Authors: Mercedes Lackey
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy - General, #American Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Action & Adventure, #Spanish: Adult Fiction
Book 2 of Heralds of Valdemar
Long ago—so long ago that the details of the conflict are lost and only the merest legends remain—the world of Velgarth was wracked by sorcerous wars. The population was decimated. The land quickly turned to wilderness and was given over to the forest and the magically-engendered creatures that had been used to fight those wars, while the people who remained
the eastern coastline, there to resume their shattered lives. Humans are resilient creatures, however, and it was not overlong before the population once again was on the increase, and folk began to move westward again, building new kingdoms out of the wilderness.
One such kingdom was Valdemar. Founded by the once-Baron Valdemar and those of his people who had chosen exile with him rather than facing the wrath of a selfish and cruel monarch, it lay on the very western-and-northernmost edge of the civilized world. In part due to the nature of its founders, the monarchs of Valdemar welcomed fugitives and fellow exiles, and the customs and habits of its people had over the years become a polyglot patchwork. In point of fact, the one rule by which the monarchs of Valdemar governed their people was “There is no one, true way.’“
Governing such an ill-assorted lot of subjects might have been impossible—had it not been for the Heralds of Valdemar.
The Heralds served many functions; they were administrative overseers, dispensers of justice, information gatherers, even temporary military advisors; answerable only to the Monarch and their own circle of peers. Such a system might have seemed ripe for abuse—it would have been, but for the Companions,
To the unknowing eye, a Companion would seem little more than an extraordinarily graceful white horse. They were far more than that. Sent by some unknown power or powers at the pleading of King Valdemar himself, it was the Companions who chose new Heralds, forging between themselves and their Chosen a mind-to-mind bond that only death could sever. While no one knew precisely how intelligent they were, it was generally agreed that their capabilities were at least as high as those of their human partners. Companions could (and did) Choose irrespective of age and sex, although they tended to Choose youngsters just entering adolescence, and more boys were Chosen than girls. The one commonality among the Chosen (other than a specific personality type; patient, unselfish, responsible, and capable of heroic devotion to duty) was at least a trace of psychic ability. Contact with a Companion and continued development of the bond enhanced whatever latent paranormal capabilities lay within the Chosen, With time, as these Gifts became better understood, ways were developed to train and use them to the fullest extent to which the individual was capable. Gradually the Gifts displaced in importance whatever knowledge of “true magic” was left in Valdemar, until there was no record of how such magic had ever been learned or used.
So the governing of Valdemar evolved; the Monarch, advised by his Council, made the laws; the Heralds dispensed the laws and saw that they were observed. The Heralds themselves were nearly incapable of becoming corrupted or potential abusers of their temporal power; the Chosen were by nature remarkably self-sacrificing—their training only reinforced this. They had to be—there was a better than even chance that a Herald would die in the line of duty. But they were human for all of that; mostly young, mostly living on the edge of danger—so, it was inevitable that outside of their duty they tended to be a bit hedonistic and anything but chaste. And only seldom did a Herald form a tie beyond that of brotherhood and the pleasures of the moment—perhaps because the bond of brotherhood was so very strong, and because the Herald-Companion bond left little room for any other permanent ties. For the most part, few of the common or noble folk held this against them—knowing that, no matter how wanton a Herald might be on leave, the moment he donned his snowy uniform he was another creature altogether, for a Herald in Whites was a Herald on duty, and a Herald on duty had no time for anything outside of that duty, least to the the frivolity of his own pleasures. Still, there were those who held other opinions ... some of them in high places.
Laws laid down by the first King decreed that the Monarch himself must also be a Herald. Thus it was ensured that the ruler of Valdemar could never be the kind of tyrant who had caused the founders to flee their own homes.
Second in importance to the Monarch was the Herald known as the “King’s (or Queen’s) Own.” Chosen by a special Companion—one that never seemed to age (though it was possible to kill him) and was always a stallion—the Queen’s Own held the special position of confidant and most trusted friend and advisor to the ruler. Thus the Monarchs of Valdemar were assured that they would always have at least one person about them who could be trusted and counted on at all times. This tended to make for stable and confident rulers—and thus, a stable and dependable government
For generations it seemed that King Valdemar had planned his government perfectly. But the best-laid plans are still capable of being circumvented by accident or chance.
In the reign of King Sendar, the kingdom of Karse (that bordered Valdemar to the south-east) hired a nomadic nation of mercenaries to attack Valdemar, In the ensuing war, Sendar was killed, and his daughter, Selenay, assumed the throne, herself having only recently completed her Herald’s training. The Queen’s Own, an aged Herald called Talamir, was frequently confused and embarrassed at having to advise a young, headstrong, and attractive female. As a result, Selenay made an ill-advised marriage, one that nearly cost her both her throne and her life.
The issue of that marriage, the Heir-presumptive, was a female child whom Selenay called Elspeth. Elspeth came under the influence of the nurse Selenay’s husband had brought from his own land, and became an intractable, spoiled brat. It became obvious that if things went on as they were tending, the girl would never be Chosen, and thus could never inherit. This would leave Seienay with two choices; marry again (with the attendant risks) and attempt to produce another, more suitable Heir, or declare someone already Chosen and with the proper bloodline to be Heir. Or, somehow, salvage the Heir-presumptive. Talamir had a plan—one that it seemed had a good chance of success—which involved sending the child into fosterage in a remote province, away from the influence of the nurse and Court, with those who could be counted upon to take no nonsense from her.
Then Talamir was murdered, throwing the situation into confusion again. His Companion, Rolan, Chose a new Queen’s Own—but instead of picking an adult or someone already a full Herald, Chose an adolescent girl named Talia.
Talia was of Holderkin—a puritanical Border group which did its best to discourage knowledge of outsiders. Talia had no idea what it meant to have a Herald’s Companion accost her, and then (apparently) carry her off. Among her people, females held very subordinate positions, and nonconformity was punished immediately and harshly. And since Talia herself was ill-suited to a subordinate role, she was constantly being told that everything she said or did was wrong at best, and evil at worst. She was ill-prepared for the new world of the Heralds and their Collegium. The one thing she did have experience in was the handling and schooling of children, for she had been the teacher to her Holding’s younger members from the time she was nine.
But she managed—to find a true home among the Heralds, and to civilize the Brat. Now the year-and-a-half of Field duty awaited her—and a trial she never dreamed of having to pass.
The flat of Alberich’s practice-blade cracked against Talia’s ill-guarded side. She hadn’t seen the blow coming, she truly hadn’t. That had hurt, and she would lay money on having a bruise despite the padded jerkin that had absorbed most of the blow. The practice blades may have only been wood, but Alberich tended to wield them all the harder for that.
“Faugh!” he spat in disgust, and came at her again before she had recovered from the last blow. This time he connected with her knife-arm, right at the elbow. She yelped, the arm went numb, and she lost her blade entirely.
The hawklike eyes glared at her with no trace of pity, and the scar-seamed face was a demonic mask as he passed judgment on her performance.
He was at least in his mid-forties, if not older, but he hadn’t lost a fraction of his edge or agility in the five years Talia had known him. She was panting with exertion—he might as well have been taking a leisurely stroll. His well-worn, dark leathers (he was the only working Herald in Talia’s experience who never wore Whites) showed not so much as a tiny sweat stain. The afternoon sun pouring down on all of them had made him look as thin and insubstantial as a shadow. And he had been just as hard to catch.
“A pity it is that Skif is not here to see you. Die of laughter he surely would!” he growled. “Eighteen you are—one would think you eight. Slow, clumsy, and stupid! Paugh! Had I been a real assassin—”
“I would have died of fright before you touched me.”
“Now it is jokes! This is a battle-practice—not a comedy. If I wish amusement, I shall find a jester. Once again—and correctly, this time.”
Once she was ready to drop with exhaustion, he turned his attention to Elspeth. Now that both of them deserved special tutelage he had changed the hour of their lessons to one shared by no one else, so that he could give his full devotion to the Queen’s Own and Heir-presumptive. Rather than being held on the training grounds outside, the two had their drills in the salle. This was a barn-like building with a sanded wooden floor, lined with mirrors, with high derestory windows to admit the maximum amount of light. Lessons were always held here during inclement weather, but it was too small for mass practices and classes for the combined Heraldic-Bardic-Healer’s Collegium students. Only those “privileged” to receive private lessons with Alberich took those lessons habitually in the salle.
Now that his attention was off her, Talia found her thoughts drifting back to her surprise of this afternoon.
Talia tugged and wriggled impatiently until she had succeeded in getting the supple, soft, white leather tunic over her head. Pulling it into place over the White raime shirt and leather breeches, she finally turned to admire the effect in the polished metal mirror in front of her.
“Havens!” she laughed, not a little surprised, “Why don’t the Grays ever look like this?”
“Because,” a harsh voice drawled from the next room, “You youngsters would have your minds on anything but your studies if they did!”
Talia laughed, turned back to the mirror, and preened. Today was the anniversary of her first class at Herald’s Collegium—a fact that she’d forgotten until Keren and Sherrill (senior Heralds both, and instructors at the Collegium as well as Talia’s longtime friends) arrived at her room with their arms full of white uniforms and wearing broad grins.
For the Heraldic Circle had considered—for less than five minutes, all told—had voted—and had passed Talia into full Herald status with the rest of her year-mates—no surprise to anyone in the Collegium, though by tradition the trainees were not to know when they were to be evaluated until the evaluation had already been made and they had passed.