(missing scene to “The Choice”)
Tao hung onto Dar’s wrist as he dangled in mid-air, trying to find some sort of purchase.
Tao’s feet scrambled on the cliff’s face, finding nothing but loose gravel.
His grip slipped further down Dar’s arm to his hand. Tao’s heart quickened its pace as he tried to reestablish better contact with the Beastmaster.
Just as his feet found stability in the rock face, his grip on Dar slipped and he grasped air.
Finding nothing else to grab hold of, Tao fell.
Dar sat straight, awakened by the yell. He looked over at Tao to find the Eiron also sitting, shaking badly. “Tao?” Concern filled his voice.
Tao didn’t answer, as if he hadn’t heard Dar.
Dar moved closer to his human friend. Tao was shaking worse than he had at the cliff. His breath was coming in quick pants. Dar reached out a hand and placed it on Tao’s back. The Eiron didn’t react. Dar could feel Tao’s heartbeat racing beneath his hand. “Tao?” he asked again, this time moving until he was looking at Tao’s face.
In the firelight, Dar could see sweat beading on Tao’s brow and his eyes had a glassy look to them. Concerned, Dar put a hand on each side of Tao’s face and lifted it until he knew Tao’s was looking at him. “Tao, are you all right?”
Tao wrapped his arms around himself. “C-cold.”
Dar released Tao’s face and looked around for Tao’s cloak. Finding it nearby, he grabbed it and wrapped it around his friend. “What was it? Nightmare?”
Tao accepted the cloak, but it offered no comfort, no shield against the encompassing cold that gripped him. “I-I w-was back at the cliff,” he stammered. “B-but I f-fell.” He hunched over his legs. “Wh-why is it s-so c-cold?”
Dar looked over at the fire, which was still providing a nice warmth to their little camp; and the temperature around them wasn’t cold.
“She’s going into shock.”
“What do you mean?”
One of their tribe had come back from her flight from Zad’s knights, shivering badly. She was unresponsive to her family members and they had come to Tao for help. Dar had accompanied him, concerned for one of his tribe.
Tao gathered his herbs and sat down to prepare a tea. “I’ve seen it before. It usually happens after a traumatic experience. For some reason, they get extremely cold and can’t get warm. After a while, if they can’t warm up and calm down, the body shuts down and they die.”
Tao nodded. “It’s like the trauma becomes too much for them to overcome, physically and mentally, so the body shuts down, unable to function.” He indicated the girl. “We need to make sure she stays as warm as we can possibly make it and make sure she knows she’s safe. Then we hope she survives.”
Dar moved quickly. Turning back to Tao, he placed his hands on Tao’s face and gently lifted it until he could look Tao in the eyes. “Tao? I need you to come with me, okay?”
Tao didn’t answer, but didn’t resist as Dar released Tao’s face and took him gently, but firmly by the arms and pulled him to his feet. Dar grabbed Tao’s blanket and brought it with him as he led Tao over to where Dar had been sleeping, closer to the fire. He thought about grabbing Tao’s bag of herbs as well, but, not knowing which herbs to mix, he left them alone.
‘Warm,’ Dar thought. ‘Must get him warm.’
He settled Tao on ground, then sat down next to him. Dar pulled him close to conserve body heat, and pulled his own blanket around them both.
Kodo and Podo scampered over and settled in their laps.
Ruh rose from his place at the perimeter and sauntered over to lie at the other side of Tao.
Dar smiled and, using his powers, thanked his animal friends for their help. He turned his attentions back to Tao, whose head had settled on the Beastmaster’s shoulder. The shivering was starting to slow.
“Hmmm?” came the sleepy reply.
“Are you okay?”
Tao scooted closer. “Warm.”
Dar smiled and chuckled softly. He rubbed Tao’s arm with one hand while checking Tao’s face for improvement with the other. Still cool, but an improvement from the clammy feeling that Tao had a few moments ago. He settled back against the tree and went to sleep.
Dar woke again as Tao shifted in his sleep. But what disturbed him was Tao’s subconscious comment. It had bothered him the entire trip.
Tao blamed himself for the loss of the ark when Dar chose to save Tao from the cliff. As a result, Tao had made some reckless decisions and put himself into harm’s way in order to make up for the loss and get back the ark.
Dar rubbed Tao’s shoulder. “Tao,” he sighed. “You take the world upon your shoulders when the burden is not yours to bear. Don’t you know that you are as much my family as those in the ark? Though yes, losing them again would have been a tragedy, I couldn’t bear to lose you as well.”
*“I’m not as important as the quest.”*
Dar’s heart tightened as he remembered Tao’s willingness to sacrifice himself in order to free Dar’s family members from their stone prison and return them to the ark.
‘Oh Tao,’ Dar thought. ‘You are highly important – to the quest and to me.’ He hugged Tao a little tighter to himself. ‘You are very important.’
Tao was warm. Comfortable. ‘Where did Dar get the comfortable bed?’ He snuggled deeper. Then his bed moved and he thought he heard Dar chuckling. ‘What the…?’ He opened his eyes and looked at his surroundings. What had been his comfortable bed was actually Dar’s shoulder. He shot upright and looked down. Podo scampered off his lap and away, probably in search of food. Beside him, Ruh rose, probably also to find the same.
“How are you feeling?”
The quiet question brought Tao’s attention back to his cushion. Dar was smiling. “Umm, how…?” Confusion filled his voice.
“…are…you…feeling? You don’t remember?” Dar’s smile faltered and concern showed upon his countenance. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“No, I don’t remember. I’m fine. What happened?”
“You were in shock. I had to get you warm so –“
A shy smile of gratitude spread across Tao’s face. “Thanks.”
Dar smiled broadly. “Anytime.” His smile then left and he moved in front of Tao and placed his hand on the Eiron’s shoulder. “We have to talk. You are *very* important to the quest…and me.”
Tao opened his mouth to protest, only to have it quelled when Dar raised his other hand.
“Hear me out,” Dar said. “You have showed me there is more outside the Midlands and nature. You’ve taught me much about…about a lot of things.”
“But your family…” Tao protested. “The quest…”
Dar closed his eyes and sighed. When he opened his eyes, he looked down at Tao’s ring and brought the hand up until it was in their line of vision. “Do you remember when you wanted to throw this away?”
Tao took off his jade ring. “This almost got me killed.” He drew back his arm, prepared to toss away the coveted ring of the Eirons.
Dar caught Tao’s wrist. “No!” He looked Tao in the eyes. “Tao, roots are important.”
“Even if they’re not deep? It’s been a long time since I have seen my tribe.”
“Sometimes even the greatest trees have shallow roots,” Dar explained. “And they survive strong winds because they stand together. Their roots intertwine.” He searched Tao’s face for comprehension. “Do you understand?”
Tao gave a hesitant nod and smiled. “Yeah.”
Dar returned the smile. “Good.” He moved past Tao and halfway up the hill.
Tao looked at the ring in his hand.
Dar turned around. “You coming?”
Tao smiled and looked back at his friend. “Yeah.” He gathered his things and followed.
At Tao’s nod, Dar continued. “You *are* important. Remember when we first met?”
“You are Dar, last of your tribe…”
“And how do you know that?”
“Because I was taught to know.”
“I am Tao. It means ‘The Way’ and I will show it to you.”
“That you have. Without you, I would have never found even the first member of my family.” Dar held up the book of Eldar. “You, Tao, are the only one who can read this. Without you, *this* would have never been found.” He searched Tao’s face for comprehension. “Do you understand?”
Tao gave a shy smile and nodded. “Yeah.”
Dar returned it with a broad grin of his own. “Good.” He patted Tao’s shoulder, then rose to gather breakfast.
Tao sat back, contemplating the things Dar had said. The smile grew as a warm feeling spread through him. Though he had returned to Xinca and met with fellow Eirons, somehow they were no longer his tribe, his home.
Caro and Tao stood alone in the Sanctuary after their adventure in the Burning Forest.
“Come with me,” she beckoned with a kiss.
Tao contemplated her words, but shook his head. “No. I belong with Dar.” He smiled. “If you see my parents, tell them…” He paused, not knowing how to continue.
Caro smiled. “I will.” She gave him another kiss, then left.
Tao’s smile broadened. The choice had been made. Here he was needed. It was here he belonged – with Dar, the Beastmaster.