his castle.
James and Colum watched the departing laird of the House of Montgomery in silence. When he reached the castle, James said softly, "I'm sorry. He had no right."
"Yes. He did." Colum turned his eyes from Castle Eglinton to stare up at his taller friend. "He fears for your life should... outsiders...discover what you can do, James." Colum's voice dropped to a mere whisper. "As do I." He hesitated, then he added, "Perhaps it would be better if I saw you no more. It has been nearly two years now since we began our work. You no longer have the pain from your senses. You control them now, even if you must still be careful not to focus too deeply and sink into a spell of sleep. Perhaps your father is right. My half–brothers would be more fitting company..."
James' eyes narrowed. "No. My father does not make decisions for me." His voice grew gentle as he laid his hands on the slim shoulders of his friend. "I do not want to give up your friendship, Colum. I will not. In reality, you are the first real friend I have had in my life. And you are wrong. Yes, I can live without pain most of the time, but it is when I am with you that I am most in control...when I am not afraid to use my senses fully."
Colum lowered his head to stare at the ground. No one since the death of his mother had been as kind to him as this man. Yet, he knew full well, that they were treading dangerous ground. Those accused of sorcery were put to death, often in the cruelest ways imaginable. The mere thought of that fate befalling James...
An impatient growl from James accompanied the gentle hand beneath his chin.
"Look at me." James forced Colum's head upward until their eyes locked. "I need you, Colum de Blair. I'll be careful, I promise, but don't ask me to give up this friendship. If I am the guardian, as you claim, then you are a part of what I am."
Colum shook his head doubtfully. "I don't know much about guardians, James, but from what Brother Sime told me, it is the gifted one who matters."
"Did he mention...the other? The one who helps the guardian gain control?" James asked curiously.
"Yes. Briefly. He said that every guardian had one who helped him. But..." Colum's doubt spoke clearly in his expression. "It is the guardian who matters. Anyone could do what I do."
"No." James shook Colum's shoulders gently. "They could not. They did not. No one else could give me what you have, Colum. I do know that, even if I am sometimes unsure of anything else. If I am gifted, then you are the one who gives me those gifts in a form I can use. You show me the way; you reveal my answers. Without you..." James shrugged helplessly. "I am lost."
"But your father and brother...?"
"They do not matter." James brushed away the comment as if it was of no consequence at all. "My father and I have seldom agreed about anything. Why should this be different? If Duncan were not a drunkard and a gambler, my father would be pleased never to see me again. As it is," James spat bitterly upon the grass, "he needs me to uphold the family honor."
Colum studied his friend's face. Beyond the terrifying images stirred up in his imagination by Duncan's cruel words, there was something else that bothered him almost as much. Never a man to put off an issue, Colum said, "My own family cares not where I go, and I have not told them of our friendship. Therefore, I have learned nothing beyond what you tell me of the family Montgomery. It seems I have learned little. In the months we have known each other, why did you not tell me of your marriage and son?"
James shrugged. "It is not a happy union, and it pains me to speak of it. I suppose it is easier to avoid the subject."
"Who is she? How old is your son?"
James indicated a nearby oak with a slight jerk of his head. "Come. Let us sit, and I will try to explain."
When they were settled beneath the tall tree with its sheltering, gnarled branches, James leaned back against the sturdy trunk. Colum settled in beside him, his back resting against the trunk as well.
"It was an arranged marriage," James began. "She is the granddaughter of a Celtic priestess named Katherine who was quite revered in her day. My wife's name is also Katherine. Her mother married into the MacDonald clan, a family with whom my father has sought an alliance for years. We were betrothed shortly after her birth when I was but seven. She is...quite beautiful. But on the outside only, I fear."
Colum shook his head. "I have never understood the custom of choosing your child's life mate. My mother believed 'tis better to marry for love."
ames laughed softly. "Your mother would have disagreed with my father about many subjects, I imagine, my friend."
"Why do you not enjoy your beautiful wife, then, James?" Colum felt a twinge of guilt at prying so deeply into his friend's private life, but he had an even more powerful feeling that James needed to speak of the matter.
Resting his head against the tree, James closed his eyes. "She did not want this union. Katherine was in love with another, a young man from her home in the highlands. Her family was also anxious for an alliance with the Montgomerys, however, so her fate had already been sealed. I knew from the moment we met that we would never love." He sighed deeply... unhappily. "We chose to honor our families' wishes, and so we wed."
"But you have a son," Colum pointed out. "Surely that helps ease your burden somewhat?"
James' light blue eyes opened and he smiled. "Yes. David makes it all worthwhile. He is four years and a happy little boy."
Colum felt a rush of excitement. "Does he...? Have you noticed if perhaps David also has gifts? Sime mentioned once that he believed guardians often came from the same family. It might be that your son is also destined to become a guardian!"
"I pray not." James' voice was cold. "My gifts have brought me nothing but ridicule in the eyes of my family. I would not wish such a 'gift' on my son."
A stab of pain shot through Colum's heart, and he quickly closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. He must not allow James to sense his discomfort.
It was too late.
Sharp blue eyes turned to study Colum. "What is wrong? Are you ill?"
The younger man only shook his head. "No," he said softly. "I am well."
"You do not speak truly," James replied accusingly. "Your heart is pounding like a war drum, and..."
He didn't have the chance to finish before Colum pounced on him like a dog on fresh meat.
"You hear my heart beating!" Bright, excited eyes shone like the sun. "That is impossible, James, yet you must or how would you know that I was upset?"
"What was wrong, Colum? You never answered my question," James reminded him.
The excitement faded somewhat, and Colum knew he must reveal the truth. "If you did not have your gifts, then we would never have become friends." He looked at James shyly from beneath half–shuttered dark lashes. "You are the first friend I have ever had, James. I would not liked to have missed knowing you."
James nodded slowly, his kind eyes gentle and warm. "As I would not have wanted to miss knowing you, Colum de Blair. It was not my intention to hurt you. However, aside from your friendship, my senses have brought nothing but pain. I have not been needed as my clan's guardian. I have saved no one from death. I have not protected my family."
A note of pain crept into James' voice. "I do not understand why I was given this gift if it has no worthwhile purpose."
Colum spoke firmly, secure in his convictions. "It is not yet your time, Guardian. You have learned control, and that was necessary before your gifts could be used as they were intended – to protect the clan. We must continue our work together as your senses strengthen so that when the time comes, you will be prepared."
He leaned forward, speaking earnestly and from the heart. "You will do great things, James! You are a trained warrior and a guardian! None like you has walked the hills of Scotland in our lifetime! Perhaps in many, many lifetimes! One day, you will save your clan and perhaps countless more." His voice dropped low as a sense of awe almost rendered him speechless. "It is your destiny, my Guardian."
Blue eyes locked steady for long moments before James asked, "How do you know these things? How are you so certain?"
Colum's gaze never wavered. "I do not understand how I know, only that I am as certain of this as I have ever been of anything in my life. The knowledge of what you are is as much a part of me..." Colum hesitated, unsure as to how the words he longed to say would be received. "You are as much a part of me as the heart you hear beating within my breast."
He needn't have worried about James' reaction. The older man smiled softly, then reached out to rest his broad hands on the slim shoulders. "And you of me, young one. I do not understand it either, but I have no doubt that what has transpired between us was meant to be." He drew a long breath, releasing it slowly. "I only wish I were as certain of other aspects of my life."
Colum's blue eyes studied James' face, trying to read beyond the carefully controlled facade. "What do you want?"
Smiling, the guardian tugged on one long umber curl. "I want to find something to eat. It has been too long since the morning meal." James stood up, then he immediately broke into a run. "Race you to the castle!" he challenged Colum over his shoulder.
Not stopping to worry about his welcome there, Colum charged forward, laughing as he ran. James didn't seem worried about defying his father, so why should he? They were friends, after all. And James was right. The guardian needed him.
The unlikely pair disappeared over the hill and into the shadows cast by the brilliant afternoon sun.
The months slipped by as easily as leaves floating on swiftly flowing waters. Soon it was early summer. Even as James had grown more secure and steady in his control of his powerful senses, the political landscape of Scotland had grown increasingly uncertain.
Edward II sat on the throne of England, and since 1306, Robert the Bruce ruled as king of Scotland. Proudly independent, Scotland had yet to be conquered and brought to heel beneath the English flag.
Stirling Castle, one of only three castles still controlled by England, perched on a rock hill on a line separating the northern highlands from the south of Scotland. While it still remained in English hands, for how much longer was in doubt. The king's man holding the castle, Sir Philip Moubray, had made a chivalrous agreement with Robert Bruce's brother, Edward, to turn over Stirling to the Scots if he did not receive English support by Midsummer's Day, June 24, 1314.
Edward II was determined not to lose this strategic pawn. He set out himself from London, leading a proud contingent of trained nobles and landowners to keep Stirling in English hands. He believed he could draw out the Scottish army to oppose him, and, in one fell swoop, recover all the ground lost to Scotland since the death of his father, Edward I, affectionately called 'Longshanks'.
The stage was set.
"He is not here."
Four simple words, yet Colum's heart plummeted down in a vicious spiral at their utterance. They could mean anything, he tried to reassure himself. It could be something simple that had kept James away from their meeting place for some days now. Colum looked in frustration at the calm, beautiful face of Katherine, wife of James Montgomery. Her green eyes, as emerald as any gemstone, were serene, giving no hint of whatever emotion lay beneath her still facade.
"Where is he? Has he gone to Edinburgh on some mission for his father?"
Katherine laughed, and the sound was as musical as falling water. "He is on a mission, sure enough." She cocked her head, and her glistening red hair fell forward to partially obscure her face. "Are not the men of Blair Castle joining with King Robert as well?"
Colum's eyes grew wide. "Joining with Robert the Bruce? For what end?"
"To fight King Edward, of course. Your father is likely too old, but surely your brothers..."
His voice was barely more than a whisper. "They left three days ago, but I knew not where." Worried sapphire eyes rose to meet hers of emerald. "James has gone to join the Bruce's troops?"
Katherine nodded. "With his father and his brother, Duncan. They go to aide their king, as do all good men in times such as these." Her expression grew whimsical. "Why, I believe you are the only young man remaining in these parts, Colum de Blair. Why is it you did not choose to join our men in their support of our King and country?"
"I did not know," Colum muttered, already turning away from his best friend's wife. He broke into a run, then Colum jumped on his horse, kicking the animal into a gallop before his feet were planted in the stirrups.
"Be careful, young Colum!" Katherine called after him. "You are not a trained warrior as is my dear husband. Even he will be lucky to survive this battle!"
Her laughter rang bitterly in Colum's ears for hours after.
"Why did you not tell me!" Colum paced angrily around the library of Blair Castle, his furious eyes fixed on his father's face.
Roger de Blair walked to his chair by the massive stone fireplace. "I do not owe you an explanation, Colum. Your brothers and I will serve King Robert Bruce. They have already departed, and I leave at first light. Old as I am, I have always supported our king and the Scottish cause. I always shall. If I am to die in its defense, then I can conceive of no nobler cause. It is not necessary that you go as well. I would have at least one man stay here with the Lady Elaenor. As you are not trained in the ways of battle and..."
"I do not care!" Colum stopped pacing and drew closer to his father's chair. "And your wife would prefer no man to my presence. That lady is well equipped to take care of herself, no doubt."
His father ignored the bitter reference to Elaenor's well–known temper and saucy tongue. "Why is it so important to you?" Shrewd eyes studied Colum's face carefully. "Is it because James Montgomery left without telling you where he was going?"
"How did you know that?" Colum's anger eased in the face of his confusion.
The elder de Blair regarded his son for a moment before replying. "He came to see me late on the evening prior to his departure. James asked me not to tell you that he was going. He did not want you to follow, Colum. He feared for your life should you ride into battle at his side."
"Because I am not trained in the ways of warriors," Colum said bitterly, "I am left behind."
"Why does his friendship count for so much with you?" Roger asked frankly. "It is most uncommon."
Colum thought quickly. He could not reveal the truth behind his friendship with the eldest son of the house of Montgomery, yet he knew that his father would not tolerate anything less. "I teach him," Colum said simply.
"He would learn to read then?" After a brief consideration of that idea, Roger nodded, seemingly satisfied. "Perhaps that is wise, although I have served well as laird of the de Blairs without such knowledge."
He waved his hand at Colum in dismissal. "Begone then about your studies. James will return soon enough, once Edward is driven back across the Borders. He is no Longshanks, and that is the truth. His father was at least a tolerable king." The older man turned his face to the fire, shut his eyes, and began breathing deeply, a sure sign he was falling asleep.
Colum stood for a long time, staring into the flames.
"I will be gone, sir," he said softly, watching the glowing embers, "but it will not be to my studies. 'T'will be to the side of my Guardian."
Colum left the grounds of Castle de Blair long before dawn, riding a borrowed grey stallion quietly away and hoping that no one heard his departure. Apparently, they did not, for no hoofbeats followed him.
A quick conversation with his brothers' favorite servant had given him the direction of Robert the Bruce's troop movements. Colum calculated that if he rode hard and long, with luck, he could find his friend within two days.
As soon as he was far enough away from the castle not to be heard, Colum spurred his mount forward along the road. "You will not be rid of me that easily, James Montgomery," he vowed to the stars above. "A guardian needs his other, and I am yours. If you go into battle, then I shall be at your side."
The ghostly gray horse and its rider disappeared into the night.
June 22, 1314
Colum never knew that his entire body could be so stiff and sore. Except for short, necessary breaks for rest, food, and sleep, he had spent the entire past two days in the saddle. Every muscle protested mightily, crying out for relief.
Yet, at mid–day, his weary heart lifted at the sight before him. Just beyond a slight bend in the narrow country road, a familiar figure awaited. It did not surprise him that his quarry had heard his approach and recognized the rider drawing near. Colum would have expected no less of his Guardian.
James sat his horse with the ease of a man born to the saddle. The white stallion stood quite still, also weary, no doubt, from days on the road. As Colum approached, he heard his friend call his name.
The tone of disapproval was strong, and Colum's heart sank. Forget the fight for Scotland that was to come. Before him was a more immediate battle that would not be easy to win.
James trotted up to the younger man, reining in his horse as he drew alongside. "What are you doing here?" The words were short and clipped, and the blue eyes of his friend held no trace of warmth. James' stallion pranced along the road, stirring up small clouds of dust with its hooves.
Colum smiled nervously. "You are here. Where else should I be?"
"Go back. Now. I did not tell you I was leaving for this very reason, Colum. Where I am going, you may not follow."
Colum did not intend to surrender so easily. In fact, he had no intention of surrender at all. The stakes were far too high. "You need me. You have dominion over your senses now, but what about in the heat of battle? The sounds...the smells...the sights..." Colum stared at James intently. "You could go into a trance, become an easy target for one of the King's archers."
"That will not happen," James insisted stubbornly. "You have given me dominion over my senses, Colum. I, not they, are in control."
"In normal circumstances, yes," Colum argued. "Not in times of battle!" He shook his head. "I am going with you!"
"It is my duty, Colum, not yours." James' voice grew softer. "I feel this...this tremendous need to ride into this battle. In my lifetime, I have never felt such a burning desire to do anything. Scotland must not fall. I know that my place is at our king's side, fighting the English, but it is my calling, not yours. You must not risk your life for mine. Besides, you have no weapon."
James' expression was kinder now, no longer hard and set in stubborn resolution. Colum saw his opportunity to reason with his friend and purposefully kept his voice calm and reasonable. "I have a sword. Once, as you may remember, my father had three true sons. The eldest died of the fever. I took his sword before my departure."
A look of chagrin passed over James' face as he realized that he had lost that argument, and Colum's heart warmed toward the older man. James only wanted what was best for him. "I understand your need. That desire to protect is part of who you are, one of the gifts bestowed upon you. You are guardian, perhaps not only for the clan Montgomery, but for all of Scotland."
Colum felt a fierce surge of pride in his Guardian... of love for his friend...and fought to keep his voice steady. "Understand my need as well, James. As much as you burn to protect this country and its people, I burn to protect you. If this is your destiny, then to be beside you is mine. Please, let me do my duty. To you."
Colum watched James' face as a myriad of emotions played across his strong features like shadows crossing Ben Nevis. He read fear there, along with pride and gratitude. At last, a smile twitched the corners of James' lips. "You are a stubborn mule, did you know that?"
Colum grinned broadly. "It is necessary to deal with the likes of you, sir." He jerked his head in the direction of Stirling. "Come. King Robert needs his guardian, and Edward awaits your sword."
June 23, 1314
The following late afternoon found them among the assembled troops of King Robert the Bruce of Scotland. Already, they were in position in the dense wood of the New Park, and Bruce's standard flew high, announcing his intent and resolve to all who might view it.
Their position was strategically important. An impassable scrub zone stood to his right, boasting a proud stand of Scotland's dreaded thistle, and on his left, the stream–riddled and boggy carse. Behind Robert the Bruce stood the vital Stirling Castle. To reach the Castle and engage King Robert, Edward II would be required to cross the Bannock Burn, the river flowing in front of Robert's Scottish troops.
Stirling Castle itself stood on a rock rising from a basin. To the south, east, and west lay a chain of hills known as the Campsie Fells. Their rise was not lofty, but the hills were definitely defensible. It was the perfect position for an out–numbered, under–equipped army of determined Scots to make their stand.
Bruce's scouting reports were detailed. English King Edward II had advanced through the Scottish Lowlands with relative ease, leading his 20,000 troops to Edinburgh on June 17, 1314. From there, he moved his army of nobles, knights, and squires to Leith, stopping five days to collect supplies, and then there followed a 22–mile march to Falkirk. The archers carried a long bow, and each had a quiver containing 24 arrows. Their personal weapons consisted of a twelve–foot spear, a shield, and either a dagger or a sword.
Edward counted on the charge of his cavalry, however, to ensure victory for England. This troop of horsemen was at least 2,000 strong. The knights wore chain–mail and armor, and each wielded a 12–foot lance. For close combat, each man carried either a mace or battleaxe. Even the horses wore light armor, and were elegantly equipped with long, flowing blankets known as trappers. These were not only attractive; their function was to trap or entangle the opposing forces' swords and spear thrusts. This impressive unit was accustomed to striking terror in the hearts of even the most highly–trained and fully–equipped enemy.
In contrast, the typical Scottish soldier carried a 12–foot spear, a sword, and either an axe or dirk as his personal weapon. Most possessed a shield. The few archers of King Robert the Bruce carried into battle a longbow with 24 arrows.
In reserve, Bruce had the 'small folk'. These tenant farmers, laborers, craftspeople, and townspeople were not trained in battle, but they wished fervently to strike their own blows for Scotland's freedom. Soon, they numbered over 2,000 as clansmen joined their ranks from remote areas of the land. Wisely, Bruce kept them out of his divisions due to their lack of experience.
Edward might possess superior troop strength, and they certainly made a fine picture as they marched across the Scottish hills, but Bruce's men knew the land, loved their country, and were not afraid to die in her defense.
Once they reached the troops of Robert the Bruce, Colum followed James as he sought out an old family friend to receive his orders.
"Sir Gilbert!" James called.
A man who appeared some ten years older than James turned to greet them with a broad smile. "James Montgomery! Your father and brother arrived earlier today and warned that you were coming as well. What have we done to deserve this tragedy?"
James dismounted and slapped the other heartily on the back. "If my services are not needed, Sir Hay, then I shall turn and ride home again."
Gilbert Hay's expression turned serious. "Your services are most vital, James. Perhaps you have heard of what has already transpired this day?"
"Indeed, sir, I have not."
Sir Gilbert grinned impishly. "Then it is high time for the telling! Sit, sirs, and listen well."
James and Colum settled upon some large rounded stones lying beside the burn. Overhead, the sky was blue, and the waters of Bannock Burn flowed clear. James caught sight of a temptingly plump trout swimming gracefully just beneath the surface, and he yearned for his favorite pole and a fresh dinner of trout that night. Sir Hay's voice drew him back to the present and less savory matters, and James relegated his dreams of fishing to another day. A day when the English had been driven from their country.
Hay settled on a nearby boulder. "There has already been one skirmish today. Our king himself, Robert Bruce, riding without armor and alone, was set upon by Sir Henry de Bohun. The English knight recognized our king by his magnificent gold coronet. Bohun set his lance and charged directly toward the lone Bruce! Had his attack been successful, who knows what melancholy might have befallen the land?"
Hay was obviously enjoying the telling of the tale, and both James and Colum listened appreciatively. The elder man was a master storyteller, gesturing with his hands and using his resonant voice to build the suspense. "Skillfully, Bruce avoided the charge, and rising in his stirrups, attacked the English knight with his battleaxe! Piercing Sir Henry's helmet, the axe cleaved open his skull, and the knight fell dead from his saddle!"
Sir Gilbert was obviously delighted by the Bruce's exploits and laughed heartily. "Of course, when we heard the account, we were appalled that King Robert had put himself in such a position. Yet, it is a sign of his greatness that when his generals reproached Robert the Bruce for the sizable risk he had taken, the king merely remarked, " 'Alas, I have broken my good battleaxe.'"
When the laughter had quieted, Sir Gilbert continued. "Of course, the English would not take this insult lightly and forced a confrontation. Counting on the splendor of his troops and the chivalry of English warfare, their great King Edward was stunned when the army of Robert Bruce stood calmly and firmly in the face of their galloping cavalry. Their magnificently adorned horses pulled up short and shied away from the serried ranks of spears we had implanted in the earth. Immediately, our forces swarmed upon the poor confused English, driving them off the field of battle!"
Sir Gilbert smiled broadly. "We lost only one man, yet the losses of the English are many! Truly, it is a great day for Scotland!"
The two older men relaxed for several minutes, savoring the account of the first victory of the conflict and catching up on family and friends. "Who have we here?" Hay inquired directly, nodding toward Colum.
James rested a supportive hand on Colum's back, and the younger man immediately relaxed.
"This is Colum de Blair. The lands of his father, Roger de Blair, adjoin my father's. We are friends," James finished simply. "He has come to fight."
Shrewdly, Robert the Bruce's aide studied Colum. "Is he trained? Can he handle himself in battle?"
"Can any of us know how we will perform in the heat of battle?" James asked vaguely. "He has courage and a horse. Do we not need every able–bodied man when we meet Edward on the field?"
> "That we do," Gilbert Hay agreed readily. "What do you know of the situation beyond the good news I have already shared?"
"Not much," James admitted. "We only received the call a few days ago. I... " He stopped and smiled at Colum. "We have been on the road since."
In a more serious tone than before, Gilbert Hay explained. "Despite today's victory, we remain greatly outnumbered. Edward leads sixteen thousand infantry and two and a half thousand mounted knights. There are two thousand heavy cavalry, in addition to seventeen thousand archers and spear–wielding foot soldiers. Their supply train is said to be twenty miles long."
"We have amassed 5,500 trained spearmen with 500 light cavalry." Hay shrugged. "We have a few archers, not many. The small folk number close to 2,000, but the king wishes to keep them in reserve. A wise decision." He gestured at the surrounding men. "As you can see, some have brought armor, but most do not possess chain mail or other armor.
Colum was aghast. "That is all?"
A wide grin creased Hay's weathered face. "Aye! But those few are all Scotsmen, and that shall make all the difference! Victory shall be ours for the taking, James' young friend. After all, we have already drawn English blood this day!"
Both men laughed heartily, then Gilbert Hay gave James his assignment. "I should ask you to serve in our king's own regiment. I know you well, James, and you are the kind of man King Robert needs at his side. We must not lose him as we lost Wallace."
His expression grew deadly serious. "You realize the consequences of this battle. The fate of William Wallace would befall each of us should we lose." There was no need to elaborate. The cruel torture and death of the hero Wallace was still fresh in the minds of all Scotland.
Colum shivered at the image of the great Scottish leader being hanged, then drawn and quartered as punishment for defying England and her king. James' hand, still resting lightly upon his back, patted him gently.
"We will not lose," James assured both Colum and Hay. "I am honored to serve my king and country."
Standing up, the two men shook hands and parted.
Colum watched as Robert the Bruce's trusted follower departed. " 'The fate of Wallace...' " he murmured. "Hung...drawn and quartered..." An uncontrollable shiver shook his frame.
"That fate is not ours, my friend," James said calmly. "Despite Edward's mighty army, in the end, victory will be ours."
Twilight cast a blood–red glow upon the hills, and the men grew restless waiting for the morning. James and Colum had set up at the edge of the main camp in an attempt to find a bit of privacy. James took the sword Colum had brought from his father's home and hefted it in his strong hands.
"Do you know how to use this?" he asked when he noticed Colum watching him closely.
Sitting on the ground nearby, Colum felt his heart sink. "No. They did not give us much training in weapons at the monastery."
James nodded solemnly. "It is a good weapon, well–balanced, and of quality craftsmanship. Stand up."
Colum did as he was instructed.
"If you are determined to follow me into battle tomorrow, you best have an idea of how to defend yourself." James smiled and added, "And me, of course. Especially as you have no armor to don."
The smile faded quickly, a worried crease appearing between James' light brows. "Would that I could give you my armor," he muttered fiercely. "You should not be riding into the fray unprotected."
Colum smiled and looked up at his tall friend. "It would not be a worthy fit, I fear. You worry for naught, James, for I do not go into battle unprotected." He looked long and hard into his friend's blue eyes, willing him to understand the meaning behind his words. He might ride into battle without armor, but Colum firmly believed he would be better protected than the best fitted knight. He had his Guardian.
His meaning was not lost upon James. The older man smiled affectionately and rested a heavy hand upon the slim shoulder. "I will do my best, on that you have my word. Still, you must learn some control over the sword, young one. A guardian cannot protect against attacks from all sides at once. You must be able to guard your own life. You will not ride beside me into battle otherwise."
As distasteful as the idea was, Colum was forced to agree with James' logic. As he had listened earlier to accounts of the English army's strength, it had become uncomfortably clear what they would be facing in the morning. An army not only of superior strength in numbers, but possessing greater weapons and training.
James was right. If he wished to see the stars again the following eve, he would do well to listen to his friend's instruction. Setting his mind firmly on the task at hand and willing himself not to consider the actual act of wielding the sword against another human being, Colum replied calmly, "All right, James. Where do we begin?"
James took a step closer and stood behind Colum. Reaching around him with one arm, he placed the sword in the smaller man's hand. James kept his arm around his friend, supporting a portion of the sword's considerable weight with his own hand as he explained. "First, you must learn to think of the sword as part of your body, an extension of your arm... "
June 24, 1314
The scene was set as dawn approached. The Scottish troops lay in wait, Bruce's orders to attack at first light ringing in their ears. The decision to take the offensive had not been made lightly, but to the man, the Scots were confident it was the right path. All who heard had been greatly moved the previous night by the words of Sir Alexander Seton, a Scot serving with the English army who defected to Bruce's headquarters after the skirmish on June 23.
"Now's the time and now's the hour," he cried, "and Scotland shall be free!" They were the words every Scot yearned to hear, and the camp had erupted in a mighty roar. With the English discouraged from their defeat the previous day and the Scottish troops fired with patriotism and their taste of victory, it seemed right that they should take the offensive. After all, who were the English that the most courageous of Scots should cringe waiting in fear?
Mass was celebrated after an early meal, for it was St. John's Day. When the Scots came within a few hundred yards of the English, they knelt once more in prayer. Colum had never prayed as fervently in his life, even during his time at the monastery. He pleaded with God to protect James, to endow King Robert with His own perfect wisdom, then quickly, at the end, to please stand beside Colum himself as he went into his first battle.
"Please, Lord," Colum whispered, "protect me so that I might protect him. That is all I ask. It is not my role to be a hero for that place belongs to James. Please give me the courage I shall need to remain at his side this day. If it be that I must use my sword upon the flesh of the English, oh, Lord, grant me the wisdom and the courage to do so in defense of my country and my Guardian. I beg you, let James remember all that he has learned so that the tumult of battle shall not harm him. He wonders why he was granted his extraordinary powers, Lord. I know he was meant for great heroism, and perhaps, this will be the day when James will at last know his own worth. To me and to his country. In Your perfect wisdom, guide his senses to their fullest use in the protection of our King and sustain his courage so that all Scotland may remain free. Let him fulfill his destiny at last."
As the Scots prayed, the English watched. Not far away, King Edward was heard to say, "Ha! They kneel for mercy!"
"Yea, Sire," said one of his closest staff, "they kneel for mercy, but not from you. These men mean to attack."
His words proved prophetic.
The Scots charged forward en masse, screaming their battle cries to the skies above.
The battle had begun.
Never in his most terrifying nightmares had Colum imagined such mind–numbing chaos. The Earl of Gloucester, who led the English main body of troops, ordered his army to charge. The Earl had not even had time to don his surcoat with its glittering crests before he fell dead from his horse, skewered by numerous Scottish spears, right before Colum's stunned eyes. Colum's horse, untrained for such mayhem, reared and protested mightily, but the young man's strong hands were firm upon the reins, keeping the chestnut horse in place beside James' white stallion.
The stench of death and the cacophony of a thousand terrified screams surrounded them. As the coppery tang of blood filled his nostrils, and Colum knew that James would have to be in danger of being carried away on a tide of sense–numbing sounds, smells, and sights. Colum's horse reared again in fright as a man fell from the saddle immediately in front of them, dead before he hit the ground, run through by an English spear. Even Colum could smell the hot scent of the dead man's blood as it soaked the Scottish earth, and he had to swallow his bile. He could not imagine how the tumultuous scene must be affecting James.
Turning quickly to find his friend's face, Colum was devastated to see a distant look in the fixed blue eyes. No! It must not be so! James sat still in the saddle, barely gripping the reins. Wheeling his terrified horse closer to the older man, Colum cried out, "James! Do you hear me? Listen to me, James. You cannot leave me now – not here. Hear me, James! Please!"
At first, Colum feared it was too late, and his heart tightened in desperation. Then something within James seemed to recognize his friend's voice. His head whipped around, wild blue eyes searching madly. Once he found Colum beside him, the frantic search ceased. Seeing that Colum was unharmed, James' gaze grew calmer. "It's all right," he reassured the younger man. "I'm here. I'm all right."
Shouting to be heard above the din, Colum cautioned James. "You cannot lose yourself here. Do you understand? You cannot. You must focus on something outside the battle, James." A thoughtful expression brightened Colum's face. "You once said you could hear the beating of my heart. Do you hear it even now?"
Colum watched as James concentrated, tuning out the horrendous sounds of the battle raging around them. "Carefully, now," Colum cautioned. Would it work? No man could be expected to hear a single heartbeat in the midst of this hell. How could he dare ask the impossible of James?
After what seemed to be hours, but at most had been mere seconds, James nodded. "I hear it."
Colum's chest tightened in gratitude. Never had his Guardian failed to attempt whatever task Colum demanded, and always, James managed to emerge victorious. Such trust, such courage and determination, were beyond Colum's comprehension.
Swallowing hard, Colum nodded. "That's good. Focus on my heart, my friend, for I swear to you that as long as my heart beats, I shall be at your side."
Their eyes locked for a moment, then, surrounded by the clamor and stench of pure hell on earth, James Montgomery smiled. It was a smile of pure joy – joy that came from knowing that in Colum, he had found a friend like no other. A brother willing to devote to him his very life and ready to stay with him until death claimed them both. Reaching over, James laid a chain–gloved hand aside Colum's cheek and nodded. An instant later, without a word, James whirled his horse about and rejoined the fray.
All around them, English and Scots were dying. Ahead, Colum caught sight of the figure of King Robert the Bruce, with Sir Gilbert Hay at his side. Bruce was mounted on a huge chestnut stallion, and the red of the horse's coat echoed the blood soaking into the ground at their feet. Bruce fought with the skill and bravery of a knight and none of the signs of self–preservation as might be expected in a king. His sword found and drew life's blood from one Englishman after another.
James' eyes, too, fell upon his king. A strange expression clouded his eyes. "Colum!" he cried out above the cacophony of death and struggle. "Follow me!"
Fighting to control his frightened mount, Colum managed to stay beside his friend as James caught up to King Robert and Sir Gilbert.
"You come to fight alongside your king?" Bruce shouted.
"I am your obedient servant," James pledged.
Bruce nodded, his attention captured by another surge of English cavalry. "Then fight you shall!" With his standard bearer holding his banner high, King Robert Bruce charged headlong into the midst of the battle.
Colum caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of his eye. An English foot soldier was charging toward him on foot, swinging his mace, a maniacal expression on his contorted face. James was facing the opposite direction, wielding his sword against another man approaching their king. The mace was less than a yard away, and Colum could see the hatred glowing malevolently in the enemy's brown eyes.
"Colum!" James' voice cut through Colum's terror as easily as a newly sharpened dagger, but the older man was too far on the other side of him to assist. If he was to survive, Colum realized instantly it would be by his own courage alone. The words of his earlier prayer rang in his soul. "Protect me so that I might protect him," he murmured. "To kill him, you must first still my heart."
Anger and denial rose hot within him. He was not willing to die this day. He would not leave James alone. Uttering a strange and feral cry, Colum swung his sword with a powerful stroke.
His blow was true. Hot red blood spurted from the severed artery in the Englishman's neck. His eyes widened in shock even as his legs crumpled, and he fell heavily to the ground to lie motionless. Watching in horror, bile rose in Colum's throat, but he had no time to recover. A battle does not wait for a young man to recover from his first kill.
Wheeling his horse, Colum struggled to remain close at James' side as the guardian followed Robert the Bruce, moving ever closer to the heart of the English lines. Colum didn't miss the warmth in James' eyes, however, as his friend called back to him, "Well done, Colum! You may fight at my side anytime!"
And so he did.
Swinging his sword confidently, remembering the necessity of what he must do, Colum fought off the on–coming English. There were few arrows, as the two opposing sides were packed so tightly together that support from the archers was nearly impossible. In a momentary lull in the fighting, Colum turned toward James, smiling broadly at the success the Scots were having.
His heart fell at the sight of his friend.
James was staring toward the English forces, his gaze fixed and unswerving. "James!" Colum screamed, but it was too late. He turned toward the spot where James was staring, and he, too, found the danger. He could see the arrow, its gleaming tip flying true as it approached its target...
King Robert the Bruce of Scotland.
The king's back was turned as he battled onward so he had no idea of the immediate danger. Before Colum could draw his next breath, James wheeled his horse around and viciously spurred the animal toward the king. In a shout, he cried, "King Robert!" Urging his stallion forward ever faster, the body of James Montgomery intercepted the English arrow a mere instant before impact with that of his king.
Colum had only seconds to react, not nearly long enough to prevent the unthinkable. With horror–struck eyes, he watched the sharp tip pierce his friend's armor in one of its few vulnerable spots, just below the arm socket, and sink into James' soft flesh. The arrow sliced through living flesh, imbedding itself halfway up the shaft.
For an eternity, James did not move, and Colum almost believed his Guardian had not truly been harmed. Then slowly, inexorably, James slipped gracefully from his horse. In his armor, he hit the earth heavily with a sickening thud.
"NO! God, NO!"
King Robert and Sir Gilbert were there in an instant, as Colum sprang down from his horse to fall helplessly on his knees beside James. Reaching out with trembling hands to remove his friend's helmet, Colum tossed the offending piece of metal aside. A lot of good that helmet had done James in the end.
"James?" he whispered desperately. "Can you hear me? Please... oh, please... no... no!" Already the guardian's face was ghostly pale, the blood drained from the skin as through a sieve.
Beside Colum, King Robert commanded, "We must move him away from the battle."
Gilbert looked uncertainly at his king and friend. "The arrow has penetrated too deeply, sir. There is no hope. You must mount your horse again, Sire. It is far too dangerous afoot."
"Obviously!" the king snapped. "But this man saved my life in this bloodiest of battles. He deserves a bit of peace in his death. Help me! We will move him aside to that grove of trees in the distance."
Colum watched from a fog as the king himself, assisted by Sir Gilbert Hay, gently moved James away from the battlefield. Other members of King Robert's entourage provided protection as their king gently bore James' broken, still body to a small grove on the hillside overlooking the battlefield. They settled James carefully to the earth, then stood, their eyes focused on the battle still blazing below. Calum collapsed to the ground beside his friend.
"We must return," Robert the Bruce said kindly to Colum, resting a hand on the young man's shoulder. "I am sorry."
Colum nodded from his position sitting on the ground with James' still head pillowed in his lap. He could not yet speak, and his eyes wouldn't leave the sight of his Guardian's pale features.
Two riders approached, leading Robert's and Gilbert's war horses. King and knight mounted, then Robert spoke again. "In the morn, when all is ended, I shall send men to escort you and your friend home. We will let his father and brother know his fate, and they shall ride with you."
"No!" Colum's voice was unexpectedly forceful as he looked up at Bruce, not caring that he was defying an order of the king. "We shall ride alone – with an escort, if you think it best – but without his father and brother." Haunted blue eyes pleaded with King Robert. "Allow us this final time together. Alone. Please? It is what he would have wanted." His voice broke on the final words.
The king nodded slowly. "It shall be done. You are a loyal friend, Colum de Blair. I shall not forget your bravery nor your loyalty to your king. Like so many others this day, you have sacrificed much. You shall be rewarded." With those words, Robert the Bruce jerked his head toward the battlefield, and he and his men returned to the fray.
Alone, Colum stared down at James' lax features. His friend's breathing was strained, the mighty chest rising slowly and painfully for each labored breath. As the minutes ticked by, the time between breaths grew longer and longer.
Colum brushed the hair back from James' face. "Don't leave me," he whispered. "I know you did what you were destined to do, but it is so hard. Didn't I tell you that you were meant for great things, my brother? King Robert is safe, James, and I believe Scotland will be victorious this day, but at what cost? Your life?" Colum's voice broke as tears escaped his eyes to flow unchecked down his dirty face.
Unbelievably, there was a slight movement in James' eyelids. Colum watched, holding his breath, scarcely daring to hope. Seconds later, pale blue eyes, filled with pain, emerged to meet Colum's own. Dry, dusty lips moved, but no sound came forth.
"James," Colum whispered brokenly as a tear trickled down a dusty cheek. "I... " He couldn't go on. Even knowing that these would be the final seconds he would spend with his friend, his strength failed him. James' face blurred as hot, salty wetness drowned Colum's eyes.
Trembling, a chain–mail covered hand haltingly made its way to Colum's chest and rested there. Stripping off the restrictive armor, Colum grasped it firmly beneath his own, curling his fingers around James' hand and squeezing.
Without warning, the courage for which Colum had prayed was granted. The tightness gripping his throat eased, and he was able to offer the comfort his Guardian needed. "It will be all right, James," he whispered, knowing his friend would hear. "I am here. I'm with you now... and forever."
"It... beats... still," James murmured, pressing his hand ever more strongly against Colum's chest.
The tears held in check flowed over with those words, washing down Colum's cheeks, carrying the mud and grime of the battlefield in their wake. In the distance, Colum heard the terrifying screams of the dying, accentuated by the battle cries of the victors. The battle cannot last much longer now, he thought absently. England will be driven from our borders, and Scotland will be free.
The thought of victory brought no solace.
"You have fulfilled your destiny, my Guardian," Colum assured James, his voice rough with barely restrained emotion. He smiled down at James, a trembling, broken smile. "I was wrong, you know. It was never your destiny to save neither a man nor the Montgomery clan itself. It was your destiny to save a king... and a country."
Unbelievably, there was a slight turning up of the corners of James' full lips as the guardian tried to smile. "The Bruce... ? Safe?"
Colum nodded, blinded by his tears. He wiped them away roughly with the back of his hand. "Yes, James. He is safe, and Scotland drives back the English."
The words seemed to satisfy James. His bloodshot eyes caught Calum's tear–filled ones and held. "You... ?"
"You were my only friend, James." Colum's voice caught on a sob as he considered the emptiness of the long, lonely years lying ahead. "You are my anam cara. Through you, I found my life's meaning. We had so far yet to go. There was so much you had left to learn. It took my lifetime to find you. I will never find another. I am unhurt – physically. But how am I to survive without you?"
The hand clasped in his moved, turning to join their fingers in a grip surprisingly strong for one so near death. "You... must. Your job... not yet done. You... have also... been my... friend... brother of... my heart... love you... "
Colum's breath caught in a sob. "James... ? Don't go... "
A look of wonder eclipsed the tenderness in James' eyes. "I see... it is so beautiful, Colum. So beautiful... I... "
The words faded as James' blue eyes closed forever.
Collapsing with a broken cry, Colum fell across James, pillowing his head against the strong shoulder. A shallow, rattling breath echoed in his ear, then...there was nothing.
Once again, as he'd been so often throughout his life, Colum de Blair was alone.
Below, the battle raged furiously. King Robert the Bruce, seeing that victory was at hand, called his reserves into the fight. The small folk, given permission to join the fray at last, swarmed from their hiding places in the hills, shouting loudly and brandishing whatever weapons they possessed.
Turning to their commander, Angus Og, King Robert exclaimed, "My hope is constant in thee!" The Scottish Islemen rushed down upon their foes, and the English line began to give.
The English, thinking that well–trained and fully–equipped Scottish reserves had arrived, grew more and more disheartened. The riderless and frightened horses swerved and galloped wildly, throwing even more confusion into the remaining troops. Seeing that his cause was lost, Edward II of England gathered a handful of troops and retreated.
On that field, on the banks of Bannock Burn, a skeleton army of determined, proud Scots drove back the mighty forces of England. A primitive, feral shout rose. A relentless wave, the roar grew louder and louder as the forces of King Robert the Bruce realized what they had accomplished.
One single soul did not celebrate the victory, but instead, grieved with an intensity equal to the joy of every Scot celebrating on the battlefield below.
For as Scotland rose victorious, on the hillside in the small, sheltering grove, its Guardian died. As his stricken Guide howled out his anguish, none could hear save the soft summer wind.
Blair sat absolutely motionless after the final words, staring into the dying fire that popped weakly in the old fireplace in their suite. Jim didn't trust his voice. No words seemed adequate to comment on the story he'd just been told. He heard Blair's breathing hitch in tiny, desperate gasps. However moved Jim had been by Colum de Blair's journal, the sentinel knew it was nothing compared to the emotions his guide was feeling.
"Sandburg, I..." Again, words failed him.
Blair quickly sprang to his feet, wiping the back of his sleeve across his eyes. "No! Don't say anything, okay, Jim? Just...don't!" Glancing at Jim briefly with luminous, haunted eyes, Blair darted across the room, thrust open the heavy oak door, and flew down the stairs, his feet pounding on the stone steps.
Jim was only a few paces behind him.
A hand caught his arm as Jim tore after his friend. Whirling angrily around to face the person who dared try to keep him from catching his partner, Jim's fury dissipated quickly as he saw the face of the old woman, Bridget.
"He has read the journal," she commented quietly, with a knowing half–smile.
Confused, Jim looked quickly at the back of his fleeing guide then at the old woman. "Yes. But how did you...?"
"It is of no importance how I know this, only that you listen. Then, you may go to comfort him. Remember, the echoes of the past often resound in the present. Look through his eyes, James, and you will understand. Go now to find him, but heed well my words." Releasing Jim's arm, Bridget turned and padded quietly down the long, winding stairway.
Jim watched her for a moment, her words ringing in his ears. He turned and jogged downstairs himself, passing Bridget about halfway down, but she didn't acknowledge him as he sprinted by. Jim had his hearing open wide so he could follow the ragged breathing and pounding heart of his friend. Blair was already outside. As he listened, he heard a painful grunt as Blair fell on the slippery grass. A moment later, his guide was on his feet and running again, his labored breathing broken by what might have been sobs.
"Hang on, Chief," Jim said under his breath. "I'm coming." Grabbing his coat from the halltree standing in the main entry way, Jim rushed out into the dreary late afternoon.********************
He caught up with Blair at the top of the high cliff overlooking the sea.
What is it about this place? Why does it seem to draw us in times of upheaval?
Jim didn't have time to debate the question. There were much more important matters at hand. The sun was already low in the sky; there wouldn't be much daylight remaining.
Blair stood leaning back against a huge oak, his eyes closed and breathing hard. With slumped shoulders and bowed head, he was the very image of sorrow. His clothes were muddy from his fall, and his pale gray woolen sweater was ripped on one sleeve at the elbow. Jim caught a whiff of blood from the scrape that peeked from beneath the torn fabric.
Below them, the waves pounded in perfect rhythm against the ancient boulders. It was cloudy, and a heavy mist permeated their clothing, dampening their hair with fine crystal droplets. Despite the coat he'd thrown on as he ran from the castle, Jim felt the chill in the air. He knew Blair would be freezing, as the younger man wore only his heavy woolen sweater and faded jeans. His chestnut hair hung limp and damp, and Blair seemed a small child, lost and forlorn.
The Sentinel's inborn protective instincts surged; his first instinct was to run to his Guide's side. He took a single step, then stopped.
Instinctively, Jim realized he could not rush headlong into this encounter. Something about Blair radiated... hurt... pain... grief? Blair had already fled from Jim's presence once. If Jim wasn't cautious, he would very likely do so again.
Slowly, as if approaching an injured animal, Jim slowed moved nearer.
He stopped close enough to touch his friend. Jim's hand reached out, hesitated, then fell to his side. It almost felt like an intrusion, and Jim wasn't sure what to say in the face of Blair's obvious pain. "Chief?" he asked tentatively. "Are you okay?"
Blair breathed deeply, jagged, incomplete breaths. He hiccupped once, but it might just as easily have been a sob.
That single, broken sound pierced Jim's heart. Reaching out, and this time not pulling back, he laid a gentle hand on Blair's shoulder and squeezed. "Ahh, Blair... ," Jim whispered. "I'm sorry."
Blair shrugged off his hand and whirled away. "Don't! Damn it, Jim! Don't!" He ran a few steps toward the cliff, then stopped, shoulders slumped, burying his face in his hands.
Jim stood unmoving and uncertain, as if his feet were caught in cement, torn between going to his friend to provide comfort and shouting at Blair that the events that had him so upset had happened almost 700 years before.
Remember, the echoes of the past often reverberate in the present. Look through his eyes, James, and you will understand.
The words rang clearly as a bell in his heart, and in that instant, Jim understood exactly what had his partner so distraught. He moved to Blair's side, certain at last of what he needed to say.
"I'm here, Chief. We're both here and safe." He reached for Blair's hand. The younger man made a move as if to pull away, but Jim gripped his wrist firmly, guiding it beneath his coat. He placed Blair's hand over his heart, gently flattening his fingers, then pressed his palm hard against his chest. "Feel that? I'm alive. That wasn't me in the journal, Sandburg, and it wasn't you. We're okay – right here, right now. Got it?"
Slowly, haunted blue eyes rose to meet Jim's, but Blair didn't answer.
Look through his eyes, Ellison, Jim reminded himself. See what he feels.
Jim shut his eyes briefly, taking a deep breath, as he waited for the knowledge to come, and with it, the words he needed to comfort his partner.
"You always knew it could happen, Blair," Jim said gently, after several moments had passed. "A sentinel protects the tribe. James saved Robert Bruce's life. What would that victory over the English have meant if their king had died in the winning? It would have been a rather hollow victory, wouldn't it? Who knows how long the country would have remained free without its leader? Scotland remained independent, you told me, long enough for the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, to claim the English throne in after the death of Elizabeth I. James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, uniting the countries without bloodshed with a Scotsman on the throne. James Montgomery's sacrifice wasn't in vain, Chief."
Tears again filled Blair's sad eyes, and he shook his head slowly, then stared down at the ground.
Jim pushed on. "Isn't it the sentinel's biological imperative to protect the tribe?" Jim waited for the tiny nod of agreement, then said softly, "And isn't protecting the king the ultimate in protecting the tribe?" He kept Blair's hand firmly pressed against his own heart as he spoke.
Blair's head jerked up, and he stared in disbelief at Jim. His voice shook with the intensity of his emotions. "What are you saying, Jim? That it doesn't matter that James died? That it wouldn't matter if..." His words stopped, as if chopped off by a knife.
The hand pressed against Jim's chest jerked to pull away, but Jim held firm, refusing to release the physical hold on his Guide. Just as he'd know instinctively how to approach Blair, how to talk to him, he knew he needed to maintain that physical contact. He couldn't let Blair run from him again.
"...if I died, Chief?" Jim finished Blair's sentence, his voice gentle. "You've always known that possibility existed. Why are you fighting it so hard now?"
"It...it never seemed so real before, Jim," Blair said quickly, his words suddenly flowing in a torrent. "I mean, my whole adult life, I've read Burton's work on sentinels and studied everything I could get my hands on that might relate, but that was in books! This felt so damned different! It wasn't the same thing at all. When I read Colum's words – in his own handwriting – it felt... It felt like me doing the writing. I know this sounds crazy, but from the beginning, I visualized James looking just like you and Colum like me, I guess, and then at the end, when he died, it...it was like you were dying, Jim! And oh, man, that hurt so much!"
Blair took a quick breath, then plunged on. "James never hesitated! He put himself between that arrow and Robert Bruce without a second thought. I realized all of a sudden, like I never had before, that you'd do the exactly same thing! Arrow or bullets, it's all the same! That's what a sentinel does – sacrifices himself for the tribe. I mean, I knew that, but I didn't really know it before. If it happened to James, then it could happen to you! And I wouldn't be able to save you, just like Colum wasn't able to save James. You wouldn't hesitate either, would you? You'd give up your life just that fast! "
Blair snapped the fingers of his free hand in the air, illustrating his point, but his hand was shaking so badly that his fingers slipped and barely made a sound. His voice faltered as he added softly, "I don't want what happened to James to happen to you! I don't want to lose you!"
His breath was coming quickly now, almost panting, and Jim could hear Blair's heartbeat thundering above the crashing waves below them. Blair spoke so softly, even sentinel ears had to strain to hear. "If this is what being a sentinel means in the end, then I wish..." He stopped, the words hanging incompletely in the air.
Jim took a step closer, wrapping one arm around Blair's trembling shoulders, keeping his friend's hand pressed hard over his heart. "What were you thinking? That you wish we'd never met? That would save you the pain you'll feel if something ever does happen to me. Maybe you're right. Maybe it would have been better if you'd never found me."
Swiping at the tears flowing down his cheeks, Blair protested, "But you'd still have been the sentinel. You'd still have your senses, just..."
"You wouldn't have been around to help me control them. I'd have ended up eating my gun or locked away in some psych ward."
Jim steeled himself for the words he needed to say next. He hated that in order to heal, he must first inflict more pain on this man who meant the world to him. "At least, you'd have been spared the pain, though, and I would have been at peace. One way or the other. You're right, Chief. It might have been easier that way. For us both."
"No!" Blair turned to stare at Jim, his eyes wide and luminous in the gray mist. "That wouldn't have been better! Think of all the lives that would have been lost because you weren't there to save them! Hell, Daryl might have died because you weren't there when those fanatics took over the station or down in South America when he went with Simon."
Blair's voice grew softer, richer, almost taking on the tones Jim thought of as his 'guide's voice'. "I wouldn't have had you for my friend. No way that could be better." He drew a great, shuddering breath and shook his head. "I don't know what I think anymore, man. It's all so complicated now, where once, it seemed so simple." Blair looked up at his friend with lost, pleading eyes. "Help me, Jim."
Jim stood firm, despite his natural inclination to sidestep emotional scenes. He couldn't take the easy way out this time. Not when Blair needed him so much. "You can't have it both ways, Chief. If you value our friendship and our partnership, then the sentinel thing is an integral part of that. It's why we met in the first place and why our relationship endured long enough for us to become as close as we are. On the other hand, what you say is true. I won't try to deny it. One day, I may have to sacrifice everything to save someone, a member of 'the tribe'. The truth is, you may lose me, Blair. Then again, it may never come down to that." Jim smiled down at his friend, lifting the arm from around his shoulders long enough to stroke a strand of wet curls off his forehead.
A shiver wracked Sandburg's body as the wind off the North Sea intensified. Jim opened his coat and gently guided Blair closer so he could tuck his friend inside its sheltering warmth. Once Blair was huddled with him, the coat pulled around them both as tightly as he could manage, Jim lowered his head and breathed against the wet curls. His heart was so full, he couldn't have spoken above a whisper if he'd tried. His words were laden with emotion, and Jim knew he'd never meant any promise more fully than the one he made to the worried, shivering young man pressed against him.
"I can promise you this. I'll do my best never to leave you. Believe me, there's nothing I want more than to grow old with my guide at my side. That's all I have to offer you, Blair – the knowledge that one day, if I do have to go, it will be with the most profound regret at having to leave you behind. The knowledge that leaving you will be the toughest thing I've ever done."
Jim took a deep breath and stared out at the rolling waves. He gathered his courage for the words that must come next. "If that's not enough, Chief, then maybe you'd better get off the roller coaster now, before it's too late."
He'd offered all he had to give. All that was left was to wait for Blair's response... and hope it was one they both could live with.
Only a sentinel could have heard the whisper–soft words over the roar of the surf. "It's already too late, Jim. I can't leave you. Please, don't ask me that again." Blair's arms came around Jim's waist with a fierce possessiveness that surprised the sentinel.
The mist turned into a cold rain, the heavy drops beating down on their heads and shoulders like pelting stones, but neither man acknowledged it. "It's okay, Chief. It's going to be all right."
The fragrance of herbal shampoo blended with the smell of the Scottish rain, but it couldn't mask the sheer force of the scent that Jim would recognize anywhere on earth – the scent that was Blair's alone. He breathed in that fragrance, committing it even more powerfully to his sense memory. "I wasn't asking you to go, Blair. I just don't want you to be with me if it's causing you this much pain. You deserve to be happy, Chief."
Blair pulled away enough to look up into Jim's face. The cold rain streaked the dirt left on Sandburg's cheeks from his fall, and his lashes were clumped and matted from tears. The wind whipped around them, almost drowning out the sound of the crashing waves.
"That's what's so crazy, man." Blair's voice was filled with emotion – a complex fusion of mystification, confusion, and awe. "I'm happier with you – being your partner, being your friend and guide – than I've ever been in my life, but the thought of... this ending... " He tightened his arms around Jim. "It scares me so damn much that I can't even breathe!"
Blair laughed then, a sad, frightened sound. "What am I supposed to do with this, Jim? Please! Tell me what I'm supposed to do now!" He waited, his stormy eyes looking up at Jim with such hope that his sentinel would know the answer to the questions tormenting his very soul.
Blair would follow him to the gates of hell and beyond. Of that, Jim no longer had any doubts. Only that depth of loyalty and love could create pain so intense.
And with love like that binding them firmly together, what would dare stand in their way?
Jim smiled then, a full–fledged, face–splitting smile, and his eyes twinkled as he looked down at Blair's earnest face.
Jim bent his head, touching his forehead to Blair's, noticing the surprised look that swept over Blair's face at sight of the sentinel's smile. "I'll tell you exactly what we do. We take it one day at a time, Chief. Just like we always do. You hold on to the faith you had that very first day when you told me that you had the answers I needed."
Jim chuckled, remembering. "You really did, y'know. You were my answer then, and you still are." He gently pressed his forehead against Blair's, intensifying the contact between them. "It's going to be all right. Don't ask me how I know it is, but I do."
A thought occurred to Jim, and he pulled back to look into Blair's eyes. They seemed brighter, he mused, filled once again with the old, familiar light. The clouds of doubt had lifted, and Jim could see the brilliant light of the sun rising in Sandburg's eyes in contrast to the storm raging around them. He tugged playfully on a long, limp curl, then carefully tucked the strand behind one ear. "Have you read to the end of Colum's journal, Chief? Maybe there's a silver lining in there yet."
Blair shook his head. "No." Reaching up, he dabbed a stream of water from Jim's forehead before it could trickle into sensitive eyes. "I couldn't read any farther. I just couldn't bring myself to turn the next page."
Jim held his gaze, certain somehow, that there were answers yet to discover within the ancient walls of Blair Castle. "I have a feeling it's time to turn that page now, Chief."
For a long minute, sentinel and guide stood face to face in the cold rain on a cliff at the edge of the North Sea, seeking the truth that lay beyond the shades of blue. Jim watched his partner's face as the last of the doubt and fear blown away by the Scottish winds.
At last, Blair nodded, and they began the long walk home.********************
Back in the library, warm and dry at last, Jim waited patiently as Blair transcribed the final few pages of his ancestor's journal. Ostensibly reading from a tourist magazine he'd found lying on a table, Jim secretively watched the changing expressions crossing Blair's face like shifting shadows. Try as he might, however, Jim couldn't get a read on his friend's emotions. Whatever was in the final pages of Colum's journal, Blair was bouncing between sorrow and a look that just might pass for joy.
At last, Blair looked up from the oak table where he'd been working. "Done." Brushing his hair back with one hand, he took the journal and joined Jim on the long leather couch beside the fire.
Moving over to give him room, Jim prompted, "Well? What happened to Colum after the battle of Bannockburn?"
Blair stared down at the book in his hands. "There's not a lot here really. Maybe it's best if I read it to you in Colum's own words."
"Works for me, Chief," Jim agreed, leaning back to listen, his eyes closed.
It has been over thirty years since I last put pen to paper in this journal. Why I have returned to it now is best explained by my advancing years. I know I have few days left to dwell upon this sphere, and it occurs to me that perhaps one day, another hand will open this volume and read of a friendship that defied all logic. To leave such a reader dwelling in the depths of my despair would be unkind, I think. With these brief words, I should like to enlighten said reader upon what transpired between what has come to be called the Battle of Bannock Burn and my own imminent death.
When James died on the hillside, his life's blood soaking the green grass, I believed my own life to be at an end as well. I would have preferred death to the emptiness that haunted my heart with each hour since his passing. We buried him in the churchyard nearby his home, in a quiet corner beneath a small oak. I believe he has been at peace there. With only the gentle breezes and the quiet songs of the birds, his wondrous senses are able to rest at last.
My own father and brothers died in the battle, as did James' father. His brother became laird, just as he'd desired so long, and I, the bastard of de Blair, became its laird. King Robert was true to his word, rewarding me with a grant of far more land than I ever dreamed of possessing.
Not that it mattered to me at the time.
My heart had been torn asunder, and I wanted only to be left alone in my grief. Ours was but a short friendship in years, but it lasted an eternity in its strength and duration.
She came to me within a year of the battle. Katherine, James' beautiful, Celtic wife, knocked upon my door and begged an audience. It was the boy, she said, then five years old. Something was wrong with the child. He cried, covering his ears, and the bright sunlight seemed to bring pain to his eyes.
Immediately, I knew the truth. The father's gifts lived on in the child. For the first time since losing James, I felt a semblance of life flare in my soul. I may have lost his father for my remaining years upon this earth, but his son lived. Perhaps, I could help him.
And so I did. My life once more had meaning.
Early on, his senses were as powerful as those of his father, and in time, they even surpassed his. I assisted him in gaining his initial dominance over his abilities, but it fell to another to become the lifetime companion to David that I had hoped to be to his father. Even now, my heart breaks at the thought of the lost years we might have shared and how strong James might have become in his gift.
Katherine eventually left Scotland for London, to seek her fortune there. She had never been content here in the wilds of the countryside. She married well. As I hear, he is a wealthy man who caters to her every whim.
I begged her not to expose David to the sights and sounds of the city when his control over his gifts was still so uncertain. She consented to leave him here. I do not think that the decision pained her much. A child, especially one born to be a guardian, might have slowed her prospects considerably.
Within the year, the greatest miracle of all occurred. I met and married Elizabeth, the daughter of King Robert's trusted man, Sir Gilbert Hay. I confided in her the secrets of the guardians and of my friendship with James. When she wept for my loss, I knew I had found the most bonnie lass in the land and proposed on the spot. The next year, our son, christened James, was born.
As time passed, it became evident that my James and David Montgomery were drawn together as I had been to his father. Since the time when young James was old enough to comprehend what David is, they have been inseparable. James learned at my side how best to help his friend, and he was a quick and able learner, even more intuitive, perhaps, than was I.
Both boys are now men. David has a babe of his own, and I believe my James will choose to wed soon. I doubt I will live to see if the gift of the Montgomery guardians will show itself in the youngest of that clan. I feel my allotted days quickly coming to their natural end, and in truth, I look forward to the promised respite and to what waits beyond.
My Elizabeth, being many years younger, has much life lying ahead, but I am ready to rest. I wish her long life and much joy. My love will always be hers.
So, I reach the end. If any care to read the humble pages of this old man's journal, I pray they will understand and marvel at the miracle that was James Montgomery. During his short life, he was the brightest star that shone in this universe, and he remains to this day the most marvelous light I have ever known.
For some, there is only one right place to dwell under God's heaven. For all too brief a time, mine was at his side. I welcome with open arms the approaching hour when I will claim my rightful place once more.
Blair's gaze remained fixed upon the parchment pages after he'd finished reading. Slowly, he looked up to meet Jim's eyes, feeling inexplicably shy, but desperately needing to say the words building within him. Jim's eyes were open again, and the sentinel was watching him patiently, obviously waiting for Blair to make the first comment about the moving passage written so many centuries before. The tall case clock standing by the door marked the passing time as it had done for generations, its tick a soothing counterpoint to the crackling of the flames.
Blair took a deep, steadying breath. "He was right, y'know. Colum was a guide, and there was only one right place for him. Just as there is for me." When he smiled, his chin quivered slightly. "I know that if the time comes, you'll make the same sacrifice James did, and I'll understand why. It would break my heart, but I promise, I'd understand. I pray that moment never arrives, but I want you to know I'd understand, Jim. I would. I just hope to be with you then, because, like Colum, my only right place is at your side."
There are times when words are unnecessary, even an intrusion. Blair didn't expect an answer, not really, but he got one anyway. Turning to face him on the leather couch, Jim's strong arms enfolded him in a gentle embrace, holding Blair as though he were a fragile treasure of infinite worth.
It was all the reply Blair needed, and it spoke volumes.********************
The mystery of the old castle's resonance that had spoken so strongly to both Fiora and Naomi had been solved. The secret of Colum de Blair's journal no longer lay hidden by the centuries.
Yet, there remained one mission before sentinel and guide could journey home.
The rental car turned into the parking lot and pulled to a halt. Two figures emerged and walked without speaking across the deserted field in the gray, early morning light. Like so many other Scottish days, this one was cool and damp, with a steady rain falling since before dawn. For these visitors, it was a welcome rain, for it meant they would have the fields of Bannockburn to themselves, at least for a while.
"Thanks for coming, Jim," Blair said quietly as they stopped atop one of the rolling hills overlooking Bannock Burn's tumbling waters. It all seemed so calm, so peaceful. It was difficult to reconcile the vivid descriptions of the horrors in Colum's journal with this tranquil scene.
"It was right, Chief," Jim replied, equally softly. "We couldn't leave without seeing this place."
"It just seems so unreal," Blair murmured, gazing around the quiet green fields. "I mean, I always felt that we were connected, but I never dreamed... " He shook his head slightly, awed. "My ancestor, Colum, and yours, James Montgomery, were sentinel and guide. Right here... in this place. Centuries later, halfway across the world, we find each other and the pieces of the puzzle fall right into place again." Blair looked up at Jim in wonderment. "Doesn't it just stagger the imagination, man?"
Blair's heart leapt into his throat. Jim was staring straight ahead at the side of the opposite hill, his eyes fixed and unmoving, his jaw slack and loose.
Oh, no! Not a zone! What the hell could he have been focusing on anyway? There's nothing over there but grass and a few trees.
Aloud, Blair coaxed, "Jim? You with me here, man? C'mon, big guy, snap... "
"I'm fine, Sandburg," Jim said in a low voice. His eyes never moved. "I'm not zoned. Don't you see them?"
Blair followed his partner's gaze. "See... who? There's no one else here... " His voice trailed off as the truth set in. "Aw, Jim! Do you mean... ? Like Incacha and Molly and the little girl in York? You're seeing... ?"
Jim nodded quickly. "Shhh... I think... he's trying to tell me... " The sentinel's head tilted slightly in the familiar listening pose.
Blair could hardly stand still. Unconsciously, he grasped Jim's bicep and squeezed as he stared at the empty hillside. "Why can't I ever see them?" he whispered in frustration, "I mean, I'm supposed to be the shaman and all! You'd think... "
"Wait!" Jim commanded sharply. "Shhhh... "
Blair fell silent with a sudden intake of breath. "Jim!" he choked out a moment later. "I see... !"
Halfway up the hillside, beneath a grove of trees that had not been there only moments before, stood two figures. One tall, the other shorter, both men were facing Jim and Blair. They were dressed in tunics, and the bigger man held a sword at his side. The taller was light–haired and his hair barely touched his ears, while the smaller man had long, wavy dark hair that skimmed his shoulders.
Four pairs of eyes locked across eternity. The taller figure raised his sword in silent salute as his companion lifted his hand in a gentle wave.
"It's them," Blair breathed as the two men beneath the trees turned to walk up the hillside. "James and Colum... "
As the mystical pair reached the top of the hill, they paused and looked back. James wrapped one long arm around Colum's shoulders and smiled. With a last wave of Colum's arm, they vanished, and the grove of trees slowly faded into nothingness in the misty rain.
Blair and Jim stared wordlessly at the spot where the two apparitions had disappeared. The rain was coming down harder, but neither acknowledged it.
"You... you said he was trying to speak... " Blair muttered, still in shock.
Jim nodded, his eyes never leaving the hillside. "I heard him – James – say... "
When Jim didn't continue, Blair tore his eyes away and looked up at his partner. "What? C'mon, man, what did he say?"
Jim's voice was soft and reverent. " 'To find your anam cara is a rare thing, Guardian. Of all whom you guard, to him lies your first and best allegiance. Protect him well.' "
Blair's eyes grew as misty as the day, and the words would not come.
Jim smiled down at him gently. "He spoke the truth, Chief. I lost my anam cara once, but I was luckier than Colum. I found him again... in this lifetime. I don't intend to lose him again."
Still unable to reply, Blair merely nodded.
Jim's arm came around his shoulders. "Let's go home, Chief. I think we've both found what we were looking for."
Turning their backs upon the fields of Bannockburn, sentinel and guide walked away through the cold, Scottish rain.********************
The time had come to depart.
As they loaded the car, Blair met Jim's eyes over the trunk as he slammed it closed.
"Watch the 'bonnet', there, Chief," Ellison teased. "This is a rental, remember, and besides, I'm the one always blamed for the vehicle damage."
Blair smiled at his friend. "Sorry, man. Wouldn't want you to get a reputation in the British Isles like you have back in Cascade."
Jim's hand whipped out to land a gentle slap at the back of Blair's head. "Watch the mouth, Junior. It won't be long before we're home, and I have seniority over you, remember?"
"I tremble in fear, sir," Blair deadpanned. "Hey, Jim. There's something I gotta do before we leave. Mind if I run back inside for a few minutes?"
Jim shrugged. "We're not on a timetable here. Our flight doesn't leave until tomorrow afternoon. Mind if I join you?"
A brilliant smile lighting his face, Blair nodded. "Not a problem, Jim. In fact, I think I'd rather have you there. Thanks."
They found the object of Blair's search in the kitchen, sitting at the table and drinking a glass of scotch. Laurence Blair looked up as they entered the room.
"So you'll be leaving today." Not a trace of a smile broke the calm mask of the old man's face. "Would you care to join me in a wee dram of scotch?"
Pulling up a heavy oak chair, Blair sat down across from him. Jim joined his friend, sitting at his side. Sandburg gazed levelly at Laurence Blair. "No, thanks," he answered. "I do have something to ask you before we leave, though. Since we came to this place, you've hardly said ten words to me. You know that we're related, if distantly. Why have you been so cold to me?"
The old man's eyebrows arched in surprise. "You have the idea that I was unfriendly? Why, 'twas not my intention, laddie, to make you feel uncomfortable. It's only that I knew what you came here to find. Some journeys are best made in their own time."
It was Blair's turn to look surprised. He glanced at Jim quickly. "You...knew?"
For the first time, Laurence Blair's face was wreathed in a bright smile. It accentuated his wrinkles, yet his blue eyes twinkled through. Looking at Jim, he cocked his head slightly and asked, "You are a Montgomery, are you not?" Returning his gaze to Blair, he added, "And you a Blair?"
Tilting his head in an unknowing reflection of the elder Blair, Sandburg agreed. "Yes, but what...?"
"Then it is full well I understand why you came to this place."
As understanding dawned, Blair's eyes widened. "You must be kidding! This is just too wild. You're a Blair. Are you also a...?"
The old man nodded, his smile fading into sadness. "I was one such as yourself, young Blair. My guardian was Duncan Montgomery, my boyhood playmate and lifelong friend."
"And Bridget?" Blair asked. "Jim seems to think she knows more than most about the journal and what's gone on here."
The old blue eyes twinkled. "Aye, my sister, Bridget, knows all. She knows all the secrets of the Blair's and Montgomery's talents. She, too, is more than she seems. The talent for helping the guardians is not the only talent handed down in this family, you know. Dear Bridget inherited the second gift. That kindly woman's been worried about you both, seeing as how you've been reading old Colum's journal. She watched you that first day, down on the cliffs by the sea. Saw how being here in this place touched your sentinel."
Blair stared at the old man. "You said she'd inherited a gift? The... second gift?"
"Aye, lad. Indeed, it is a gift. The ability to discern dreams, to see visions as clearly as I see you now... isn't that a gift?" Wise blue eyes studied Blair's face. "She can also discern how it is with people, tell when they are worried or upset. Tell me, do you also have this gift?"
Jim spoke up. "He does. A very wise man named him as my shaman and that of the 'great city' – Cascade. Blair... interprets... the visions that I sometimes have." Blair caught the quick smile Jim flashed at him. "When I'm smart enough to tell him about them, that is. And he's wonderful with people – better than most psychiatrists I know."
Laurence nodded and tapped Blair on the arm. "It is truly a marvel when both gifts are given to the same person. The best of both worlds, that is. I only possessed the one, you know. The ability to be a good teacher and friend to my guardian, Duncan."
Jim leaned forward. Knowing his partner as well as he did, Blair could read the excitement lying just below the calm facade. "Back to your friend, Duncan. There was a guardian...a Montgomery guardian...as recently as that?"
Laurence Blair laughed heartily and took a long drink of scotch. Wiping his mouth with a linen napkin, he chuckled, "Indeed, Mr. Ellison. Indeed. Duncan's great–grandfather was said to have had the gift, but not so powerfully as he himself. Duncan was possessed of all five heightened senses; his great–grandfather only three."
Curiously, he regarded Jim. "And you, James Ellison? Hae you inherited all of your family's unique talents?"
Obviously dumbfounded at such open and unguarded discussion of sentinels, Jim merely nodded, looking to Blair for help.
Cutting his eyes at his stunned partner, Blair jumped in to fill the void left by his sentinel's startled silence. "How did you find out that Duncan was a guardian?"
Laurence's watery eyes grew even mistier with the memories. "He would have the worst headaches, and no one could help him. His parents weren't accepting of his gifts. They tried to deny that he could see more than others and hear what should never have been heard. Sometimes he would stare at nothing for hours, and they would have to call me. I was the only one who could seem to bring him around. His parents would ridicule him for these things. It was...difficult...for Duncan."
Blair glanced at Jim. The sentinel was listening intently, his head nodding slowly in understanding. Duncan's experience hadn't been that different from Jim's own.
"One day as Duncan lay on the grass beside the river in great pain, I reached out to him. I touched his head. Massaged his temples."
At the memory, Laurence's voice filled with wonder, even after all the years that had passed. "And the pain vanished. Both Duncan and I were amazed. After that, we began our research and our practices. We discovered our family histories, and I learned how to help him when the pain came. I dinae know how I did these things, but I did them. He no longer went into that sleep–like state his parents hated so, and soon, Duncan became an asset to his clan in many, many ways. He was a true guardian," Laurence ended proudly.
"And you were his guide," Blair said softly.
"A guide?" The old man considered for a moment then nodded thoughtfully and tried the words on his tongue. "Aye...a guide. 'Tis a good name for what we do, young Blair. A good name. Tell me, are you a worthy guide for your guardian? The Montgomerys blessed with the gifts are strong and powerful men. It takes a strong soul to stand at their side."
Jim didn't give Blair time to respond. "He's a worthy guide, sir. Stronger and braver than any man I've ever known. I would have no other."
Smiling, the old man nodded in approval. "Good. A true Blair, then, is he."
"What happened to Duncan, sir?"
Sadness clouded Laurence's eyes at Blair's question. "I lost him a more than a dozen years ago. My Annie was already gone, and then my Duncan..." The old man's voice faltered, and he fell silent.
Blair's eyes grew moist. "I understand," he whispered earnestly, reaching across the table to cover the wrinkled, gnarled hand with his own. "I'm so sorry."
Laurence smiled slightly in gratitude and patted Blair's hand gently. "It will not be long now. For a dozen years, I have waited only to join him," he said simply. "Ours was a partnership for eternity. One day, I will be with my wife and my anam cara once more. Perhaps your visit is why I was left here alone so long. To witness the continuation of a miracle."
Jim and Blair sat in respectful silence. Their eyes met across the table as the words of a wise, old Irish woman danced in their memories:
"A person with an anam cara was considered most fortunate. This friendship cut across all common ideas of what a friend could be. Those who found their anam cara were joined with the true friend of their soul for all eternity...the soul knows no cage. It's a pure light from the divine that enters you and your anam cara, your Other, and floods you both with deep joy and peace. Be thankful for such a rare gift...such a light...it's only when you're with your anam cara that you can be as you truly are...love is the light that allows the dawning of understanding, and that is such a precious thing. For when you are understood, then you have found your home, and you belong at last. Then you are free...free to release your true self, all that you are, into the shelter of your anam cara's soul, knowing it will be safe there...protected. Such a friend is infinitely precious...Treasure him always."
Okay...what's based on fact and what's not? The basic information about the clans discussed came from the Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. The clan mottos, information about their origins, and the names of the castles are real. I've moved the location of the Montgomery family estate, Castle Eglinton, to a location closer to the very real Blair Castle. However, the two clans did occupy lands within the same area, Ayrshire, on the opposite coast of Scotland from where I based this story.
Blair Castle itself is a much-visited castle in Scotland. I first learned of it several years ago while on the way to visit my own ancestral clan seat, Delgatie Castle, located near Turiff. The moment I saw the signs for Blair Castle, I knew there just had to be a story there somewhere. It just took a few years to get it done.
The actual Blair Castle had no association with the Blair clan, as far as I can tell from my research. I linked the name with this particular clan through mere poetic license. To any of readers descended from the actual clans associated with this lovely castle, I extend my apologies. Blair Castle has a real history more important and interesting than anything I've created here and is well worth reading about on its own merits.
Roger de Blair was a real figure from the history of the Blair Clan. He did serve with Robert the Bruce, as did my own ancestors, and won royal favor after the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn. The Blair clan did form alliances through marriage with the Montgomerys.
I have no evidence of a link between Jim's mother's family and the clan Montgomery, and in canon, Grace's name was MacDonald. Hence, that is pure fiction.
I'll be returning to the enchanted lands of the British Isles eventually. Who knows? Perhaps there's another 'Celtic Connection' story waiting for me there!
Thank you so much for taking time to read my tales.
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