<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>

<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>


The Clans

by ljc

01/05



Summary: AU. A different meeting, a different time, (a slightly different geography!) but 'our' Sentinel and Guide should always meet and share their lives, so they do here too.



No warnings. Rating G. Not even a bad word (that was a first for me!).



Note: Don't despair, the section that introduces Blair starts about a third of the way through. (:



Disclaimer: All characters, places, and objects from The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly Productions, UPN, and Paramount. All stories are written with the love of the show in mind. No money is being made. All stories are property of the author.



<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>



Sir James was having a bad day. Although James was hardly a child, his father had told him to go to his room after a particularly upsetting confrontation. He'd also managed to anger his little brother. And he wouldn't be able to see his older friend Simon, whom he had met while taking his military schooling, until after he had returned from the punishment his father had decreed. James felt embarrassed to be treated like a wayward child. He was taller than his father and he'd taken on adult duties already for the Ellison Estate of the Washington Clan.



The Washington Clan was diverse and spread throughout the valleys surrounding Puget Sound. Most of the people of the Clan were also blessed, or cursed, with a talent or two for sensing things unnoticed by people without the talent. The clansmen and women could see or hear, taste or smell, or feel things more intensely. That could be a blessing, or if it was too intense, it could be a pain. The part of the curse called a zone happened when there was too close a focus of one of the senses. A zone was a very short trance-like state, and since the trances couldn't be prevented or ended in a predictable way, could be deadly.



Sir James truly felt he was cursed. There were fairytale-like stories of very rare individuals like James that had all five of the talents. James felt that he had five times the curse. Because of them he'd caused his father's anger to flare many times lately. It wasn't that he wanted to be disobedient, but sometimes he would lose his focus and couldn't get his tasks done on time.



He was old enough to take on some duties for his father in governing the Clan capital city, Cascade. But it seemed to James that the only thing that was important to his father was Clan business. He was afraid to tell his father that, more and more of late, he had lost larger chunks of time. Sometimes he would startle awake after just staring at bright sparkles on the water or listening to the sighing of the wind. He was always left with the feeling that something was just out of his sense's reach.



And this time, because James had been late, Steven was mad at him, too. He hadn't shown up to give him a ride to his lessons in town. The schoolmaster was very strict. James wasn't surprised that Steven was mad. Mr. Hedrick was a hard taskmaster. It couldn't be easy teaching a classroom of children when most struggled at times with the varied talents of the Clan. One of the basic subjects was how to prevent too deep a focus on the 'talent' and become lost to the present moment.



James had worked hard on his lessons at keeping his sight and hearing under control when he was a child. But when he had undergone his solitary survival training test the other senses had kicked in suddenly. Now it seemed the harder he tried to control the senses, the more they spiked and drove him into a zone.



The meeting with his father this morning had been much worse than he had expected. Sir William's decision would exile him from his own home for months at least. James wanted to run away, but that would probably please his father he thought dejectedly. He should have told William about his problem, but there were reasons why he felt he couldn't. He kept replaying the encounter in his mind trying to decide if there was some answer he could have given to make the situation better.



<>-<>



Sir William sighed dramatically, “James, what am I going to do with you?” A thought many parents voice at one time or another. “You've got to apply yourself to your duties with more diligence. Your responsibilities will only increase as your civic obligations are extended. I can't seem to emphasize enough that certain things are expected of those who govern the Clan. You've always seemed to understand and took to your duties responsibly, but lately you've let your mind wander more and more. Do you have anything to say for yourself? Is there something you would say in your own defense?” William could think of a lot more parental laments but restrained himself, hoping that James would be forthcoming with some explanation.



James was deeply distressed by his problems, but with his innate stubbornness and pride he was loath to tell his father the truth. And he didn't want to admit even to himself that he was afraid. William seemed ignorant, or perhaps just unwilling to accept, the multiple advanced talents James had accidentally shown at times. He had managed to downplay any slipups and had seemingly hidden what his father disparagingly called freakish talents. He couldn't tell him now.



James knew that William hated his own mild talents, especially when they overloaded. The 'talents' were like a big family secret, that everyone in the Clan knew. Those with the talents just suffered in silence, coping as best they could with the pain the overloaded senses caused. He often wondered why they were so cursed as a Clan. There was no help for them at these times. He found it to be increasingly difficult to hide his own overloads (times five) from his family. Only Simon knew, and Simon had his own talents to cope with.



When James had no answer at all, William's exasperation reached its peak. “I really don't know what's come over you lately. You've given me little choice, son. I've decided to send you to your Uncle, Sir David. Maybe he can get through to you when I can't. You have nothing to say for yourself? Then I believe it's time for Sir David to try his hand. You will pack your supplies and take your guards overland to Olympia. David will send reports to me monthly. Do not expect him to go easy on you James. He's not an easy man but he is fair minded.” Thinking on how harsh this decision must seem, William relented a little and tried to soften his pronouncement, “I don't want this to be a punishment son. I want you to look at this as a second chance. Maybe you just need a change. David will have a fresh outlook. Yes, perhaps that's all you need. I will be heading into the city this evening to attend to business with our ship captains so I won't be able to see you off in the morning.”



That was no surprise to James. His father was always busy. Too busy to spend much time at home with his sons when work was much easier to deal with than family issues. His father's reaction was dismaying but not unexpected. Farming out unwanted, troublesome children was not unheard of among the ruling families.



<>-<>



Steven was terribly upset when he heard the news that James was being punished by being sent away to Sir David's Estate. James wasn't someone who shirked his duties, and he knew his father's attitude toward 'enhanced' senses. He wondered if James knew that he was aware of his sense problems. He didn't want his big brother to be forced away because of them. “James please tell father.”



“Tell him what Steven? He knows I made you miss your lessons already.”



“No, no, James. Tell him about your senses, all of them.”



James strode purposefully to Steven and poked him in the chest with his finger. Steven batted it away and scowled up at his bigger, older brother. “My senses are my business, Steven, not yours, and not father's. If he hasn't noticed that I have all five of the talents then I'm not going to tell him, and neither are you. Got it?”



“Come on James, father's senses are weaker than yours and even mine. And you've become very good at hiding them. You didn't want him to know. Admit it.”



James clenched his hands, and let out a ragged breath. He felt all the hurt he'd tried to deny sweep over him. He finally responded, “It's too late Steven. Arrangements have been made. I'm leaving in the morning. Goodnight Steven.”



James turned away, then back again, and grabbed his brother in a hug and patted him roughly on the back. “Goodbye, brother. I'll be back.” Stepping back he gripped Steven's shoulders then turned away, before seeing Steven's concerned gaze.



<>-<>



Morning dawned cold and foggy on the Sound. The morning dew on the grass was thick enough to wet trousers and boots. Horses wuffed steaming clouds into the cool air, and stamped impatiently at the ground, eager to go. They foresaw ground-eating gallops in their future and chafed at their immobility.



The men were not so anxious, but traveling was an adventure, it was true. Their saddlebags and the pack horses were loaded and all seemed in readiness. James led his horse round and about to warm him up a bit then climbed in the saddle. He'd already said his goodbyes to Sally at breakfast. Since their mother's death she had been the caretaker for him and his younger brother Steven. Rafe and Henri were also set to go. One more member of the party rode out of the mists.



“Simon! What are you doing here?” said James.



“I think I need to see some of the countryside before I settle back into my duties, too, Jim. Since my wife left and took young Daryl with her to her parents home I've little reason to stay home. Besides, I couldn't let you three have all the fun, now could I?” Quietly, to Jim, “Steven was worried about you.”



James was going to miss his little brother. And Simon had been despondent since the heated arguments with his wife had ended in a separation. This time away might be good for his friend. He slowly allowed a grin, and then a nod to his friends, before moving out with them onto the roadway. It was a long way to Sir David's estate. Much could happen along the way.



<>-<>



The journey would take nearly two weeks and they were in no great hurry. Simon insisted on stopping early several days so they could fish in several particularly inviting streams. He didn't mind using his enhanced sight to spot the fish where they hid in the shallows, as long as he was careful not to focus too deeply, and he would have friends about him to watch and keep him safe. Rafe and Henri, who had only mildly enhanced sight said that was cheating.



“It's not cheating. We could use some fresh fish for our supper, couldn't we? It's not like we have a bet on. Do we?” Simon grinned at his companions.



Rafe replied, “With you two spotting all the best spots, Henri and I wouldn't have a chance.”



With a glance toward Henri he continued in a more serious tone, “James, it's known to everyone that you have enhanced hearing and sight. There have been times when one of those senses overloaded, but there also were times when there had to be another explanation. We've suspected for a long time that you have all of the talents. We hope you know that we will keep your secret. We know why your father sent you away. We don't know why you didn't tell him the truth, but that's your decision to make.”



James didn't know what to say at first. He thought he'd fooled everyone. “Thanks, I appreciate that.” Glancing around at his friends he felt he should explain further. “My father is not accepting of his own senses. With mine all being strongly enhanced I felt it wouldn't help to use that as a defense. He would only see it as weakness, and perhaps a flaw that was unacceptable for his heir. Perhaps he's right. I've been losing control of them and zoning more and more often. I'm becoming a burden to my family and the Clan. Perhaps I should abdicate my position as heir.”



Simon felt appalled that his friend was so unsure of his abilities that he was considering this. “Jim, I know you. You would do anything in your power to protect the Clan. I have also seen your senses when you are in control. They far outstrip anyone else's I've heard about. The only thing that concerns me is the zoning out that's been happening more often when your focus sharpens too narrowly.” After a moment of consideration he suggested, “Perhaps we can try to help. We all got the basics in school but you've had to hide the fact that you have all the talents. Perhaps with us, on this journey, you can practice without having to fear discovery by your father. Maybe practice is all you need. You wouldn't have to worry about hiding anything from us. Would you be willing to give it a try?”



“I tried to question the instructors at the Academy, but their responses about the few known fully enhanced clansmen revealed their ignorance on the subject. They could only repeat the tales as I've already heard them.” James saw his friends grim expressions. Simon was right that he could never openly try to practice control of the senses. There had never been anyone that he could reveal his problem to and trust them to watch his back. But he trusted these men, and now they knew his fears about his father's discovery. They would keep his secret.



From his own experience he knew you never learned any skill without practice. “I think that you have a good idea though. Trying to practice my control of them may be the answer. Are you really willing to help me? We've all seen people zone. When Dad or Steven or Sally zoned I hated the feeling of helplessness. I couldn't do anything for them and they had to recover their own senses. You'd be willing to watch out for me?”



All were in agreement. Simon spoke for them, “We're willing Jim. We just need a plan. We could get more practice time in if we could do it while riding, but that could be dangerous for you. We only have a couple of weeks before we reach Sir David's Estate.”



Henri spoke up quietly, “We could secure your hands to the saddle, Sir James.” His formal address underscored how uncomfortable he was at that suggestion. They all seemed ill at ease with the idea.



James clenched his jaw, but nodded. He saw the sense of it, “I know it's just a safety precaution Henri. We'll do it. I don't want you to have to go back and try to explain to my father why I broke my neck falling out of the saddle.”



Rafe tried to ease the tension by hurrying on with his own suggestions, “Sight, hearing, smell or touch would be easiest to try while riding. Which of these do you have the most control over? We could try to increase your control of that one first.”



More plans were made and preparations done at the lunch break, all thought of fishing in the inviting stream forgotten. Back on the road, the first of many tests began. They were determined, but they were frustrated time and again. The zones had gotten progressively worse.



They were forced to stop and untie their friend James before the evening break. James was pale and sweating with stress. The last zone forced them to lower James to the ground for an early evening stop and wait for him to awaken. They worried that he'd never come around. His breathing was shallow. The only way they could help was to protect him from wildlife and the elements. They were relieved when their watchfulness revealed he'd slipped into a deep sleep.



Their glances around the fire revealed their fear for their friend and their determination weakened. They needed a new plan. They halted their journey for a day to let James recover and to discuss their plans.



“James, I think we pushed too hard,” Henri began. “It's going to take time to build up your control.”



“We're still with you on this James,” affirmed Rafe.



“Tomorrow we'll start slowly and take longer breaks if you're still willing to try. We need to make sure you're completely relaxed when you try to focus,” observed Simon. “You can do this, my friend. We still have a long journey ahead of us.”



<>-<>



The practice sessions aimed for tiny degrees of improvement, and yet the days passed with zones occurring more and more often. James practiced splitting his focus. He even tried pain as a focal point. Then plans were changed again to try to increase control of his less sensitive senses, and again there was no improvement.



Days later as James lay sleeping near the campfire, wrapped in layers of blankets, Henri spoke quietly to the others, “Simon, I'm out of ideas. Rafe and I are afraid for James. The last zone left him in shock. There are only old tales of clansmen with five heightened senses. Could the zones kill him? Do we dare push it anymore? What are we going to do? What do we say to him?”



Simon looked tiredly at his friends, “I know we can't keep on this way. We'll end up doing him serious damage, or worse. He's just so determined. I don't know what he'll do if we give up on him.”



James rolled over, startling his friends, “I understand. It's too risky to continue the practice sessions. This last one scared me too.” He stared off into the distance. “Let's rest here for a day and then continue on to Sir David's estate. Maybe if I can't control them, maybe I can shut them off somehow. No one could tell me how others with the five talents coped. Maybe if I try not to use the talents at all, even the ones I had little trouble with, they'll go away, or at least maybe I won't zone as often.”



His friends glanced to confirm their agreement with his decision and all nodded their assent. They were relieved but despondent that their efforts so far had failed.



<>-<>



They were a solemn and quiet foursome riding the rugged trails toward Sir David's estate the day after their rest. It wasn't until Henri halted his horse, gazing northward, that they realized there was any problem. “James do you sense anything?”



“I've managed to keep the senses at a normal level so far today. What are you sensing?”



Henri let his sense of hearing drift to a higher level. “I've been hearing a change in animal noises. Rafe, what do you sense?”



Rafe shuddered slightly and he pulled his jacket tighter around his neck. “Touch is telling me the air density is changing and the wind is shifting. It's getting colder too. Maybe a storm is moving into the mountains. The cold could bring snow and that would make the pass difficult to traverse.”



James was concerned about the trail ahead. “I've been through the pass to Sir David's estate several times. Heavy snows make it impassable. Is the storm close? Could we make a run for it? I don't want to strand us up there.”



Rafe's sober answer was, “I think it's close. I think it would be best to wait and see the strength of this weather system. We sure didn't bring enough supplies to winter through. There have been waystations all along this route. We should be coming up on another soon. We'll wait it out there. If we need to change our plans we can arrange for a message to be sent back to Sir William.”



The storm proved its ferocity, forcing many travelers to seek shelter at the waystation. Carters and carriages, and travelers walking and on horseback made do with the cramped quarters and were grateful.



News reached the travelers that the pass was closed for the winter, far earlier than usual. James' group gathered around the fire to discuss travel plans. Simon had seen service on the route southward. He offered his experience to them to lead them in a rather long detour.



Their journey was beginning to take on epic proportions. At least another two or three weeks would be added to the trip unless they turned back. Some of the detour was well outside Clan territory, over the rugged range of mountains to the south. If they hadn't had to delay for James' sessions and recovery, and of course the fishing, they would have been well ahead of the storm. But the deciding factor was that none of them wished to go back and face Sir William. That decision made, plans continued for their trip, but extra supplies would be needed.



The station owner knew of trading caravans that plied the area south in the Province of Oregon. In the northern part, at least, it was a more rural and isolated aggregation of townships than the trading cities around Puget Sound. In Washington Province, the great shipping families and merchant houses controlled the necessary trade goods that arrived at the islands in the great bay. It was decided by the four travelers that if contact could be made with a caravan their supply needs would be taken care of easily. If not, they had purchased maps of the nearest scattered townships.



This would be totally new territory to them, except for Simon. Only sporadic contact was maintained with the southern provinces by land. The mountainous terrain to the south was nearly impassable for wagons or carts. To the north, into Columbia Province, travel was less difficult but the weather could be fiercely cold. Eastward were rugged lands that were governed as Clan estates and townships. And seaward there was a vast ocean beyond the islands in the Sound although there was trade with coastal cities both north and south. Men on horseback accounted for most of those who ventured through the mountain passes into Oregon.



The foursome moved with renewed energy. A reprieve from arrival at Sir David's estate and the end of the sessions as well as a rest in fairly pleasant and comfortable surroundings had lessened their discomfort at being unable to help Sir James.



While James himself was more and more resigned to the complete repudiation of his senses, it also brought a sense of relief. If he could simply with resolve and perseverance, dampen his senses and keep them there, his problems would be solved and his father would be appeased. So, with a renewed sense of purpose he looked forward to putting this plan into action. Control would be his if he tried hard enough. If he was good enough. He would do what was required. He was after all, a dutiful son and loyal to his Clan.



<>

<>-<>

<>-<>-<>

<>-<>

<>



Morning wakefulness came slowly to young Blair, so his mother helped it along with a grab for his blankets and a shake to his bare foot.



“Mom! It's too cold.”



“Up now, you scamp. You know the chores won't wait. Everyone does his share. Up with you now.”



“I'll do my share. Can't it just be later?”



Naomi just grinned, not that she let him see it. “It is later. I let you sleep in. Did you think I didn't know you were reading into the wee hours? I'm your mother. Mother's see more than you'd think. And know more than you'd like. Remember that, Sweetie. Now run, before we're both taken to task.”



Blair rolled over with a soul-weary sigh, but he knew he didn't fool Naomi a bit. He looked at her standing with arms akimbo and smiling at him. He could only smile back and gather himself together for the day's chores. “But first, breakfast. Right?”



“First, wash up. Then breakfast.”



Blair just huffed softly and did as he was told. He really shouldn't have been reading so late, but he just couldn't put down the book by Sir Richard Burton. His travels were legendary, and this journal of his travels in the far south piqued his curiosity. Oh well, traveling to such far off lands was just an unattainable fantasy for a trader's child.



But Naomi was an excellent trader, and their small clan did well in their travels from the coast to the inland mountain villages, along rugged, and in places, even dangerous, roads. No foreign jungles and wild cats and half clad tribesmen in their travels, sorry to tell.



He'd have to read the book again, slower this time. There were passages that he doubted. After all, Sir Richard wrote of watchmen, or sentinels. There was a drawing of two men, warriors with spears. He wondered if the spears were for fighting or for hunting. He used one to fish, but without much skill, or much luck either, truth to tell. His ruminations continued through washing, breakfast and chores without conscious thought on his physical activities.



After lunch, his musings continued as his thoughts strayed back to sentinels. What would powerful senses be like? He had reached the slow stream they had camped beside. It was a rest day, for people and their weary draft horses and trading animals, so he too deserved a break he thought. He skipped stones a few times, watching the ripples spread out from each small jump and then the final splash. If Blair was a sentinel, he bet he could see the stone on the bottom of the stream. He stood closer and looked down in the water. He grew thoughtful. The glare was awfully bright. That might be a problem for extra good sight.



He plopped himself down on the bank. The sun was nice but it beat down more warmly now than it had this morning. He laid back on the grass with a sigh. The sun was warm on his face, the grass and damp earth was cool on his back, and a stone stuck in his ribs. What would it be like to feel all those things more intensely? Too intensely? They could all really hurt. He knew sunburn hurt, and being too cold, or being poked by something sharp. Hmm. He started thinking about taste and smell and hearing. He could think of lots of things that smelled bad, like cleaning out the horse stalls during winter camp. Then there was nothing worse to him than eating lima beans, but Naomi made him anyway. Hearing? Thunder. Sometimes it could be really frightening, not that he'd ever let on to anyone. And thunder and lightning together would be doubly bad. Maybe being a sentinel would have its drawbacks. It could really hurt to be a sentinel. Maybe the sentinel's friend in the picture helped him. He'd help a sentinel if he had one for a friend. Gosh Blair, where would he get a sentinel for a friend. Even Sir Richard had to travel way to the south to find one. Get real.



<>-<>



The next morning saw the caravan readying to depart before the sun rose. All members of the small Clan pitching in to make fast work of breaking camp. The men and women of the Clan walked beside their small, heavily laden carts and wagons, guiding their draft animals along the rutted trail. The forest deepened as they traveled. The children had been ranging far afield in the morning with their small herds and flocks, trying to keep them moving when the animals would rather stand and munch on the new grass they'd wandered into. As they worked their way deeper into the forest and higher into the northern range of hills, the children brought their beasts closer to the shelter of the caravan.



Naomi strode along in the bright morning sun. She liked her wandering life. Their trade routes were well established and there was a lot of routine, but she loved traveling the countryside. She likened it to a 'vacation'. That's what the villagers called their 'getting away' days. She always felt like she was on vacation. Old sights, becoming new sights with the changing of the seasons. New people could be so interesting or so boring and both were good reasons to keep moving about. Her task as head trader was enjoyable, too. Haggling over prices or battering goods was exciting in its own right. Best of all she had her son with her and her Clan about her. It was a home of sorts, just a 'free-wheeling' kind. She laughed to herself. Where did these thoughts come from? What a terrible pun.



Isaac came abreast of Head Trader Naomi. “Miss Naomi, can Blair and I scout ahead for a stream for when we stop for the night.”



Naomi gave a slight shake of her head, “Did Blair put you up to this, Isaac?” The boy looked a little bit guilty but shook his head no. “You must realize that I know this trail like the back of my hand. There is a stream ahead that we usually stop at. I have traveled this way before you know.” The boy's face flushed and she tried not to laugh although a grin did appear. “Go. Scout it out. If there is a problem I expect you both back here to tell me immediately. Do you understand?” At Isaac's quick nod she continued, “Do be careful though. Stay out of the water, it will be cold and fast running this time of year with the new snow in the mountains. It'll be good for the camp, but not good for swimming.” At that Isaac took off like a rabbit with a fox on its heels.



Naomi grinned and then sobered as she pondered that her Blair and his cousin Isaac were growing up so fast. Not children anymore, those two. They were responsible thirteen year olds, but they were always testing themselves attempting new adventures. She did hope they'd be careful.



<>-<>



“Next time you ask Blair.”



Blair laughed, “You thought that one up. You have to do better than that with mom.”



The boys left their flock in the charge of their younger cousins and flew down the road.



<>-<>



The boys arrived at the future campsite out of breath. They'd raced each other down the last hill. They did their duty and scouted out the area, then started gathering fallen branches to clear the site for their families and stacking them near the stones of the old campfires. If they worked quickly they could use whatever time was left before their arrival for their own use. Free time was hard to come by even for the children, but they felt they had earned it by the time the site was readied.



Blair and Isaac went to the stream. It came down from the high mountains that were already tipped with white. Blair shivered at the thought of swimming in it. They sat companionably beside the stream, idly pulling the tall grass, peeling the outer leaves off and chewing on the sweet stems. Blair tossed the leaves into the water, watching them flow with the water over rocks and into and out of pools downstream. It made him remember Sir Richard's journal, so he excitedly began telling Isaac of sentinels and enhanced senses, and warriors and their friends, and hunting spears and fishing spears.



<>-<>



Sir James and his friends had set a steady pace since leaving the waystation. Time to dawdle was over. James thought about how they'd tried to help him. In James' own estimation he'd failed miserably. But their willingness to try to help warmed James' heart and eased the isolation he felt. He was different. So different that he honestly didn't dare to tell his father. His brother cared about him, he was glad of that. And his friends stood by him and had tried their best. It was more than he had expected. Secretly he felt his senses did make him a freak.



During this leg of their journey his senses seemed to be behaving. It could be the result of the forced practice. Or it could be his decision to actively suppress them. He had purposely not engaged them since the last disastrous time. Or it could be because of that last shock to his body. He could hope the senses were shocked into submission.



Simon rode with reins loose over his lap, squinting at the map in the bright sunlight. “There appears to be a caravan route south of here. If we leave the road and go cross country we could cut miles off the trip and reach a little stream well before evening.”



“Sounds like a plan,” spoke Henri, with a grin. They were all feeling relaxed and in good spirits, especially since James hadn't zoned again.



<>-<>



As the two cousins competed in stone-skipping, Blair was trying to explain to Isaac what harm enhanced senses could do. Isaac was having none of it. It was just too exciting a thought. A man with senses beyond normal! What adventures he could have.



Blair pointed down in frustration into the stream as the lowering sun's glare shimmied across the surface. “Look, Isaac. What good would it do to be able to see the bottom of the stream if the glare blinded you? Ooops.” Splash. “Isaac!” The shriek of his name froze Isaac to the spot.



“Blair?” Isaac's cry was lost in the rush of the snow fed stream.



“Help ... help me ... help,” Blair gasped out as he was swept away from Isaac. He knew immediately that he was in trouble. The cold numbed him so quickly. He knew there was little time to help himself and there was certainly no one to hear or help beyond Isaac, who had already receded from sight. He clutched left and right at anything and everything he was thrust against. Rocks covered with ice cold water slipped from his grasp and branches were either too rotten or too thin to hold his weight for long. Blair's gasps were fast and frantic. Panic threatened to overwhelm him. Long minutes passed as he fought the panic as well as the water. He wouldn't give up. He wouldn't drown. He wouldn't! But the cold was taking its toll. As time passed his movements turned sluggish, and when he was washed into a shallow pool, he didn't have the wits or the strength to take advantage of it. With one last gulp of breath he slid beneath the surface.



<>-<>



Rafe and Henri rode behind Simon and James that afternoon. They were discussing a new transfer into the guards, a man older than Simon and nearly as tall. Taggart had requested a transfer after some tragedy. James and Simon knew Joel Taggart, and wished him well. He was a good man whose last assignment had ended badly through no fault of his own, but he blamed himself.



James let his thoughts wander until a distant cry was heard.



**“Ooops ... Isaac! Help ... help me ... help.”**



“Simon, do you hear that?”



Simon pulled his horse to a halt with alarm. “What is it Jim?” His first thought was highwaymen since they were nearing a known caravan route.



“A cry for help ....” James took off riding as hard as he could through the trees. The others followed over one small hill then another. They stopped at the top and James still continued on. They cast fearful glances at each other. Just what had he heard... and how had James heard it this far?



The way was fairly clear until James neared the brush that grew profusely near the stream. Plunging through to the sloping bank, James slid off his mount with his hearing tuned to that small voice. A boy, alone out here! He watched in horror as the child was swept into a pool of still water several yards downstream.



Simon was the first to ride up beside him. “Jim. Jim, what do you hear?”



James pointed wildly toward the pool. “There Simon. A boy in the water.”



“I don't see him, Jim.”



“You've got to help me Simon. Your sight is enhanced. Can't you see him? I saw him go under!”



Simon did his best, but his enhanced sight was not on a par with Jim's at his best. He turned frantically to his friend. “You'll have to do it Jim. I've seen you. Your sight can focus beyond the glare. Do it, Sir James!”



James shuddered and fought his own internal battle, but this was a child. He'd heard his cry. It was now his responsibility to protect him, to save him. He stood at the stream's edge, focusing his considerable will on this one talent. Doing this usually sent him into a zone, but somehow he couldn't hold back. Not this time. Not for this child. So he drove himself onward, and deeper into the murk of the pool.



Suddenly he dove, coming up with a sputtering, gasping, shivering armful of boy. A welcome grip took his arm and the boy was taken by another. The two were led through the thick brush and into a clearing. The boy shivering and incoherent after his brush with drowning. Henri picked him up easily to lay him on a blanket spread by Rafe. James and the boy were quickly divested of their wet garments and swaddled in layers of blankets. Deadfall was quickly gathered for a roaring fire. Simon requested a hot drink be prepared, and the water was set to heat as he sat with his friend and the boy.



<>-<>



Isaac ran along the bank long after he lost sight of his friend. He sobbed and gulped great gasps of air in his breathlessness. The thick brush tore at his clothes and his skin and still he pushed on till he fell. Then he laid there for several minutes sobbing. His friend was gone and his grief overwhelmed him. Slowly he rose and headed to the campsite and on to the caravan. How could he tell Miss Naomi?



He started to run back to the caravan and soon met Naomi running toward him, tears streaming down her face. She knew. She was the Head Trader. She was good at knowing things not spoken. That's what made her the best trader of all the Clan. She knew to fear for Blair.



Naomi and her clansmen had put on their best speed, leaving the carts and wagons behind with the herd animals, with only the oldsters and youngest to watch them. Reaching the campsite soon after Isaac's last sight of Blair, searchers went out immediately, employing their skills to help locate the boy.



A place to ford the stream was found where the water tumbled around the rocks. Naomi was focused and silent, but less grim than while on the road. The tears had stopped and she picked one direction and went forward with barely a step to one side or the other. Her Clanspeople followed, hoping for the best since the feeling of terror had faded into anxiety. They swarmed upon the little camp, shocking the four friends. Naomi grabbed up her son and rocked him desperately even though she knew he would be alright.



“Mom? You can let go you know. I'm going to be fine.”



“I'm not letting go, at least not for a while, Sweetie.” Looking round the camp she saw that her Clanspeople had faded back when Blair was found to be safe. They and Blair's rescuers eyed each other warily. Naomi knew she alone could put them at their ease. “Who saved my son?”



James coughed abruptly. His appearance and nest of blankets making Naomi chuckle at her own question. “I see. And your name, if I may ask?”



James shivered as he sat, and answered, “I am Sir James Ellison, Milady.”



“I am no Lady, Sir James. I am Head Trader of the Sandburg Clan. You have saved my only child. Anything you ask you may have if it's in my power to give it.”



James flushed. He didn't know exactly what she was offering. “I need nothing in recompense. My thought was only to save the child.”



Naomi's smile and misty eyes well showed her relief, yet she was amused by Sir James discomfiture. She answered his unspoken confusion, “Still, if an item be required it shall be freely given.”



Simon cleared his throat gruffly, “The child is safe Sir James, and returned to his family. Perhaps we could camp here for a while if the traders would allow.”



Naomi smiled deeply to Simon, “Please join us for the night. Our usual campsite is across the stream. We would be very pleased to have you as our honored guests.”



“Please do stay Sir James. My name is Blair.” He clasped his blankets around him and arose unsteadily to face him. “The Chinese people have a saying, that if you save someone's life you're their Blessed Protector forever.”



Naomi in surprise exclaimed, “Blair Sandburg!”



Looking earnestly at Naomi, “It's true, Mom.” Turning back to James, “I know we'll move on in the morning, but I would like a chance to get to know the person that saved me. If you don't mind, that is. You don't have to move on tonight do you?”



James bit back a grin, “I'd be pleased to accept the hospitality of your Clan for the night.”



<>-<>



Camp setup went quickly and joyously. Blair was safe and his rescuers were welcomed like heroes, to their embarrassment.



“Jim we need to acquire supplies,” stated Simon. “They're traders, they'd welcome the opportunity to do some business. It's their livelihood.”



“But I don't want to make them think we're taking advantage of the situation. I want to pay a decent price for them.”



“I can be tactful, Jim. Let me handle it.”



James looked up at Simon from where he sat, with hands clasped around his knees. “I bow to your wisdom, Oh Master Trader.”



Simon just squinted his eyes at his friend and turned away muttering, “Sarcasm James?” He knew very well that James would hear him.



James grinned as his friend left to conduct the transaction. He wondered just how Simon would fare against Miss Naomi. Then James laid his head on his knees. He was more tired than he had believed.



Blair came to stand before him, jamming his hands in his pockets, not knowing what to say.



“Sit down Blair. Would you like to visit with me for a while?” James asked as he sat up and leaned back on his saddle.



Startled, “Oh, yes Sir James.” Blair's grin greeted James when he raised his head.



“Please call me Jim. It wouldn't be right to call your Blessed Protector, Sir.” Then James asked his new Blessed Protectee, “Why were you so far from the caravan by yourself? You're very young.”



“I'm almost fourteen. I'm nearly old enough to get married.”



“Not in my Province, you're not.”



Considering that was one of those arguments he'd never win, he changed the subject. “Where is your Province?”



“It's called Washington Province and I'm from the city of Cascade. Have you ever heard of it?”



“Heard the name. I know there's a big bay up there. We've never been there though. No one really travels that far north from the southern provinces. They say it's really cold the farther north you go.”



“Actually, with the bay so near it keeps the temperatures milder than most people would think. Trade goods are shipped to and from the islands in Puget Sound, up into Columbia Province and down the coast into Oregon.”



“Wow, have you been on ships and traveled far away?”



James had to admit that he hadn't. They continued their conversation into the evening. James learned about the boy's travels which were fairly extensive for someone his age. When he heard of Blair's love of books he asked about his favorites and shared some of his own. Blair shared his latest treasure. When James heard of Blair's excitement over Sir Richard's journal and sentinels he didn't know what to think. Didn't the rest of the world know about the talents and about his Clansmen? He needed to talk to Simon, Rafe and Henri. Perhaps they knew something he didn't.



<>-<>



Simon was learning a few facts also. His meeting with Head Trader Naomi was enlightening. He'd thought he would talk the lovely lady into a straightforward deal, but she outmaneuvered him at every turn. He knew she'd practically given away the supplies they needed to complete their journey. He sensed something odd though. Her vitals were steady. Shouldn't they have been somewhat elevated during their interchange? He shamelessly listened after he left her.



When Naomi was approached by Miri, Isaac's mother, Naomi asked, “Is Isaac alright Miri? He was so terribly upset. None of this was his fault and I can feel how he blames himself.”



“Isaac will be fine Naomi. Thankfully Blair is all right. I could sense Isaac's fear, but not as strongly as you could Blair's. Are you alright? I know you're tired, probably too tired to sleep. You traded for goods with the tall one, Simon. You gave him a 'very good deal'. It's some recompense for the good they did at least. Come, let's get some tea and sit by the fire for a while.”



Simon's alarm grew as their chat continued. “feel how he blames himself”,“sense Isaac's fear”, and Blair's? How did Miri already know about the deal? I need to talk to Jim, Rafe and Henri.



Even Rafe and Henri, with only minor talents themselves, had seen or heard some strange exchanges amongst their hosts. When Henri had innocently let slip the part that James enhanced sight had had in saving Blair there was instant silence. That brought hesitant questions and answers from both sides. The resulting rising murmur from the assembled people brought in any stragglers, including Naomi, and James and Blair.



When the two groups confronted each other with their surmises, Blair ran to get his book by Sir Richard. He put it forth as evidence the guests were telling the truth. James had no choice but to acknowledge the senses now.



James thought about the varying talents of his clansmen and how his father wasn't alone in thinking they weakened the bloodlines. Sir Richard Burton thought otherwise. It was such a total change of direction for his thinking. They were a gift, or they could be. They could help the Clan in certain situations. He had saved Blair's life today, and only because he had heard and seen exceptionally well. For all the risks, there were advantages. If only they could be used safely.



Sir Richard mentioned the inherent problems, but he also mentioned that the friend of the sentinel in the drawing was his companion, a guide. There were no guides known in Cascade, of that he was sure. If there was a way to ease the overloads and zones it would have been shouted from the rooftops.



“A guide. It's someone who protects the sentinel while he works, Jim. A sentinel protects his clan by using his senses. He can tell if there's game or a change in the weather, or watch for enemies. Or ... or protect people from being hurt, like you did me. That's what the book says,” explained Blair. “It says, too, that they choose each other. It doesn't say how though,” he continued with a huge sigh, followed by a yawn.



Naomi cupped her son's face in her hands and said, “I think you need sleep.” At Blair's wild-eyed denial Naomi continued, “Sweetie, you nearly drowned today. Your rescuer is also in need of rest. Sir James and his friends are welcome to stay with us for a few days.” Looking at James, “We have much to discuss, James. Agreed?”



“Agreed.”



Naomi lovingly gazed into her sons eyes, “Now off to bed. We will talk in the morning. You'll have plenty of time for questions and stories and anything else you wish. I promise.”



<>-<>



Discussions were indeed postponed for clearer heads in the morning.



James and his friends were surprised to hear that knowledge of their Clan's talents was unknown.



The Sandburg Clan in its turn was reluctant to part with knowledge of their own secret talents. After all, having empathic hints of a customer's needs and greed was a trader's boon.



Rafe voiced what the others hesitated to say, that it seemed to be cheating to have knowledge so personal available to the traders. Naomi and others of the traders held their heads high and looked their guests in the eye with no hesitation. They made it clear that they gave good value for their trading.



The four friends looked skeptical until James looked around the encampment and stated for his friends, “They have good sturdy clothing and well kept wagons, nothing extravagant. Their trade goods are of good quality too. And I have the extra evidence of their sensed vitals. They're telling the truth. And remember, my friends, don't the Clansmen of Cascade have much the same advantage with their senses when they choose to use it?”



These statements caused murmurs from both groups and nods of assent. This eased a lot of tension between the two groups.



James had another question, “Simon, do your senses seem sharper and easier to control here?”



Simon looked surprised and then thoughtful, finally agreeing with Jim. “And you haven't zoned, Jim.” A short explanation left the traders dismayed at the risks posed by their guests when using their talents.



James looked to Naomi in thought. “What if a sentinel needs an empath for a guide?” James mused. “That may be why we have no guides in Cascade.”



Blair piped up, “Remember, Sir Richard wrote that sentinels and guides choose each other.”



Simon was thinking hard and he questioned James, “Have you felt an attraction to any of the traders? Has any one of them aided your senses more than the others?”



James had to think on this because, even though he had noticed the new sharpness of details from the first, he hesitated to answer Simon. What good would the answer do?



“Jim think,” said Simon, then looking to Rafe and Henri, “Remember when James heard Blair's cry for help? We believed him at first because his senses are stronger than ours. But after following him over several hills we began to doubt. It was too far. No one could have heard that.” Turning back to James, “And you haven't zoned.”



Blair was quick witted. He sat holding his breath. A sentinel, for me, he thought. James scowled at Blair and the boy shrank back where he sat. He doesn't want me.



Simon saw the looks, “Ease up Jim. The boy is young, but he could be a fine guide. You've needed control and he seems to have given you that. At least give this a chance. What would your future be with that control?”



Startled, Naomi gasped, “Now wait just a minute! This is my son. Do you think you can just lay claim to him like ... like a sword or a horse! He's a person, not a piece of property. I won't have it. You can find a guide somewhere else. Of all the nerve!”



“But Mom, I want to be a guide. I could help him.”



“Blair you barely know him. I am grateful to him for saving your life, but he has no right to claim you for a guide. You're a child still. You have a future here with the Clan. I've been training you to trade for the Clan. Your empathy is strong and we need the best to prosper.”



James spoke up, “Listen all of you. Naomi I will not take a child from his home.” At Blair's despairing look, “Blair, perhaps in a couple of years you could visit Cascade. I would welcome you. We could then discuss things. You need to remain with your family for now.”



“But what about you and your senses. Don't you need my help?” cried Blair.



Simon tried to be reasonable and understanding, “Naomi, I know your fears for your child. I have a child of my own. You haven't known Sir James for even a day. You have no reason to trust any of us. And yet, have your talents warned you to fear us? Remember that James risked his life for your son. Perhaps by hearing his cry from so far away, that was a choice by a sentinel for a guide. I'm not sure of this of course, since we have only the book to help us. Before we came to this Province, James was in despair of controlling his senses. He nearly died on this trip because the three of us convinced him to try to practice controlling them where we could guard and protect him. It didn't work, as I said, and he nearly died. He made the decision to try to dampen them or to try to turn them down completely. He was fairly successful until he heard Blair's cry. It truly was a great distance. I've never seen or heard anything like it before. I'm asking you to consider letting Blair work with James to see if this could work to their benefit.”



Naomi was silent. She could feel their sincerity and Blair's longing. She could give it a trial. She sensed the agreement, and the underlying excitement, of her clansmen. She loosened the grip of her own hands, laying them loosely on her knees. With a great sigh, she looked at the assembled and nodded assent. “A trial.”



<>-<>



Blair and James walked slowly through the woodland. Neither knew what to say. James, being older, thought he should start but he was at a loss.



Blair was consumed with joy. A sentinel and I'm a guide. Cool. He waited for Jim to say something, after all, he was Sir James Ellison, and he was just a kid, even if he was the son of Head Trader Naomi. He tried to catch glimpses of Jim's face.



Jim looked worried and that worried Blair. Someone had to take the first step. Blair sighed deeply. What are we going to do?



James had to smile when he heard that frustrated sigh, so he gestured to some tumbled boulders beneath a copse of trees. “Let's sit Blair. We're far enough away from prying eyes and ears. Or are we? How far can your mother sense?”



Blair sat on the smallest rock and looked thoughtfully at James. “She sensed me all the way from the caravan, but it was pretty scary being swept away and almost ... well, usually it's not all that far. I think we're safe here,” he said with a shy smile.



James chuckled softly. “You remind me of my brother Steven. He's a few years older than you.” The two shared stories of family and Clan, slowly getting to be less strangers and more friends. When the gossip wound down the silence was less strained. Talk of Jim's senses led from one excited question to another to another. Blair's excitement seemed unending and the questions became more focused. That led to the topic of 'tests', as Blair explained that he would need to know what Jim could do and try to understand how he did it, if he was going to be able to help. Blair told Jim of his thoughts by a different stream days ago and Jim was impressed. It showed an insight well beyond his years.



After they had talked for a while they began to grow uncomfortable in the hot sun. James asked, “Blair, have you explored around the campsite before?”



“Not far, mom never let me go by myself and none of the adults ever seemed to have the time.”



“I can see a deer trail leading up toward that ridge. Why don't we go take a look. We should be able to see for miles up there.” The two companions walked slowly up the shaded trail. James would point out animal signs and Blair would tell Jim about the wild herbs he could identify, both learning from the other despite the differences. When the summit was reached they could indeed see for miles. James was awed by the clarity and the detail. When Blair asked if he could see the camp, he focused his sight toward the stream and the friends and family below. They looked so close, he could see Simon and Naomi talking. So close ... he could almost hear ....



“Jim. Listen to me, Jim.” Was Blair upset? “Feel my hand on yours Jim. Squeeze my hand. Now, Jim.” Where was Blair? His hand? There. “Good. That's right Jim. Look at me. Focus on me. Hear my voice. Feel my hand.” James took a gasping breath. Fear and helplessness hit him all at once. “You're here with me, Jim. You're with Blair, remember? You're not alone. I won't let you go. Do You Hear Me? Answer me, Jim. Do you hear me?”



James' eyes were wild then slowly calmed. He never took his eyes off his guide. How did he ... No one ever pulled me or any other clansman out of a zone. His own amazement slowly dissipated and he realized his guide's vitals were racing like he'd run a race. “I'm alright Blair ... ooff.” Blair grabbed him in a hug that squeezed the breath out of him. Blair was crying? “Blair what's wrong? I'm okay. Everything is fine. You pulled me out of the zone. Do you know what you did? That was a zone and you must have done everything right. No one has ever done that for me before. You Are My GUIDE. I think ... I know ... I choose you.”



<>-<>



Naomi and Simon sat companionably waiting for Blair and James to return. They talked about life in the Sandburg Trading Caravan. They talked of the trading ships plying Puget Sound. Simon talked of Daryl, and his own travels to Columbia Province to the north. Simon caught Naomi glancing toward the woodland trail the two had taken. “You're worried about Blair? He's safe with Jim. I've known him for several years, since he was about Blair's age. I've trusted him with my own son.”



Naomi smiled gratefully at Simon, “Thank you, you seemed to have read my mind.”



“I'm a parent too. It wasn't difficult.”



“Why are you here, Simon? I mean, you could be with Rafe and Henri or talking with the other traders. Why me?”



“Have you seen them this morning? It seems Jim isn't the only one to find his guide. I think Rafe and Henri may have found their own guides. Rafe and Isaac seem to be best pals, and Henri and Miri haven't been apart much either. I don't think they know yet.”



Naomi looked disquieted as she glanced toward the pairs. Then with a gasp she swung to stare at Simon. “You and I?”



Simon grinned, chuckled and just nodded his head. Naomi's little gasp and grin made Simon smile in gratitude.



<>-<>



Epilogue



No one made it to their original destination. Sir David had no visitors. The Sandburg Trader Clan changed course in more ways than one. Sir William and James had a confrontation that was very loud, but when William discovered the worth of the Guides he yielded to the inevitable. He had several very good examples before him, after all. Word went out to other trader clans the Sandburgs knew who carried their talent. Soon other caravans were headed north to Cascade, the home of Sentinels and Guides.



<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>

<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>-<>



finis