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Disclaimer: The characters and story are based on the series BeastMaster  are property of Tribune Entertainment Company. There is no intent to infringe on their rights, this is only for pure enjoyment.

A Solemn Solstice
(December BeastMaster Series List challenge)

by Laurie Allen

"What have I done?  What have I done?" Tao ranted in a panicked state as he tore off several strips of fabric from the bottom of his shirt.  He quickly tied them together and began wrapping it carefully around the abdomen of his unconscious friend.  Blood was still oozing from the wound, so Tao applied some pressure.  "Oh, Dar… you would have been better off without ever knowing me.  You always end up rescuing me and now look what's happened.  You'd have been better off if you never rescued me from the Terrons.  In fact, you'd be better off if I had never been born!"

"Wouldn't everyone?" Maloc spat sarcastically from behind the bars of the prison door where he observed his captives ~ the pathetic Eiron and his Beastmaster friend.

The leader of the Blood Priest drove Tao's blood to boil, igniting a bold defiance against the murderous butchers of Xinca.  He glared at the sinister man laughing behind the bars.  Tao wanted to lash out but knew he had to reason with the killer instead for Dar's sake.  "Voden promised us safe passage within these walls during the Winter Solstice celebration.  You had no right attacking us, Maloc!"

"Perhaps safe passage from the Nord king himself, but Voden is off conquering a neighboring land.  He's made it clear to me that he wants the Beastmaster, but said nothing of you.  We need a sacrifice for tomorrow's sunrise event, Eiron."

Tao swallowed back any fear that threatened to surface.  He needed to keep levelheaded and continue this brave act.  "The Solstice was never about sacrifice, Maloc."

"It is now, Eiron.  Voden won't deny me my right to slay you once I hand over the Beastmaster over to him."  Pleased with himself, Maloc smiled, his teeth barely showing through his thin lips.

"Dar won't survive the night.  He's lost too much blood!  I need my herbs and a blanket to keep him warm.  Just give me my pack."  The priest ignored Tao's pleas as he turned to leave.  "Maloc!"

Tao faced the Beastmaster's lifeless form.  All hope seemed to fade without his healing herbs.  The Eiron pulled off his shirt and covered his friend's chest and shoulders.  He then gathered surrounding straw and covered Dar's legs.  "If only I hadn't insisted on coming to the celebration tonight.  I should have listened to you, Dar.  You warned me that it could be dangerous, but I thought… maybe, by chance… I'd see the rest of my family here.  No such luck.  And now," Tao muttered as he lay down next to his friend in the hopes of providing body heat, "I may lose you.  You're like family to me, Dar ~ a brother, a very dear brother."  Tao's voice quivered at the thought of losing his dearest friend.  He had to think.  "One of my elders claimed you could talk to the injured and that they could hear your words.   Listen to me, Dar.  Please hold on to life.  If only you'd wake up for just a moment, then you could contact Ruh."  Tao studied the Beastmaster's pale face ~ no response, no sign of movement.  "You wouldn't be dying if I had never been a part of your life." 

A lone teardrop splattered across the Beastmaster's cheek.  Tao blinked back more tears that welled in his eyes as his mind drifted and retraced the events that led to their present predicament.  Inside the gates of Xinca, he first introduced Dar to the delight of mulled cider.  A lover of apples, Dar relished the brew.  Tao enjoyed seeing Dar's face brighten with wonder at the spectacular bonfires, displays and costumes of the Winter Solstice ~ celebrating the longest night of the year and the coming of Spring.  Tao had always enjoyed the festivities held in Xinca until now.  The Blood Priests once again stained his fondest memories with corruption.  Maloc and his brethren soon entered the market and ordered the Eiron's capture.  Dar stepped in front of his friend, ready to fend off two priests that advanced, but a low flying knife whirled through the air, past the priests and plunged into Dar's abdomen.  Tao's vision of Dar falling to his knees and finally collapsing to the ground still burned in his mind.  He had to keep his friend alive.  He snuggled closer, wrapping his arm and leg over Dar's body.  Minutes later, Tao noticed an amber glow from the other side of the cell.  He lifted his head slowly as his eyes heavy with slumber focused on the transparent figure.  "Sorceress?  Is that you?"

"Yes, Tao, it's me," she spoke softly.

The curious man got up and moved closer to the apparition.  "You look like a figment of my imagination.  Am I dreaming?"

"In a way…" she said as she glided around him observing the two figures cuddled together on the ground.  "I exist only in dreams now.  The Ancient One imprisoned me forever, making it impossible to use my powers.  I heard you say the Beastmaster would be better off had you not been born."

Tao looked surprise that she overheard this.  "It's true, Dar wouldn't be dying right now if he had never known me."  Tao turned to check on his friend and was taken aback when he saw himself lying next to Dar. "What the--" he asked as he studied his present form, examining his hand.  His body was transparent like the Sorceress.  "How did you do this?  Am I dead?"

"You're in a dream state and I'm here to show you how much difference you've made in this world, how many lives you touched.  We haven't much time."  With sadness in her eyes, she glanced down again at the Beastmaster.

Tao asked, "Time for what?  I can't leave Dar.  He needs me… my body heat for one."

"Your organic body will remain with the Beastmaster keeping him warm.  It's your spirit that is free to roam.  Come."  She held out her hand and led Tao through the bars.  Tao was amazed that he could pass right through them.  He was about to ask her how this was all possible when they were no longer in Xinca.  "Where are we?"

"A slave camp of the Nords.  Recognize anyone?"  The Sorceress moved closer to a lone woman scrubbing clothes.  Her face was dirty and her hair cropped short to her head.  She looked disheartened but very familiar to Tao.  Sad eyes locked with his for a moment.

Tao was puzzled.  "It's Haisa!  What's happened to her?  She should be with Nylas."  He started to move towards her, but the Sorceress held him back. 

"She can't see or hear you.  You're in a dream state, remember?"  Tao started to protest, but the Sorceress interrupted, "The Beastmaster never went to the island to rescue you; therefore, he never rescued Nylas.  Terrons took slaves from Tolphet and Zad wanted Haisa for himself.  Her love for Nylas was so deep she vowed never to let another man touch her hair.  She cut it off and Zad was furious.  Once the Nords conquered the Terrons she became their slave." 

"Can't you help her?"  Tao's voice cracked.  The life and joy he once saw in her eyes were gone.

"As I've told you, I don't have the use of my powers."  The Sorceress grabbed his hand and they appeared in the outskirts of a forest.  Tao looked across the plains of tall grass realizing he had been there before.  "Here," the Sorceress said as she pointed to the shallow grave.

"Who's buried there?" Tao asked hesitantly.

"Maleena.  Without your help, the Beastmaster had to leave her alone while he went searching for the fire lily to cure the snakebite.  You weren't there to keep her alive with the warmth you gave her both physically and emotionally.  By the time Dar found the lily, Maleena had let go of life ~ he was too late."

The lump in Tao's throat doubled.  Had he truly saved her life?  He sighed to release the emotions churning within his heart.  With nothing to say, the Sorceress whisked him away to yet another familiar place.  Fires spewed from the ground and in the trees ~ the Burning Forest.  "Why are we here?" Tao demanded.

The Sorceress didn't appreciate the irritation in his voice.  "You felt the world was better off had you not been born.  I'm hoping to prove otherwise."

"But why here?  I couldn't have made a difference here!"

"On the contrary."  With those words, she and Tao appeared in the cell with the numbered lock on the door. 

Tao twirled around at the suddenness of their travels.  He stumbled and fell on his hands and knees coming face to face with Caro.  Dark circles etched her crazed eyes.  Sunken cheekbones defined starvation.

She laughed at nothing and then curled up whimpering.  "She's lost her mind."  Tao reached out to touch her but his hand went right through her.

"Without you, no one knew she was here.  She eventually went mad.  She'll be like this for eternity…a fate worse than mine ~ at least I have my mind."  The Sorceress was preparing to take the Eiron to his next destination when he stood up.  She held out her hand but he refused to take it.  "What is it?" she asked.

"What of my family?"

She leaned closer to whisper in his ear.  "Their fate is still the same…there's nothing I can show you that made a difference in Xinca without your presence in the world."  The Eiron looked disturbed, so she took his hand and they appeared in the Sanctuary.  It was deserted.

Tao looked around, taking it all in.  "Wait, if I wasn't around, then Dar would have never gone to the Middle of the World with me.  So, why isn't he here?  The place looks like it hasn't been lived in for a while.  Where is he?"

"He's dead."

"Dead?  No!  How?"

"Ketzwayo.  Without you stopping him, Dar ate the berry that Kodo and Podo brought him.  He died instantly.  Once the Beastmaster was dead, Ketzwayo killed Curupira and took over her forest."  The Sorceress held his hand again, but not for travel, more for comfort.  "Tao, you have made a difference in this world and its inhabitants.  It's you who can save the Beastmaster right now."

He gazed into her eyes.  "How?  I need my healing herbs."

"You were doing so well, talking to him, but then you gave in to sleep.  Talk to him… he's listening.  All you need to do is wake up… wake up, Tao."          

Tao's eyes flashed open.  His pale friend lay beneath him.  Tao didn't have time to waste.  "Dar!  Dar, listen to me.  I need your help.  Maloc is going to sacrifice me at sunrise.  You'll die if I don't get my healing herb… it's the mistletoe I picked up in the market today.   It's in my pack.  Dar, you need to contact Kodo.  Tell him to fetch me the herb."  Tao watched his friend for a moment.  No sign of acknowledgement.  "This is madness!  Me suggesting you communicate with the animals while you lay unconscious.  It was only a dream, Tao!"  Disturbed by the visions in his dream, the Eiron rose and walked over to the prison door.  The bonfires were still aglow and voices of celebration still filled the city.  Tao laughed.  "So this is how it ends.  You die in a prison cell in Xinca thanks to me, while I'm to be sacrificed."

A familiar squeal sounded from above.  Tao glanced upwards and found Kodo peaking down the grate with a mouthful of mistletoe.  The ferret released the herb and Tao caught it.  A smile replaced the stunned look.  "Kodo!  You brought me my healing herb!"  Tao looked over to where Dar lay.  "No!" he said in disbelief.  "Amazing!  It worked!"  Tao knelt down beside his friend and removed the makeshift blanket.  He loosened the bandage and then rubbed the mistletoe in the palm of his hand until it formed a paste.  "Dar, you can hear me… this is amazing!"  As Tao dressed his wound, he told Dar of the dream he had with the Sorceress and all the places she took him.  Tao kept talking to Dar the rest of the night.  His chest became heavy with grief when he heard the villagers singing the Sunrise song.  Soon, Maloc would come for him.  The light from the bonfires still glowed against the cell walls allowing Tao to observe the color returning to Dar's skin.  The healing herb was doing its magic.  "At least I know you'll be alive."  Tao listened to the haunting tune, dreading its ending.  Suddenly, something else echoed throughout the city.  Howling.  Howling from several wolves.

Dar stirred and Tao rushed to his side.  "Dar?"  The Beastmaster's eyes blinked open and a slight smile formed on his lips at the sight of his friend.  Tao's moment of elation faded when he heard the song abruptly end.  "You rest, Dar.  You can't stop what's about to happen and don't try."

"Maybe I already did."

Confused by Dar's words, Tao was about to question him when he heard footsteps approaching the prison.  Arina was outside with several Nord guards.  "Arina?" Tao asked as she unlocked the door.  He rose to greet her.

"I've discovered Maloc's plans to sacrifice you."  Just then she spotted the Beastmaster on the ground.  "Is Dar hurt?"

"No," Dar winced in pain.

"Stabbed, but he'll survive… unless you have plans to hand him over to Voden."  Tao studied her carefully.  He didn't trust her… it was hard to determine whose side she was on.  "Your king gave us his word that we'd be safe during the celebration."

"I plan on keeping his word and setting you both free."  She moved closer to Dar and knelt beside him.  "You're a very powerful man, Beastmaster."  He smiled knowingly.

"What about Maloc?" Tao asked.

Arina placed her hand against Dar's cheek and caressed it as she spoke, "The villagers believed the sign to be a bad omen, so they insisted there be no sacrifice today.  That's why they came and got me.  To stop Maloc."

Tao was more curious than ever.  "What sign?"

Arina smiled at the Beastmaster and he again returned the gesture.  She shook her head in disbelief and then rose to face Tao.  "Hundreds of animals gathered outside the city walls, just watching.  I've never seen anything like it.  They weren't attacking, just observing… waiting.  Even the Nord horses and Voden's dogs were amongst them.  When the people started singing, the animals howled along to get their attention.  I knew something was wrong.  This could only be the work of the Beastmaster, so I started asking people questions when I discovered Maloc's plans."

Tao looked at his friend who was trying to rise.  "No, Dar!"  He reached his side but couldn't stop him from rising, so he helped support the injured man.  "You need to lie still."

"I'm fine, Tao.  Sore, but I can manage.  I don't think we should stay here any longer, before someone changes their minds.  I'll rest when we reach the forest." Dar noticed the doubt in his friend's eyes.  "I promise."  He looked to Arina.  "We are free to go?"

"I'll escort you out of Xinca myself."

As they walked through the alleyways Tao, with the Beastmaster's arm draped over his shoulder for support, was telling Arina how he reached Dar even though he was unconscious.  The Namib warrior was truly interested, but Dar had his fill of the story.  "One drawback with this ability to talk to someone while they're injured."

Tao stopped and looked up at his friend.  "A drawback?  What could that be?"

"You found the perfect captive audience.  I had no choice but to listen."   Tao's bewildered expression forced Dar to laugh even though it hurt his abdomen.  Soon Arina joined in, her joyous laughter filling the air.  Tao finally succumbed to Dar's humor and he chuckled too.

~ The end ~

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