A tale of Valdemar
Healer Agatha had long since given up hope of rescue. Captured by the Karsites in their latest border-scuffle turned to all out war, she couldn't recall the last waking moment she'd spent without one of the bastards screaming beneath her hands, wounded by Valdemar's soldiers. Mechanically she motioned the latest man, a boy of about seventeen, really, to get up. He staggered off on a leg just barely fixed, she could do no more than stop the bleeding anymore.
Once she had been the pride of her teachers. Now, she thought, she couldn't even close a wound. Her eyelids drooped shut, she fought to keep them open as the Karsites dragged another boy before her, this one younger than before, managing to communicate through gestures, broken Valdemaran, and her own little understanding of Karsite, that the boy was covered in burns. A camp follower's brat, for certain, probably hadn't gotten out of the way of an attack in time.
She'd been seeing to a lot of burns tonight. So that young lad had arrived at last. Valdemar's hope, Lavan Firestarter. His pending arrival had been the talk of her camp before she had been taken. It was said that even King Theran himself had vouched for him. Agatha couldn't imagine the broken, quiet bird of a boy she had seen around the House of Healing two years ago being Valdemar's hope. Perhaps its last hope, she thought with a morbid little grin.
By now, all she could do was strengthen the Karsite boy's inner defenses to prevent disease from setting in. There wasn't enough strength in her for anything else.
The room seemed to sway before her eyes, and Agatha blinked slowly. Suddenly the Karsite from before was in her face, pointing at the boy and speaking harshly to her. "I can't," she said thickly. "I have no more strength." Then, in Karsite, though it was so very hard to tell which language she was speaking now when she was so very tired: the Trader talk of her childhood, the Valdemaran of her teens and adulthood, or what little Karsite she had quickly picked up before the war? "Nothing left."
The Karsite shouted at her, pointing at the boy and then pushing at her shoulder. But there was nothing she could do, nothing she had left.
More of the bastards had gathered around her, they seemed to be conferring. Agatha knew nothing good could come from this. This far behind enemy lines, there was no hope of rescue, no matter how good of a tale it would have made. She sighed. "No more," she whispered, not realizing she'd said it in Karsite until the boy before her fluttered his eyes weakly and stared at her in confusion.
"No more," she repeated to herself, then slid the dagger from the boy's belt, refusing to think beyond the technical. Two simple slashes, right up the forearms, and she would meet the Shadowlover at last. Two simple slashes.
One of the Karsites yelled at her, and a hand grabbed for her shoulder. Too late, she slit first one wrist, then the other. Clean and surgical considering the tools at hand, her teachers would have been so proud had the circumstances been different.
The boy was looking at her with wide eyes. Idly she wondered what he saw. A woman, dressed in filthy, bloodstained Healer's Greens, slumping to one side of his cot, wrists bleeding freely. She wondered what he thought, if he recognized what had driven her to this.
Her hand was still laying on his burned thigh. With the last bit of energy she had left, that small core of power within her that she would no longer need, she blessed him. She did not heal the burn, no, she would leave the Karsites without one additional soldier for the time being. But she strengthened his heart, his lungs, and made it so he'd never be sick a day in his life. For a moment it was as if she were connected intimately with the boy. He had the channels for a gift, she could see, though it had yet to open fully.
"Oh, child," she whispered to him, slipping into the Trader tongue of her youth, "Use it well."
Herald Trainee Zachary awoke with a start, gasping as he reached down and clutched at his leg. He yanked up the soft, comfortable pants he wore for sleeping and touched the skin gingerly. At last he sank back with a sigh of relief. His fingertips had only encountered scar tissue rather than the painful burns from all those years ago.
:You're fine, love,: a soft voice whispered in his mind. :You always are.:
Wordlessly he reached for Becca's warm, soothing presence. She wrapped him in a mental, sisterly hug, then retreated again. :Maybe you should see a Mindhealer.: she suggested, as she always did. Zach shook his head. The nightmare, six years removed from the actual events, didn't bother him as often as it once had. Now it only appeared under stressful, or grief filled situations. That healer had been the first person he'd ever seen die, and in the moments before her death, she had linked herself to him in a way he'd never felt before Becca entered his life.
Grief, past and present...in the distance, a solemn bell tolled.
Zach immediately climbed out of bed, groping around for his boots. He laced them up quickly, then stepped out into the hallway. Some of the younger trainees were already out there, milling around in confusion. He patted one little fellow, a lad by the name of Kace, on the shoulder. Kace had only just been brought in, his bond with his Companion probably wasn't strong enough for him to have been told what had happened. Zach searched internally for the knowledge that was just beginning to form there. Becca completed the picture for him.
"That's the Death Bell, Kace," he told him, kneeling down to look into the smaller boy's anxious face. "It tolls when a Herald dies."
Kace's eyes were filled with tears. He sniffled, but did not sob. "Everyone is so sad," he said. "He must have been a nice man."
"Who?" Zach asked, still waiting for Becca to sift through the other Companions and give him the details.
"Gerry told me his name was Mister Jedin. All the older Heralds are so sad. Even the King's heart is crying," Kace told him. "You're sad, too, but not the same. Like, like an echo. You didn't know him like they did."
Zach looked down in surprise at the smaller boy and quickly tightened his shields. He was still clumsy at it, so Becca reinforced him. She took a look through his eyes, her mindvoice caressing him with sympathy. :The lad's a powerful Empath. Get him back to bed. Gerry's already letting one of the shield instructors' Companions know to find him very soon. Today, perhaps.:
How he hated his inability to Mindspeak! Zach sent back reassurance, and a questioning sort of curiosity. Becca replied with a shrug. She didn't know where the floor guardian was.
"All right, everyone!" Zach shouted. By now all the boys had come out of their rooms and were milling about. "Go ahead and go back to sleep! Classes will still be held tomorrow. D'you really want to face Weaponsmaster Odo without any rest?"
He herded them back to bed, tucking little Kace in himself. The child couldn't be older than seven. One of the other older boys, a dark haired and pale faced seventeen year old named Malken, came and sat with the two of them as Zach picked out a book of tales at random from his own collection.
"What should we read?" he asked rhetorically, flipping through the book. "Hmm, something happy, I think."
"Is there even a happy tale in all of Valdemar?" Malken asked sarcastically. Kace giggled. Malken's eyes were hollow and haunted, with very dark circles beneath them. He didn't seem at all bothered to be up in the middle of the night like this. Supposedly he had the gift of foresight. Zach wondered if he ever slept.
"There's the tale of how Companions came to be!" Zach said defensively. "And...oh, shut up. I'm the foreigner, here. You should be telling me the happy tales!"
Kace looked to him with surprise. "Really?" he asked. "Where from?"
Malken smirked at Zach, reaching up and tugging at one of Zach's many brown curls. "Karse, right?"
If Kace's eyes got any bigger, they'd burst from his small face. Zach laughed. "Sort of," he said. "I was a camp follower's brat, from the borderlands."
"Weren't you scared of the Karsites?" the littlest trainee asked.
Setting down his book, Zach smiled. "Lad, I practically was a Karsite." He repeated the sentence in the tongue of his childhood, then in Trader talk. "When I was your age, I was more scared of the Demon Riders and their White Hellhorses."
Now Malken was grinning. "How ever did Becca get you back here?" he asked.
"Legally speaking, it was probably something along the lines of kidnap. I was one of those ten year old daredevils. Every horse I saw I wanted to ride, and to my surprise this one let me on! Of course, then she was off for the border before I could scream for my ma." He paused, thinking about that long ago day. Becca sent him warmth and love, and the image of him as she had seen him that day. What a scraggly child he'd been. "Couple of leagues later, she stopped. One look in those blue eyes and I'd have followed her anywhere."
"Wow," Kace said. He screwed up his face for a moment, an adorable parody of the typical Heralds' listening look. "Gerry says I was easy to find. He says he could feel me from leagues and leagues away."
A powerful Empath indeed, and not just receptive the way Zach was. He nodded his head. "Were you scared when Gerry came to get you?"
Kace thought for a moment. He was very self-possessed for a child his age. "Oh, no," he said at last. "I was very happy. So happy that my mother laughed for me as I rode away."
Malken leaned back until he was lying on one of the rugs decorating the floor. "I was chosen pretty young too, Kace. Though not as young as you are. Hayka came and got me just in time, he says. A few months later my gift came on me full force. I'm just glad he found me before that happened." He stopped, then. "Would you like to hear the tale?"
Kace nodded eagerly, then piped a quick yes when he realized Malken couldn't see him. With dramatic flare and much zeal, Malken relayed how Hayka had arrived at the front door of his merchant parents' shop, tapping lightly with one chiming hoof and gesturing for their youngest son. Soon, Kace was asleep, snoring gently as the story came to a close. For a few moments, the two older boys sat in silence.
"I can't believe Jedin's gone," Malken said at last.
Zach reached over and patted his ankle lightly. "Me neither. Wonder if Rolan is already out searching."
Malken closed his eyes. "No, I think he went back."
Raising his eyebrows, Zach cocked his head to one side. "Back where?"
"To the grove. Somewhere very bright. At least, that's what I was dreaming of before the Death Bell woke me."
Zach looked over to Kace, only to see that the boy truly had fallen into a deep sleep. Noticing his gaze, Malken rose and moved over to the lit lamp. "Angels asleep, devils awake," he muttered, then waited until Zach was at the door to blow out the lamp.
They shut the door carefully behind them. Malken was nearly halfway down the deserted hall before Zach remembered to ask the question that had been bothering him. "Hey, Mal," he called softly, "D'you think that Herald Jedin's death means something might happen to the king?"
Malken halted abruptly, but did not turn around. "Just because I have Foresight doesn't mean I know everything," he said just as quietly, then hurried to his rooms.
He'd only been asking for an opinion, but judging by that reaction and his sudden surge of worry, Zach had to wonder if maybe Malken did know something.
He sent Becca worry, she sent him peace, sleepiness. He collapsed onto his bed, having just enough presence of mind to remove his boots before once again succumbing to the urge to close his eyes.
Princess Vana looked up from her book at the sound of the Death Bell, a small frown overtaking her face. She replaced her bookmark, glanced one last time at the page to mark her place, then set the book down on the seat she had just occupied. Knowing it would be only a few moments before her mother found out she'd been reading late into the night again, she blew out the lamp and quickly mussed her sheets and hair. After schooling her face into a confused expression, she sat on the edge of the bed and blinked sleepily.
Soft footsteps came from the corridor, the doorknob turned and Queen Fyllis stole into the room. Closing the door just as quietly behind her, she turned and sighed at the sight of her teenage daughter. "Vana, I know you're completely awake."
Her mother's empathic gift always undid her schemes. Vana opened her eyes fully and looked at the queen expectantly. Given the lack of anger in her voice, Fyllis had more important things on her mind.
"What is it, Mother?" she prompted, reaching up to fix her hair. Taking the brush from her vanity, Fyllis moved to sit beside her daughter, combing gently through her fine blonde hair. Vana leaned back, enjoying the attention that her mother so rarely had the time to bestow. Though the teenage years were the perfect age for her to begin resenting this lack of attention, she never had. She was simply too easy going.
"You heard the bell," Fyllis remarked after a moment, placing a hand over her daughter's ear to protect it from the brush bristles. "It was for Jedin, and Rolan too."
Vana sat up a little straighter, ignoring the tug on her hair. "So there's a new Groveborn?" she asked, careful not to sound too concerned. After all, having been around the palace her entire life, at fifteen and with her brother already Chosen it was unlikely any Companion would choose her. No, it was probably too late for her, but she couldn't help but hope, even knowing it was probable her dreams would be crushed.
"Yes, dear," Fyllis paused. "He already left, I think."
"Oh." She'd known this would happen. It would not crush her, it would not hurt her. She took a moment to gather her thoughts and felt Fyllis's warm, soothing gift add to the gentle strokes of the brush. So that was why her Empath mother was here and not with the other Heralds. She knew the news would be the last nail in the coffin of her dreams of being Chosen.
"I'm fine, Mother," she said abruptly, not wanting to play pretense any longer. "I knew I wouldn't be Chosen. I'm not right for it, somehow."
"Oh, sweetheart, no," Fyllis began. "Maybe your Companion isn't an adult yet, or-"
Vana cut her off, shocked at her own audacity, but even more pleased at the surprised look on her mother's face. How unlike herself she was acting. Maybe this personality transplant would get her Chosen. But no, no, never. "No, Mother. I'm not going to be chosen. I'd hoped, maybe, to be the King's Own for Clevis, but even that wasn't meant to be."
"There's no point in encouraging that dream any longer. I'm not the sick little girl I once was, where Companions would ferry me around just to make me happy. The world doesn't work like that, the kingdom doesn't work like that. I of all people should know."
Queen Fyllis's face had that listening look about it, the one that made commoners say that Heralds seemed otherworldly. After a moment, her eyes focused once more on Vana. "You're right," she said. "But Vana, sweetheart, you're not less of a person just because you're not a Herald."
No, just not good enough somehow. Never, ever good enough. Vana nodded anyway, knowing it would make Fyllis happy. "I'm tired, Mother. May I be excused?"
Fyllis stood. They embraced, and the Queen left as quietly as she had entered. Vana did not move to retrieve her book. Instead, she went to her closet and donned a warm cloak and boots. Silent as a cat, silent as her mother, she left her rooms behind, heading for the Companions' Field.
No, they would not choose her. But she had always found comfort among them somehow, and would not let the loss of a mere pipe dream destroy that.
Gods, how Siri hated family events. Right on cue a few screaming children ran through the inn's front room, apparently pursued by another, roaring, slightly older cousin. She stepped back out of the way and let them continue, simply too tired to halt and hush them yet again. Besides, where were their parents, anyway? She sighed. Probably upstairs in the innkeeper's suite with Papa and Mama enjoying their break from the hellions.
Another lap, and this time she moved to block the exit. "Just where do you think you're going making such a racket?" she scolded them, especially her little brother Werner, who tried to squeeze past her anyway. "Go upstairs to your room, show Cousin Jackie your toys from Midwinter."
"Don't want to," he said, lower lip sticking out. Looking at his stubborn, intractable face, Siri felt a sudden surge of pity for her mother. She was altogether a more headstrong child than Werner, how on earth had her mother put up with her naughtiness?
"Do it anyway," she ordered, raising her eyebrows when that stuck out lip began to tremble. "Wouldn't you like to see all the toys, Jackie?"
Completely unaware of the battle of wills going on around him, the second little boy threw his hands in the air. "Would I!" he exclaimed, endlessly cheerful. Siri wished, not for the first time, that her brother and this much more agreeable child had been switched at birth.
With a look that promised a frog in her bed at some point, Werner took Jackie out of the room. Siri didn't follow, instead slumping onto the one of the inn's benches unfortunately near an older, confirmed bachelor cousin. "Looking to have a few of your own soon?" said cousin teased, sliding closer on the bench.
"No," she said wearily. "I'm only seventeen, and I don't have the patience anyway. And they say that 'May your children be just like you' is a potent curse."
"You'll change your mind," the cousin said confidently, and Siri turned her head automatically to hide her grimace.
"Of course," she answered as diplomatically as possible. "Probably around the same time you marry." While the comment could be taken kindly, as if expressing hope that the cousin would marry, Siri knew the relative would take it in the opposite way. Exactly as she wanted. "If you'll excuse me," she stated, not waiting for an answer before rising and leaving for another room, any room at all.
Was it her, or was every room incredibly stifling? No matter how few relatives actually lingered, it seemed as if merely knowing they had been in the inn caused the rooms to feel wrong. The walls seemed closer than before, the air warm and cloying. She could practically feel them still there. Gritting her teeth, she made an abrupt turn and headed for the door.
Outside, small flurries of snow drifted in the slight wind along the normally popular trade route. Given the temperature and weather, though, she doubted the inn would be doing any further business today. Siri wrapped her arms around herself and considered returning for a coat when the sight of something large and white in the distance caught her eye. "Silly," she chided herself. "It's a snowbank in the middle of winter."
Then the snowbank moved, and she smiled with delight. A lone Companion, all decked out in blue and silver, was coming down the road, hooves chiming softly as he-yes, he-drew closer. Loosing one of her hands from where they were clamped under her arms, she waved.
"Fancy getting me out of here?" she joked as the Companion drew near, brushing a few strands of short brown hair from her face. "I know you're on your way for someone else, but I'd be happy to help out."
The Companion halted, snorted and shook his head. She laughed at this answer of sorts. He pointed at the closed door behind her, and shook his head again. "No, cold or no, I'd really rather not be inside."
He tilted his head to one side, blue eyes sparkling with curiosity. She shrugged. "I can go in and get you some food, if you'd like, but otherwise I'll stay right here, thank you very much."
With a sort of shiver-shrug and jingle of tack bells, the Companion whickered a laugh. Then he looked up, right at her, blue eyes meeting and capturing her own hazel eyes with stunning intensity.
:No need for food,: a warm, strong male voice seemed to say somewhere just inside her ear. :I wouldn't go back inside either. But it's rather cold out here, and it'll be an even colder ride. You may want that coat after all.:
For a moment all Siri could do was gape. The stallion paced forward and, reaching his nose under her chin, closed her mouth gently with a click. "Ah," she said at last as he stepped back to look at her face to face. "Does this mean what I think it means?"
Warm amusement seemed to flood her heart, brotherly love as well. :No. After all, Companions, particularly Groveborn Companions, regularly speak with and take random girls on rides.:
She wasn't dreaming. There was no way she would have ever imagined a Companion, let alone a Groveborn, this sarcastic. Raising a hand and placing it on his neck, she buried her fingers into his mane. "Sorry," she said, not sorry at all. "Not every day a snowbank starts talking to me."
Confusion at her words, followed by dawning understanding and amusement rolled gently over her. :Snowbank. That is new.: He seemed inordinately pleased. :Now go get your coat, and perhaps something to eat. It will be a few hours to the waystation.:
As she turned to go, untangling her hand gently from his luxurious mane, the stallion caught her eyes once more. :Oh, one more thing,: he said, almost as an afterthought, though what came next never had been and could never be anything of the sort. :Siri, innkeeper's daughter, I am the Monarch's Own Companion Kelvin, and I Choose you.:
She was wrapped in love, surrounded by the heat of pride and supported by the strength of unyielding loyalty. Blue filled her vision, the gleaming sapphire of Kelvin's eyes. Friendship and kindness and connection filled the place in her heart loneliness had once called home, and everything she received, Siri returned, for such was the nature of love. Reeling with delight, she placed both hands along Kelvin's face and pressed her forehead to his.
"I didn't even know I missed you," she said without thinking, for once not questioning from whence her words came.
:Never again shall you have to,: Kelvin vowed. :I will never leave you, Siri. I will be with you all your life.:
The flood of feelings tapered away, and soon they were simply girl and Companion standing on a shoveled walkway that was slowly being covered once more with snow. Siri hugged Kelvin quickly, then stepped back. "I'll get my coat," she said, then bounded inside. For all that she loved her family, she couldn't help the eagerness.
After all, it wasn't every day a Groveborn Companion took a girl on a ride.