Authors: Mercedes Lackey
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy - General, #American Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Action & Adventure, #Spanish: Adult Fiction
She ran through the assigned exercises with careless grace. Then, at the end of a bout, she unexpectedly executed one of the spin-and-tumbling-rolls that Alberich had been trying to train into Talia—a move that was not one Alberich had been teaching her. And she scored a kill on him.
He stared at her in startled amazement for a long moment, as both Talia and Elspeth waited breathlessly for the roar of disapproval they were certain would come.
“Good!” he said at last, as Elspeth’s jaw dropped in surprise. “Very good!” Then, lest she dare to grow careless because of the compliment, “But next time must be better.”
Despite this unexpected kudo, Talia found when she brought Elspeth a damp towel at the conclusion of the lesson that the girl was subdued and depressed.
“What’s wrong, catling?” she asked, seeing how like her mother Elspeth was, despite the brown hair and eyes rather than Selenay’s blond and blue. At this moment the shadow on her face matched the one the Queen wore when troubled. She knew the answer already, but it would do the girl good to talk it out one more time.
“I can’t do anything right,” Elspeth replied unhappily, “I’ll never be as good as you, no matter how hard I try.”
“You can’t be serious—”
“No, really, look at you! You spent half your life on a backwoods dirt-farm; now you can’t be told from Heralds that were highborn. You got good marks in your classes; I’m abysmal in all of mine. And I can’t even manage to be Chosen....”
“I suspect it’s the last that’s eating at you the most.”
Elspeth nodded, the corners of her mouth drooping.
“Catling, we’re two different people with wildly different abilities and interests. In the five years I’ve been here I’ve never once managed to earn a ‘good’ from Alberich, much less a ‘very good’! I’m still so stiff when I dance that they say it’s like dancing with a broom.”
“Oh, huzzah, I’m a marvel of coordination. I can kill anything on two legs. That’s a terrific qualification for being Heir.”
“Catling, you’ve got the qualifications. Look, if I live to be two hundred, I will never understand politics. Think back a minute. At the last Council meeting, I could sense that Lord Cariodoc was irritated, but you were the one who not only knew why and by whom, but managed to placate the old buzzard before he could start an incident. And your teachers assure me that though you may not be the best in your classes, you aren’t the worst by any stretch of the imagination. As for being Chosen, catling, thirteen is only the average age for that. Think of Jadus—he was sixteen and had been at Bardic for three years! Or Teren, for Lady’s sake—a man grown and with two children! Look, it’s probably only that your Companion just hasn’t been old enough, and you know very well they don’t Choose until they’re ten or better.”
Elspeth’s mood seemed to be lightening a bit.
“Come on, love, cheer up, and we’ll go see Rolan. If riding him will bring some sun to your day, I’m sure he’ll let you.”
Elspeth’s long face brightened considerably. She loved riding as much as dancing and swordwork. It wasn’t often that a Companion would consent to bear anyone but his Chosen; Rolan had done so for Elspeth in the past, and she obviously counted those moments among the finest in her life. It wasn’t the same as having her own Companion, but it was at least a little like it. Together they left the training salle, and headed for the wooded enclosure that was home to the Companions at the Collegium (partnered, unpartnered, and foals) and that also held the Grove, that place where the Companions had first appeared hundreds of years ago.
And although she took pains not to show it, Talia was profoundly worried. This situation with Elspeth’s status hanging fire could not be maintained for much longer. The strain was telling on the Queen, the girl, and the Heraldic Circle.
But Talia had no more notion of how to solve the problem than anyone else.
Talia woke with a start, momentarily confused by the strange feel and sounds of the room in which she found herself. She couldn’t see a blessed thing, and over her head was a rattling—
Then she remembered where she was; and that the rattling was the shutter of the window just over the head of her bed. She’d latched it open, and it was rattling in the high wind that must have begun some time during the night.
She turned over and levered herself into a kneeling position on her pillow, peering out into the darkness. She still couldn’t see much; dark humps of foliage against barely-lighter grass. The moon was less than half full, all the buildings were dark, and clouds racing along in the wind obscured the stars and the moonlight. The wind’s me lied of dawn though, and sunrise couldn’t be far off.
Talia shivered in the chill, as wind whipped at her; she was about to crawl back under her warm blankets when she saw something below her.
A person—a small person—hardly more than a dim figure moving beyond the fence of Companion’s Field, visible only because it was wearing something light-colored.
And she knew with sudden surety that the one below was Elspeth.
She slid out of bed, wincing at the cold wood under her feet, and grabbed clothing by feel, not waiting to stop to light a candle. Confused thoughts tumbled, one over the other. Was the girl sleepwalking? Was she ill? But when she reached unthinkingly and tentatively with her Gift, she encountered neither the feel of a sleeping mind, nor a disturbed one; only a deep and urgent sense of purpose.
She should, she realized in some dim, far-off corner of her mind, be alarmed. But as soon as she had touched Elspeth with her Empathic Gift, that sense of calm purpose had infected her as well, and she could no more have disobeyed its promptings than have launched into flight from her tower window.
In a dreamlike state she half-stumbled out into the middle room, fumbled her way to the door, and cautiously felt her way down the spiraling staircase with one hand on the cold smoothness of the metal railing and the other on the rough stone of the wall beside her. She was shivering so hard her teeth rattled, and the thick darkness in the stairwell was slightly unnerving.
There was light at the foot of it, though, from a lamp set up on the wall. The dim yellow light filled the entranceway. And the wood-paneled corridor beyond was lighted well enough by farther wall-hung lamps that Talia felt safe in running down the stone-floored passageways to the first door to the outside she could find.
The wind hit her with a shock; it was a physical blow so hard that she gasped. It nearly wrenched the door out of her hands and she had to struggle for a moment she had not wanted to spare to get it closed behind her. She realized that she had gotten only a hint of its force from her window; her room was shetered from the worst of it by the bulk of the Palace itself.
She found herself at the exterior bend of the L-shaped Herald’s wing; just beyond her bulked the Companion’s stables. Elspeth was nowhere in sight.
More certain of her ground now than she had been in the unfamiliar wing of the Palace, Talia would have run if she could, but the wind made that impossible. It plastered her clothing to her body, and drove unidentifiable debris at her with the velocity of crossbow bolts. She couldn’t hear anything now with it howling in her ears; she knew no one would hear her calling. Now she became vaguely alarmed; with the wind this strong and in the dark, it would be so easy for Elspeth to misstep and find herself in the river—
She mindcalled Rolan for help—and could not reach him—
Or rather, she could reach him, but he was paying no attention to her whatsoever; his whole being was focused on—what it was, she could not say, but it demanded all his concentration; for he was absorbed in it with such intensity that he was shutting everything and everyone else out.
It was up to her, then. She fought her way around the stables toward the bridge that led across the river to the main portion of Companion’s Field. It was with incredible relief that she spotted the vague blur of Elspeth ahead of her, already across the river, and headed with utter single-minded concentration in the direction of—
There was only one place she could be heading for— the Grove.
Talia forced her pace to the fastest she could manage, leaning at an acute angle into the wind, but the girl had a considerable head start on her, and had already entered the Grove by the time she had crossed the bridge.
The pale blob was lost to sight as the foliage closed around it, and Talia stumbled over the uneven ground, falling more than once and bruising hands and knees on the stones hidden in the grass. The long grass itself whipped at her booted legs, tangling iher feet with each step. She was halfway to the Grove when she looked up from yet another fall to see that it was—gods!—glowing faintly from within.
She shook her head, blinking, certain that her eyes were playing tricks on her. The glow remained, scarcely brighter than foxfire, but unmistakably there.
She started to rise, when the entire world seemed to give a gut-wrenching lurch, disorienting her completely. She clutched at the grass beneath her hands, as the only reality in a suddenly unreal world, the pain of her bruised palms hardly registering. Everything seemed to be spinning, the way it had the one time she’d fainted, and she was lost in the darkness with the wind wailing in a whirlwind around her and the Grove. There was a sickening moment—or eternity—when nothing was real.
Then the world settled, and normality returned with an almost audible snap; the wind died away to nothing, sound returned, the disorientation vanished, ail in the space of a single heartbeat.
Talia opened her eyes, unaware until that moment that she’d been clenching both eyes and jaw so tightly her face ached. Less than five feet away stood Elspeth, between the supporting shoulders of two Companions. The one on her left was Rolan, and he was back id Talia’s awareness again—tired, though; very tired, but strangely contented.
Talia staggered to her feet; the gray light of the setting moon was lightening the sky, and by it, she Could make out the girl’s features. Elspeth seemed dazed, and if the contrast between the dark mass of her hair and the paleness of her skin meant any-thing, she was drained as white as paper.
Talia stumbled the few steps between them, grabbed her shoulders and shook her; until that moment the girl didn’t seem to realize she was there.
“Elspeth—” was all she managed to choke out around her own nerveless shivering.
“Talia?” The girl blinked once, then dumbfounded her mentor by seeming to snap into total wakefulness, smiling and throwing her arms around Talia’s shoulders. “Talia—I—” she laughed, almost hysterical with joy, and for one brief moment Talia feared she’d lost her mind.
Then she let go of the Herald and threw both of her arms around the neck of the Companion to her right. “Talia, Talia, it happened! Gwena Chose me! She called me when I was asleep, and I came, and she Chose me!”
Talia knew every Companion in residence, having spent nearly as much time with them as Keren, and having helped to midwife many of the foals. That name didn’t belong to any of them.
And that could only mean one thing; Gwena, like Rolan—and unlike any other Companion currently alive—was Grove-born. But why? For centuries only Monarch’s Own Companions had appeared in the Grove like Companions of old.
Talia started to say something—and abruptly felt Rolan’s presence overwhelming her mind, tinged with a feeling of gentle regret.
Talia shook her head, bewildered by the sensation that she’d forgotten something, then dismissed the feeling. Elspeth had been Chosen; that was what mattered. She remembered the mare vaguely now. Gwena had always been one of the shyer Companions, staying well away from visitors. All her shyness seemed gone, as she nuzzled Elspeth’s hair with possessive pride. Rolan, who had been supporting Elspeth on the left, now paced forward in time to give Talia a shoulder to lean on, for her own knees were going weak with reaction, and she felt as drained as if she’d had a three-candlemark workout with Alberich. Birds were breaking into morning-song all around them, and jhe first light of true dawn streaked the sky to the east with festive ribbons of brightness among the clouds.
“Oh, catling!” Talia released her hold on Rolan’s mane and flung both her arms around Elspeth, nearly Hi tears with joy.
It did not occur to either of them to wonder why no one else had been mustered out of bed by that imperative calling both of them had answered—and why no one else had noticed anything at all out of the ordinary even yet.
Talia managed to convince Elspeth—not to go back to her bed, because that was an impossibility—but to settle with Gwena in a sheltered little hollow, with a blanket purloined from the stable around her shoulders. Talia hoped that when her excitement faded the child would doze off again; the gods knew she’d be safe enough in the Field with her own Companion standing protective guard over her. She wished devoutly that she could have done the same, but there were far too many things she had to attend to.
The first—and most important—was to inform the Queen. Even at this early hour Selenay would be awake and working, and likely with one or more Councilors. That meant a formal announcement, and not what Talia really wanted to do, which was to burst into Selenay’s chamber caroling for joy.
However pleased Selenay would be, that sort of action would only give the Councilors a very poor impression of the Queen’s Own’s maturity.
So Talia stumbled back to her room again, through the sweet breeze of a perfect dawn, through bird choruses that were only a faint, far echo of the joy in her heart, to get redressed. And this time, as neatly and precisely as she could manage, cringing inwardly at the grass stains left on the knees of the pair of breeches she’d just peeled off. Then she walked—walked—decorously and soberly down through the silence of the Herald’s wing to the “New Palace” wing that held the suites of Queen and Court.