Read Arrow’s Flight Online

Authors: Mercedes Lackey

Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy - General, #American Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Action & Adventure, #Spanish: Adult Fiction

Arrow’s Flight (6 page)

BOOK: Arrow’s Flight
4.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“Not at all. It’s my besetting sin, too.”

“Well, you seem unexpectedly sensible. I think we’ll do all right together.”

“Provided that
haven’t taken a dislike to you,” Talia was just a little nettled at his easy assumption that she would fall swift prey to his admittedly charming manner. “Haven’t you ever been told not to count your eggs till the hens lay them?”

From the look on Kris’ face, that possibility hadn’t occurred to him, and he was rather at a loss to deal with it. Dirk didn’t help matters by becoming hysterical.

“She’s got you there, old boy!” he choked. “Stars be praised, I’ve lived to see the day when it’s you that gets put in his place, and not me!

“On, Bright Havens, don’t worry about it,” Talia said, taking pity on him. “We’re both Heralds, for pity’s sake! We’ll manage to get along. It’s just for a year and a half. After all, it’s not as if somebody were forcing me to marry you!”

Kris’ expression was indescribable when Talia spoke of being ‘forced” to marry him as if it were something distasteful.

“I m fairly sure you didn’t insult me, but that certainly didn’t sound like a compliment!” he complained forlornly. “I’m beginning to think I prefer Nessa’s attitude after all!”

By now they’d had to stop in the middle of the hall, as Dirk was doubled over and tears were streaming down his face. Both of them had to pound on his back in order to help him catch his breath again.

“Holy—Astera—” he gasped. “This is something I never expected to see. Or hear! Whew!” He somehow managed to look both contrite and satisfied at the same time. “Forgive me, partner. It’s just that seeing you as the rejected one for a change—you should have seen your own face!—you looked like you’d swallowed a live toad!”

“Which means that nothing worse can happen to him for the rest of the week. Now look, none of this is getting us to the ceremony,” Talia pointed out, “and we’re already running late.”

“She’s right again,” Dirk said, taking her arm.

“What do you mean, ‘again?” Kris asked suspiciously, as they hurried to the Great Hall.

Fortunately, their arrival at the door of the Great Hall prevented his having to answer that question.

Dirk had been having a little trouble sorting out some very odd feelings from the moment that Talia had answered her door. The last time he’d seen the Queen’s Own, she’d fainted from total exhaustion practically at his feet, after having undergone a considerable mental and emotional ordeal. He had learned afterward that she had experienced at firsthand the murder of the Herald-Courier Visa, and saved Visa’s lifemate Keren from death-willing herself in shock. Then, without a pause for rest, she had mentally guided him and his partner to the spot where Visa had been slain. This slight, fragile-seeming woman-child had aroused all of his protective instincts as well as his admiration for her raw courage. He’d carried her up to her room himself, and made certain she was safely tucked into her bed; then left medicinal tea ready for her to brew to counteract the inevitable reaction-headache she’d have when she woke. He’d known at the time she’d exhausted all her resources—when he heard the whole story later in the day he’d been flabbergasted at her courage and endurance.

And she was so very frail-looking; it was easy to feel protective about her, even though her actions gave lie to that frail appearance. At least, he’d thought at the time that it was only his protective instincts that she aroused. But the sight of her this time had seemed to stir something a bit more complicated than that—something he wasn’t entirely sure he’d wanted to acknowledge. So he defused the situation as best he could, by clowning with Kris. But even while he was bent double with laughter, there was a vague disquiet in the back of his mind, as though his subconscious was trying to warn him that he wasn’t going to be able to delay acknowledgment for long.

Talia was refusing to allow her nerves to show, but they were certainly affecting her despite her best efforts. She was rather guiltily hoping Kris had realized that she had been taking some of that nervousness out on him.

The Great Hall, tables cleared away, and benches placed along the walls, with every candle and lantern lit, gleamed like a box made of gold. The courtiers and notables were dressed in their finest array, jewels and silver and gold ornaments catching the light and throwing it back so that the assemblage sparkled like the contents of a highborn dame’s jewelbox. Prominent among the gilded nobles were the bright scarlet of Bards, the emerald green of Healers, the bright blue of the uniforms of high-ranking officers of the Guard and Army, and the brilliant white of Heralds. Each of those to be presented wore over his or her finery the stiff tabard, heavy with embroidery, that marked a family or Guild association. The men and women of the Guards standing duty in their sober midnight-blue and silver ringed the walls, a dark frame for the rest.

The Queen’s Own and her escorts assumed their places behind the thrones, Talia in her place behind and to Selenay’s right, Kris and Dirk behind and to either side of her. Talia had a feeling that the three of them made a very impressive and reassuring sight to those who had come here fearing to see weakness.

But there was uneasiness, too—the uneasiness she had been sensing for the past three weeks, magnified. And she could not, for the life of her, fathom the reason.

The ceremony began; Talia determined to ignore what she could not change, and did her best to appear somehow both harmless and competent. She wasn’t sure just how successful she was, but some of the background of general nervousness did seem to decrease after a while.

She tried to will some confidence into the young Heir, who was beginning to wilt under the strain. She tried to catch her eyes and give her a reassuring smile, but Elspeth’s expression was tight and nervous, and her eyes were beginning to glaze.

For Elspeth was not faring as well as Talia. The ceremony demanded that she respond to each of her new liegemen with some sort of personalized speech, and about halfway through she began running out of things to say.

Kris was the first, with his musician’s ear for cadence, to notice her stumbling and hesitating over her speeches. As the next worthy was being brought before her, he whispered, “His son’s just presented him with his first grandchild.”

Elspeth cast him a look of undying gratitude as she moved to receive this oath. As the gouty lord rose with difficulty from his knees, she congratulated him on the blessed event. The gentleman’s expression as he was escorted away was compounded of equal parts of startlement and pleasure, for he’d no notion that anyone knew other than the immediate members of his family.

Elspeth decided at that moment that Kris was fully qualified for elevation to sainthood, and beamed quickly at both of the Heralds before the next notable arrived.

Dirk caught on immediately and supplied the information for the next. Kris countered with intelligence for the following two. Elspeth began to sparkle under the gratified looks of the courtiers, reviving as quickly as she’d wilted; and Kris and Dirk began to keep score in the impromptu contest. The Queen seemed to find it all she could do to keep a straight face.

Finally, the last dignitary made his oath, and all three Heralds took their places with the Circle to swear their oaths en masse. The Healer’s and Bardic Circles followed them, then the various clerics and priests made vows on behalf of their orders and devotees.

And the long ceremony was at last complete— without a mishap.

The Queen’s party retired from the dais, leaving it to instrumentalists of the Bardic Circle, who immediately struck up a dance melody.

Talia joined Elspeth in the window-alcove furnished with velvet-padded benches that was reserved for the Queen’s entourage. “What were you three up to?” she asked curiously. “I was too far away to hear any of it, but you certainly seemed to be having a good time!”

“These two Heralds that came as your escort—they were wonderful!” Elspeth bubbled. “I ran out of things to say, and they told me exactly what I needed to know. Not big things, but what was most important to them right now—the lords and so forth, I mean. Then they started making a contest out of it, and that was what was so funny, them arguing back and forth about how much something was ‘worth’ in points. Mother could hardly keep from laughing.”

“I can imagine,” Talia grinned, “Who won?”

“I did,” Kris said from behind her.

“You wouldn’t have if I’d thought of the sheep first,” Dirk retorted.

“Sheep?” Talia said inquisitively. “Sheep? Do I want to know about this?”

Dirk snickered, and Kris glared at him.

“It’s perfectly harmless,” Kris answered, with just a hint of irritation. “When Lady Fiona’s husband died, she and Guildmistress Arawell started a joint project to boost the fortunes of her family and Arawell’s branch of the Weaver’s Guild. They imported some sheep with an especially soft and fine fleece much like lambswool from outKingdom—quite far south. They’ve finally succeeded in adapting them to our harsher winters; the spring lambing more than doubled their flock, and it seems that everyone is going to want stock or fabric of the wool.”

‘That’s not what we came here for,” Dirk said firmly. “Sheep and discussions of animal husbandry— keep your filthy thoughts to yourself, partner!—”

“My filthy thoughts? Who was the one doing all the chording a few minutes ago?”

“—do not belong at a revel. I claim the first dance with you, Talia, by virtue of the fact that my partner is going to have you all to himself for a year and more.”

“And since that leaves me partnerless,” Kris added, “I would very much like to claim our newest Chosen for the same purpose.”

“Mother?” Elspeth looked pleadingly at the Queen. Kris’ stunning good looks had made more than a slight impression on her, and that he should want to dance with her was a distinct thrill.

“My dear, this is your celebration. If you want to ride your Companion around the Great Hall, you could even do that—provided you’re willing to face the Seneschal’s wrath when he sees the hoofmarks on his precious wood floor.”

Without waiting for further permission, Kris swept the girl into the dance.

Dirk lifted an inquisitive eyebrow at Talia.

“Oh, no,” Talia laughed, “You don’t know what you’re asking. I dance like a plowboy, I have no sense of rhythm, and I ruin my partner’s feet.”

“Nonsense,” Dirk replied, shaking unruly blond hair out of his eyes. “You just never had the right partner.”

“Which is you? And I thought Kris was vain!”

“My dear Talia,” he countered, swinging her onto the floor, “Truth can hardly be considered in the same light as vanity. I have it on the best authority that my dancing more than compensates for my looks.”

Shortly, Talia was forced to admit that he was absolutely correct. For the first time in her experience, she began to enjoy a dance—it was almost magical, the way they seemed to move together. Dirk didn’t seem displeased by her performance either, as he yielded her to other partners with extreme reluctance.

Kris, on the other hand, despite yearning glances from nearly every young woman present, danced only with women far older than himself, or with Elspeth or Talia.

“I hope you don’t mind being used like this,” he said contritely, after the sixth or seventh dance.

“Used?” she replied, puzzled.

“As a shield. I’m dancing with you to keep from being devoured by them,” he nodded toward a group of Court beauties languishing in his direction. “I can’t dance just with beldames, Elspeth has to take other partners, and the only Heralds I can trust not to try to carry me off are Keren, Sheri, and you. And those other two don’t dance.”

“It’s nice to know I’m wanted,” she laughed up at him,

“Did I just put my foot in it again?”

“No, not really. And I don’t mind being ‘used.’ After all, by now they all know we’re assigned together, so they’ll assume we’re getting acquainted. You can avoid people without anyone’s feelings being hurt.”

“You do understand,” he said, relieved. “I hate to hurt anyone’s feelings, but they all seem to think if they just throw themselves at me hard enough, I’ll have to take one of them—short-term, long-term, it doesn’t seem to matter. Nobody ever seems to wonder what

“Well, what do you want?” Talia asked.

“The Collegium,” he replied to Talia’s amazement, “That’s where most of my time and energy go—and where I want them to go. I do a lot of studying on my own: history, administration, law. I’d like to be Elcarth’s replacement as Dean and Historian when he retires, and that takes a lot of preparation. I don’t have much free time—certainly none to spend on games of courtly love. Or shepherd-in-the-hay.”

Talia looked at him with new respect. “That’s mar-velous; Elcarth’s job is the hardest and most thankless I can think of. In some ways, it’s even worse than mine. You might just be the one to handle it. I don’t think you can serve the Collegium and still give another person a—a—”

“The amount of attention a decent pairing needs,” he finished for her, “Thank you—do you know, you’re the first person besides Dirk who didn’t think I was out of my mind?”

“But what would you do if you did find someone you wanted?”

“I don’t know—except that it isn’t likely to happen. Face it, Talia, Heralds seldom form permanent attachments to anyone or anything. We’re friends, always, and sometimes things get more intense than that, but it doesn’t last for long. Maybe it’s because our hearts are given first to our Companions, then to our duty—and I guess there aren’t too many of us with hearts big enough for a third love. Non-Heralds don’t seem to be able to grasp that. Not too many Heralds do, for that matter. But look around you— Sherrill and Keren are the only lifebonded couple I can think of, and I wouldn’t be willing to settle for less than what they’ve got. Which is why I’m hiding behind you.”

BOOK: Arrow’s Flight
4.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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