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Crucible: All-New Tales of Valdemar

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Crucible: All-New Tales of Valdemar

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Author: Mercedes Lackey
Publisher: DAW Books, 2015
Series: Valdemar Anthologies: Book 9
Book Type: Anthology
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

In March 1987, Mercedes Lackey, a young author from Oklahoma, published her first novel, Arrows of the Queen. No one could have envisioned that this modest book about a magical land called Valdemar would be the beginning of a fantasy masterwork series that would span decades and include more than two dozen titles.

Now the voices of other authors add their own special touches to the ancient land where Heralds "Chosen" from all walks of life by magical horse-like Companions patrol their ancient kingdom, dispensing justice, facing adversaries, and protecting their monarch and country from whatever threatens. Trained rigorously by the Herald's Collegium, these special protectors each have extraordinary Gifts: Mindspeaking, FarSeeing, FarSpeaking, Empathy, Firestarting and ForeSeeing, and are bonded for life with their mysterious Companions. Travel with these astounding adventurers in these original stories.

Table of Contents:


Excerpt

Running, stumbling, looking over her shoulder. Gasping for breath. Monster stalking nearer. Scrabbling at the tree, climbing, escaping. Shuddering with fear and pain. Free? No. It's coming back. Hunting. Must get higher! Must--

Still seeking escape, Hadara lunged out of her nest, clawing for higher ground. She tumbled forward, falling to the soft Vale earth. Before she gathered herself, realized she wasn't being hunted and there was no danger, Serta, one of the little hertasi who looked after k'Leysha Vale, was there.

"Hadara?" The little lizard stepped closer.

The gryphon tilted her head, listening to where Serta moved. It was well out of range. Hadara clambered back into her nest and resettled her wings, fluffing her tawny feathers. When she was still, she turned sightless eyes to Serta. "It was a nightmarrre. I wasss being hunted by a monssster. The Pelagirrssss..."

"It's the fallen shield. Many things get in." Serta stepped closer, noisy for the silent and near invisible hertasi.

Hadara knew it was for her benefit. Part of her appreciated the courtesy. Part of her wanted to clack her beak at the little creature, coming within a whisker of the hertasi to show that, blind she may be, she was not incapable.

Instead, she sighed. "You'rrre rrrright. I mussst be hearrring one of the ssmarrrterr prrrey animalssss out therre."

"Soon. Soon. The shields will return. The Mage Storms are done. The Heartstone will be refilled."

"I know." Hadara crossed her claws before her and rested her chin upon them. It was logical, of course. A Pelagiris creature in danger. Her own strong Animal Mindspeech. The sleeping mind sees much...

Still, she couldn't help but think there was more to this nightmare.

- - -

The next two nights were the same. Dreams of being hunted. Of being lost, hurt, and confused. Almost understanding what had happened, but having no time to think with the monster stalking her every step. More than once, Hadara woke in a wonder of looking down at clawed hands instead of gryphon's claws. Hands that could almost be human.

It didn't make sense. There was too much there to be a mere animal. Too much personality beneath the fear and confusion. She--it was a she--needed help. Hadara knew it, and that she was coming toward the Vale.

On the morning of the fourth day, Hadara found herself at the edge of the Vale, straining with all her senses to catch any scent or mind-call. She opened herself as much as she dared in an unprotected Vale on the edge of the Pelagiris. She had to be careful since most of the border guards and scouts were assisting the Shin'a'in back to the Dhorisha Plains. Each dream had gotten stronger and more vivid. Despite the loss of her sight, Hadara still dreamed in vision. For now. Calmwater had counseled her that such dreams would fade in time.

As if summoned by her thought, Calmwater stepped up to her side. The two of them stood in silence. Hadara wondered if he'd been sent by the hertasi.

"Tiron told me you'd not been to see them this morning. I fear you have spoiled them with your attentions. They've come to expect your presence."

The herds of dyheli that lived nearby were great friends. It had been days since she'd gone to visit with them. An unfortunate oversight, so soon after the Mage Storms.

Hadara fluffed her feathers, then let them lay smooth against her head once more. "I have been thinking."

"About your dreams?"

Lolling her mouth open in a smile, Hadara couldn't help herself or her sharp tone. "Do the hertasi ssspy for you or do they merrrely gosssssip?"

"A little of both." Calmwater shifted his stance next to her.

She heard the beads woven through his long hair click against each other in harmony. She was not willing to play the waiting game today. "Therre iss ssomething in trrrrouble out therre."

"Are you sure that it isn't your mind still seeking ways to find a cure for your affliction?"

This time, Hadara did clack her beak near him. "I am not helplessss. I am not a mewling crrreature looking for ssssomething I will not find. I am capable. I am..." She paused, her beak hovering near his face, smelling his particular scent, "... not making thingsss up."

For a long moment, Calmwater said nothing as Hadara shifted her attention back to the strange forest beyond the Vale. "I understand all these things. I apologize for giving you the impression that I thought you incapable. Your strength of Animal Mindspeech is unrivaled--"

"Thanksss to my blindnessss," she interrupted. The bitterness in her voice startled her.

He continued without pause, "--and I wished to see if there is anything I may do for you."

"No." Hadara gouged the ground, tearing it with her wicked claws. Despite his protestations and his assurance that he did not believe her incapable, the first thing he did was ask to help her. Calmwater was wise, but, at the same time, he was as blind as she in some respects.

She listened to him leave without another word. Hadara bowed her head. Her blindness was difficult for many to accept. At times, even her. But it was the way of things now. Despite it, she was not crazy. Something out there in the Pelagiris--something sentient--was in trouble.

"You were harsh."

Serta's scolding voice came from her left, and again irritation warred with pleasure. Hadara had not heard the hertasi. That meant that Serta hadn't thought to treat her as an invalid this time.

She raised her beak high. "If I wasss, it wasss because he believed me addddlebrained."

"Or petulant."

Hadara turned her head to Serta. "Perrrhapsss. But I am not wrrrong."

She would have said more, but the vision of running, of fear, of foliage streaming past her face, was there once more in overwhelming clarity. With it came the wordless cry for help. Hadara stumbled as the images of a headlong flight and the sensation of gasping for air assaulted her. She turned her head this way and that, trying to get a sense of where the creature was.

"Hadara?"

"It'sss back! Sssshe's in trouble. It will get herrr this time!" Hadara pulled herself to her feet, feeling the panic of the animal in flight. "I have to help."

"How?" Serta was at her side.

The answer came in the form of a familiar glade not too far from the Vale. Hadara knew it--not from the sight of it but from the plants within, the fallen logs, and the tree at its head.

"The glade of two logsss. Take me." Hadara was already heading into the forest, her wings out and mantled so she could gauge where the trees were. The trail, while not an easy stroll, was not unfamiliar.

Serta scurried alongside her, near her front left leg. The two moved in unison down one of the worn forest paths. It was too slow. Images of a monstrous creature flashed before her. Black chitin armor on a wolfen back. Two snarling heads where only one should be. Five clawed legs. Snapping teeth came too close.

Hadara stumbled. Serta was there. There was little the hertasi could do except wait for the gryphon to get her feet. "Too ssslow. You have to help me. Guide me!" Hadara rose, bowed her head, and ran. All the while, confused imagery filled her mind. Now the view was one of height, looking down on the changed monster.

"Left!" Serta yelled as she kept pace. Hadara dodged left, bumping her right wing into a tree. "Left," the hertasi instructed. "Left and then right. Big tree."

Hadara did as she was told, remembering this path. She walked it on her own when she had time. Half-tripping over some roots, she gave a squawk, and the image in her mind turned from the monster trying to climb the tree toward the trail leading out of the glade.

:Help! Help me!:

The Animal Mindspeech was so strong it almost made Hadara fall again. Instead, she shook her head to clear it, then called with all her strength. :I'm coming. I'm coming. Watch the monster. Watch where it goes.:

Hadara and Serta burst into the glade. Hadara got a good look at what she and Serta looked like, running pell-mell into sight. The cry of a hawk in pain filled the air, and the image shifted to one of the monster's heads clamped onto a human leg.

"Get help!" Hadara didn't wait for Serta to answer. Instead, she screamed a battle cry and charged the creature in her mind's eye. She used the flickering glade images to tell her where the monster was as she leapt. Landing on the back of the two-headed monster, Hadara could see what she looked like from the side as she tore flesh with beak and claw.

:Gryphon... ?:

:Keep watching. I need your--: Hadara didn't get to finish the thought as the wolfen monster spun, throwing her from its back. She landed hard on her side. The snarling, slavering creature was on her before she could bounce to her feet.

It tried for her throat and face, but she kept the two heads from her with her front claws while raking its tender underbelly with her back claws. The chitin kept her from being effective. Hadara stabbed at one face with her beak, drawing blood. The other wolf head howled, and the gryphon threw the monster off her.

The two circled each other--then the image was gone, replaced with foliage. "No! Keep watching!" Hadara cried, even as she was bowled over by the monster she couldn't see anymore. Snapping jaws bit deep into her chest. As the image returned to the fight, the gryphon had just enough time to block the wolfen claws before they tore into her underbelly.

Then the fight came close as the creature she'd come to rescue in turn rescued her by stabbing the wolfen creature in the hindquarters. The dagger--a human dagger--struck deep into the monster's haunch. It kicked out at the creature, knocking her back but allowing Hadara to roll the monster off her.

:Keep watching it. Please! I can't see it if you don't.: Hadara threw the Animal Mindspeech toward what she now thought to be a mutated tervardi.

Wordless surprise and understanding flooded Hadara's mind. Then, with a foresight she wouldn't have thought of, the tervardi moved toward the gryphon but kept her eyes on the monster. Suddenly, it was as if Hadara were seeing it with her own eyes. She mantled her wings and screamed a challenge at the monster.

As she moved, circling, the tervardi moved with her to keep the view consistent. The wolfen creature charged. Hadara met the charge with raking claws and slashing beak, keeping it away from the injured tervardi.

Then a colorful streak of red-tailed hawk ripped fur from the back of one of the wolf heads, and a woman in red and green dove at the side of the monster with biting blades. Her hair, cut short in the style of scouts and warriors, was as red as blood. It was Crimsonstrike, Calmwater's lifemate. Moments later, Nightclaw and Summerfire were there, and the monster had no chance.

The image of the fight cut off as the tervardi pressed her face to Hadara's neck, sobbing in bird cries and babbled Animal Mindspeech. :I was caught in the storm. It hurt so much. Then I was lost, confused, and the monster found me. It killed my horse. My poor Rune. It hunted me for days. I don't understand what's happened to me.:

All Hadara could do was fold her wings and one claw about the distressed tervardi. She chirped soothing tones. :It's over. It's over now. Shhhh.:

But Hadara knew it was far from over. She could smell hawk on the tervardi. And human. Something terrible had happened, but she didn't understand what until she heard Crimsonstrike murmur, "Change-Child."

- - -

By the time the group returned to k'Leysha Vale, the hertasi had already created a space next to Hadara's nest for the Change-Child. Hadara had pried the girl's name out of her. It was one that made all who heard look closer at her: Kitha shena Tale'sedrin.

No one could part Kitha from Hadara's side. After the first attempt ended in panic and Hadara flaring in protective anger, no one tried. They left the two alone with Serta lurking on the edges, waiting to be needed.

Kitha whistled, then chirped, each sound more distressed than the last.

:Shh, Kitha. You're safe.:

:Why can't I speak? Why does everything look different? My hands have claws. What's wrong with me?:

Hadara was silent for a moment before she spoke. "I don't know. I cannot sssee you. I'm blind."

Kitha's mind stilled. Then she sent, :But you can speak like this and with your voice.:

"Yesss. But, when I ssspeak mind to mind with you, I'm usssing Animal Mindssspeech." Hadara tilted her head. Kitha did not respond. "I thought you might be terrrvardi. But, you are Sssshin'a'in. I smell hawk on you, but..."

Kitha stood, her hand on Hadara's wing. :Change-Child. What does this mean?:

Hadara stood by her and realized how small Kitha was. Not much taller than an adolescent Kaled'a'in. "Lend me your eyesss. I will take you to one of the pools. Therrrre we may sssee what we sssee."

She did not need to see to guide the girl to the pool. But after moons of darkness, she was hungry for color and sight. There was the familiar mental touch that Hadara accepted. With the ease of slipping on a cuff, images blossomed in her mind. She was looking at herself. Her tawny mottled feathers, her white, sightless eyes, her yellow beak and white crest feathers. In Kitha's eyes, she was beautiful.

"Put your hand on my neck and look forrrward. I will sssshow you."

Kitha did as she was told. :Change-Child?: she prompted.

Knowing the girl would not be put off, Hadara stepped onto the well-tended pathways, leading Kitha to one of the nearby still pools. :A Change-Child is one who has been changed by magic. If you were Shin'a'in, you are now something more. I do not know what. You may have been caught in a Change Circle.: She paused for a few long moments as they approached the pool.:Look into the pool so I may see.:

Hadara sat as Kitha leaned over the still water and gasped the soft chirr of a bird. Reflected was a small creature: part human, part bird. She had no human hair left; instead, her head was covered in the mottled feathers of a young red-tailed hawk from brow to neck. The left side of her face from cheekbone to brow had the feathered face and golden eye of a bird. Her right half was of a lovely young woman with a green eye the Tale'sedrin were famous for. Her nose and mouth were a blend of beak and lip. From her strong chin down to her neck was human, but Hadara could see feathers peeking out over Kitha's shoulders.

Kitha slapped at the water with a cry of denial, then ran from the still pool. Darkness descended once more for Hadara. She contemplated what this meant for the girl, but she did not follow. She had something else to do. Raising her head, she asked, "How long have you been therrrre?"

Calmwater stepped forward with silent steps. "Long enough to see what I needed to see."

"Can sssshe be healed?"

The adept was silent for longer than Hadara liked. "No. Were the Heartstone full, it would've been possible to help her in some small way, but now, no. Perhaps not ever, because of the nature of the change. Our far-ranging scouts found a Change Circle. I fear the longer Kitha is like this, the harder it will be to reverse when the magic returns."

Hadara murred in thought. "K'Leysssha Vale... ?" she asked.

"Will accept her as one of their own." Calmwater's voice was firm. "We are the best place for her now. We understand magic and Change-Children. If she went back to the Shin'a'in, they'd only send her here."

- - -

Hadara returned to her nest and found Kitha there. She moved with slow, careful steps until she circled the Change-Child with her warm bulk. Kitha remained stiff and unyielding for thirty heartbeats. Then she turned and threw herself against Hadara's side, wailing with hawklike cries of despair. Hadara did nothing more than let the Change-Child sob her broken heart out and hum a soothing, soft tune within her mind.

Little by little, sobs shifted into tears and hiccups that subsided into the cuddle of the exhausted. Hadara was almost asleep when Kitha shifted and asked, :How did you become blind?:

The question should not have startled her, but it did. Hadara shivered her feathers in memory, then smoothed them over. "It wasss an accident. It wasss my own fault."

:Tell me in here? With words and images?:

:As you wish.:

Kitha turned over and settled against Hadara's side.

Hadara sent her the image of long travels and new places. Of Mage Portals and floating Kaled'a'in sleds. Many gryphons flew while hertasi rode and the tervardi, dyheli, and Kaled'a'in walked. There was a rest spot in a castle ruins. Hadara frolicked among the rocks until she found a sparkling gem on the ground. She eyed it with curiosity, then turned it over with a claw. Instead of flipping over like a normal jewel, the brightest, burning light seared into Hadara's brain. It was the last thing she'd seen until now.

Kitha sat up. :It was a trap?:

:A trap. An alarm. Something left over from a long time ago.:

:They could not fix your eyes?:

:No, Kitha. It was magic burn. There was nothing anyone could do, even when there was enough magic in the world. Now... :

:Now there is no magic... : Kitha's mental voice was soft with realization. :I cannot be helped.:

Hadara covered her with a wing. "No. Not rrrright now. Not until the Hearrrtssstone is full once morrre. Even then, it isss not a sssure thing." She could smell the salt tears coursing down Kitha's face. "But be not afrrraid. You have a home here. The Kaled'a'in alrrready accccept you as you arrrre. You arrre ssssstill wanted. I will be herrre for you."

Kitha did not answer. She lay back against Hadara's side, allowing the gryphon to shelter her.

- - -

:I cannot stay. I have a duty to perform.:

Now that Kitha had had time to calm down and to think, Hadara found the young woman to be bright and stubborn in the face of everything. "But I've alrrready made ccccertain you had a home. I--"

Kitha moved to Hadara's side. :Thank you. I am so grateful. But I must complete my mission. I must. I am a courier. I have a message to return from the White Winds Mage, Quenten of Bolthaven, to give to Terek shena Tale'sedrin. This is something I cannot fail in.:

"The Ssshin'a'in werrre evacuated during the Mage Ssstormssss. They will not be wherrrre they once werrre. Only now they rrrreturn from the Valesss to the Dhorrrisssha Plainssss."

:Be that as it may, I must go. A courier who cannot find her home clan is no Shin'a'in. I must do this. On my honor and the honor of my family.:

Hadara nuzzled Kitha's head feathers, at a loss. She did not want Kitha to leave. It was more than the fact that the girl could share her vision. She could not explain it. The fact that Kitha was insisting spoke of something more. Finally, she asked, "What arrren't you sssssaying?"

Kitha opened her sight once more as she opened her wounded heart. :I am not full Shin'a'in. I am half-Shin'a'in. The well-known Kerowyn is my great-aunt. Her brother, Landon, is my grandfather. I grew up in Jkatha, but the strength of my ancestors runs through my veins. My mother, though she loved my Shin'a'in father, refused life on the Plains. I, like all my family, had the opportunity to spend summers there... and to choose my family when I turned fourteen. I'd chosen to be a courier, as I knew what it was to traverse the cities and to live on the Plains. This last trip... it was to be my proving ground.:

:Proving ground for what?:

:My ability to be the courier my Clan and Family needed. From the Plains to Rethwellan and back. My first solo job. It is my duty to make it back home and prove that their teaching was not in vain. No matter what I look like now.:

Hadara felt Kitha's determination, her hope, and the encroaching despair. She radiated warmth, love, and support. "You cannot sssspeak."

Kitha flexed her clawed fingers. :I can still write. I will learn the silent language.:

"They will sssend you back herrre. The Sssshin'a'in do not deal in magic."

:But they will know I survived. A three-moon trip became five, but I still survived. They taught me well.: Kitha paused and leaned against Hadara. :I will need to write to my mother and let her know what happened as well. I cannot start a new life as I am until I deal with what I once was.:

Hadara hugged Kitha close, her own heart breaking. She could not stop Kitha from fulfilling what she saw as her duty.

- - -

"No. Absolutely not. We cannot allow you to leave, Kitha."

Calmwater's voice put Hadara on edge. She could feel Kitha's agitation as the Change-Child sounded an annoyed cry.

Hadara translated for the small group. "Ssshe sssayssss that you cannot keep herrr captive in the Vale. Sssshe will go with or without yourrrr perrrmisssssion."

"Does she not understand that--?"

Kitha cut off Calmwater with another sharp shriek. Hadara felt her move until Kitha stood under her beak. :Translate for me?:

:Yes. Of course.: Hadara spoke the words as Kitha fed them to her. "Do not ssspeak about me as if I am not herrrre or too sssstupid to underrrsssstand. I may not have the ability to sssspeak, but I am as able as the rrrrest of you." Hadara clacked her beak for emphasis, imagining the fierce look on Kitha's face.

"Yes. Of course. I apologize." Calmwater gazed directly at Kitha. From Hadara's point of view, it was as if he were staring at her breast feathers. "Please understand that while we Kaled'a'in can accept you as you are now, the Tale'sedrin will not. Your family in Jkatha will not."

"I do not need them to accccccept me. I need them to acccccept that I completed this misssssion. What happensss then, I will deal with then. I will not borrrrrow trrrrouble."

Crimsonstrike spoke. "You are willing to risk your life to make a point?"

Hadara did not speak for Kitha, and Kitha did not respond.

"Kitha shena Tale'sedrin, as one who saved your life, you owe me an answer."

Hadara and Kitha winced as one. Kitha nodded as Hadara answered. "Yess. I am willing to rrrisssk mysssself to make a point. I have a duty to my Clan. Even if that Clan will no longer accccept me, theirrrr teaching was ssssound. They could not protect me from the Mage Ssstorrrmss. I will go to them with or without your perrmissssion."

Crimsonstrike nodded, giving Kitha a half-smile. "As stubborn as a Shin'a'in."

"How will you get them to listen to you before they cut you down? You have no voice." Calmwater sounded more and more frustrated.

"I am of the Clan of the Hawk. I am parrrrt hawk. They will wait."

"You are a Change-Child!"

"Ssshe will not be alone. I will be with herrrr." Hadara was suddenly looking at herself, at her beak from the underside. She gave Kitha an open-mouthed grin. Now that Hadara understood what she needed to do to soothe her own heart, she couldn't contain her joy. :You need me. I need you. We can do this together. We won't be alone.:

:You would come with me? I'd hoped but I didn't want to ask. You're... :

:If you say blind, I'm going to rap you on the head with my beak.:

"You are blind! It cannot be helped. I forbid you to go!" Calmwater stood. "I will not allow you to harm yourself again--"

Crimsonstrike put a hand on her lifemate's arm. She gazed at the pair before her. "Perhaps there is more than one proving ground here. It has been five moons since Hadara was blinded. The same length of time as Kitha's journey. Perhaps, the Star-Eyed has plans for these two."

Hadara raised her beak. "Perrrhapsss. But I cannot, and will not, allow Kitha to go alone. I may borrrrow herrr eyessss. Sssshe may borrow my voice. We are two of a kind. We complement each other."

Kitha whistled in approval. Then Hadara spoke for her. "Yesss. We complement each otherrr. I will be herrr eyesss. Sssshe will be my voice when therrre are those too... blind... to understand what has happened."

Crimsonstrike stood and leaned over to Calmwater. There was a long, silent moment when nothing could be heard except for the Vale noises around them. Then Calmwater nodded. "It seems I cannot stop you. I can, however, request that you return here should things go awry."

:He can request that all he wants.: Kitha mind-muttered to Hadara.

:It will be good to prove him wrong,: the gryphon replied. :And to prove that both of us can do this, together.:

The Highjorune Masque
Stephanie D. Shaver

She'd been calling herself Bree ever since she came to Highjorune eight months ago. She'd spent two of those months waiting for a Herald to rescue her.

And in the meantime--she worked. And sang.

Today she swept ashes. Highjorune had enough people to warrant a soapmaker, and soap needed lye, and lye needed lots of ashes. It didn't pay well, but it let her go to many places without anyone noticing.

And where she went, she took her songs with her.

She walked a fine line between outing herself and being unobtrusive. Whenever she had to go to the Crown of Lineas, she made damn sure that Ferrin, the inn's resident Bard, was nowhere to be seen when she sang. If he heard her, he'd know. And if he knew, he'd probably kill her.

But--fine line. She needed to watch him without him knowing she watched. So she went back to the Crown, over and over, and she risked her little songs. Songs about Sendar and Selenay, songs about the good Valdemar had done. After all, if she had to cross thin ice, she might as well dance.

"Morning, Bree," Ystell, the Crown's cook, said cheerfully. Her face looked as though she'd caught a battle-ax with her forehead--mainly because she had. She'd even kept the ax after dispatching the mercenary responsible and mounted it over the hearth in the Crown's kitchen as a subtle reminder to food critics of whose food they quibbled with.

Not that Ystell was anything but the embodiment of kindness. Bree liked only a handful of Highjoruners, and Ystell numbered on that list. Along with the soapmakers, Skarron and Derdre, and Orenn, the Crown's hostler, plus a half-dozen others who'd been nothing but kind to her, a stranger from the outside.

"Morning, Miss Cook," Bree replied, answering to her assumed name without hesitation. She'd been filled with intense melancholy the first time she'd realized that she'd stopped listening for her real name. She'd written three songs off the deep sadness.

A small body hurtled through the back door and flung itself at the cook, who carried on as if she hadn't been ambushed by a toddler. "Suze," she said to the child, "you need to wait for breakfast."

"But Miss Cook," she replied, with perfect toddler logic, "I'm hungry now."

The cook's eye twinkled, and her skillful hands moved slightly. A scrap of baked-off pie dough, glazed with honey and spices, magically appeared in Suze's hand. The child took discreet bites, beaming at her benefactor.

"You need to wait, wait, wait," Bree said, putting a little song into the words, drawing Suze over to the fire. The child had a round face, dark curls, and serious gray eyes. Her father, the inn's newest hostler, had started working at the Crown a month ago. He was a widower, or so Bree assumed, because when she'd asked Suze where her mama was, the child had replied with perfect seriousness, "The Havens."

Then Suze had grabbed a handful of Bree's ashes. Hilarity had, unfortunately, ensued.

Today, she seemed to respect the buckets of ash, as much because her hand was sticky with honey-crust as having been told numerous times they were "no touch."

"How are you this morning, Suze?" she asked.

"Hungry." She finished the last of her pie dough and licked her fingers clean.

"Well, I hear breakfast is soon." Bree stood up, hauling her buckets with her. "Ystell, I'm off."

"Take care, love. Come back for supper, if you care. We more than owe you."

Bree stopped briefly to claim her cloak from the peg by the door. She kept her head down as she walked outside, past the bake-oven and the stables, passing Suze's father, Attikas, as she went. The bearded hostler had a similar eyes-downcast way of walking, and they mumbled greetings to one another as they passed. Past him in the stables, she saw Eel the stableboy sweeping out stalls. As a nickname, Eel more than suited his clammy skin and greasy hair. It didn't help that he clung to Ferrin like... well, more a leech than an eel. Either way, she liked him slightly more than Ferrin, which was to say: not at all.

Dinner with the Lord Buffoon and his lickspittle? she thought as she turned down the street toward the soapworks. I think not.

And then she heard it: the impossible clip-clop-chime of Companion hooves.

She froze, clinging to her bucket handles.

Herald, she thought. Oh, gods, finally.

Two Companions came around the corner. One mare, one stallion.

Two unbridled, unsaddled Companions.

Bree's heart sank.

They had drawn a small crowd of children and young adults, expressing open curiosity. Bree stepped aside to let them and their entourage pass. The Companions turned into the Crown's courtyard and approached Eel, who screamed and jumped backward, slamming up against the back of the stall he'd been sweeping.

Both Companions flattened their ears. The mare snapped at the air. The stallion gave her a reproving look, but the moment her teeth clapped down, Eel's screaming stopped. She snorted, then pointed with her nose to the stalls.

Ystell appeared around a corner, berating Eel for his rudeness. She at least knew what riderless Companions far from Haven meant--a Choosing, most likely. The cook led the Companions to the widest stalls in the stable, talking to them as she would a paying guest. The crowd dispersed gradually, and Bree went with them.

No Heralds doesn't mean no hope. With every step, she could feel her bitterness fading. Companions can Mindtalk.

Bree realized then what she must do.

I'm going to have to have dinner with Lord Buffoon.

- - -

Ystell brightened when Bree stepped into the kitchen. "Bright Lady!" she exclaimed. "You've finally come to dinner!"

Bree inhaled the aroma of rosemary and deeply browned onions as she hung up her cloak. Supper for the staff came after the dinner service but before the Bard's performance. The staff filtered in by singles and pairs. Attikas arrived with his daughter, who spun a silver-and-blue top on the table while they waited for dinner. The pot-scrubbers and maids came in next, followed by Orenn and Eel.

Last came the innkeeper, Sharlot, practically draped over Ferrin and laughing obsequiously at some joke he'd just told.

"I'm telling you, dearest," he said to her, continuing his jest, "you ought to send a bill to Selenay."

Sharlot giggled. "Oh, stop."

Ystell set a marvelous collection of cottage pies, bacon pies, and cheese-and-onion pies on the table. Everyone served themselves, with Ferrin pouncing first.

"Why not?" he continued, helping himself to slabs of both cheese-and-onion and cottage pie. "They're eating your hay, taking up your stalls. Did Selenay ask your permission to house them in your inn?"

"I'm sure you'll get a chit to put toward taxes," Orenn said. "And it's Queen Selenay, Ferrin."

Ferrin met Orenn's gaze with a smile. "So it is, Orenn. Silly me. I keep forgetting she's my Queen."

Eel and Sharlot snickered.

His voice took on a treacly wickedness. "Highjorune didn't used to be part of Valdemar. Maybe it needs to remember that. Don't you agree, Orenn?"

Bree felt a pressure building against her skull with his every word, as if someone were pouring honey over her head. Beside her, Orenn nodded. "I... I guess... I mean, Highjorune used to be part of Lineas... a long time ago... but...."

"See?" Ferrin said, voice a velvet purr. "It's not such a stretch."

"Not a stretch," Orenn agreed, echoing him.

The pressure on Bree's head receded. Orenn blinked, then picked up his fork and stared at it as if he didn't know what to do with it. A moment later, he started eating again. Ferrin watched, smirking.

Bree felt sick. He's making people dance to his Gift.

Ferrin shoveled food in his mouth, and at least some of the tension drained away while he stuffed pie into the hole in his face. Bree poked at her own serving, suddenly lacking an appetite.

"Daddy," Suze said, her high child's voice cutting through the clatter of dinner, "more sheepypud?"

"Sheepypud?" Ystell said, confused. "You mean the cottage pie?"

Attikas flushed. "We call it 'sheepy pudding'."

"Sheepypud?" Ferrin howled the words. "Gods above! What are you, Holderkin?"

Attikas lowered his head. Ystell jumped to his aid, saying, "To be fair, it's just lamb mince, and it's baked, like most puddings... no one true way, hm?"

"'No one true way'," Ferrin sneered. "Our Queen stands for everything, which means she stands for nothing." He smirked. "At least she stopped standing long enough to make an Heir."

His sycophants hooted and laughed.

"Well," Ferrin said, "I'm off to tune my voice and my gittern. Ystell, thank you again for a marvelous... sheepy pudding!"

A fresh round of chortles. Attikas' head lowered a little more. His daughter looked up at him, confused.

"What's wrong with sheepypud?" Bree heard her ask her father.

"Nothing, honey," he murmured.

Ferrin didn't bother to drop his plate or cup off in the soak-bucket when he left. Bree hated him a little more for that.

Stay focused. Opportunity is coming.

She offered to help with cleanup, then offered to help with wiping down the tables and putting up the chairs, then renewing the firewood. Finally no one remained but her and Ystell.

"Quite a night," Ystell said when they were alone, finishing up the last of her morning pies. "I truly wish that Bard could spend more time eating, and less time being a horse's arse."

Bree smiled, comforted that at least one other person in the world condemned Ferrin's actions.

"Ah, well," Ystell said, "Sharlot pays me to make pies, not question her choice in lovers. Do you have a place to sleep tonight?"

Bree nodded. She had a whole room of her own now, in fact. Nevermind that it was a basement under a cheesery, and it leaked sometimes, but it was hers, and being below ground meant no one heard when she screamed into her blankets.

Ystell plucked Bree's cloak off the peg and handed it to her. "Good night, love."

"Good night, Ystell."

She fussed over her cloak a bit outside the back door, then walked around the bake-oven to a pool of shadows within view of the stables.

A lantern hung on a peg. Under it sat Attikas, whittling a bit of wood.

Hellfires, Bree thought. Go away! Shoo!

But he didn't budge. She snuck back the way she'd come and around the back, skirting the inner wall that embraced the yard in front of the inn's entrance, sticking to shadows and away from the clamor spilling out of the Crown. This brought her to the other side of the stables, putting her much farther away from the hostler's range of vision and hearing. She crept through the open stable door and into the closest stall, then curled up in a far corner, making herself as invisible as possible.

Lelia, I'm never going to forgive you for this, she thought, heart racing.

With every passing moment, her credible reasons for being at the Crown faded. Now her most likely story would be that she'd decided to sleep in the stall. But even that would draw unwanted attention.

Attikas got up at one point, but not to leave the stable. Metal jingled, leather sighed, and a horse snorted and stamped, then he returned to his stool. Minutes later, Ferrin passed in front of her, through a pool of light thrown by one of the stable's lanterns. He'd changed into a fine velvet doublet and hose, both scarlet, and draped a snowy white cloak over his arm.

He's going to the Masque, she thought.

"Hostler!" the Bard bellowed. "My steed!"

Attikas mumbled something.

"Good work," Ferrin said. "Help me mount."

Attikas mumbled a question.

"The waxing moon fans the sparks of creativity within," the Bard replied. "I ride tonight to bask in the glow of my muse. I'll be back in a few candlemarks. Be sure you're up to tend to Nightmare when I return."

After he rode off, Attikas walked past her stall and into the night.

She took ten even breaths, waiting. Her ears strained. She heard nothing in the stable but its four-legged occupants. She peered out to make sure no one was there.

Now, she thought.

She all but ran up to where the Companions stood and flung herself on one.

"Please help," she whispered, pulling a tightly bound scroll out and tying it into the Companion's mane. He didn't stop her. In fact, he leaned against her. "You're in danger. Your Chosen are in danger! Leave! Deliver this to Haven. Find the Bard Lelia. Tell her to send Heralds. Or an army. I don't care. Just please bring help. And please go." She flipped his mane over, fairly certain the scroll couldn't be seen unless he let someone search for it. "My name is Amelie." Saying her name--her real name--caused her eyes to sting.

Amelie, she thought. I want to be Amelie again.

The Companion gazed at her with wide, blue eyes, full of intelligence and understanding. For the first time in a while, she felt the dim stirrings of hope.

She forced herself to walk away calmly even though all she wanted was to sprint to the town gates, out of Highjorune, and all the way back to Haven.

- - -

In the quiet solace of her basement, Bree unrolled her pillow and mat, then hauled a small mountain of blankets on top. A bath would have been perfect, but no one had a bathhouse open this late. She slipped into a long-sleeved shift and wiggled under her blanket fortress.

At least pretend to sleep, she thought, closing her eyes. At least... try....

And she must have done more than try, because the voice came out of nowhere, waking her up with a start.

:Don't scream.:

Bree sat up, heart pounding. She was certain she was alone--the cellar only had one entrance and she'd checked it thoroughly before barring the door. She reached under her pillow and pulled out a small dagger.

:Come outside, Amelie. It's okay.:

She gasped, then slapped a hand over her mouth. The voice didn't come from someone in the room. It spoke in her head.

She pulled on her boots and cloak, tucked the dagger into a concealed pocket, and approached the ladder leading up to the storm door.

What if it's a trap? a tiny voice of doubt asked.

Then I guess I'm Ferrin's next sacrifice, she thought, throwing the storm door wide.

It opened up on an alley, the cobblestones half-bathed in moonlight, half-doused in moonshadow. At the end where the darkness pooled, she saw a ghostly suggestion of white. As Amelie stepped toward it a Companion stepped out of the shadows to meet her. As did a tall, hooded figure.

He pushed back the hood of his cloak.

"I heard," Attikas said, "that you need some help."

- - -

He'd been calling himself Attikas since he came to Highjorune a month ago. That had been easy--Wil had used the name before. The real hard part came in convincing a very young child to pretend to be Suze, not Ivy.

Also, the beard itched. And Wil might have a permanent crick in his neck from looking down at the ground so much. At least here in Amelie's dank, private basement he could sit up properly.

"I can't believe I didn't recognize you," she said. "Or Ivy."

"It's the beard and the lack of Whites," he replied. "And Ivy's grown quite a bit. I'm just sorry I didn't recognize you. I should have guessed you were near the first time I heard Ystell humming 'Today, I Ride'."

She smiled. "Yeah, that was me."

"I read your note," Wil said. "Murder is a strong accusation."

"I saw him kill someone," she whispered.

"Is there proof?"

"My eyes? Truth-Spell him, or Eel, or Sharlot. They'll spill it all."

He nodded. "I may have to. This happened at the castle?"

"Yes. After everyone left. I hid in some bushes... I couldn't do anything."

"Did you see what they did with the body?"

She shook her head.

"Is there any chance... he faked it?"

She gave him an exasperated look. "I know what I saw."

"And I believe you. But remember what the Circle taught you. Memories are unreliable. And there are tricks a good performer can play on his... audience."

"I know what I saw," she repeated.

"Can you show me where it happened?" he asked.

She nodded.

"Good." He stood up. "I need to go. Ferrin will want 'Nightmare' put away."

She grimaced. "That poor horse."

"I know." A pause. "I could probably arrest him on that name alone."

That earned a laugh.

"Meet me at the castle a few bells after noon?" he asked.

She nodded. "Should be safe enough."

"Also, do me a favor--stop singing Lelia's songs. It's going to get you in trouble."

She bowed her head. "It was the only weapon I had."

He opened the storm door and looked back. "You have me now. Good night."

Aubryn had gone back to the stables by the time he climbed out of the cellar. Of the two Companions, she alone could broadcast Mindspeech, so he'd needed her to get Amelie's "attention" in a manner that didn't cause an excess of screaming. Vehs stayed behind, making sure Ivy slept undisturbed in the stable loft they currently called home.

And that was a luxury Wil had not had this past month while he'd been pretending to not be a Herald: being able to leave Ivy alone and know she'd be protected. Wil had learned just how much help the Companions--especially Aubryn--had been at corralling his youngster.

:Aubryn loves it,: Vehs said as Wil climbed the ladder to the loft. :It distracts her from the past.:

Wil understood. Not to the depths Aubryn did, but well enough. She had lost her Chosen to a freak accident within weeks of Choosing him and had volunteered to accompany Wil so he could be both a Circuit Herald and a father. Usually, when he went into towns as a Herald, Ivy stayed back at the Waystation. Few people even knew she traveled with him, except random travelers they met on the road and the Heraldic Circle itself.

The Companions also meant he could finally do more than just observe Ferrin. And if the worst happened, Aubryn would defend Ivy to the death, Fetching the toddler to her back if they needed to escape.

But for now Ivy slept in the loft. He settled down, put an arm around her, and sank into sleep.

- - -

Sitting by the fire, Wil braided Ivy's hair and listened to Ystell humming "Today, I Ride," a song about Sendar's last battle. He'd heard it in other places, too--the market, while buying soap for bathing, picking up feed for the stables. Amelie had planted her seeds well.

Around noon Wil and Ivy left the inn to walk the muddy road to the old palace of Lineas.

It sat at the end of a broad, abandoned avenue, a husk of its former self. The closer they got to the grounds, the greater the overgrowth of brambles, bushes, and trees became. The locals had intentionally let it go wild; it heightened the castle's "mystique."

An exception to the overgrowth was a patch of tramped down grass within the three-walled courtyard, just in front of a set of steps leading up to a broad stone landing and a pair of rotting oaken doors. Two large lanterns fitted with reflectors to amplify their light flanked the doors on iron hooks, all freshly oiled and free of rust.

Wil sat on the steps as Ivy ran about the grounds, pulling flowers off of bushes and finding sticks and rocks to play with.

"Hello." Amelie's voice came from behind, giving him a start. Ivy ran over with a squeak to hug the young Bard.

"You've been there the whole time?" he asked, getting to his feet.

Amelie jerked her head toward the open doors. "There's an old underground passage to the palace I saw Ferrin use. It's how he orchestrates his 'grand entrance' to the Masque. Comes out two rooms off the entrance. I'd have told you about it--" She flashed a crooked smile. "--but it would've spoiled the fun."

Her smiled faded and her voice pitched low, so only he and Ivy could have heard. "When did Lelia pass?"

Fresh daggers of loss pierced Wil's heart. "A few weeks before Sovvan."

"I didn't want to believe her when she said she wouldn't see another one." She ruffled Ivy's hair. "Has anyone told you you're crazy for traveling with a baby?"

Ivy twisted around and frowned. "Not a baby."

Amelie laughed. "If you insist." She looked at Wil. "You know why Lelia sent me here, don't you?"

"Maresa wasn't sure you knew anything about Lelia's... work. But I get the feeling you do."

Amelie released Ivy, and she ran off to chase a butterfly.

"I know a bit about her... work," Amelie said, keeping her voice pitched so that the conversation stayed between them. "Bards doing very bad things. She hoped we could fix it. But we can't. All we have are words and songs. And Ferrin's are far more effective than mine."

She looked down at a dark spot on the landing.

"There," she said. "That's where he killed the Guard."

"Ah." Wil sat down next to the spot. "Watch Ivy for me. I'm going to be concentrating on something."

:I watch as well.:

Wil bit down on a curse. Aubryn's Mindvoice could lure out a Bard, but it could also be like getting smacked over the head with a sackful of bricks. :Aubryn?:

:My job is to watch her. Of course I followed.:

:Did anyone see you?:

She made no reply other than a snort from somewhere in the bushes.

Wil leaned forward and put his hand on the darkened stones. "This murder happened last month?" he asked as he closed his eyes.

"Yes," Amelie replied.

"Okay." One month, he thought. I need just one month.

His Foresight had an unusual secondary property, what he'd come to think of as "Hindsight." It could outright bonk him over the noggin with visions and premonitions ridiculous or terrifying... but it could also peel back the layers of the past.

And Lineas Castle had many, many layers to peel through.

A dizzying blur of images whizzed past, a stew of emotions and things. He reached through the array fanning out before him, filtering out anything that didn't feature a familiar figure in scarlet velvet, with a distinctive white cloak. He discarded any with snow--the last of the snowfall had melted two months ago. This left him with a small handful. One blazed brightly, indicating it to be the most important to his directed will, and he seized on it and cast the others aside.

Wil still sat on the stones, but in a different when. Night had fallen, and the now-blazing lanterns turned the stone landing into a stage. The double doors flew wide, and a white-cloaked figure in scarlet stepped out. Though Ferrin had donned a half-mask with a pointed bird's nose, nothing could mask the rich timbre of his voice.

"Welcome all... to the Masque," he said to an audience of at least thirty people, also disguised, albeit in simpler masks of cloth strips. "You have come here tonight to hear the truth, and the truth is this: the Queen is mad."

The crowd muttered agreement.

"The Queen sends our sons and daughters to war," he continued. "She sends them to death and worse, and for what?" He spread his hands. "Have you seen the armies of Hardorn on our doorsteps? Have you met a Karsite force on our roads?"

Wil's stomach twisted with growing disgust.

"She does it... to control us," he went on. His voice had a honeylike quality Wil recognized from the other night, when the Bard had flung his Gift on Orenn.

Ferrin lowered his voice a little, requiring listeners to strain to hear. "But we... have a choice. We will send her no more fodder. The revolution begins here. Are you all with me?"

Yes, whispered the crowd.

Ferrin raised his voice from a whisper to a bellow. "We are the heralds of peace! We are Valdemar's hope! We will bring an end to Mad Queen Selenay!"

The crowd screamed, and from there the Masque dissolved into chants and shouts. Eventually, the crowds dispersed, leaving only Ferrin and two others: Eel and Sharlot.

"Bring him out," Ferrin said.

Eel pushed open the moldering double doors and came back a few minutes later dragging someone in Guard Blues. He'd been bound and gagged, but he looked up at his captors fiercely, struggling against his bonds.

The Bard drew a knife and handed it hilt-first to Eel. "Do it."

Eel licked his lips. "I--"

"We're starting a revolution, Eel. Prove yourself to Lord Dark. No one will miss this dog. They assume he's deserted already. We saw to that."

"Do it," Sharlot said, positively ecstatic.

Eel took the knife. The nameless Guard shook his head frantically.

"Eel," Ferrin said, that honeylike quality to his voice again. "He's a loyal servant of Selenay. Your father went to the border and died, and when he died, it was under orders from a man not unlike this one. This dog--" He kicked the Guard, who grunted. "--is as complicit in his murder as your so-called Queen is."

"Yes," Eel whispered, a glitter in his eye as he knelt down.

"Do it," Sharlot repeated.

Eel raised the knife and swung down. The Guard spasmed and shrieked, writhing and trying to roll away as the knife rose and fell, rose and fell.

It took far too long for him to die.

Wil pulled out of the vision, finding himself once more in sunlight. Amelie crouched nearby.

:Chosen?:

He didn't answer Vehs. Couldn't answer. Words failed.

"Wil?" Amelie asked worriedly.

Wil stood up slowly, brushing his palms on his breeches as he turned his mind toward his Companion. :Things are about to get interesting.:

:You know how much I love interesting.:

"We're going back to the inn," he said. "For now."

"And then?"

He started down the stairs. I'll arrest Ferrin and drag him by his thumbs back to Haven, he wanted to say.

"I need a plan." He scooped up Ivy and put her on one shoulder. "I need to think."

- - -

:Can't we drop an army on them?: Vehs asked.

Wil sat in the loft with Ivy, slowly brushing her hair free from its braids as he discussed his plans with his Companion.

:Gods. I wish,: he thought.

:That sounds like a "no.":

:There'll be a bloodbath if we pull the Guard in on this.: Wil shook his head. :Ferrin will rally his side. It'll be no contest, but it'll make the Queen and her agents look like oppressors.:

:Which is what he wants.: The backlash of war--even a necessary one--couldn't be avoided. People lost loved ones, or loved ones came back permanently changed physically and mentally. Ferrin had tapped into this resentment, given it a focus, and then fanned the flames with his Gift.

The streets of Highjorune would run with blood if Wil didn't stop him.

:He also mentioned a "Lord Dark,": he thought.

Vehs' unease matched Wil's. :Yes. I... don't like the sound of that name.:

:So, we need him alive so we can interrogate him about who "Lord Dark" is. And we need him alone.:

:Get him when he sleeps?:

Wil shook his head. :He shares his bed with Sharlot. Eel sleeps outside his door.: Wil had wandered the inn several times after midnight and had seen the stableboy curled up outside Ferrin's door. :The boy thrives on crumbs of praise.: Wil felt a shadow of pity for the young man, but then he remembered the terrible fervor with which Eel stabbed the Guardsman to death. Wil's sympathy withered. :It's no accident Ferrin picked him.:

Aubryn's voice shouldered into the conversation. :His rides to the castle.:

She's eavesdropping. He wanted to be annoyed, but her suggestion matched what he had been about to propose. :Yes. That's our best opportunity. Vehs, I have a job for you.:

:Yes?:

Wil settled back, drawing Ivy close to him. :Go up the castle road. Be my eyes. I need to see it again. Every way to the palace... every hiding place. Every secret passage.:

- - -

Ferrin had been wearing a mask every month since he came to Highjorune nearly a year ago.

It had only been him and Sharlot at the castle that first Masque. But now--through word of mouth and careful selection--they'd grown to nearly fifty. It would be time to execute Lord Dark's plan soon.

Ferrin rode up the moonlit avenue toward the castle, feeling positively ebullient. Some people sought intoxication in powders and potions; he found his in performing before a crowd. He'd sorely missed it, the first few months away from Haven.

The Companions had spooked him, but he took it as a sign that the denouement drew near. Highjorune would be one among the many, nibbling away at Selenay's power. Like tiny worms boring into a mighty oak, all it would take then would be one strong wind--say, from the direction of Hardorn--to knock the whole thing down.

Copyright © 2015 by Mercedes Lackey


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