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As he read through Burton's The Sentinels of Paraguay for what seemed the hundredth time, Blair Sandburg muttered imprecations under his breath.
Not that he actually needed to read it again; he had read it so often he had it memorized. And not for the first time he cursed the ill fortune that had seen this book printed - and its author dead - years before he had found it.
He had even visited Paraguay after he first read it, hoping that among the Guarani he might find one of these elusive sentinels; but in the century and more since Richard Burton visited the country, the tribes had been exposed to too much 'civilization', and even in the more remote rural areas where Guarani was still widely spoken, nobody was left who lived the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The irony of it was that explorers like Burton, who had definite preconceived ideas about 'savages' and the 'innate superiority of the white man' were able to travel freely through the undeveloped regions of the world, often ignoring the skills of the people; while the more enlightened anthropologists of the twentieth century, who genuinely wanted to study the almost-lost skills of the past, often had considerable difficulty getting visas and even more difficulty getting any of the handful of hunter-gatherer tribes they met to trust them. Probably, he thought viciously, because the governments of the countries involved wanted to 'civilize' those tribes, seeing their way of life as a threat to the image the governments wanted to present of a developing modern culture. The fact that the hunter-gatherer tribes had a better standard of living, and were healthier than many of the 'civilized' inhabitants who drudged from dawn to dusk in a desperate attempt to grow crops on barely fertile land, appeared not to matter to politicians desperate to show the world that their country was living in the twentieth century.
Burton, at least, had spoken of the people he saw. Too many of the others were intent only on writing about what they had done, what they had seen, and the native population had been virtually ignored.
Suddenly impatient, Blair slammed the book down. He knew what it said. He knew in detail what it said.
He also knew the one thing it didn't say. Nowhere in its three-hundred-odd pages did it give the remotest clue where he could find a sentinel now.
After more years than he was able to remember of trying to avoid sentinels because of Naomi's prejudices - and to a certain extent, his own fears - Blair was tired. At least he looked old enough now not to need his mother around all the time to provide him with an adult 'guardian', and he could live without her constant reiteration that watchmen - sentinels - were bad news.
Not that it had been difficult to avoid sentinels. There had never been many alive at one time, and most people passed their entire lives without meeting one. Hell, he hadn't met one since he was fourteen! And a real disaster that encounter had been.
But the one thing he now desperately wanted, needed, to find was a sentinel.
Although he was considered to be a man, Balar was still very young; little more than a boy, really. If he had been a girl, he would have been married by now. As a man, he wouldn't be old enough for the responsibility of providing for a mate and family for several years, and indeed he was grateful for that; he had no wish for a wife.
He would have to take an unwanted wife eventually - to refuse to mate was unthinkable; he knew that, and dreaded the day when it became inevitable.
Balar glanced up at the sun; it was time to begin driving the cattle home.
When he reached the outskirts of the village he was surprised to find nobody waiting to claim their beasts from the herd, to take them home to milk. Yet he was not early; if anything - he looked up at the sun again - he was a little late, distracted as he had been by his thoughts.
He turned the beasts into the small gathering paddock and went on, hearing voices from the center of the village, to find that everyone was gathered in front of the chief Elder's hut.
Elder Brak, accompanied by a stranger - a woman, still young but not so young that anyone might mistake her for a girl - was walking slowly around the circle of people.
He was puzzled - it was far from easy for anyone to move from his - or her - home village without attracting unwanted attention. There was considerable suspicion aimed at such people, even those who travelled legitimately as Traders, and Balar knew that well enough; remembering the time several years previously, in a year of unrelenting and unprecedentedly heavy rain, when a small group of strangers arrived in his village. He had been a mere child then, only six years old, but he could still recall the whispers, the lack of trust the adults had shown. It had transpired that their village had been destroyed by a flash flood; there were many dead, and much of their agricultural land was also damaged, all of that year's crops lost, washed away by the force of the water. Sheer desperation had forced the survivors to journey for miles in search of someplace where they might be able to settle.
They had finally been accepted, and were now a part of the community, their 'outsider' origins almost - but not quite - forgotten.
So why was this strange woman being treated so differently from Efon and his people?
Balar walked forward to join his mother. "What - " he began, but quiet though his voice was, she instantly hushed him.
The woman's head suddenly lifted a fraction, and ignoring the next few in the line, she walked straight to Balar.
Lifting her hand, she touched his cheek, then stroked it in a way he could only call possessive. There was a predatory feel to the touch; more, and worse, he was aware of a weird, creepy, unpleasant feeling inside his head, as if somehow she was trying to stroke his mind as well.
Demon! he thought instantly.
Panicked, repelled, Balar reacted instinctively. Raising his hands, he pushed. He could not have said whether he was pushing himself away from her, or her away from him. Either way, the result was the same. Taken by surprise, clearly not expecting rejection, she staggered backwards, lost her balance and fell, her head hitting a small rock that projected a bare inch above the ground. Her body convulsed once, and then she lay completely still.
There was a gasp of horror from the assembled villagers, and he realized that they all regarded his action as wrong, although he couldn't think why. This was a stranger who had touched him in a familiar way he considered unacceptable, would have considered unacceptable whoever she had touched like that.
Would he have reacted in the same way if this stranger had been a man, he wondered, and in the second he had to consider the thought, he knew that if he had been aware of the same predatory feel in a man, he would have wanted - needed - to escape.
Elder Brak knelt beside the woman, then touched her neck; remained still for a moment, then rose. He walked stiffly towards Balar.
"Do you know what you have done?" he asked, and the tone of his voice only added to Balar's confusion.
"I only wanted to d-defend myself," he stammered. "She frightened me. When she - a stranger - touched me in so intimate a way, I was reminded of a hunting cat when he is playing with a mouse, before he kills it. She seemed to be a demon, trying to control my mind."
Brak frowned. "Did you not know that a Watchman must be able to touch the mind of his or her Servitor? Clearly she was drawn to you, recognizing in you the gifts that would enable you to support her. You were honored; this village would have gained status had she Claimed you, but you not only rejected the Watchman who would then surely have remained here, making this her territory, you caused her to die!"
Nobody could have misunderstood the total confusion on Balar's face as he struggled to understand what he was hearing.
Brak continued, "Surely you knew that Watchmen on Quest have rights."
"Watchmen?" Balar asked. "What are Watchmen?"
"Balar has been out with the cattle," his mother quickly reminded Brak. "He had only just arrived when the Watchman came to him. He didn't know what was happening. He only knew that a stranger was taking what, in anyone else, would be called an unjustified liberty, since no approach from her family to mine had been made."
Brak ignored Noma, his attention wholly on Balar. "Do you not know that Watchmen are our protectors? And so they must know that they are Choosing the correct Servitor to support them."
Balar could only shake his head. "Elder, I've never heard of Watchmen. What's special about them, that they are allowed to ignore the behavior that is expected of everyone else who is looking for a mate? And even if she was following established custom, I am not yet old enough to take a mate."
This time Brak did look directly at Noma. "Have you not told your son about Watchmen?"
Noma shook her head. "I didn't think he needed to know; until today, I didn't believe there actually were Watchmen; I always thought they - the stories of how they can detect evil in men - were merely tales told to frighten children, and Balar was ever a good child who did not need to be frightened into proper behavior."
"And so he has been responsible for the death of a Watchman, because he did not know what to expect when he met one. The Watchman clearly thought that he was the Servitor who would best meet her needs."
Mother and son looked at each other. There was a touch of accusation in Balar's eyes - if he had been warned of this, he wouldn't have been as troubled by it... perhaps. He would, however, still have been repelled by her. Noma looked fractionally guilty, but there was also anger in her eyes; knowing that although Balar had acted partly out of ignorance, it was also partly out of reaction to her teaching. She had always taught him to avoid anyone who sought to approach him in a manner that he believed might be sexual, believing that he should be virgin when he eventually took a mate. Also she remembered the child predator who had been banished from the tribe twelve years previously, and she was far from happy that Brak, who had banished the man, seemed not to have seen in the Watchman's behaviour a similarly predatory streak. Or was it possible that he had not been willing to recognize it?
And she could guess why he might have seen it but ignored it. Because the Watchmen was a woman, and he only saw males as predating on children? Balar was now fourteen, and though, as a male, not yet of marriageable age, he was not now considered to be a child; and the predator was a Watchman. So by sacrificing one near-child, Balar, Brak might have gained a Watchman for the village?
She had not been entirely truthful in claiming that she thought they were 'merely a story to frighten children'; she had been accompanying her Trader husband when she came here, and stayed when he died suddenly, just two days later. Her son was born four months after his father's death, and by the time he was old enough to talk, she had been accepted by the villagers, for she was a hard worker; and so he never knew she was not a native of the place.
In her travels with her husband, she had heard many stories about Watchmen, rare though Watchmen were, stories that mostly depicted them as important members of their communities, whose Servitors were granted at least some dignity. She had also heard stories - though only two or three - that showed them in a far less favorable light; stories that told of Servitors who were nothing more than slaves to the Watchmen who had Claimed them, whose lives consisted of pure drudgery. Even one such story was one too many. Then there were stories that told of Servitors who were used as whores by their Watchmen regardless of their own wishes, for it was convenient for a Watchman to have a captive sexual partner, and nobody criticized the Watchman who bedded his slave, even when that slave was of the same sex. Servitors were expected to put aside any hopes and aspirations they might have had, existing only for the convenience of their Watchmen. Even those Servitors whose Watchmen were kind had to abandon their own lives, whatever else they might have contributed to their communities forever lost.
And yet people were expected to think that being a Servitor, of having a child or sibling a Servitor, was an honor?
Noma had never thought for a moment that her son would by Claimed by a Watchman - to think so would, after all, be exhibiting a degree of arrogance that was immodest, even if it only existed inside her own mind... which it didn't. No - nothing would ever convince her that being a Servitor was any sort of honor!
Brak seemed to withdraw into his own mind for some moments, then he straightened and addressed Balar.
"I accept that you acted out of ignorance, behaving from modesty in the face of what you believed to be a impolite and forward gesture; but there must be punishment because your fear led to the death of the Watchman. And you, woman; your son's behavior was the direct result of your failure to tell him about Watchmen, and what he might expect if he encountered one on Quest.
"There are not enough Watchmen in the world. But for as few as there are, there are barely enough Servitors to support them; not all Watchmen find a compatible Servitor. You, Balar, clearly have the gifts that make you a Servitor. Therefore I lay this geas on you; you will age but slowly until a Watchman finds you and Claims you, so that you can serve the purpose for which you were born.
"As for you, woman, you also will age but slowly until your son is Claimed.
"At that time, no matter how short or long a time it is, you will both begin to age as normal.
"You will be unable to escape this geas; illness will not take you, nor accident, nor the hand of any person, either in hatred or to release you in the name of love; war, no matter how much blood is shed, will not harm you. The fury of nature, of wind and water, landslide, earthquake and volcano, desert heat and the cold of winter will pass you by. The beasts that prey on flesh or blood, large and small, will turn from you. Nor will you be able to harm yourselves. Injury, whether deliberately inflicted or accidental, will heal even though you may long for death to release you from pain.
"For you, woman, life will resume its normal course when your son is Claimed by his Watchman. You, Balar, will begin to age normally on that day, but death will not take you until your Watchman dies a natural death. If he is killed untimely, the geas will again come into force for you, until you once again find a Watchman who needs your service."
There was a murmur of approval from the surrounding villagers.
Brak looked up at the darkening sky, and Balar realized with some surprise how short a time had passed since his return to the village; he had come back with the sun still above the horizon, but now only a red glow was left in the western sky and the light was fading. Less than an hour had passed...
"You have until dawn to gather such belongings as you can carry on your backs. As soon as it is light enough to see you must leave here, and never return."
The murmur gained in volume; everybody, it seemed, agreed with Brak's judgement although there was nobody of age to take over Balar's duties as herder.
As Brak turned away, so did everyone else. Ignoring Balar and Noma, Brak directed two of the men to carry the Watchman's body into his hut, to be prepared for burial. Left alone, mother and son watched for a moment before returning to the hut that, both knew, would be burned at sunrise, anything left in it destroyed - they too would burn, barricaded inside it, if they had not already left... though under the terms of the curse, they would not die no matter how badly burned they were.
Balar reached for the piece of flint sitting on a shelf just inside the door and using his knife sent some sparks onto the waiting tinder. He lit their small oil lamp. The light it gave was faint enough, but augmented the light from the fire.
Noma had already prepared a meal before the village routine was disturbed by the arrival of the Watchman; the pot of stew sat, still simmering, at the side of the fire. They ate quickly, then began to pack as much as they could, using the two big backpacks Noma and her Trader husband had used. Balar had never known why his mother had two such large carriers, but was grateful for them; it meant they could carry away clothes, bedding, even their store of food. He had seen one family banished as they now were, though he had never understood what crime had led to it, and all they could take was what would fit in one small fishing carrier, with some bedding and a change of clothes bundled up in a blanket.
As they packed, Balar said, "Where will we go? People will want to know why we've left our village."
Noma carefully wrapped a cloth around the rabbit that had been intended for supper the following evening - and would still be their supper the next day. "Your father was a Trader," she replied as she put it carefully into the carrier she was using for everything that wasn't clothing or bedding. "I left my home village when I mated him. For the moment we can go back to my home; we can give my family there a part truth, saying that we settled in another village a few years ago, but my husband has now died, and so I decided to return home. We don't need to say that he actually died fourteen years ago - we can imply that it was perhaps a year ago. Going there will give us two, perhaps three years before we have to move on, and that move will be a more leisurely-planned one, not something forced on us as this one is."
"Move on?" Balar asked. "Why?"
"Didn't you understand?" she asked. "We are cursed to live until you become the slave of a Watchman. Until you do, we will age but slowly. I might be able to stay for ten or more years before people began to wonder, but you, a young man whose beard has not yet begun to grow... Two years and people will begin to whisper, wondering at your continuing youth. So we must continually move, a year in one place, two in another, and at each move we claim that you have but twelve, perhaps thirteen, years.
"And although you are old enough to be given a man's work, any Watchman who would Claim a Servitor who is only fourteen is a pervert. Although we are banished, it is well that you have been spared that fate."
The noises outside slowly died away as the villagers returned to their huts and their evening meal. Noma extinguished their lamp, pouring the unburned liquid fat from it into a bowl of water then, in the light from the fire, scooping the solidified fat into a container.
With everything they could fit into the carriers packed, Noma moved to the doorway and looked out. There was no sign of anyone. Even the lookout who patrolled the boundary of the village to guard it from wild animals - including those that might sneak in to graze their small fields - was nowhere to be seen in the light of a nearly full moon.
"Come," she breathed. "We'll leave now, with nobody to see in which direction we go. The moon will give us light until near sunrise; I'd like to be at least ten miles from here before dawn, further if possible."
"Why not sleep, then leave at first light as the Elder said?"
"If we wait until then, there are those who would take pleasure in chasing us, hoping we might abandon the carriers to allow us to run the faster, and so leave us totally destitute."
"But... but they have been our friends!"
"Elder Brak has been as lenient as possible, but - even although it was an accident, someone died; there are some who would turn on their own kin under these circumstances. You are not yet old enough to see the viciousness there is in some people, but I have. I would rather leave in my own time, deny them their sport, and return to my family with possessions enough to appear reasonably successful."
She emptied the leather bucket of water over the fire, then fastened the bucket to her carrier. From the doorway, she checked the village again, then led him from shadow to shadow, pausing as the lookout passed, then hurrying around the edge of a field of half-grown grain to reach the shelter of the trees beyond.
There was a path, beaten by the feet of the children whose job it was to gather fallen wood from the forest floor, but it petered out after a short distance; the children only followed it through the area where all the wood had already been collected before scattering, each following his own route. Each summer saw them having to go further and further to collect wood, then the winter storms always brought down some branches, even whole trees, and in the spring the task was always easier. Balar had been glad when he was finally old enough to be given the more responsible task of herding the cattle, even though it meant Noma had to depend on trading with her neighbors for a steady supply of wood.
They made good time. The trees grew far enough apart for the moonlight to penetrate the forest, and soon they had passed beyond the area that had been cleared of fallen branches. The going was harder after that, but although their speed slowed a little, they carried on, Noma determined to be as far away from the village as possible by the time it was light.
It took them fifteen days to reach Noma's home village. Several of the younger villagers saw them first, and called out a warning to their elders - and then one of the older ones recognized Noma and, before they had time to think, they found themselves welcome, Noma slipping back into her position in the family totally effortlessly. The family commiserated with her on the loss of her husband, one or two of the younger ones asking Balar about his father; Noma had spent much of the journey talking about him, so Balar was no longer as ignorant about his father as he had been, but saying that he didn't want to talk about such a sad loss won him sympathy and the subject was dropped.
Balar found it a little difficult to go back to 'childhood', but Noma insisted that by claiming he was still just twelve, they would have at least three years before they needed to find somewhere else to settle; and it was easy to cover his maturity by saying that he had had to be the man of the family after his father died. It was, after all, the truth; he had had to assume that position from a fairly early age.
The three years they stayed there were happy ones, but by the end of them Balar began to understand, as he had not when they arrived, what Noma had meant by whispers. One night they quietly packed their things and slipped away, moving to one of the larger towns that were just beginning to be built. There, they would be less noticeable... and once again, Balar claimed that he had had to be the man of the family since his father died, to explain his maturity, unusual in the twelve-year-old he claimed to be.
The pattern was set. They moved from town to town as the years went by, travelling over a wide area, careful never to return to anywhere they had been for at least four generations.
As the years passed, barter changed to a monetary economy. They lived frugally, saving as much as they could; buying jewels when they realized that coinage changed, both over the years and also from one place to another, but jewels retained their value and were lighter to carry than gold. Noma changed her name to Naomi and became a seamstress, sewing clothes for the rich of the towns, for whom making their own clothes was seen as demeaning. It was a little harder for Balar, because of his youth; he couldn't become anyone's apprentice because, part way through the years of training, he would have to move on; and he was too young to become a journeyman in any trade. Instead, he picked up odd jobs, the jobs older children would do, and over the years developed a wide range of semi-skills.
More years passed. Civilization changed. Towns became large enough that they could stay for longer simply by moving to another part of one, so that Balar's youth would remain unremarked even though Naomi often kept working for the same people. Balar's beard had begun to grow, so he no longer had to claim to be twelve; instead, he could admit to being sixteen and an adult. One day he tried to remember just how old he really was, and found it impossible. Naomi stopped claiming to be just thirty when they first moved to somewhere new, and now 'admitted' to thirty-five.
And in all those years, they found no signs of Watchmen, nor - apart from their memory of one - any indication that such people had ever existed.
As time went on, they became surprisingly wealthy, but it didn't occur to either of them to stop working. It gave them a purpose, even when, as sometimes happened, the work was boring. Immortality, they had discovered, was boring. Sometimes Balar wondered - had Brak known how long their lives would be when he laid the geas on them? What had at the time seemed lenient...
Neither now thought that Brak had been at all lenient.
Noma's change of name to Naomi was fortuitous; it remained a name in use, but Balar began to find that people considered his name strange, and so after a while he changed it to David, which served for a long time. Naming in general changed too, though, as towns grew larger and ever larger. In small villages, it was rare for two people to share a name. In a community where several people might have the same name, a second name or a nickname became necessary. In one town, David found himself known as 'the widow's son', while Naomi was 'Naomi Stitcher'. When they moved on, after staying there for eleven years (and living in three different parts of the town) they decided to take a second name, rather than depend on a chance nickname.
Language had changed over the years; travelling around as they did, they spoke several languages fluently, but also spoke obsolete forms of those languages, and David suggested that they use an old form of the word meaning 'old' - Eldra - as a second name, knowing that nobody would guess that with that name, they were stating a fact.
David was still taking whatever jobs he could, although he was now fairly skilled in several; skilled enough to earn a journeyman's wages. Naomi however was getting incredibly tired of sewing, but couldn't think of any other job she cared to do. She was reluctant to live off their savings even for the time they might stay in one town - she still considered that a reserve, for any time when they were not able to find work. (The first thing David did when they moved to a new home was find a secure hiding place for the jewels that formed the bulk of their wealth.)
David had reluctantly decided that if he ever did find a Watchman - and he was becoming increasingly pessimistic about it; if any still existed, surely they would have encountered one by now? - he would accept his fate. Naomi, while sometimes wishing she could in fact die, still insisted that she would rather live for ever than see her son becoming a slave to any Watchman - even one who treated him well.
The name 'Eldra', which had served them well for a long time, began to sound strange; they discussed what they should change it to, at their next move, and David finally suggested that they use the name of the village they had lived in a few years previously - a seaside village called Sandborough. The place no longer existed - it had been washed away by a tidal wave, its inhabitants fleeing in terror as the first wave crashed against the houses. David, knowing he wouldn't drown, delayed long enough to retrieve their box of jewels and the small cache of money that they maintained, pushing them and Naomi's sewing box into the bag he used for his tools. He slung it around his shoulders, then he too joined the rush for safety.
He wasn't the only one to delay in order to retrieve something valuable; though one of the others, at least, hadn't been looking to save anything material. He caught the hand of a young woman who had been working outside in her yard, and gone back into her house for her child, saving her - and the child - from being pulled back into the sea by the second wave as it retreated, but he was unable to help an elderly man a few yards away, seeing the white of his face for a moment before he disappeared under the water, weighed down by the bag of gold fastened to his belt.
He and the woman with her child were the only ones who delayed who reached safety. They got to the higher ground just in time; the third wave, sweeping inland, lost its momentum bare yards from where the villagers clustered at the top of the hundred-foot-high hill behind the village. As the water ran back, the people stared in horror at the fishing boat that had been carried so far from its mooring.
After the sea quieted, a few hardy souls ventured back to where the village had been, but there was nothing left, only a few scraps of wood or cloth to show where it had been.
Mostly completely destitute - a few had managed to grab one or two things of value as they ran from their homes - the survivors scattered, to make new lives for themselves where they could. Most went inland, to the nearest town. David and Naomi moved further; it had nearly been time for them to move on anyway, and three or four days' travel was the least they normally went.
And so they took the name Sandborough, which, a few years later, they shortened to Sandburg.
Their own religion had long disappeared, the Earth Mother replaced by sky gods and goddesses, the father figure more important than the matriarchal, but in a world of polytheism nobody cared what god or goddess anyone chose to worship. With the spread of Christianity, however, religious fervor - with any departure from what the Church decreed seen as heresy - became a constant problem. They saw people who were lax in their religious observation denounced as witches, and so they paid lip service to Christianity, learning about it as the missionaries arrived, attending church on Sunday, making sure they were seen to be among the devout, and being careful to offend none; it was safer so.
They couldn't die; but they could be severely injured, and over the years both had been injured several times. Neither cared to speculate on what they might suffer at the hands of religious zealots determined to 'save their souls' from heresy when they didn't die, regardless of how they were tortured by single-minded bigots in the name of their particular form of worship. Although David sometimes wondered how they could survive something like decapitation. Perhaps Brak's geas would somehow prevent anyone from thinking of beheading either of them?
"What do we do if the world ends?" David asked Naomi once after they heard a preacher expounding at length on the fate awaiting unrepentant sinners when the end of the world came. "If nothing can kill us, what happens to us?"
Naomi had no answer.
As the world changed, religion was only the start of their problems. Religion they could live with, although when they got the chance to move to a new world, with people who claimed they were looking for religious freedom, they took it. They still had to pretend a devout belief that neither had, but after more than a thousand years, since monotheism had taken over so much of the world that they knew, they were used to that.
But then bureaucracy reared its head; by law, births and deaths had to be registered. David - who had finally changed his name back to something nearer its original form, and now called himself Blair - learned a new skill; forgery. And with improved and faster transport, it began to dawn on them that maintaining the same identity with each move was a mistake. And so they adopted several different identities, rotating them.
They debated long and hard over opening a bank account, but finally decided that as long as they regularly closed their accounts in one bank and opened a new account in a different bank, preferably in a different town, it was probably the safest option for their money in a world that was becoming increasingly dishonest. There had always been thieves; but - perhaps it was a result of a growing population - there seemed to be more of them than there had been.
Selling the jewels they had amassed over the centuries, claiming these were an inheritance from an eccentric relative, gave them a sum of money that was almost frightening; but Naomi in particular was still determined not to spend it if she could avoid it.
As they entered the twentieth century - at least it was easier now to keep track of the passing of time than it had been in the days before Christianity - Naomi could have continued as a seamstress, providing hand-stitched garments for the rich who had no idea that she probably was wealthier than they, but she had long grown weary of the work, and had only continued with it because it was preferable to becoming a servant. There was a wider range of jobs becoming available, and she found office work, although it didn't pay terribly well, surprisingly enjoyable. She earned enough to support them both, and Blair decided to go to college.
He decided against studying history. Too often the history that appeared in books totally contradicted the events that he remembered; he knew himself well enough to know that he would argue again the 'facts' that he was being taught. However, he had always been a keen observer of the people around him. In anthropology, he would 'learn' about people he had never met, and even in historical anthropology if he put forward a comment based on something he remembered, he was sure it would at least be accepted as a possible interpretation of the facts. And in any case, there were parts of the world that they had never visited. Lectures that contained information about those places would be new... and there was very little that was new in their lives.
World War One started when he was passing as seventeen; but America stayed out of it until he was 'twenty'. A year out of university at the time, he was drafted, but not sent to Europe.
They could see the coming of the Depression, recognizing the signs from events in their past, and began withdrawing money from their bank account, feeling that their money would be safer hidden in their home as it had so often been in the past. As a result, the Depression did not hit them as badly as it did many families. They lowered their standard of living to match that of the people around them, working when they could, and when they couldn't, living off as little as possible of the money they had left in the bank - they hadn't had time to withdraw it all, and considered themselves fortunate that their bank was one that did not fail; although perhaps the curse that followed them was working in their favor, by keeping their bank solvent so that they could survive. The box of money buried under the spare bedding in a closet remained untouched, meaning that when the Depression finally ended, as it inevitably would, they would still be relatively wealthy.
With the start of World War Two, they put that money back in the bank.
Blair ended up in Europe during World War Two, and was mildly amused to find himself, in late 1944, posted to an area of northern France he had once known well. There had been changes in the centuries since he lived there - the style of house was different and the village where he and Naomi had lived was now a large town. He didn't expect to identify the exact place where they had lived, so wasn't disappointed when he failed to find it. Not that he had much chance to look; his unit was there for only a few days before moving on and into Luxemburg.
On his return to America in 1946 he promptly dropped out of sight and 'shed' eight years, taking a new name - David Blair - once again claiming to be just seventeen and going to university again as a freshman. It was at that time he found Burton's The Sentinels of Paraguay, and read it with a mixture of excitement and a growing depression. From the context it was clear to him that 'watchman' and 'sentinel' were two names for the same thing, and for the first time he discovered exactly what made a watchman different from other men and women; a watchman's five senses were more acute than those of ordinary people.
It had never occurred to him that one of the reasons he had never found a watchman was that he didn't know what he was looking for - though remembering Brak's words, and the behavior of the Watchman in that long-ago time, he would have expected a watchman... sentinel... to have recognized what he was. In addition, perhaps he was... not looking in the wrong place, exactly, because much of Naomi's distrust of watchmen had rubbed off on him, but living in entirely the wrong place for a watchman - a sentinel - to find him. But as he read Burton, he began to see a different picture from the one Naomi had always depicted. According to Burton, sentinels served their communities, every village having one; and the sentinel's companion, far from being merely an attendant, a servant or a slave, was valued and respected because without him a sentinel could not do his job properly.
Had Naomi's long hatred of watchmen been based on stories about one bad apple? Although according to Burton they were good people who were dedicated to serving their communities, it was perfectly possible that there were one or two who misused their position; Blair could think of several leaders over the centuries who had started off doing the best they could for their people and, once they were secure in their position, changed, ending up as tyrants. And he couldn't forget how wrong the Watchman who had tried to Claim him had felt... although that might just have been because she was a woman, though Blair didn't think so. Perhaps over the centuries a watchman's attitude towards his servitor had changed? It was even possible that in different parts of the world, with different cultures, the relationship between watchman and servitor was different, and that while in the land where he had been born it was a master-slave relationship, in other places it was one of equal partnership.
Naomi had finally accepted that they were rich, and that without touching their capital they could live quite comfortably off the interest. She had always enjoyed travelling to new places more than Blair had done - it was one reason she had taken so readily to Trader life, back when she really was a young woman - and she decided to spend the next few years seeing parts of the world that they had never visited, returning occasionally so that she could update her passport - or, rather, get Blair to provide her with the false papers that would let her get a new one.
For Blair, those next few years see-sawed between university life and army life. As John Blair, younger brother of David, he served in Vietnam, seeing things there that reminded him of some of the more brutal invasions he had seen in the past. Some ten years later, after spending time as Blair Miller, he resumed his Blair Sandburg identity and went to Rainier; after he graduated, he decided to join the army again, and was involved in Desert Storm, ending up flying helicopters which, despite his trepidation regarding heights, he had thoroughly enjoyed.
Quite badly injured with what should have been a permanently disabling leg wound in the last days of the war, he was invalided out once he was able to get about on the crutches that the doctors thought he would need for the rest of his life. He had called for Naomi, and they moved to a remote area while he recovered. Almost fit again, with only a slight limp to remind him of the injury, he plunged back into the academic world, returning to Rainier as a war-veteran, post-graduate student aiming for a doctorate, and over the next six months the limp improved until he was finally completely recovered. By then, satisfied that he was healing as he should, Naomi had once again left to resume her interrupted travels in Australia.
During his undergraduate years at Rainier he had made sentinels the subject of his Masters thesis, basing it partly on Burton and partly on the people he found - having decided to search - with one or two heightened senses. To his surprise, he found a lot of people with heightened taste and sense of smell and a few with very acute hearing or eyesight.
But he still couldn't find anyone with all five senses heightened.
Since discovering The Sentinels of Paraguay, Blair had made a point of spending his summer vacations in South America - at least, apart from the years when he was in Vietman and the Gulf. Sometimes he went as a tourist, visiting remote communities. And as an anthropology student, he had been able to join several university-organized expeditions and, although they mostly visited tribes that had had at least some exposure to Western culture, he had hoped that in one of these tribes he would find some sign that sentinels - with his changed view of them, he had started thinking of them as sentinels rather than watchmen - were still being born.
But the hope that finding Burton's book had given him had slowly faded as he found nothing, no sign, no hint that he would ever find a sentinel. He was beginning to wish he had never found the book. While he had still thought of sentinels as people who treated their companions as slaves, he had been resigned to his life; even happy, in a masochistic sort of way. But now, having been given a new insight into sentinels and offered a hope that had failed, he was beginning to feel the weight of the years he had lived. In a sense, Brak's geas was only now beginning to really bite.
Naomi, he knew, had found a new lease on life in this century. She was enjoying her life of leisure after - Earth Mother, it must have been at least three thousand years of hard work! And they had seen so many changes in the world... In some ways life was easier than it had ever been though, despite many improvements, some forms of bigotry were still alive and well.
It was ironic that the surname they had chosen so long ago, and which was still their preferred name because it was where they had once lived, now 'identified' them as Jewish, which they had never been. And wouldn't it have surprised the bigots who scorned them as Jews to discover that they were in fact pagan, with much in common with the followers of Wicca, though even that was a long way removed from the form of worship they still remembered - and loosely followed.
Over the years, Naomi had often taken a lover. Blair had mostly lived celibate, especially until he was able to pass for seventeen or eighteen. Sometimes he thought about trying to find a partner rather than the one-time-only encounters he was used to, but he was discouraged by the knowledge that the day would come when he had to move on. He had seen the response of many of Naomi's partners when she said she was leaving, and didn't want to hurt anyone like that. It wasn't that Naomi was uncaring; but she was pragmatic. She made her partners no promises, and felt it wasn't her fault if they assumed, after two or three years, that although she refused to marry, she would stay with them indefinitely.
And of course there was no way that she could explain why she couldn't.
Because he didn't want to stand out as a 'rich kid', Blair had, during his university years, always taken part-time jobs. This time around he was a TA, lecturing in anthropology.
Wondering if any of his students might say, "I know someone like that," he mentioned sentinels in one discussion, with particular reference to Paraguay and Burton's book, commenting that he had found people with some senses heightened but never one with all five, and because he had done his Masters thesis on sentinels, he'd really like to meet someone who did have all five senses at least a little more acute than the norm. He encouraged them to think of the advantages and disadvantages that would accompany heightened senses, and after the class dismissed, decided that it had been a worthwhile exercise even although nobody had said they knew someone who had any particularly acute senses. The students had come up with a surprisingly wide range of possible disadvantages - far more than Burton had listed, but then they were living in a far more technological age than either Burton or the tribes he had visited.
Two days later, however, it seemed that it had paid off.
One of the students had a part-time job at Cascade General Hospital, and she phoned him half-way through his office hours to say that a man had just come in wanting to see a doctor because he was having trouble with his senses.
"Some of his symptoms match what we were discussing as disadvantages. We're not really busy right now," she added, "so if you want to see him, you'd maybe better hurry. His name's Ellison - he's a detective."
"Thanks, Sonya," he said.
He hung up, grabbed the small backpack that in recent years had become his constant companion though he couldn't have said just why, locked his office door, and hurried to his car.
As he went, he wondered what was the best approach to take with this man - this cop - who, it seemed, didn't know what to do about having possibly heightened senses.
At reception, Sonya waved, and when he joined her, "Mr. Ellison is with one of the doctors now," she murmured. "He should be out soon."
"What's he like?" Blair asked.
"Annoyed," she said. "Worried. He has no idea what might be wrong with him. But he listed things like cars honking and flashing neon lights as a problem... and things tasting funny, and smells that he never used to notice seeming really strong. Those were all things that in class we thought could be a disadvantage."
"Doesn't mean he has all five senses, but he certainly sounds as if he could have at least four, and that's one more than I found anywhere else," Blair said. He stubbornly refused to hope that this cop had all five senses. The let-down, now that he had finally decided he had to find a sentinel, would be too great.
"Here he comes now," she said.
"Thanks," he said again, and walked forward to intercept the man, catching up with him a few yards from the door.
Detective Ellison stood some four inches taller than Blair, who had no intention of letting the size difference intimidate him. "Mr. Ellison?"
Ellison stopped and looked at him. "Yes," he said discouragingly.
"I understand you've been having some problems with your sight and hearing? Also taste and smell?"
"What's that to you?"
"I'd guess you might have another problem too? A hyperactive tactile response."
"Extra sensitive touchy-feely lately?"
"That's none of your damn business!" Ellison snapped.
"Mr. Ellison, if you seem to be having trouble with all five senses - "
"I have one question for you, kid. Are you a doctor?" His tone said 'Don't try claiming you are'.
Somehow Blair didn't think that a doctorate in anthropology, obtained forty-six years previously by his 'grandfather', would count. "No, but - "
"Then get out of my way."
"Mr. Ellison, all this medical techno trash won't help you. There's a simple explanation. Everything you're experiencing is perfectly natural for you - "
"It's natural to hear voices when there's nobody near? Natural to be made dizzy by flashing lights on advertising posters? Natural to have a headache that won't go away?" Despite the anger in his voice, Ellison was speaking very quietly. It somehow added an amazing amount of force to that anger.
Blair still refused to be intimidated. "Your senses are all more acute than normal! Your 'problems' are just because you don't know how to control the input you're receiving!"
"What sort of scam is this? Are you nuts, or do you think I am? If my senses were more acute than normal, don't you think I'd have had this problem all my life? Why did it suddenly start now, huh? Tell me that, kid." The final word was stressed in such a way that it sounded like the worst insult anyone could ever offer.
"Have you recently spent several days on your own, away from civilization?"
Ellison frowned. "Yes, but - "
"Look, man, I'm a student - a TA at Rainier. Several years ago, I found a book about these people called sentinels - in tribal cultures, every village had one. It claimed that sometimes people were born with a genetic predisposition to have their senses heightened, and then those senses were honed by solitary time spent in the wild. I think that's what's happened to you. You had that genetic heritage, your senses have been... well, switched on, but your brain doesn't know how to handle the increased input."
"Suppose I believe you. How do I switch them off?"
"You can't," Blair said. "Like it or not, you're stuck with them. But there is an answer - historically, sentinels had a... a companion who helped them control their senses. Since I know the problem, I think I could help you - "
"You? A student? What do you know of life, kid? Real life, not your safe, protected little academic world? All right, you've told me what the problem might be, and for that I suppose I have to thank you. But other than that? Just get out of my way!"
Ellison pushed past Blair, and strode out.
Blair stared after him, his shoulders slumped hopelessly. He had found a sentinel. He had even swallowed his pride to the point of offering to help, to become the man's servant... and the sentinel had rejected his offer.
Earth Mother, had that long-ago Watchman been wrong? Or had she seen in him, not a potential servant with the ability to help her, but a reasonably good-looking young man she suddenly lusted for? Had the terms of Brak's curse ever had any chance of being fulfilled?
Or had he misunderstood what he had read in Burton's book, and a watchman and a sentinel weren't the same thing, meaning that he could serve a watchman, but not a sentinel?
No. They had to be the same thing. Had to be...
Slowly, he walked out of the hospital and returned to his car. He got in and sat, bent forward, hands on the steering wheel and his head resting against them.
He was just so tired. Tired of living, to the point where he was willing to become the servant of a sentinel, just so that he could start to age normally and, in another fifty or so years, come to the end of life. For a few brief minutes he had experienced hope, and the dashing of that hope had shattered him. It wasn't fair. There had been no escape clause in Brak's curse. It was not enough for Blair to find a sentinel and offer his services - and Blair knew that he wouldn't have objected too much to giving up everything he was to serve Ellison. Short though their meeting had been, he had actually liked the man, despite his attitude; Ellison hadn't given off the predatory vibe the woman had. But the sentinel had to Claim him, and Ellison - living in a culture that knew nothing of sentinels - didn't want him.
Blair had suffered disappointments many times in his long life, and as he had done many times before, he buried this one deep and carried on as if nothing had happened. He did make a point of seeing Sonya and telling her that Ellison had brushed off his suggestion of heightened senses, not believing that such a thing was possible, and didn't mention sentinels again in any lecture.
The university year came to an end. Since finding Burton's book, Blair had never taught a summer course, preferring to take the vacation and visit areas where he hoped sentinels might still be found, but this year, for the first time since he started actually looking for a sentinel, he hesitated, wondering if it was worth bothering. How could he hope that any other sentinel would find him any more acceptable than Ellison had done? Better to assume that long-ago Watchman had simply wanted a very young lover, abandon hope and endure the best he could, resigning himself to living with Brak's curse.
Not quite sure what to do, where to go, he was surprised when he got a phone call from Eli Stoddard, his first lecturer at Rainier, who had quit the following year to concentrate on working in the field. Blair had been... not exactly a favorite of Stoddard's, because Stoddard didn't play favorites; he was more like a lost puppy Stoddard had found, and adopted once Blair admitted that his only relative was his mother, and she had taken advantage of his having gone to Rainier to do some travelling. Blair was fond of the older man, and regretted that before too long he would have to fake his death, move elsewhere, and adopt a different identity until he could re-emerge as his own grandson. Stoddard would, he knew, mourn him, and he was sorry he would have to inflict that on him.
The call offered Blair a place in a small expedition Stoddard was taking to Peru; the party was originally made up of experienced anthropologists, but one of them had been involved in an accident and broken his leg. Blair would have to make his own way to Iquitos, where the group was meeting up - they were due there in two days' time, and could delay their departure from Iquitos for a day or two to allow Blair to get there.
Blair hesitated for only a second before accepting. To be invited on one of Stoddard's expeditions was an honor not to be refused, even if he would only benefit from the cachet of it for a year or two.
It didn't take him long to book a flight to Lima; it was harder to book one from Lima to Iquitos, but eventually he was able to book one on a Star Peru plane.
It was late in the day when he reached Lima. He found a room for the night, heading back to the airport in the morning, in plenty of time for his plane for Iquitos. It was a small plane, one that would carry only a dozen passengers, and by the time he reached the airport, there were already ten people waiting for it.
One of them looked familiar. As he sank onto an uncomfortable seat, Blair was very briefly puzzled, trying to remember who it might be, and then the man looked directly at him, and his scowl identified him.
Earth Mother, it was Ellison! What was he doing here?
Blair gave a short nod to acknowledge that he recognized Ellison, then looked away. He was quite surprised a few moments later when Ellison crossed to stand in front of him. He looked up.
"Are you following me?" Ellison growled.
Blair's jaw dropped. "No, I am not fucking following you! Get over yourself, man. I offered to give you some help, you turned me down. I've got better things to do than chase after someone who has a problem and doesn't want help!"
"So what the hell are you doing here the same time that I am?"
"That's none of your damn business!" It gave Blair a weird sense of satisfaction to throw Ellison's own words back at him.
Ellison glared at him, and turned away as another passenger arrived.
The passengers began to enter the plane. By sheer chance, Blair was one of the first on board, and took a window seat near the rear. As the other seats filled, leaving the one beside him empty, his heart sank; and as Ellison finally took the seat beside him, he deliberately turned his head to stare out of the window.
Sitting beside Ellison was torture.
Finally, finally Blair understood what it was all about. He could feel himself drawn to the other man, as surely and as completely as he had been repelled by the female, the only other sentinel he had ever encountered. No wonder he had been repelled; she might have been drawn to him, but she was not his sentinel; even if he had known about Watchmen, he would never have been able to be any sort of companion or helper to her. She wasn't his sentinel; this man, born three thousand years after his own birth, was.
Earth Mother help him, he wanted this sentinel to Claim him.
Naomi would never understand, and he would never be able to explain to her, his instinctive need to help this one man.
Who didn't want him.
And he had too much pride to offer his help again.
Blair closed his eyes in utter misery. It had taken at least three thousand years for him to find a sentinel, and unluckily for him, it was one he found totally compatible. Would he have to wait another three thousand years before he found another one, always hoping that the next one would want him?
Would there ever be another compatible sentinel for him?
The flight seemed endless.
Blair resolutely kept his attention on the window beside him. So what if all he could see was the wing and the sky and, if he leaned a little sideways, the ground?
The plane cleared the mountains and flew on over jungle. Occasionally Blair caught a glimpse of a river, but mostly all he could see was the green of trees. He frowned slightly; the loss of altitude had been gradual, but now the plane seemed to be flying very low - around maybe five thousand feet, he estimated, maybe even a little less.
He glanced at his watch. About another half hour, he thought, and they would reach Iquitos - and, with luck, he'd never have to see Ellison again.
The thought utterly depressed him.
Suddenly there was a loud bang, and he saw roughly a third of the wing break off. Immediately, the plane began to drop.
Shit! He couldn't die, even under these circumstances, but he could be very badly injured - and out here, how would he be able to feed himself while he recovered? Not even starvation would kill him, and he shuddered as an image of the suffering he could experience flashed through his mind.
Could he dare to hope that because he had met his sentinel and offered to help him, because that sentinel was sitting beside him and would almost certainly die in the crash, that would count as fulfilling the terms of the geas?
Probably not. 'Death will not take you until your Watchman dies a natural death. If he is killed untimely, the geas will again come into force for you'. Brak's words were burned into his memory.
In what he suspected was a futile attempt to minimize his injuries, Blair curled into a ball, using his arms to shield his head. Beside him, he was aware that Ellison was adopting a very similar position.
People were screaming - And a lot of good that does! he thought as he tried desperately to relax - not that being relaxed would help much once the plane hit the ground, but it would be better than holding himself so taut that his bones would instantly shatter.
There was a loud cracking noise, and a sudden rush of air. Blair didn't dare move from his curled-up position, but guessed that the plane had broken in two. Moments later, the part he was in slowed abruptly then bounced before coming down again and he realized that the trees had broken its fall.
Straightening cautiously, he looked up and back at the broken branches that marked the descent of the tail section through the trees. A body hung from one of the branches a little behind the broken tail plane, blood running from it, but from the limp way it was hanging, Blair was pretty sure that he was looking at a corpse, impaled on the branch.
Beside him, Ellison was straightening as well, and for the first time since the flight began, Blair looked directly at the other man. "Are you all right?" he asked. The question was instinctive.
"Yes," Ellison replied. "You hurt?"
"No. We've been really lucky - not like that poor bastard." He pointed backwards.
Ellison looked up. "He couldn't have had his seat belt fastened," he said.
"He is dead, isn't he?"
Ellison concentrated for a moment. "Yes."
They unfastened the seat belts that had held them in the falling wreckage, and scrambled out of the broken rear of the plane. Blair looked around. There was no sign of the backpack he had taken on board as carry-on luggage. Oh, well, his passport and wallet, the two items he would need when he managed to reach a town, were in his pocket; there was nothing in the pack that couldn't be easily replaced... useful though it would have been in this situation.
"The front of the plane is this way," Ellison said, and set off. Blair followed, wondering just what they would do if there were badly hurt survivors; he was pretty sure that someone on the ground had fired on the plane, which meant that somewhere not too far away there were people who could only be called hostile.
The going was far from easy; as they struggled through the undergrowth, Blair wished they had a machete to let them cut a path. After the second time a branch, released as Ellison passed, whipped back into his face, he dropped back a little so that basically both were finding their own route.
The pilot might or might not have managed to send out an SOS, Blair thought; at worst there would be an alarm raised when the plane failed to reach Iquitos, and a crashing plane would leave a scar in the jungle canopy, but would a search see that scar? Possibly not, unless it was flying on the exact same course; a hundred yards to either side and the crew of a search plane could well miss seeing it. Even if the crash was seen, a rescue party would take a long time to reach it; even helicopters might have trouble landing anywhere near, though of course one could hover while people were winched down or up. And if he was right about someone firing on the plane... why? It was a scheduled flight, and people on the ground should be used to that, used to seeing planes going overhead at around the same time each day.
They passed a body as they went; a man sprawled on the ground, whose weight had carried him through the branches.
The front segment of the plane was nearly half a mile from the tail segment, probably given a little lift by what had been left of the wings... and both men were well aware that there would certainly be debris from the crash much further away than that. It had taken them over an hour to reach it.
Both the pilot and co-pilot were still in the cockpit, one slumped over the controls while the other was hanging half out of the broken glass of the windscreen. Two men and a woman were still strapped in their seats, dead; from the marks on the ground, this section of the plane had made a far harder landing than the rear.
"There are five bodies missing," Blair said.
"I'd guess they were thrown out, and we just haven't seen them," Ellison said. "They could be far enough away."
"Yeah," Blair said. "I know."
Ellison pressed his hands against his eyes. "Looks like we're the only survivors. There's nothing we can do for anyone here."
"So what do we do?" Blair asked. "I don't think it's a good idea for us to hang about here - I'm fairly certain the plane was shot down."
Ellison nodded slowly. "Yes - that would match what I heard," he said. "But what makes you think that?"
"I served in Desert Storm; I saw aircraft shot down," Blair said. "Come to that, I was shot down. The similarity to what I remember is just too great."
Ellison, who seemed to have relaxed a little, instantly stiffened. "A kid like you? In Desert Storm?" His tone was positively disbelieving.
"I'm older than I look, Ellison!" Blair snapped. He drew a deep breath and went on more calmly. "I told you, I'm a TA at Rainier. That means I've graduated and I'm doing post-graduate studies. After I graduated I took time out from studying, joined the armed forces; served in the Gulf, then after my discharge I went back to Rainier. At the moment I'm working for a doctorate in cultural anthropology; in fact, I'm ABD. Should finish before the end of the year. I was supposed to be joining an expedition to visit one of the Amazon basin tribes; I suppose I've missed my chance now," he added gloomily. "Dr. Stoddard won't be able to wait to see if I'm rescued and fit to go with them. You'd be surprised at the amount of beaurocracy that's involved if you want to visit some of the more remote tribes, and delaying too long would mess up the paperwork."
"You have to know you don't look a day older than twenty."
"The curse of my life," Blair said dryly. He thought desperately for a moment, trying to push through shock to remember his 'current' age. Ah - yes. "I was born in '69. That makes me twenty-six." And four years from now, when it'll definitely be time for this 'incarnation' to disappear, I'll still look twenty, he thought miserably.
"All right - maybe I've been a bit judgemental," Ellison said. "Sorry."
Blair shrugged. "I'm used to it," he said. "Doesn't stop me getting annoyed sometimes, though. Other times... Other times, it makes people underestimate me, and that can be useful. The last guy who tried to mug me got a lot more than he expected, and it wasn't at all what he expected. That was last summer, in La Paz. He thought a student-age tourist would be an easy mark - but of course what he was attacking was a trained soldier - even though most of my time was spent piloting Apaches."
"How long did you actually serve?" Ellison asked.
"Not quite two years," Blair replied. "I was invalided out after I was shot down just before the end of the war; bad leg injury. The doctors didn't think I'd ever be able to walk again without crutches, but it's amazing what determination can do." Which, he reflected, was true, though he doubted that determination alone would have been enough to let him recover fully from that particular injury.
He still carried the scar; it would fade with time, as had all the other scars he had carried at various times over the years, until it existed only in his memory - and that was a memory, a series of memories, he refused to acknowledge.
"Wonder if the pilot managed to send out a Mayday?" Ellison mused.
"Well, if he didn't, the alarm should be raised when the plane doesn't arrive at Iquitos," Blair said. "What I'm more concerned with - what if the guys who shot us down come looking to make sure everyone's dead?"
"Momentum carried us on a fair way from where we were hit," Ellison said. "Maybe further than they're prepared to look."
But if there was one thing Blair had learned in his long life, it was caution. "I wouldn't want to assume that," he said. "This was a regular scheduled flight. Why fire on it?"
Ellison looked at him, opened his mouth, then closed it again. "You're right, Chief," he said. "Whoever it was might fire on an unscheduled plane, but if they've been in the area for any length of time, they'd know the scheduled ones. There must have been something about this one... "
"But anyway, who in the rainforest would want to shoot down a plane that was just passing overhead?"
"You'd be surprised how many people come into the rainforest illegally," Ellison said.
"I know logging is a problem in some areas - "
"There's a worse one," Ellison growled. "What do the natives here use as a stimulant?"
Blair knew instantly that the question was a sort of test. If he was indeed an anthropologist, that was something he should know. "They chew coca leaves," he said. "It's a pretty mild... " And then he realized. "Cocaine?"
"A few years ago, I was in the army. My team was sent into Peru on what was basically an anti-insurgent mission. We crashed; the others were killed. I lived for eighteen months with one of the local tribes. We fought insurgents, but we also encountered groups from drug cartels. They were manufacturing cocaine. They'd harvest an area, then move on. And yes, we fought them too.
"That was a bit north of here. But if that area had problems with the cartels moving in - I'd guess here has the same problem. Though I don't think here has had the trouble further north did with insurgents. There's been a lot of trouble along the border with Equador."
"You think we were maybe shot down by one of these cartels?" Blair asked.
"It's the only answer that makes sense. If they'd just moved in, they mightn't know they were working on the line of the Lima-Iquitos flights. We were maybe the first one they'd seen - and we were just very, very unlucky."
"Which means they could easily come to see what plane was flying over here."
"It's possible, but - " He stopped abruptly, his head turning alertly.
"What?" Blair asked.
"There's a chopper coming."
"Then we'd better hide," Blair said, "because I doubt very much that even if we played dumb, didn't know why the plane had crashed and greeted them as people who saw the plane go down and have come to help, that they would help. More likely to put a bullet in our skulls." And I'd really rather not suffer that kind of injury! he thought.
"You could be right," Ellison said. He looked around. "That tree - good thick foliage, and there's that vine growing up it that'll help us climb up. They might see that one body in a tree, back beside the tail, because he was pretty obvious, but I doubt they'll check all the trees. And they won't know how many there were on board."
"Right." Blair had a suspicion that Ellison had expected him to say that he couldn't get up a tree that didn't have branches near the ground, but he'd climbed harder things. He could hear the chopper now, too, and knew there was no time to waste. He caught the vine, and began to pull himself up. Ellison followed. They climbed upwards until they were among the branches, then settled themselves, each lying along a branch to minimize their chances of being seen.
Blair caught the merest glimpse of the chopper as it descended, and then it was on the ground, its pilot making full use of the opening made by the crashing plane. He spared a moment's thought to acknowledge and appreciate the pilot's skill.
Three men climbed out. They crossed to the plane, and looked at the bodies.
Even Blair could hear their conversation easily. "Fool!" one of them snapped, his attention clearly directed at one of the others. "Look at the way they're dressed. This was a passenger plane, and no danger to us!"
"So why did it fly so low over our camp?" The second man sounded defensive. "The planes to Iquitos fly at least five miles east of us, and much higher. Why did this one fly directly over us?"
"How should I know? Perhaps it was a chartered plane, and not the regular flight. Certainly nobody on board could have seen our camp - it's too well camouflaged." Silence for a moment. "The tail section is missing, and there were certainly more than three passengers - but I don't want to waste any more time checking the wreck." He began to turn towards the helicopter, then swung around. "Rosario, I hope for your sake that everyone on board is dead. It wouldn't do for anyone to survive and tell the authorities that this plane was shot down."
"Do we leave the bodies where they are, Mr. Reischer?" It was the third man.
"Of course we leave the bodies where they are! If a search finds the plane, it has to look as if there's been nobody else around. God, I'm surrounded by idiots!" He walked briskly to the helicopter and climbed into it. The others followed. Moments later, the helicopter took off.
In the tree, Blair and Ellison looked at each other as the sound of the engine faded.
"The regular route is five miles to the east?" Blair said. "And just before we were hit, I did realize we were flying very low. The pilot had to have been off course for some reason. But I do wonder why he was so low."
"We're never likely to find out," Ellison replied.
They clambered down carefully, their descent more cautious than their ascent, when all that had mattered was getting up and hidden. On the ground again, Blair said, "What do we do about the bodies?"
"We don't dare bury them," Ellison said. "Reischer and his men could very well come back, say tomorrow, to do a further check, see if any survivors had surfaced."
"I thought that's what you'd say," Blair commented. "So now what do we do?" It was surprising, he reflected, how instinct was leading him to - well, acknowledge the sentinel as the leader
"I was able to get a direction for Reischer's chopper," Ellison said.
"You think we should check out their camp?"
"What I don't know is how far away it is. But yes. If we can pinpoint it, then once we get out of this jungle we can report its whereabouts to the authorities. We'll have to be careful - "
"Ellison, I always try to be careful," Blair said.
"Call me Jim." He hesitated, then went on. "And maybe... As we go, maybe you could give me some pointers about managing my senses? I know I turned you down, back in Cascade... and I wasn't particularly nice to you when I saw you in Lima... but... well... I haven't been able to stop thinking that you were probably right, and that I do need someone to help me."
"I have to warn you - from what I know, it's a lifelong commitment for sentinel and helper. Are you prepared to consider that?"
They looked at each other, then Jim held out his hand. "Deal?" he said.
Blair reached forward and grasped the outstretched hand. "Deal," he agreed.
He hadn't exactly been Claimed, Blair thought as they set off, which probably explained why he didn't really feel any different; he had just been asked for help. At the same time, Ellison - Jim, he corrected himself - had, although not in so many words, agreed to a lifelong commitment. Did he dare hope that the terms of the geas were now fulfilled?
Of course, he didn't expect the weight of three thousand years to crush him, any more than it had done the previous day. But this time... this time, four years from now, possibly he wouldn't have to move on...
He spared a moment to wonder how Naomi would react. Probably not very well, he thought, and her reaction would be a mixture of selfish and unselfish.
In many ways she had found the years less of a strain than he had. She had never had to resume the life of a child after just a year or two of being treated as a young adult, something that had irked him unbearably; and although, until this century, she had always had to work hard, she had been content enough in her perpetual 'thirties'. Now that she had finally accepted that they were rich enough for her not to work, she had embraced life, enjoying it as Blair suspected she had not since the days when, as a Trader, she and Blair's dead father had wandered the land.
On both counts, Blair guessed, she would not be happy to find herself aging.
But, equally... She still had that fixed idea that a Servitor was nothing more than a servant or, even worse, a slave; she would be far from happy that Blair had finally found a sentinel.
Well, it was his decision... and at least he would be able to explain to her - if she listened - that his reaction to this man was different from his reaction to the Watchman in Brak's village.
They slogged on, pushing their way through thick undergrowth. They passed the broken tail section of the plane and carried on without stopping.
After a while, Jim paused, glancing back to where Blair followed a couple of yards behind him. "How're you doing, Chief?" he asked.
"I'm good," Blair replied. "Getting a little thirsty, but I haven't seen any source of water."
"That's something we'll have to be careful about," Jim said as he sat on a fallen tree. "Let's take ten. There are a lot of water-borne parasites - " he went on.
Blair sat as well. "I know, but there are plants that can provide us with enough drinking water - I just haven't seen any." He slapped a biting insect that had landed on his arm. "I wish I had my backpack... I had some survival gear in it. Very basic stuff, like plastic bags that we could use to get water from the trees."
Jim's eyebrows lifted. "The Chopek lived near water," he said. "I don't remember them ever having to get it from trees."
Blair grinned. "Not quite anthro 101," he said, "but one of the things I've always included in my lectures is how to find water where there isn't an obvious source of it, like a river. It's easier now that there are things like plastic to use. But the explorers last century didn't have plastic, so we can manage without, the same way they did. Didn't you get any survival training when you were in the army? Because we sure did."
"Well, some - how to find food and make shelters. Water? Yeah, how to make a sort of still in desert conditions, but all I remember them ever saying about jungle conditions was to make sure we boiled the water if we'd run out of purification tablets."
"And that presupposes you have something to boil it in," Blair said.
"Come to think of it," Jim said, "most of our survival training involved either temperate or desert conditions."
"It sounds to me that whoever did survival with you was surprisingly lax in what they covered and how they covered it. Though come to think of it, a lot of what we got was theory, not hands-on practice. Of course, when you're in the army, they do assume you'll have your gear with you - not that you've been dropped in the middle of a rainforest with absolutely no gear at all; I don't suppose you have any matches, for example?"
Jim shook his head.
"That was something else I had in my pack. A waterproof tin with matches. And a bit of flint. Oh, and a small magnifying glass. But as useful as they are, I don't actually need any of those - I can make a fire without them."
"What, by rubbing two sticks together?" Jim grinned.
Blair grinned in response, understanding that there was no malice in the comment. "Yup. Well, not two sticks per se, it's one stick and a flat bit of wood. With the right wood, it only takes a couple of minutes. Didn't you see anyone doing that when you were with the Chopek?"
"I don't really remember all that much about my time with the Chopek, but I don't think they ever let their fires go out," Jim said. "They'd leave a piece of fungus smouldering overnight, then in the morning all they had to do was blow on it to get a flame."
"Mmm, that's how nomadic people would carry fire from one campsite to the next," Blair said. "I've done it myself once or twice." He chuckled. "Don't underestimate what archaeologists and anthropologists know. Science has made life in the Western world too easy; society has forgotten a lot of survival skills that were once common knowledge. Like the 'rubbing two sticks together' thing - that's become almost a joke.
"Even some of the tribes who still mostly live as their ancestors did... If they are in any sort of contact with 'civilization', they'll probably be wearing T-shirts and jeans or skirts, have metal knives and cooking pots, and have been introduced to matches. I remember hearing about a European anthropologist visiting one of those tribes who discovered that although the tribe knew it was possible to light a fire using two pieces of wood, they didn't actually know how to do it - and he showed them. Apparently the teenagers in particular were thrilled to re-learn a forgotten skill."
Blair had been looking around as he spoke, and now that they were sitting quietly and he could concentrate on what he was seeing, had noticed one of the things he had been looking for. "Ah!" he said. He rose and walked over to a nearby tree, pulled a knife from his pocket and after checking them carefully and rejecting one, cut what looked like two parasitic plants off a branch. He carried them carefully back to Jim, and handed him one of them. "Water," he said.
"What are these?"
"Bromeliads," Blair explained. "Rainwater collects in the 'cup' in the center. Granted, animal life can make use of this water - one kind of tree frog lays its eggs in them, one egg per bromeliad, and the tadpoles eat any insect larvae that are living in there too. But I've checked these, and I'm as sure as I can be that there's nothing living in them. But just to be certain, we can put a bit of cloth over it before we drink, and that'll strain out anything that's in the water."
He put his plant down carefully, balancing it so it wouldn't tip over, pulled a clean handkerchief from a pocket, glanced at Jim, then carefully tore it in two and handed one piece over. Picking up the plant again, he positioned his piece of handkerchief carefully, and drank. Jim copied him then licked his lips. "Tastes just like water," he said.
"That's because, like I said, it is water. It's a pity we can't get the water without cutting the plant from its roots," Blair went on, "but it's not as if they're rare, and we won't be taking all that many. There's a vine that we can get water from too, and I'd rather use that if possible, because there we'd only be taking one branch and there's no chance of any kind of animal life inside it."
They carried on. Although they weren't making very good time, they were content to be making some progress. Finally they realized the light was fading, and that they would have to stop for the night. While Jim constructed a rough shelter, Blair collected some fruit and two more bromeliads; they drank, ate, then settled down for the night.
That set the program for the next days, except that when Blair saw anything edible, he paused for a few seconds to gather some, making a bag from his T-shirt in order to carry it, and he finally saw the vine he was looking for. He called for Jim to stop while he cut two lengths from a branch and gave one to Jim. "Don't suck on it. Let the water drip into your mouth," he instructed, demonstrating. It was surprising just how much liquid they obtained from it - far more, in comparison, than they'd found in the bromeliads.
On the second day, Jim thought he heard another helicopter, but it was a long way away and never came close enough for Blair to hear it.
They carried on.
It was early afternoon on the fourth day after the crash that Jim, in the lead as usual, suddenly stopped, his upheld hand a signal for silence. Blair edged his way to Jim's side.
Ahead of them was a village, but it seemed to be partially ruined and deserted, although a fire was burning in front of one of the huts.
Blair looked at Jim. "Looks like a native village," he said unnecessarily.
Jim nodded, but kept his hand raised, his body tense with concentration. Finally he murmured, "There are a few people over there," as he pointed a little to the left of straight ahead. "One person in the village itself... In the hut that has the fire."
Yes, Blair thought, where else? But he said nothing.
A woman came out of the hut, and both men were surprised to realize that she was white. "I think we can chance it," Jim murmured. "I don't see any sign of helicopters, so I doubt that this is where Reischer came from."
"Somehow I can't see Reischer living in a native village," Blair said. "Struck me he'd think that was beneath him - even if the alternative was living in a tent."
"Do we risk going in?"
It took Blair less than a second to decide. "Yes."
They pushed out of the forest and began to walk briskly towards the woman. She took one look at them, and grabbed a length of thick stick from beside the fire, standing defensively.
The men stopped just out of reach of her weapon - for that was clearly how she thought of it.
"Hello," Blair said, smiling weakly.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Blair Sandburg," he said. "I - "
"Sandburg? You were coming to join Dr. Stoddard's expedition?"
"Yes. Don't tell me - you're one of his team?"
"Kimberly Ashe, from UCLA," she said. "I'm actually a biologist; my part in the expedition was to study the plants that the natives use. But what happened to you?"
"Our plane... crashed," he said. "We're the only survivors. We saw a helicopter just after we crashed, and headed in the direction it was going in the hope of finding help." He was reluctant to admit that they knew the plane had been shot down; just in case she wasn't what she claimed to be.
"Dr. Stoddard was afraid the plane might have crashed when the flight didn't get in and there was no word from you, but our travel arrangements to get here were made so he left a message for you in case you were just late, and we came here three days ago. The next day, the village was... I don't know whether to say attacked or raided. Several men armed with rifles; they rounded up everyone they could find, including the anthropologists, and marched them off. I was in the forest with some of the younger children - not the babies obviously - and managed to keep them hidden; but I don't know what is the best thing to do about them. I feel responsible for the children - whatever happens, I can't desert them, but I don't think it would be in their best interests to be taken in to - say - Iquitos. In any case, I doubt the youngest ones could walk there. It's at least a hundred miles."
They were interrupted by shouts in what Blair instantly recognized as Quechua. A group of children rushed from the forest, several of them trying to speak at once. They were all wearing some form of Western dress. One was a little taller than the others, and had darker skin, and Blair frowned slightly as he saw the boy. He clearly wasn't of the same race as the other children; if anything, Blair thought he looked more African-American, strange though that seemed.
Beside him, Jim drew a sharp breath. "Daryl!" he exclaimed.
The tall boy looked over at him. "Jim! Oh, thank goodness! Jim!" He threw himself at Jim, who caught him in a quick hug. "Jim, they've got my dad!"
"A man called Reischer. He's got a camp not very far from here - over that way." Daryl waved his arm in a gesture that took in roughly ninety degrees. "Our helicopter took off without us, we didn't know why, but then it was shot down, the pilot killed. We didn't know what to do. We were stuck in the jungle for a day or two, then we met Reischer. He seemed nice at first, said he could arrange for us to be picked up and flown out. Told us they were working for a lumber company, and when I asked what about the animals and the Indians who lived in the felled area, he said they relocate the animals and there weren't any Indians - but then that night I saw some Indians being marched in, and they were definitely prisoners. I told Dad, and we found an underground room. There were men working there - some Indians, some white. Dad said they were making cocaine. Someone saw us when we were leaving it, and we tried to get away, but Reischer's men came after us. They caught Dad, but I managed to hide so they didn't see me."
"How many men are with Reischer?" Jim asked.
Daryl thought for a moment. "At least eighteen or nineteen," he said, "and they all have rifles. I wondered why, and Reischer said it was for protection against some of the wild animals, but they only fired tranquilizers."
Yeah, right, Blair thought, seeing from Jim's face what he thought of the comment, and even Daryl looked disbelieving, whatever he might have wanted to believe three days previously.
"Can you draw me any kind of map of Reischer's camp?" Jim asked.
"Well, we didn't really see all of it... but... " He picked up a stick and began to draw a rough square, and inside it, several squares and rectangles. "Pretty well everything was under the trees - there was only one small clearing. The main group of tents was here." He drew a final rectangle. The tent Dad and me were sleeping in was here." He indicated one side of the square. "The underground room was here." He pointed to the other side. "And over here they had a big helicopter and I think it was four smaller ones. I think... I think we should have been suspicious when Reischer said a supply helicopter was coming in a couple of days, and we could leave with it. Why couldn't they have taken us out in one of the small ones?"
One of the native children came over, speaking quickly. "She's saying there's food ready," Jim said. "You go on, Daryl - we'll be over in a minute."
Daryl nodded and went off with the girl. "Who is he?" Blair asked.
"My Captain - Simon Banks - came to Peru to attend an anti-drugs conference; Daryl's his son. Simon and Daryl's mother are divorced; Simon thought that bringing Daryl to Peru for a day or two would be a treat for him, and a chance to do some father/son bonding. Only they disappeared, and that's why I'm here; I came to look for them. Iquitos seemed as good a starting point as any; that was the last place they were known to be."
Jim studied the sketch for a few seconds, then swept his foot over it, obliterating it. "Come on, let's go and eat."
After they had eaten, Jim said, "Kimberley, are there any weapons in any of the huts?"
"There should be," she replied. "A lot of the men use blowpipes, and Inchawaqa - the chief - has a bow. Probably some of the others do too, but I do know he does."
"Okay. I think I'll go and scout around a bit. Chief, you stay here - yes, I know you'd like to come with me, but I'll probably be faster on my own."
Blair scowled at him. "Just be careful, right?"
"I always try to be careful." Jim gave Blair his own words back. He ducked into the hut Kimberley indicated was Inchawaqa's and moments later came out carrying a bow, a quiver of arrows, a blowpipe and some darts for it. He settled the bow and quiver over his shoulders, saying, "I remember the Chopek taught me how to use these. They're all tipped with curare." He fastened the smaller quiver of blowpipe darts to his belt, nodded to Blair and set off in a direction that took him towards the middle of Daryl's indicated ninety degrees.
Blair watched him go, reluctantly accepting that he was probably right and would be faster on his own; but that didn't mean Blair had to like it.
Several of the older girls gathered up the bowls they had used for their meal and went off to wash them. As the girls left, Blair said, "I don't suppose you had time to learn much about the tribe?"
"Not really. Several of them have visited Iquitos, mostly to trade - they harvest some medicinal plants and there's a demand for those in Iquitos."
"So that's where they get the Western-style clothes?"
"Yes. We came here because they're so Westernized - that's in part what Dr. Stoddard wanted to study," Kimberley said. "I don't know how much he told you about it?"
"Not much. He was going to fill me in when I joined your party - I expected to have at least one night in Iquitos before we set off for whichever tribe he planned to visit."
"We're doing a study of the effect of the white man's ways on a tribe like this, that's had a lot of exposure, and then comparing it to a tribe that's had almost no contact with white men at all. As a biologist, I was to study the use the tribe made of local plants, as well as check for the incidence of the kind of plants the tribes are known to use or have used. But of course we only had the one day here before the village was raided." She sighed. "I wish I knew why."
"Daryl... " Blair glanced at the boy, who had been very quiet while they ate.
"They were making the Indians work for them," Daryl said. "Dad said they were making cocaine."
"Oh, god," she whispered.
The two adults looked at each other, and Blair could see in Kimberley's eyes the same awareness that he had. The enforced labor was expendable; when the area had been stripped of coca leaves and the leaves processed, the members of the cartel would move on... but before they left, they would almost certainly kill the people they had enslaved.
They might, of course, be pragmatic enough to let the Indians live, to be enslaved again in another year or three when the area could be harvested again, but the white men who could report them would certainly be killed... and that would include Daryl's black father, if indeed he wasn't already dead.
"Get your hands up!"
Blair jerked his attention away from Kimberley, to discover that they had been surrounded by a circle of at least ten men, all armed with rifles. Slowly, he raised his hands, seeing, out of the corner of his eye, Kimberley and Daryl doing the same.
One of the men patted Blair and Kimberley down fairly perfunctorally, presumably checking for weapons, and took from their pockets their passports and Blair's wallet.
After that, they, and the children, were hustled forwards and into the forest. The first half mile or so was through forest where the floor had been picked over for firewood; something Blair could still remember doing as a child. After that they were directed into a path that had obviously been cut by machete not very long previously. The route didn't quite follow the direction Jim had taken, Blair noticed, and he hoped that Jim had remained undiscovered.
Jim was their trump card.
They were marched fairly briskly - despite the youth of some of the children - for some three hours; probably nine or ten miles, Blair estimated. The march ended at a camp Blair instantly identified from Daryl's map. A man who looked about forty crossed to them.
"Welcome back, Daryl," he said with clearly false cheerfulness. The boy glared at him, equally clearly not fooled by that cheerfulness.
The man - Blair guessed it had to be Reischer - turned to Kimberley. "And you are?"
"Kimberley Ashe. I'm one of Dr. Stoddard's team."
He turned to Blair. "And you?"
"Blair Sandburg. I'm with Dr. Stoddard as well."
The man who had taken their passports handed these over to Reischer, who glanced through both. His lips tightened as he examined Blair's. "Take the woman and the Indian children and put them to work. Put Sandburg and the Banks boy in there." He indicated a tent. "I'll talk to them later." Eight of the men began to usher Kimberley and the children away; the other two took Blair and Daryl into what appeared to be a storage tent.
Puzzled - he could understand why Daryl might be held separately, and his safety used as a threat to keep his father in line - Blair wondered why he should be treated any differently from the others.
They were tied back to back, and left sitting on the floor of the tent; the door flap was tied open, although there was no sign of anyone to see inside. Blair watched as Reischer disappeared into one of the other tents.
"Mr. Sandburg... "
"Why haven't they just left us with Ms. Ashe and the children?"
"I have no idea." But Blair suddenly thought he did know; Jim was from Cascade. Daryl's father was Jim's Captain, so he was from Cascade. Blair's passport would tell Reischer that he, too, was from Cascade. Did Reischer suspect that he had something to do with the Cascade police? and that leaving him with Daryl would encourage them to betray that they did know each other, that he had come here, not to work with Dr. Stoddard, but to look for Captain Banks?
But of course they didn't know each other. And for once he was happy to let someone call him 'Mr. Sandburg'. He had never really completely accepted having a second name, despite the many years he had used one and as automatic as giving both names had become. Daryl's use of 'Mr.' would go a long way towards telling Reischer that he and the boy were strangers to each other.
Blair could think of nothing further to say, and he suspected Daryl was in the same mental limbo. What do two strangers say to each other in this sort of situation? he wondered. Even if he was the age he appeared to be, there was still a big age difference between them...
This - if he survived it - would be a life-changing experience for Daryl.
Blair found himself mildly amused at the thought that Daryl was about the same age as he had been, back when the world changed for him. Back then, Daryl would have been considered adult. Young adult, certainly, not old enough yet for the responsibility of supporting a mate, but certainly old enough to work as an adult. Indeed, for much of Blair's long life Daryl would have been considered old enough to leave school - if indeed he had been fortunate enough to go to school. For much of Blair's life, Daryl would have been expected to work from at least his fifth birthday, and do an adult's work from the time he was perhaps ten. It was only in the last few decades that society had begun to consider someone of Daryl's age as still a boy, decreed that, at the fourteen Blair judged him to be, he was still a child... and Blair was shocked to realize how completely he had fallen into line with that particular mindset.
The thought that he himself might finally die didn't particularly worry him. Of course, he couldn't die before his sentinel did... and just where was Ellison? - Jim, he corrected himself.
But if Jim died 'untimely'... Blair himself would have to continue living until he found another sentinel. Blair could even understand why that had been part of Brak's geas - to make sure that when he was found and Claimed, he wouldn't then kill the sentinel in order to escape his fate. But he didn't want any other sentinel; mentally, he had committed himself fully to Jim. Earth Mother, surely Fate couldn't be so cruel as to offer him hope, then remove it for all eternity!
He had to assume that Jim was still free and scouting in the general vicinity of the village - or he might have discovered by now that it was empty and guessed what had happened, but was there any chance that he would be able to follow them? He might - Burton aside, Blair had no real idea what a sentinel was able to do.
No - it was up to Blair himself to do something, try to rescue himself and Daryl, at least, then see what he could do to help the others. He had learned a lot over the years - time to put some of it into practice.
The thoughts passed swiftly through his mind.
He pressed his arms close to his side and felt the rope loosen slightly. "Daryl," he murmured, his voice little more than a whisper.
"Press your arms as close to your sides as you can."
He felt the rope loosen a little more, and began to wriggle, saying softly, "That's right - hold it like that." He worked the rope higher up his arms, then it slipped up and off his shoulders. It had taken him only a couple of minutes. "Amateurs!" he muttered. He pushed the rope over his head then, bending forward, he quickly untied the rope around his ankles. Turning, he released Daryl.
Blair glanced out of the tent door, still seeing nobody but not too sure whether Reischer might be able to see them from the tent he was in, though he was almost certain that the angle was wrong. His Swiss army knife was attached to his belt although he carried it inside his trousers, and he reached for it, shaking his head as he did. Definitely amateurs! he thought. Any halfway competent bad guys would have searched him more thoroughly for possible weapons. This lot had taken him at face value, clearly considering that an anthropologist who looked as young as he did was no threat. They hadn't even tied the ropes all that tightly... Certainly he had strained against the rope as it was wound around their arms, giving himself that much extra wiggle room. In their place, he would certainly have tied the ropes more securely, and in addition tied them to something other than each other.
He moved quickly to the back of the tent, and cut a short slit. Peering out of it, he saw nobody, and lengthened the slit. He beckoned Daryl over and they slipped out of the tent. Blair glanced around, and led the way to a sheltered corner.
"Get in among the trees," Blair said softly. "Work your way over to the helicopters, and stay hidden beside them."
"What about you?"
"I'm going to see what I can do about rescuing the others."
"Can't I help?"
Blair thought quickly. How to explain things so that he could keep Daryl safe without sounding as if he was dismissing any contribution the boy might make as unimportant?
"One person stands more chance of getting in. But you're my backup," he said. "Think about it - it's silly to risk both of us at the same time. So I go first. If I fail - if I'm caught - it'll be up to you to try."
"So it's not because I'm just a boy?"
"No. For a lot of history, and in a lot of cultures, you'd be considered an adult. It's more a case of experience. If Jim were here, he'd be telling both of us to stay hidden while he tried to help the others - he has far more battle experience than I do." Not, his mind told him. "But Jim isn't here - though I'm sure he's looking for us."
"Oh. You... you really think I'm old enough - "
"Yes," Blair said quietly. "Now you get yourself into hiding. Don't worry if you don't see me moving for a while - I need to look around, assess the situation. Okay?"
"Okay," Daryl agreed, and moved away, quickly disappearing among the trees. The whole exercise - since they were left alone in the tent - had taken perhaps five minutes.
Blair studied the camp.
For the moment, at least, there was no sign of any of the men. Reischer, he knew, was inside one of the tents; some of his men were probably in their drug 'factory'. What of the others? Were they off duty, so to speak, and also in tents, resting or eating?
And what of a sentry? In Reischer's place, Blair would certainly have posted a sentry, unlikely though it was that anyone unfriendly would make an appearance, but he could see no sign of one. It was possible, of course, that Reischer had posted a sentry, and the man, thinking he was wasting his time, had settled down somewhere for a snooze.
With a soft thump, a dart hit the tree beside him. He stared at it for a split second, then swung around, grinning widely. With a crouching run, Jim joined him. "You okay, Chief?"
"Yeah." Blair took a deep breath. "Good to see you, Jim. I wasn't sure you'd be able to follow us."
"I was lucky," Jim admitted. "I wasn't following quite the same route that they were, but I heard the voices after they'd caught you, and was able to take an angle that let me catch up. I've been lurking, waiting my chance... My first move would have been to free you and Daryl, only you got yourselves free. Where is Daryl?"
"I told him to work his way over to the helicopters, and hide there. Seemed the safest place to send him. Did you by any chance take out a sentry?"
"How did you know?"
"There should have been one, and there isn't."
Jim nodded. "What were you planning, anyway?"
"First thing, to find a weapon. After that... Take out as many of the men as I could. I don't like killing, but sometimes there's no choice; it's the only way to win."
"Have you ever killed anyone?"
"Yes," Blair said. He briefly remembered the Gulf; Vietman; World War 2. World War 1 didn't count, he hadn't been on the battlefield in that one. But the Civil War counted... and the War of Independence... And before that, many other wars... He could still remember in vivid detail the horrible feeling of a sword sliding into flesh, the effort often needed to pull it out again. "When you're in a battle situation and in the front line, it's inevitable." He was silent for a moment. "I can use a bow," he went on, "but not a blowpipe. If you give me the bow, I can deal with the guys above ground. You see if you can get the ones guarding the 'workers'." His tone said 'slaves'.
Jim nodded. Blair took the bow and the quiver of arrows, and slipped away.
He was fairly sure that Jim would really prefer to take the members of the cartel prisoner if at all possible. He had other ideas.
You learn a lot in three thousand years.
Basically, Blair preferred to lead a quiet life. He had never liked killing, but he had killed when he had to. He had long since learned that sometimes the best way to do that was to back off, move away... but too many wars, too many despotic landowners and their even more despotic underlings had taught him that sometimes the best way to survive peacefully was for someone to risk everything and kill... and he had also long since learned how to hide a body so that it would never be found.
At least these bodies would not have to be hidden. The animals that lived in the forest would make short work of them... and in any case, nobody was likely to come looking for them.
He could only hope his sentinel would not condemn him for the... yes, executions. These men and their employers had undoubtedly been the cause of many deaths, of misery, of robberies; he had seen how people hooked on drugs reacted, what they did to obtain money for their next fix. Some of them might even have killed, and those deaths too were also the responsibility of the men who supplied the drugs.
Yes; these would be executions, not murders. He was, however, fairly sure that Jim would understand, and would probably be adding his own kills to the total of dead.
Blair crept across the ground to where he could see into Reischer's tent - in these daylight hours the door flaps were open.
Reischer sat at a small folding table writing in a notebook. Blair's lips curled in a mirthless smile; he took aim and fired. Reischer stiffened, sitting upright for a moment, then fell forward over the table.
Blair slipped into the tent and retrieved the notebook. It might, he decided, provide useful information on the cartel's operations. Sliding it into his pocket, he left the tent and went in search of more prey.
Anyone seeing him might have been reminded of the movements of a wolf starting to hunt.
Blair moved carefully towards the next tent, edging towards where he could see in the open doorway.
The two men in it were sitting at a table, glasses of something in their hands. Neither was paying any attention to what was outside. Amateurs! he thought again as he raised the bow.
The second arrow was in the air before the first one hit its target. The men collapsed without a sound, some three seconds apart. Despite his knowledge that the arrows were tipped with curare, Blair moved quickly into the tent and checked the bodies; he wasn't an amateur; he was assuming nothing.
Both were indeed dead.
He moved on to the next tent.
Ten minutes later he was satisfied that there was nobody left alive in any of the tents; he had taken out fourteen men. That meant there were probably six in the underground room. He crossed quickly towards the helicopters.
"Daryl!" Despite knowing that there was nobody alive in any of the tents, Blair still spoke softly.
"Here." Daryl scrambled forwards from his hiding place under a fallen tree.
"Did you see Jim?"
"Yes. He went into the underground room a few minutes ago."
"Right. He should be coming back out any time now." Blair looked at the helicopters. A Bell that would carry ten men, including the pilot; four smaller ones able to carry up to four men each. Moving swiftly and surely, he disabled the engines on the four smaller helicopters, then swung himself into the Bell. He checked the controls.
It was fully fuelled and ready to go. He dropped back to the ground. Depending on how many Westerners there were, their escape route was ready. He wasn't too worried about the natives; although they lived apparently settled lives in a village, although they were fairly Westernized, it would still be easy for them to move and establish themselves somewhere else if they wanted to.
The trapdoor that led into the underground room tipped open; Jim looked cautiously out. Blair stepped into view and beckoned.
Blair quickly lost count of the number of people who piled out of the hole. They gathered into two groups - one, the natives, the other, the Westerners. Blair moved to meet the man who hurried towards him.
"Blair! Kimberley told me you were here, that your plane had crashed."
"Yes. Good to see you, Eli - you haven't been hurt?"
"No - as long as we did what we were told, nobody laid a finger on us. Though I'm not sure we'd have been left alive, after... "
"Daddy!" Daryl rushed forward, to throw himself at the very tall black man who was last to leave the hole. Ah - so that was Captain Banks, Blair registered, although he kept most of his attention on Stoddard.
"Why did Reischer keep you separate? Kimberley said you'd identified yourself as one of our group."
"It's just a guess, but I think it might have been because I'm based in Cascade. He might have thought I knew Daryl's father, and had something to do with the cops."
"And it was just sheer coincidence," Stoddard said. Blair nodded.
Stoddard turned his attention to one of the natives. "Inchawaqa," he said in Quechua, "will your tribe be able to hide from these men, now that you know about them?"
"Yes," was the confident reply.
Blair held out the bow and quiver. "My thanks for the use of this," he said. As Inchawaqa took them, Jim came over.
"And for the use of this," he said, handing over the blowpipe.
Inchawaqa looked at him, then at Blair, then turned his attention back to Jim. "I think you have just found your life's companion," he said. Jim nodded, and Inchawaqa continued, "He looks young, but do not make the mistake of thinking him too young to understand. He has the wisdom of many years, he has seen more, and understands more, than you might think. He is worthy of your trust." He looked back at Blair. "And you; I think that you have found what you have long sought."
"Yes," Blair said. He wasn't surprised by Inchawaqa's insight, but he was surprised by Jim's easy acceptance of it. Then he remembered about Jim's time with the Chopek; Jim would have seen the Chopek shaman at work, and would certainly have recognized Inchawaqa as a shaman.
Blair was also surprised by Inchawaqa's next words. "The terms of the curse on you have been met. This man is your match."
"I think he is," Blair replied.
"You will return now to your own land, and take these others with you? We would be wise to move to another place, and your people will not be able to accompany us."
Yes," Blair said. "I can make the big bird fly." He indicated the helicopter as he used the only words in Quechua that would make sense. "It will take us back to the big city."
"And the coca? There is too much there to be good." Inchawaqa nodded towards the underground room.
"We will destroy it," Jim said, "and the bodies of the men who came to misuse it, once you and your people are safely away."
Inchawaqa nodded gravely then, with a quick gesture to his people, turned and led them away. Within moments the Westerners were alone.
Blair did a quick head count. Himself; Jim; Daryl and his father; Stoddard; Kimberley; and the four other members of Stoddard's team - three men and another woman - that he didn't actually know. Ten - the capacity of the Bell.
"We've got some bodies here to dispose of," Jim said. "Right, Chief?"
Blair nodded. "Fourteen."
"And I got the other six," Jim said. "If they were employed by someone... well, if that someone comes looking, all he'll find is a burned-out cellar. Okay, everyone - let's get the bodies that are above ground, and all the tents, into that underground room."
It didn't take long. The longest job was carrying some of the heavy crates that were in several of the tents - a quick check of two or three of them showed that there was food in some, but one was packed with plastic bags of cocaine. Jim got everything stacked carefully, then told the others to get out. "Get into the chopper," he told them. "Blair, get it started up and ready to take off the moment I get aboard."
"You got it," Blair said. "And be careful, man." He led the others over to the Bell, and as they found seats, leaving the one beside Blair vacant, he started the engine. Moments later Jim appeared and raced over, pulled himself aboard and closed the door quickly. As Jim sat, Blair lifted the helicopter a little, moved it forward until it was clear of the trees, then took it smoothly into the air.
Below them, the ground lifted in an explosion then subsided again. The helicopter bucked in the turbulent air, and Blair wrestled it into smooth flight again. "There were some explosives in one of the crates," Jim said quietly, "whatever Reischer wanted them for. Maybe it was what was left over after they 'built' that room."
"Hard to see what else they'd need explosives here for," Banks muttered.
"I need someone to do some navigating," Blair said. "I've only got a rough idea of the direction for Iquitos, since I don't know exactly where we started from."
"Just head north-east," Stoddard said. "Yes, I know that isn't very precise, but you can't miss the Ucayali River."
But won't tell me if we hit the river north or south of Iquitos, Blair thought. Still, it was better than nothing. He headed north-east.
"I'd better let Captain Sandoval know what happened," Banks said after a short silence.
"Sandoval?" Stoddard asked.
"An old friend of mine who's with the Lima police," Banks explained. "He'll be glad to hear one drug operation's been taken out."
Suddenly remembering about it, Blair pulled Reischer's notebook from his pocket and gave it to Jim. "Pass that back to Captain Banks," he said. "It might give his friend some information on Reischer's contacts - Reischer was writing in it when I killed him."
They flew on.
In the event, north-east was a more precise direction than Blair had expected. It took them directly to Iquitos. Blair circled for a minute or two, looking for the airfield, then saw a plane taking off and headed that way. As he did, he flicked on the radio. "Iquitos, request permission to land a helicopter," he said.
Stoddard's contacts in Iquitos smoothed their way surprisingly easily, and next day saw the party flying back to Lima, where Banks handed the notebook over to Ernesto Sandoval, who received it gratefully. As Blair had suspected, it contained a lot of information that would be of use to the police.
When they reached Los Angeles two days later, the party split up, Stoddard's team returning to their various university cities, Stoddard himself heading for his home in Denver, so only four of the group took the plane for Cascade - Blair, Jim, and Simon and Daryl Banks.
A fews minutes into the flight Jim said, almost tentatively, "Chief, what are you planning on doing, once we get back to Cascade?"
"We made a deal, Jim. My side of it, my... job, you could say, is to help you with your senses. I'm at your disposal."
"Well... we can get you a ninety-day observer pass so you can ride with me. After that... I'm not sure. Where are you staying?"
"I'll have to find somewhere," Blair replied. "I gave up my apartment when I thought I'd be spending the summer in Peru. I've been a bit of a wanderer all my life - having a permanent home, having to leave it locked up and secure when I went off somewhere for the summer - never seemed worth the hassle." To say nothing of the hassle of having to sell up every time he moved on, changed identities...
"What about your family?"
"There's just my Mom, and she's even more of a wanderer than I am. She cut the apron strings years ago. Oh, she'll come if I ever need her - she was there for me when I was injured in the Gulf War, but as soon as I was able to manage for myself, she took off again."
"Oh." Jim was silent for a moment, then went on, "If you want, you can stay with me. If you're helping me with my senses... it'd be convenient."
Blair was suddenly aware of a feeling inside his head, as if somehow Jim was trying to touch his mind. But where with the woman three thousand years earlier it had been a weird, creepy, unpleasant sensation, with Jim it felt natural; he welcomed it.
"This will work," Jim said softly.
"Yes," Blair said. "I think it will."
To serve a sentinel - the right sentinel - wasn't the life sentence Naomi had always insisted it would be. It was a partnership of equals.
There was still a lot to be considered - but there was time; perhaps fifty years?
Blair's lips twitched slightly. Just fifty years... when for the first time in centuries he would have been happy with a life expectancy of another three thousand years... just as long as his sentinel was at his side.