/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Valdemar (02): Last Herald Mage

Magics Promise

Mercedes Lackey

In this book, Vanyel is 28 years old and is now the head of all the Herald-Mages in Valdemar. Vanyel has just returned to Haven from more conflicts on the Valdemar, Karsite border and deserves a rest. But, as it goes for most Heralds, the greater the Herald you are, the more you are needed. He needs to go visit his family, which is unfortunate since he and his family barely get along. While there, Yfandes receives a cry for help from a neighboring kingdom. Urged by this cry they go to investigate. They find a place that is in the middle of a Magical Holocaust. There they find Prince Tashir, a newly chosen Herald. This boy has a powerful Gift that he cannot control; Is he responsible for this Magic-made destruction? Find out.

Mercedes Lackey

Last Herald Mage 02

Magic’s Promise

Dedicated to:

Elizabeth (Betsy) Wollheim

Who said - "Go for it"

One

The blue leather saddlebags and a canvas pack, all a-bulging with filthy clothing and miscellaneous gear, landed in the corner of Vanyel's room with three dull thuds. The lute, still in its padded leather case, slithered over the back of one of the two overstuffed chairs and landed with a softer pumph, to rest in the cradle of the worn red seat cushion. Once safely there it sagged, leaning over sideways like a fat, drunken child. The dark leather lute case glowed dully in the mid-morning sun still coming in the single eastward-facing window. Two years of mistreatment had not marred the finish too much, although the case was scuffed here and there, and had been torn and remended with tiny, careful stitches along the belly.

Vanyel grimaced at the all-too-visible tear. Torn? No, no tear would be that even. Say cut, or slashed and it would be nearer the truth. Pray nobody else notices that.

Better the lute case than me ... that came closer than I really want to think about. I hope Savil never gets a good look at it. She'd know what that meant, and she'd have a cat.

Herald-Mage Vanyel took the other chair gracelessly, dropping all his weight at once into the embrace of comfortable upholstered arms.

Home at last. Havens, I sound like the pack hitting the corner.

"O-o-oh." Vanyel leaned back, feeling every muscle in his body crying out with long-ignored aches and strains. His thoughts fumbled their way into his conscious mind through a fog of utter exhaustion. He wanted, more than anything, to close his gritty eyes. But he didn't dare, because the moment he did, he'd fall asleep.

Someday I'm going to remember I'm not sixteen anymore, and keep in mind that I can't stay up till all hours, then rise with the dawn, and not pay for it.

A few moments ago his Companion Yfandes had fallen asleep, standing up in the stable, while he was grooming her. They'd started out on this last leg of their journey long before dawn this morning, and had pushed their limits, eating up the last dregs of their strength just to get to the sanctuary of "home" the sooner.

Gods. If only I would never have to see the Karsite Border again.

No chance of that. Lord and Lady, if you love me, just give me enough time to get my wind back. That's all I ask. Time enough to feel like a human again, and not a killing machine.

The room smelled strongly of soap and the beeswax used to polish the furniture and wall paneling. He stretched, listening to his joints crack, then blinked at his surroundings.

Peculiar. Why doesn't this feel like home? He pondered for a moment, for it seemed to him that his modest, goldenoak-paneled quarters had the anonymous, overly-neat look of a room without a current occupant. I suppose that's only logical, he thought reluctantly. They haven't been occupied, much. I've been living out of my packs for the last year, and before that I was only here for a couple of weeks at a time at most. Gods.

It was a comfortable, warm-and quite average-room. Like any one of a dozen he'd tenanted lately, when he'd had the luxury of a guest room in some keep or other. Sparsely furnished with two chairs, a table, a desk and stool, and a wardrobe, a curtained, canopied bed in the corner. That bed was enormous-his one real indulgence: he tended to toss restlessly when-and if-he slept.

He smiled wryly, thinking how more than one person had assumed he'd wanted that particular bed for another reason entirely. They'd never believe it if I told them Savil gets more erotic exercise than I do. Oh, well. Maybe it's a good thing I don't have a lover; he'd wake up black and blue. Always assuming I didn't strangle him by accident during a nightmare.

But other than that bed, the room was rather plain. Only one window, and that one without much of a view. It certainly wasn't the suite he could have commanded-

But what good is a suite when I hardly see Haven, much less my own room?

He put his feet up on the low, scarred table between the chairs, in defiance of etiquette. He could have requisitioned a footstool-

But somehow I never think of it until I'm five leagues down the road headed out. There's never enough time for-for anything. Not since Elspeth died, anyway. And gods-please let me be wrong about Randale.

His eyes blurred; he shook his head to clear them. Only then did he see the pile of letters lying beside his feet, and groaned at the all-too-familiar seal on the uppermost one. The seal of Withen, Lord of Forst Reach and Vanyel's father.

Twenty-eight years old, and he still makes me feel fifteen, and in disgrace. Why me? he asked the gods, who did not choose to answer. He sighed again, and eyed the letter sourly. It was dauntingly thick.

Hellfire. It-and every other problem-can damned well wait until after I've had a bath. A bath, and something to eat that doesn't have mold on it, and something to drink besides boiled mud. Now, did I leave anything behind the last time I was here that was fit to wear?

He struggled to his feet and rummaged in the wardrobe beside his bed, finally emerging with a shirt and breeches of an old and faded blue that had once been deep sapphire. Thank the gods. Not Whites, and I won't be wearing Whites when I get home. It's going to be so nice to wear something that doesn't stain when you look at it. (Unfair, nagged his conscience-properly treated, the uniform of Heraldic Whites was so resistant to dirt and stains that the non-Heralds suspected magic. He ignored the insistent little mental voice.) Although I don't know what I'm going to do for uniforms. Dear Father would hardly have known his son, covered in mud, stubbled, ashes in his hair.

He emptied the canvas pack on the floor and rang for a page to come and take the mishandled uniforms away to be properly dealt with. They were in exceedingly sad shape; stained with grass and mud, and blood-some of it his own-some were cut and torn, and most were nearly worn-out.

He'd have taken one look and figured I'd been possessed. Not that the Karsites didn't try that, too. At least near-possession doesn't leave stains . . . not on uniforms, anyway. What am I going to do for uniforms? Oh, well-worry about that after my bath.

The bathing room was at the other end of the long, wood-paneled, stone-floored hallway; at mid-morning there was no one in the hall, much less competing for the tubs and hot water. Vanyel made the long trudge in a half-daze, thinking only how good the hot water would feel. The last bath he'd had-except for the quick one at the inn last night-had been in a cold stream. A very cold stream. And with sand, not soap.

Once there, he shed his clothing and left it in a heap on the floor, filled the largest of the three wooden tubs from the copper boiler, and slid into the hot water with a sigh-

-and woke up with his arms draped over the edges and going numb, his head sagging down on his chest, and the water lukewarm and growing colder.

A hand gently touched his shoulder.

He knew without looking that it had to be a fellow Herald-if it hadn't been, if it had even been someone as innocuous as a strange page, Vanyel's tightly-strung nerves and battle-sharpened reflexes would have done the unforgivable. He'd have sent the intruder through the wall before he himself had even crawled out of the depths of sleep. Probably by nonmagical means, but-magical or nonmagical, he suddenly realized that he could easily hurt someone if he wasn't careful.

He shivered a little. I'm hair triggered. And that's not good.

"Unless you plan on turning into a fish-man," Herald Tantras said, craning his head around the partition screening the tub from the rest of the bathing room and into Vanyel's view with cautious care, "you'd better get out of that tub. I'm surprised you didn't drown yourself."

"So am I." Vanyel blinked, tried to clear his head of cobwebs, and peered over his shoulder. "Where did you pop out of?''

"Heard you got back a couple of candlemarks ago, and I figured you'd head here first." Tantras chuckled. "I know you and your baths. But I must admit I didn't expect to find you turning yourself into a raisin."

The dark-haired, dusky Herald came around the side of the wooden partition with an armload of towels. Vanyel watched him with a half-smile of not-too-purely artistic appreciation; Tantras was as graceful and as handsome as a king stag in his prime. Not shay'a'chern, but a good friend, and that was all too rare.

And getting rarer, Vanyel thought soberly. Though, Havens, I haven't exactly had my fill of romantic companionship either, lately . . . well, celibacy isn't going to kill me. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Gods, I should apply for the priesthood.

There was concern in the older Herald's deep, soft eyes. "You don't look good, Van. I figured you'd be tired-but from the way you passed out here-it must have been worse out there than I thought."

"It was bad," Vanyel said shortly, reluctant to discuss the past year. Even for the most powerful Herald-Mage in the Circle, holding down the positions of five other Herald-Mages while they recovered from magical attack, drainage, and shock was not a mission he wanted to think about for a long while, much less repeat. He soaped his hair, then ducked his head under the water to rinse it.

"So I heard. When I saw you playing dead in the tub, I sent a page up to your room with food and wine and sent another one off for some of my spare uniforms, since we're about the same size.''

"Name the price, it's yours," Vanyel said gratefully, levering himself out of the tub with a groan and accepting the towel Tantras held out to him. "I have nothing worth wearing right now in the way of uniforms."

"Lord and Lady-" the other Herald swore, looking at him with shock. “What have you been doing to yourself?"

Vanyel paused in his vigorous toweling, looked down, and was a little surprised himself at the evidence of damage. He'd always been lean-but now he was whipcord and bone and nothing else. Then there were the scars- knife and sword scars, a scoring of parallel claw marks on his chest where that demon had tried to remove his heart. Burn marks, too-he was striped from neck to knee with three thin, white lines where mage-lightning had gotten through his shields. And there were a few other scars that were souvenirs of his bout with a master of mage-fire.

"My job. Living on the edge. Trying to convince the Karsites that I was five Herald-Mages. Playing target." He shrugged dismissively. "That's all. Nothing any of you wouldn't have done if you could have."

"Gods, Van," Tantras replied, with a hint of guilt. "You make me feel like a shirker. I hope to hell it was worth what you went through."

Vanyel compressed his lips into a tight line. "I got the bastard that got Mardic and Donni. And you can spread that as official."

Tantras closed his eyes for a moment, and bowed his head. "It was worth it," he said faintly.

Vanyel nodded. "Worth every scar. I may have accomplished something else; that particular necromancer had a flock of pet demons and I turned them back on Karse when I killed him." He smiled, or rather, stretched his mouth a little. "I hope it taught the Karsites a lesson. I hope they end up proscribing magic altogether on their side of the Border. If you can believe anything out of Karse, there's rumor that they're doing just that."

Tantras looked up again. "Hard on the Gifted-" he ventured.

Vanyel didn't answer. He was finding it very hard to feel sorry for anyone on the Karsite side of the Border at the moment. It was uncharitable, un-Heraldic, but until certain wounds healed-and not the physical ones-he was inclined to be uncharitable.

"There's more silver in your hair, too," Tantras observed, head to one side.

Vanyel made a face, just as glad of the change in subject. "Node-magic. Every time I tap into it, more of my roots go white. Moondance k'Treva was pure silver by the time he was my age; I guess I'm more resistant." He smiled, it was faint, but a real smile this time. "One nice thing; all those white hairs give me respect I might not otherwise get!"

He finished drying himself and wrapped the towel around his waist. Tantras grimaced again-probably noting the knife wound on his back-and handed him another towel for his hair.

"You already paid that forfeit, by the way" he said, plainly trying to lighten the conversation.

Vanyel stopped toweling off his hair and raised an eyebrow.

"You stood duty for me last Sovvan."

Vanyel clamped down on the sudden ache of loss and shrugged again. You know you get depressed when you’re tired, fool. Don't let it sink you. “Oh, that. Any time, Tran. You know I don't like Sovvan-night celebrations, I can't handle the memorial services, and I don't like to be alone, either. Standing relay duty was as good as anything else to keep my mind off things."

He was grateful when Tantras didn't press the subject. "Think you can make it to your room all right?" the other asked. "I said you don't look good; I mean it. Falling asleep in the tub like that-it makes me wonder if you're going to pass out in the hall."

Vanyel produced something more like a dry cough than a laugh. "It's nothing about a week's worth of sleep won't cure," he replied. "And I'm sorry I won't be able to stand relay for you this year, but I have the Obligatory Familial Visit to discharge. I haven't been home in- gods, four years. And even then I didn't stay for more than a day or two. They're going to want me to make the long stay I've been promising. There's a letter from my father waiting for me that's probably reminding me of just that fact."

"Parents surely know how to load on the guilt, don't they? Well, if you're out of reach, Randale won't find something for you to do-but is that going to be rest?” Tantras looked half-amused and half-worried. "I mean, Van, that family of yours-"

"They won't come after me when I'm sleeping-which I fully intend to do a lot of.'' He pulled on his old, clean clothing, reveling in the feel of clean, soft cloth against his skin, and started to gather up his things. "And the way I feel right now, I'd just as soon play hermit in my rooms when I get there-"

"Leave that stuff," Tantras interrupted. "I'll deal with it. You go wrap yourself around a decent meal. You don't look like you've had one in months."

"I haven't. They don't believe in worldly pleasures down there. Great proponents of mortification of the flesh for the good of the spirit." Vanyel looked up in time to catch Tantras' raised eyebrow. He made a tragic face. "I know what you're thinking. That, too. Especially that. Gods. Do you have any idea what it was like, being surrounded by all those devastatingly handsome young men and not daring to so much as flirt with one?"

"Were the young ladies just as devastatingly attractive?" Tantras asked, grinning.

"I would say so-given that the subject's fairly abstract for me."

"Then I think I can imagine it. Remind me to avoid the Karsite Border at all costs."

Vanyel found himself grinning back-another real smile, and from the heart. "Tran, gods-I'm glad to see you. Do you know how long it's been since I've been able to talk freely to someone? To joke, for Lady's sake? Since I was around people who don't wince away when I'm minus a few clothes?"

"Are you on about that again?" Tantras asked, incredulously. "Do you really think that people are nervous around you because you're shaych?"

"I'm what?” Van asked, startled by the unfamiliar term.

"Shaych. Short for that Hawkbrother word you and Savil use. Don't know where it came from, just seems like one day everybody was using it." Tantras leaned back against the white-tiled wall of the bathing room, folding his arms across his chest in a deceptively lazy pose. "Maybe because you're as prominent as you are. Can't go around calling the most powerful Herald-Mage in the Circle a 'pervert,' after all." He grinned. "He might turn you into a frog."

Vanyel shook his head again. "Gods, I have been out of touch to miss that little bit of slang. Yes, of course because I'm shay'a'chern, why else would people look at me sideways?"

"Because you scare the hell out of them," Tantras replied, his smile fading. "Because you are as powerful as you are; because you're so quiet and so solitary, and they never know what you're thinking. Havens, these days half the Heralds don't even know you're shaych; it's the Mage-Gift that makes them look at you sideways. Not that anybody around here cares about your bedmates a quarter as much as you seem to think. They're a lot more worried that-oh-a bird will crap on you and you'll level the Palace."

"Me?" Vanyel stared at him in disbelief.

"You. You've spent most of the last four or five years in combat zones. We know your reflexes are hypersensitive. Hellfire, that's why I came in here to wake you up instead of sending a page. We know what you can do. Van, nobody I've ever heard of was able to take the place of five Herald-Mages by himself! And the very idea of one person having that much power at his beck and call scares most people witless!"

Vanyel was caught without a reply; he stared at Tantras with the towel hanging limply from his hands.

"I'm telling you the plain truth, Van. I wish you'd stop wincing away from people with no cause. It's not your sexual preferences that scare them, it's you. Level the Palace, hell-they know you could level Haven if you wanted to-"

Vanyel came out of his trance of astonishment. "What do they think I am?" he scoffed, picking up his filthy shirt.

"They don't know; they haven't the Mage-Gift and most of them weren't trained around Herald-Mages. They hear stories, and they think of the Mage Wars-and they remember that once, before there was a Valdemar, there was a thriving land to the far south of us. Now the Dhorisha Plains are there-a very large, circular crater. No cities, no sign there ever was anything, not even two stones left standing. Nothing but grass and nomads. Van, leave that stuff; I'll pick up after you."

"But-" Vanyel began to object.

"Look, if you can spend most of a year substituting for five of us, then one of us can pick up after you once in a while." Tantras took the wet towels away from him, cutting off his objections before he could make them. "Honestly, Van."

"If you insist." He wanted to touch Tantras' mind to see if he really meant what he said. It seemed a fantastical notion.

But Tran had not invited, and a Herald did not intrude uninvited into another's mind, not unless there was an overriding need to do so.

"Is ... that how you feel?" he asked in a whisper.

"I'm not afraid of you, but let me tell you, I wouldn't have your powers for any reward. I'm glad I'm just a Herald and not a Herald-Mage, and I don't know how you survive it. So just let me spoil you a little, all right?"

Vanyel managed a weak smile, troubled by several things-including that "just a Herald" business. That implied a division between Heralds and Herald-Mages that made him very uneasy. "All right, old friend. Spoil me. I'm just tired enough to let you."

The fog of weariness came between him and and the corridor, and he was finding it all he could do to put one foot in front of the other. Lady, bless you for Tantras. There aren't many even among the Heralds I trained with that will accept what I am as easily as he does. Whether it's that I'm a Mage or that I'm fey-although I can't see why Mage-powers would frighten someone. We've had Herald-Mages since there was a Valdemar.

I wish he was as right about that as he thinks he is; I still think it's the other thing.

The stone was so cool and soothing to his feet; it eased the ache in them that was the legacy of too many hours-days-weeks-when he had slept fully clothed, ready to defend the Border in the blackest, bleakest hours of the night.

That reminder brought bleaker thoughts. Every time he came back to Haven it was with the knowledge that there would be fewer familiar faces to greet him. So many friends gone-not that I ever had many to begin with. Lancir, Mardic and Donni, Regen, Dorilyn. Wulgra, Kat, Pretor. All gone. Not many left besides Tran. There's- Jays. Savil. Andy, and he's a Healer. Erdane, Breda, a couple of the other Bards. How can I be anything but solitary? Every year I'm more alone.

True to Tantras' promise, Vanyel found an overflowing plate waiting for him beside the pile of letters. It held a pair of meat pies, soft white cheese, and apples, and beside the generous plate of food was an equally generous pitcher of wine.

I'd better be careful with that stuff. I'm not used to it anymore, and I bet it'll go straight to my head.

He stifled a groan as he sagged down into the empty chair, poured a goblet of wine, then picked up the topmost letter. He broke the seal on it, gritted his teeth, and started in.

To Herald-Mage Vanyel from Lord Withen Ashkevron of Forst Reach: My dear Son-

Vanyel nearly dropped the letter in surprise, and reread the salutation to be certain that his eyes hadn't played tricks on him.

Great good gods. “My dear Son?” I haven't been “dear,” much less “Son” for-years! I wonder what happened-

He took a long breath and continued.

Though you might find it difficult to believe, I am pleased and grateful that you are going to be able to find the time for an extended visit home. Despite our differences, and some hard words between us, I am very proud of my Herald-Mage son. I may not care for some aspects of your life, but I respect your intelligence and good sense. I confess, Vanyel, that your old father has need of some of that good sense. I need your help in dealing with your brother Mekeal.

Vanyel nodded to himself with cynicism. Now we come to it.

He has made some excessively poor judgments since I turned over the management of some of the lands to him, but this spring he has outdone himself. He's taken the cattle-good, solid income-producing stock-off Long Meadow and installed sheep down there instead!

Vanyel chuckled. Whoever Withen had roped into being his scribe on this letter had reproduced his father's tones perfectly. He could feel the indignation rising from the page.

And as for that so-called “Shin'a'in warsteed” he bought-and a more ill-tempered, ill-favored beast I never saw-the less said, the better! All these years I spent in building up the Forst Reach line-and he'll undo it all with one unmanageable stud! I feel sure he'll listen to you; you're a Herald-the King himself trusts your judgment. The boy has me ready to throw him down the blamed well!

Vanyel shifted a little and reached for a wedge of cheese. This letter was proving to be a lot more enlightening than he'd had any reason to expect.

This is no time for Meke to be mucking about; not when there may be trouble across the Border. Maybe you remember that alliance marriage between Deveran Remoerdis of Lineas and Ylyna Mavelan of Baires? The one that brought a halt to the Linean-Baires war, and that brought that minstrel through here that you were so taken with as a boy? It doesn't seem to be working out. There've been rumors for years that the oldest child was a bastard-now Deveran seems to have given substance to those rumors; he's disinherited the boy in favor of the next in line. In some ways I can't blame him too much; even if the lad didn't look so much like his uncle-I've seen both the boy and the man, and the resemblance is uncanny-the rumors alone would have been enough to make his inheritance shaky. I wouldn't trust that entire Mavelan family, frankly. A pack of wizardly snakes, the lot of them, the only time they stop striking at each other is when they take on an outsider. I only thank the gods that they've stayed at each other's throats all this time. But there've been some nasty noises out of them about Tashir's disinheritance and if it gets to be more than noises, we may have trouble across the Border. Your brother is all fired up for a war, by the way. Gods, that is the last thing we need. I just thank the Lady that Randale had the good sense to send a plain Herald into Lineas as envoy, and not a Herald-Mage. A good solid Herald might be able to keep this from growing into another feud like the one the marriage was supposed to stop in the first place. The Lineans will certainly be far more inclined to listen to a plain Herald; they don't trust anything that smacks of wizardry, and given what the Mavelans did to them, who can blame them ?

Vanyel bit his lip, the half-eaten scrap of cheese dangling forgotten from his fingers. Withen was showing a great deal more political astuteness than he'd ever given his father credit for. But this business in Lineas -

Please, he sent up a silent prayer. Not now -

It's evidently worrisome enough that Randale sent your sister Lissa and her Guard Company to keep a cross-Border eye on the Mavelans. You'd know what that would mean better than your old father, I think. If we're lucky and things stay calm, perhaps she can slip off for a few days' visit herself. I know you'd both like that. By the way - I hope you aren't planning on bringing any of your -friends-home with you, are you? You know it would upset your mother. You wouldn't want to upset your mother. By the hand of Radevel Ashkevron and my seal, Lord Withen Ashkevron.

Vanyel grimaced, dropped the letter back down on the table, and reached for the wine to take the bitter taste of those last words out of his mouth. He held the cool metal of the goblet to his forehead for a moment, an automatic reaction to a pain more emotional than physical.

:He doesn't mean to hurt, Chosen.: Yfandes' mind-voice touched the bitterness, but could not soothe it.

:Awake again, dearling? You should sleep-:

:Too much noise,: she objected. .'Equitation lessons, and I'm too tired to find a quiet corner of the Field. I'll just stand here by the stable and let the sun bake my sore muscles and wait for the babies to go away. Your father truly does not mean to hurt you.:

Vanyel sighed, and picked up a meat pie, nibbling the flaky crust listlessly :I know that. It doesn't stop it from hurting. If I weren't so tired, it probably wouldn 't hurt as much. If I weren't so tired, it might even be funny,: He swallowed another gulp of wine, painfully aware that even the simple act of chewing was becoming an effort He put the pie down.

:You have nothing left,: she stated. :No reserves at all :

:That's ridiculous, love. It's just that last push we made. And if I haven't anything left, then neither have you-:

:Not true. I may be spent physically, but you are spent emotionally, magically, mentally. Chosen, beloved, you have not spared yourself since Elspeth Peacemaker died.:

:That's because nobody had a choice,: he reminded her, reaching for a piece of cheese, but holding it up and staring at it, not eating it, seeing other times and places.

:Everybody else has been pushed just as hard. The moment poor Randale took the throne that fragile peace she had made for us fell to pieces. We had no warning it was going to come to that. Mardic and Donni-:

The cold hand of grief choked his throat. The lifebonded couple who had been such steadfast friends and supporters to him had been two of the first victims of the Karsite attacks. He could feel the echo of his grief in the mourning of Yfandes' mind-voice.

:Poor children. Goddess hold them-:

:'Fandes - at least they died together. I - could wish-: he cut off the thought before he could distress her. He contemplated the white wedge of cheese in his hand as if he had never seen anything like it, and then blinked, and began nibbling at it, trying to force the food around the knot of sorrow blocking his throat. He had to eat. He'd been surviving on handfuls of parched corn, dried fruit, and dried beef for too long. He had to get his strength back. It wouldn't be long before Randale would need him again. Well, all he really needed was a couple of weeks of steady meals and sleep. . . .

:You ask too much of yourself.:

:Who, me? Strange thoughts from a Companion. Who was it who used to keep nagging me about duty?: He tried to put a measure of humorous teasing into his own mind-voice, but it felt flat.

 :But you cannot be twenty places at once, Chosen. You are no longer thinking clearly :

The cheese had finally migrated inside him, and most of the lump in his throat was gone. He sighed and reached for the meat pie again. With enough wine to help, he might be able to get that down, too.

The trouble was, 'Fandes was right. For the past few months he'd been reduced to a level where he really wasn't thinking much at all-just concentrating on each step as it came, and trying to survive it. It had been like climbing a mountain at the end of a long and grueling race; just worrying about one handhold at a time. Not thinking about the possibility of falling, and not able to think about what he'd do when he got to the top. If he got to the top. If there was a top.

Stupid, Herald. Looking at the bark and never noticing the tree was about to fall on you.

The sun coming in his window had crept down off the chair and onto the floor, making a bright square on the brown braided rug. He chewed and swallowed methodically, not really tasting what he was eating, and stared at the glowing square, his mind going blank and numb.

:Randale uses you beyond your strength, because of the nodes,: Yfandes said accusingly, breaking into his near - trance. :You should say something. He'd stop if he realized what he was doing to you. If you were like other Heralds, unable to tap them-:

:If I were like other Heralds, the Karsites would be halfway to Haven now, instead of only holding the disputed lands,: he replied mildly :Dearest, there is no choice. I lost my chance at choices a long time ago. Besides, I'm not as badly off as you think. All I need is a bit of rest and I'll be fine. We're damned lucky I can use the nodes- and that I don't need to rest to recharge.:

:Except that you must use your power to focus and control-:

He shook his head :Beloved, I appreciate what you're, telling me, but this isn't getting us anywhere. I have to do what I'm doing; I'm a Herald. It's what any of the others would do in my place. It's what 'Lendel-:

Grief-he fought it, clenching his hand hard on the arm of his chair as he willed his emotions into control. Control yourself, Herald. This is just because you're tired, it's maudlin, and it doesn't do you or anyone else any good.

:I could wish you were less alone :

:Don't encourage me in self-pity, love. It's funny, isn't it?: he replied, his lips twitching involuntarily, though not with amusement. :Dear Father seems to think I've been seducing every susceptible young man from here to the Border, and I've been damned near celibate. The last was-when?: The weeks, the months, they all seemed to; blur together into one long endurance trial. A brief moment of companionship, then a parting; inevitable, given his duties and Jonne's.

:Three years ago,: Yfandes supplied, immediately. :That rather sweet Guardsman.:

Vanyel remembered the person, though not the time.

“Hello. You’re The Herald-Mage, aren't you ?''

Vanyel looked up from the map he was studying, and smiled. He couldn't help it-the diffident, shy smile the Guardsman wore begged to be answered.

“Yes-are you-''

“Guardsman Jonne. Your guide. I was born not half a league from here. “ The guileless expression, the tanned face and thatch of hair, the tiny net of humor lines about the thoughtful hazel eyes, all conspired to make Vanyel like this man immediately.

“Then you, friend Jonne, are the direct answer to my prayers,” he said.

Only later, when they were alone, did he learn what other prayers the Guardsman had an answer for-

:Jonne. Odd for such a tough fighter to be so diffident, even gentle. Though why he should have been shy, when he was five years older and had twice my -uh- experience-:

:Your reputation, beloved. A living legend came down off his pedestal and looked to him for company.: Yfandes sent him an image of a marble saint - statue hopping out of its niche and wriggling its eyebrows in a come - hither look. There was enough of a tired giggle in her mind-voice to get an equally tired chuckle out of him. But he sobered again almost immediately. :And that lasted how long? Two months? Three? Certainly not more.:

:You were busy - you had duties-both of you. It was your duties that parted you.:

:I was,: he replied bitterly, :a fool. More than duties would have parted us in time. I know exactly what I'm trying to do-when I admit it to myself. I'm trying to replace 'Lendel. I can't; I can't ever, so why do I even bother to try? A love like that happens once in a lifetime, and I'm not doing myself or my would - be partners any favor by trying to recreate it. I know it, and once the first glow wears off, they know it. And it isn't fair to them.:

Silence from Yfandes. There really wasn't much she could say. He was left to contemplate the inside of his own thoughts, as faint sounds of distant people and a bit of birdsong drifted in his window.

Damn it, I'm feeling sorry for myself again. Heralds are all lonely; it isn't just me. We’re different; made different by our Gifts, made even more so by the Companions, then driven even farther away from ordinary people by this fanatic devotion to duty of ours. Herald-Mages are one step lonelier than that. He couldn't help himself; the next thought came automatically, despite his resolution not to fall into a morass of self - pity. Then there's me. Between the level of my Gift and my sexual preferences--

He buried his face in his free hand. Gods. I am a fool. I have 'Fandes. She loves me in a way no one else ever will or ever did, except 'Lendel. That ought to be enough. It really ought-if I wasn't so damned selfish.

She interrupted his thoughts. :Van, you almost need a friend more than a lover. A different kind of friend than me; one that can touch you. You need to be touched, you humans -: Her mind-voice trailed off, grew dim, in the way that meant she was losing her battle to fatigue and had fallen asleep again.

"You humans." That phrase said it all. That was the telling difference, he realized suddenly. The telling lack.

Yfandes was not human-and she never felt exactly the way a human would. There was always the touch of the | "other" about her, and the strange feeling he got, some - times, that she was hiding something, some secret that she could only share with another Companion. It was not a comfortable feeling. He was just as glad she wasn't awake to pick it up from him.

He dragged himself up out of the depths of his chair to rummage paper and a pen and inkpot out of his desk. He slouched back down into the cushions and chewed thoughtfully on the end of the pen, trying to compose something that wouldn't set Withen off.

To Lord Withen Ashkevron of Forst Reach from Herald-Mage Vanyel Ashkevron.

So far, so good.

Dear Father: I'm sorry I've had to put off spending any length of time at home - but duty must always come before anything else, and my duty as a Herald is to the orders of my King.

He licked his lips, wondering if that was a bit excessively priggish. Probably not. And I don't think I'll say anything about how visits of less than a day keep Mother from having vapors at me. He reached for the goblet again, and another swallow of wine, before continuing.

As for Meke, I'll do my best with him, Father. You must remember though, that although I am a Herald I am also his brother - he may be no more inclined to listen to me than he does to you. With regard to your news about Baires and Lineas - may the gods help us - I have seen far too much of conflict of late. I was praying for some peace, and now you tell me we may have a Situation on our very doorstep. Unless Randale asks me to intervene, there isn't much I can do. Let us hope it doesn't come to that. I promise I will try to put some sense into Meke's head about that as well; perhaps when he has heard some of what I have seen, a war will no longer seem quite so attractive. Perhaps when he sees some of what war has done to me-| no, Father, I was not badly hurt, but I picked up an injury or two that left scars. It may be that will impress him.

He closed his eyes and carefully picked out the least loaded words he could think of for the next sentence. When he thought he had it, he concentrated on setting it carefully down on the paper so that there could be no mistake.

With regard to my - friends; I promised you ten years ago that I would never indulge in anything that you did not approve of or that made you uncomfortable under your roof. Do you still find it so difficult to believe that I would keep my word?

He nobly refrained from adding "Odd, no one else seems to have that problem." That would not serve any purpose, and would only make his father guilty, and then angry.

I do have a request to make of you, and a reminder of a promise you made to me at the same time. You pledged to keep Mother from flinging young women at me - under other conditions I would not feel that I needed to remind you of this promise, but I truly cannot handle that particular situation this time, Father. I'm exhausted; you can't know how exhausted. All I really want is some peace, some quiet time to rest and catch up with the family matters. Please do me this one small favor; I don't think it's too much to ask. Yours, Vanyel.

He folded the letter and sealed it quickly, before he had a chance to add a postscript to that temptingly empty space at the bottom. All I want from you and Mother is to be left alone. I need that rest. Before I fall on my face.

He picked up the second letter, and heaved a sigh of relief. Liss. Oh, bless you, big sister. My antidote to Father.

To Herald-Mage Vanyel Ashkevron from Guard - Captain Lissa Ashkevron: Dearest Van - if half of what I've been hearing about you is true, I'm tempted to abandon my command and kidnap you and hide you someplace until you've had some rest! Thank the gods somebody saw enough reason to give you a leave! And before you bleat to me about “duty,” just you remember that if you kill yourself with overwork you won't be around to do that duty!

Vanyel smiled, biting his lip to keep from chuckling. Good old Liss!

I should tell you what's going on out here, since you may be riding right into another hotbed of trouble. Deveran of Lineas has disinherited his eldest. The boy supposedly has mage-power, which, since his mother does not, is being read that he is probably a bastard. The Uneans in any case are not likely to allow anyone with Mage-Gifts to rule over them-but this Tashir is altogether too like his Uncle Vedricfor comfort. And Vedric is protesting the tacit slur on his “good name” - not that he has one - and is being backed by the entire Mavelan Clan. I suppose it is a bit much to imply that your brother-in-law was fornicating with his own sister before your marriage to her. Havens bless - talk about soiled goods!

At any rate, I suspect there's far more to it than that; what, I don't know, but the Mavelans seldom unite for anything and they're uniting on this one. I much doubt it's over concern for Vedric's reputation or tender feelings for Tashir. My guess is there's another attempt at acquiring Lineas in the offing - but since they're both clients-by-alliance to Valdemar, the Mavelans can't just begin flinging mage-fire over there. Randale would definitely take exception to that.

So here we are, camped on the Border, and watching for one false note. What really worries me is that it's Vedric who's fronting this; they're all snakes, but he's a viper. The only reason he's not Lord Mavelan is because his brother's been very lucky - or smart enough to buy some really good spies and bodyguards. Vedric is definitely the most ambitious of the lot; my guess is he's been promised Lineas if he can get it quietly. Through Tashir, perhaps.

Vanyel found his eyebrows rising with every sentence. Lissa had come a long way from the naive swordswoman who had accepted that commission in the Guard. She was a lot more politically astute than Van would have dreamed-which gave him the second surprise of the day. First Father, then Liss - no bad thing, either. No one living in the days of King Randale could aiford to be politically naive.

I hope to steal away long enough to spend at least a little time with you, love, but don't count on it. There's nothing going on overtly, but the whole thing feels very touchy to me; like the moments before the storm hits. If I feel the situation has calmed down enough, I'll come. Be well. Love, Liss.

That was by far and away the easiest letter to answer he'd had in a long time. He scrawled a quick reply of affection, including the fact that he missed her badly, sealed the note, and laid it with the other.

There were two or three other letters, all nothing more than invitations to various entertainments; hunting parties, mostly, at noble estates, parties meant to last a week or more. Despite the fact that he never attended these things - wouldn't have even if he'd had the time - the invitations never stopped coming. He wrote brief, polite notes, and sat back again, staring at the packs in the corner. He knew he had to sort things out of his traveling kit for his trip home - and he just couldn't muster the energy. It was so much easier just to sit and let all the kinks in his muscles respond to the soft – motionless - chair.

A rap at the door interrupted his lethargy; it was the page sent by Tantras, with the promised uniforms. And one more thing; a note - and Vanyel recognized Randale's handwriting on the outside.

Oh, gods - no, no! For a moment he tensed, fearing another call to duty on the eve of his promised chance to rest. Then he saw that it wasn't sealed, not even by Randale's personal seal.

He relaxed. No seal meant it wasn't official. He took it from the wide - eyed page and motioned to the youngster to stay for a reply.

Vanyel; come by after Court and say good-bye - don't come before then; if I'm not being official, I don't have to find something for you to do. Or rather, I don't have to assign you to one of the hundred messes that needs dealing with. I'm sorry you aren't staying, but I understand, and if you weren't planning on leaving, I'd probably tie you to Yfandes and drive you off before I work you to death. But do come by; Jisa wants to see her “Uncle Van” before he vanishes again. Randale.

:If you don't make the time to see her, I'll bite you when you try to saddle me.:

Vanyel had to smother a laugh. :Woke up again, did you? Why is it anything about Jisa snags your attention like nothing else does?:

:Because she's adorable - as most six-year-old humans are not. Besides, she's your daughter.:

:I'm just grateful she doesn't look anything like me,: he replied, sobering. :If she'd gotten these silver eyes of mine, for instance - or black hair when both Randale and Shavri are light brown. Don't you dare let that slip to anyone!:

:Not even another Companion,: she reassured him. :I'm not sure I understand what the problem could be, though. Shavri won't let Randale marry her, so should it matter who Jisa's father is?:

:It would disturb some folk, because they're lifebonded. Besides, we don't want anyone to know that Randale's sterile. If he has to make an alliance marriage - that could ruin it. And there are damn few people even inside the Heralds who would understand someone wanting a child badly enough to go to bed with someone other than her lifebonded.:

Yfandes' mind-voice was hesitant. :Truth, Chosen - in seems to bother you :

Vanyel leaned farther back into the chair, scrawling replies to the invitations with half his attention. It did bother him, and in a way that made him reluctant to even think about Shavri, sometimes. :It's not that,: he temporized. :lt's just that I'm worried about them.:

But the uneasy feeling continued, an uncomfortable unhappiness that he couldn't define. So he continued hastily, :Poor Shavri; you can't know how much she wanted that child. That was the only reason we did it.:

:You like her :

:Of course I like her!: he answered-again, just a shade too quickly. :She and Randale-they’re friends; how could I have told them no?: He shied away from examining his feelings too closely. :Besides, it was never anything more than a physical exercise for either of us. No more involved for me, certainly, than dancing. Shavri being a Healer, she could make sure she “caught” the first time. Neither of us were emotionally involved, or ever likely to be.:

:I suppose that could have been a problem,: she replied.

:Exactly. That's why Shavri and Randale asked me to help in the first place: I was perfect; a Herald, already a friend, physically able, and not going to get romantically entangled.:

:Don't you . . . want the child, sometimes?: Yfandes sounded wistful. Vanyel was a bit surprised.

:Frankly, no. I'm not very paternal. It takes more than seed to make a father, love. Great good gods, can you see me as a parent? I'd be awful. Randale has what I lack in that department.: His thoughts darkened, as he recalled what had been bothering him since he scanned the palace when they rode in :'Fandes, I'm worried about them. When Lancir died - truth, I almost expected Taver to Choose me King's Own. Instead-instead he chose Shavri, and I'm desperately afraid it wasn't because she was Randale's lifebonded. I'm afraid it was because she's a Healer.:

There was a long silence on Yfandes' part. Then, :Why haven't you said something before this?:

:Because - I wasn't sure. I've been wrong about things so many times - and I didn't really want to think about it. Shavri told me once that she was afraid that Randale's sterility was a symptom of something worse. I didn't know what to say, so I told her not to worry about it. But now -you know how sensitive I am; follow my line to Rondale - :

Vanyel could "feel" every Herald and Herald-Mage in Haven, all tied to him by a kind of tenuous network of lines of life-energy, with every identity as plain to him as if he could see the faces. Most Herald-Mages could follow the line to anyone who had shared magic with them; Vanyel could follow the line of anyone who had "shared magic" just by virtue of being a Herald. He had the line that led to Randale without even thinking about it, and "felt" Yfandes follow it down with him, Seeing what he Saw.

:There's-something not right,: she said, after a moment's study. Something out of balance. Physically, not mentally or emotionally. But I can't tell what it is :

:Exactly,: he agreed. :I felt it as soon as we came in; he wasn't like that when we left. I wish I was a Healer-Adept like Moondance k'Treva or even little Brightstar. They're much better at understanding imbalances than I am.: He rubbed his forehead, his headache starting again.

:I don't think I will ever forget the look on Shavri's face!, when you told her this wasn't the first time you'd done someone the favor of – uh - stud service.: Yfandes' mind-voice colored yellow with laughter, and he was just as pleased to change the subject.

:Moondance and Starwind wanted a child to raise, and neither of them can function with a female,: he reminded her, :and Snowlight was willing to have twins, one for her, one for them.:

:You certainly produce lovely children.:

:Brightstar is a good lad,: he said, shyly :They’re rightly proud of him - and that's their doing, not mine. But I'm beginning to think I ought to rent myself out. Do you think I could command the same fees as a Shin'a'in stud?:

:Oh, at least,: she giggled, as he reached for pen and paper.  :Double if your Gift and beautiful silver eyes breed true!:

He smothered a chuckle, and turned all his attention to the reply the page was waiting for. Dearest friends; of course I'm coming by. Don't you realize that you're my last taste of sanity before I spend the fall with my lunatic family?

He sealed this last note and handed them all to the page to take away. He stood and hauled the packs over to his bed, resisting the temptation to throw himself there instead of his belongings, and began sorting out the items he'd need for his visit home.

There was an awful lot of money in there - money he didn't remember getting, but it all seemed to be in those silly little sealed "stipend" bags, most of them still unopened. At least a half-dozen. Then again - he hadn't had much to spend it on, going from post to post like a madman, never getting regular meals, seldom sleeping in a real bed. He combined all the bags into one, and tossed the empties onto the table for the servants to collect. Then had second thoughts, and added some coins to the pile of empty bags. No harm in leaving a little something for the ones who kept things picked up for him; they did a good job. They could have just sealed the room up until he returned, but they kept it open and aired, even though that meant extra work. He'd acquired a much greater appreciation for good servants since he'd become a Herald.

He returned to his packs; there were a lot of small, valuable trinkets he just barely remembered being gifted with in there.

:Why do people insist on giving me all this stuff?: he asked Yfandes, a little irritably. :It isn't bribery; I'd have sensed that and given it back :

:I told you,: she replied. :They wanted something of the excitement of your life to rub off on them, so they give you things. That's what it means to be Herald Vanyel, second only to King's Own.:

He made a sound of contempt, as he sorted through the things; jewelry mostly. :I bet they think I have everything I could want. I suppose on a lot of levels, I do. I'm ungrateful, I guess. I don't know why I'm not happier.:

:Vanyel Ashkevron, you are being an idiot,: she replied acidly.  - .Stop feeling guilty about feeling like you’re overworked and unhappy! You’re only human!:

:Beloved, I think you know me better than I know myself: He laughed to keep from wincing; she was cutting a bit too close to the truth. His hand fell on more jewelry, and he changed the subject. :Ah, now these I remember; I bought them honestly.: He selected the three trinkets that he had thought would please Randale, Shavri, and Jisa when he'd seen them; a cloak - clasp for Randale in the form of a vine of Heal-All twining around a beryl the green of a Healer's robes-a pendant that matched for Shavri - and a wonderful little articulated carving of a Companion complete with formal panoply for Jisa. The rest went back into the pack; he would need presents for the mob at Forst Reach, and there was surely enough there to make a start. He paused with the last piece, a crystal mage-focus stone (rose-quartz, sadly, and not a stone he cared to work with) still in his hand.

:Think Savil would like this?:

:You know she would. Rose-quartz is her Prime Focus, and you don't often see a crystal that big or that clear.:

:Good.: He put it with the little gifts on his bedside table.

The bed looked better than ever.

:Courtesy calls,: Yfandes reminded him.  :Then you can’t take a nap. Lazy.:

He groaned. :Too true. Oh, well: He picked up the! crystal and slipped it into his pocket :Savil first. She'll put me in a good mood for the others.:

There was a touch of smile in Yfandes' mind-voice when he slipped out his door and down the hall-still barefoot. :You don't really need to be put in a good mood for Jisa do you ?:

He grinned; although she couldn't see it, she would feel the rise in his spirits. :No-but if Randi ends up giving me an assignment anyway, I won't feel so bad about it!:

Two

Vanyels room was in the "old Palace," the original building dating back to King Valdemar; in the oldest section still used for Heralds' quarters. Savil's suite was in the new wing added some fourteen years ago. She no longer occupied the suite he'd had when he first was put in her custody by Lord Withen - she didn't teach more than one pupil at a time these days, so having no use whatsoever or a suite with four bedrooms, she'd moved instead to another suite, still on the ground floor, though without an outside door to the gardens; Moving had been something of a relief to both of them; her former quarters held too many sad memories, memories of the painful weeks following Tylendel's suicide.

Vanyel had helped with that move, since it had coincided with their return - him in full Whites - from the Pelagir Hills and the Vale of the Tayledras k'Treva. The touchiest part had been moving the magic Work Room: a transfer of energies rather than physical furniture. Savil had left that to him; since they'd shared magic so intimately and so often he knew her "resonances," and more importantly, her protections "recognized" him.

The magical transfer had been a kind of graduation exercise for him-not to prove to Savil that he could do it, but to prove his ability - and his training-to the rest of the Herald-Mages. He could still remember Jaysen Kondre's face, when he'd stood in the middle of the new Work Room and "called" the shields and protections - and they'd swarmed up and followed him like bees with a migrating queen, settling into place as solidly as if they'd been cast on the new room from the beginning. Jays had looked as if he'd just swallowed a live fish.

Savil's suite now was of four rooms only; her protages' bedroom, and her bedroom, sitting room and Work Room.

:Van-: Yfandes said sleepily into his mind. :Ask Jays to get you a Work Room this time. You need a Work Room.:

:I thought you were asleep. How many times do I have to tell you that I don't need one before you'll believe me?: he replied.

:But - : Even after all these years, Yfandes still wasn't used to the idea that Vanyel's methods weren't quite the same as the other Herald-Mages'.

:I can use Savil's if I'm working formal magic. When I'm in the field, I don't have time to muck about with formalities.:

:But-:

He shook his head, glad that the only other people about were used to Heralds and the way they seemed to mutter at themselves. When he'd been in the field, he'd frequently gotten knowing looks and averted eyes. :Go back to sleep, 'Fandes.:

She gave up. You ought to know by now that you can's out-stubborn me, sweetling.

Savil was still his master when it came to magic that required long, painstaking setups. Vanyel's talents lay elsewhere. He had neither master nor even peer when a crisis called for instant decision and instant action. It was that ability to use his powers on a moment's notice that made him second - rank to no one in power, and second only to Shavri in the Heraldic Circle; that, and the ability to use the lines and currents of power, and the nodes where they met, as the Ancients had done and the Tay-ledras could still do, though none of the other Herald-Mages except Savil could.

He squinted against the light as he entered the new wing. The paneling of the new section had not had time to darken with age: the halls here seemed very bright, though they no longer smelled "new."

This section feels even emptier than the old quarters; I don't think more than half the ground-floor rooms have

claimants, there's less than that on the second floor, and none at all on the third. I can't see how we'II ever fill it.

The hall was so quiet he could hear the murmur of voices from one of the farther suites without straining his ears at all. A quick Look gave him identities; Savil and Jays. He paused for a moment and sent the tentative little mind - probe on ahead of him that was the Thought - sensing equivalent of a knock on the door, and got a wave of welcome from both minds before he had taken two steps.

Now sure of his reception - and that he wasn't interrupting anything - he crossed the remaining distance to Savil's door and pushed it open.

Savil, her silver hair braided like a coronet on the top of her head, was enthroned in her favorite chair, a huge, blue monstrosity as comfortable as it was ugly. Tall Jaysen (who always looked bleached, somehow) was half-sprawled on her couch, but he rose at Vanyel's entrance- then did a double take, and staggered back a step, hand theatrically clutched to his chest.

"My heart!" he choked. "Savil, look at your nephew! Barefoot, shaggy - headed, and shabby! Where in Havens has our peacock gone?"

"He got lost somewhere south of Horn," Vanyel replied. "I last saw him in a tavern singing trios with my mind and my wits. I haven't seen either of them in a while, either."

"Well, you surely couldn't tell it from the reports we got back," Jaysen answered, coming quickly forward and clasping his forearms with no sign of the uneasiness he'd once had around the younger Herald. There's three new songs about you out of your year down south, in case you didn't know. Very accurate, too, amazingly enough."

Vanyel sighed. "Gods. Bards."

Jaysen cocked his graying head to the side. "You should be used to it by now. You keep doing things that make wonderful songs, so how can they resist?" He grinned. "Maybe you should stop. Become a bricklayer, for instance."

Vanyel shook his head and groaned. "It's not my fault!"

Jaysen laughed. "I'd best be off before that trio wrecks my workroom. Did Savil tell you? I've been given the proteges you'd have gotten if you hadn't been in a combat zone. Count your blessings - one's a farmgirl who had much rather be a fighter than a Herald-Mage, thank you; one's a very bewildered young man who can't for a moment imagine why he was Chosen and as a result has no confidence whatsoever; and the third is an overly confident sharpster who's actually a convicted lawbreaker!"

"Convicted of what?" Vanyel asked, amused at the woebegone expression on Jaysen's face.

"Chicanery and fraud. The old shell-and-pea game at Midsummer Fair; he was actually Chosen on the way to his sentencing, if you can believe it."

"I can believe it. It's keeping you busy, anyway."

"It is that. It's good to see you, Van." Jaysen hesitated a moment, and then put one hand on his shoulder. "Vanyel-" He locked his pale, near-colorless blue eyes with Vanyel's, and Van saw disturbance there that made him, uneasy. "Take care of yourself, would you? We need you. I don't think you realize how much."

He slipped out the door before Vanyel could respond. Van stared after him with his mouth starting to fall open.

"What in the name of sanity was that about?" he asked, perplexed, turning back to his aunt, who had not left the comfortable confines of her chair. She looked up at him measuringly.

"Have you any notion how many Herald-Mages we've lost in the last four years?" she asked, her high - cheekboned face without any readable expression.

"Two dozen?" he hazarded.

Now she looked uneasy. Not much, but enough that he could tell. "Slightly more than half the total we had when you and I came back from k'Treva. We can't replace them fast enough. The Mage-Gift was never that common in the first place, and with a rate of attrition like that - " She grimaced. "I haven't told you about this before, because there was nothing you could do about it, but after the deaths of the last year, you should know the facts. You become more important with each loss, Van. You were the only one available to send to replace those five casualties on the Karsite Border. You were the only one who could replace all five of them, all by yourself. That's why we couldn't relieve you, lad, or even send you one other Herald-Mage to give you a breather. We simply didn't have anyone to send. Speaking of which - " She raised one eyebrow as she gave him such a penetrating look that Vanyel felt as if she was seeing past his clothes to count his ribs and mark each of his scars. " - you look like hell."

"Can't anyone greet me without saying that?" he complained. "You, Tran, Jays - can't you tell me I'm looking seasoned? Or poetic? Or something?''

"Horseturds; you don't look 'seasoned,' you look like hell. You're too damned thin, your eyes are sunken, and if my Othersenses aren't fooling me, you've got no reserves - you're on your last dregs of energy."

Vanyel sighed, and folded himself up at her feet, resting his back against the front of her chair and his head against her knee. That was "home," and always would be - as Savil was more his mother than his birth-mother ever could be. "It's nothing," he replied. "At least nothing a little sleep won't cure. Come on, you know how you feel at the end of a tour of duty. You're still your old tactful self, Savil."

"Tact never was one of my strong traits, lad," she replied, and he felt her hand touch, and then begin stroking his hair. He closed his eyes and relaxed; muscles began to unknot that must have been tensed up for the past year. For the first time in months there was no one depending on him, looking to him for safety. It was nice to feel sheltered and protected, instead of being the shelter and protection. There are times when I'd give anything to be a child again, and this is perilous close to one of them.

"I am mortally tired, Savil," he admitted, finally. "I need this leave. It won't take long to rest up - but I do need the rest. You know, I didn't ask for this. I didn't want to be a Herald-Mage, I wanted to be a Bard. I sure as Havens didn't ask to be 'Vanyel Dragonsbreath,' or whatever it is they're calling me."

"Demonsbane."

The increasingly shrill tone of his own voice finally penetrated his fog. "Savil, I - am I whining?"

She chuckled throatily. "You're whining, son."

"Hellfire," he said. "I swear, every time I lose a little sleep, I turn fifteen. A bratty fifteen, at that. I'm amazed you put up with me."

"Darling boy," she said, her hand somehow stroking his headache away, "You've earned a little whine. You're thinned out in more ways than one." She sighed. "That's the one thing I regret most about the past few years - you never do or say anything anymore without thinking about it. That's good for Herald-Mage Vanyel, but I'm not entirely certain about Vanyel Ashkevron." There was a long silence behind him, then - "There's no joy in you anymore, ke'chara. No joy at all. And that bothers me more than the circled eyes and thin cheeks."

"We've all endured too much the last five years to be able to afford to do things without thinking. As for joy - is there joy anywhere, anymore? We've all lost so much - so many friends gone - "

Another long silence. "I don't know."

He cleared his throat, and changed the subject. "I didn't feel a third here. You aren't teaching?"

"Can't; don't have the stamina anymore. Not and be Guardian, too."

He'd half expected that. And he half expected what quarter. "So they made you Guardian? In whose place?"

"Lancir's. Shavri can't; she tried, and she can't. The four Guardians have to be Herald-Mages. We'd hoped Healing-Gift was close enough, but she didn't pass the last trial. I think she's relieved. It's a pity; the Guardian of the East has always been King's Own, but - "

"In that case, the present I brought you may be handy." He shifted so that he could get at his pocket, and pulled out the crystal. He closed his hand around it, feeling all the smooth planes and angles pressing into his palm. "Don't you need a Prime Focus stone of your own to set in the Web? I thought you didn't have a good Prime to use for anything but personal stuff.''

"You do, and I put a stone there, but it was a Secondary Focus, an amethyst, and not what I'd have-"

He raised the hand holding the crystal above his head, parting his fingers so she could see it, but not opening his eyes or moving his head.

"Sunsinger's Glory!" she breathed. "Where did you find that?"

"Gifted me," he said, as the weight left his hand. "People keep giving me things, Savil. An opal or amber I could have used - still - you can use it, so do."

"I shall." Her hand began to stroke his hair again, and he heard the little click as she set the stone down on the table beside her. "That will make my job a bit easier." She chuckled richly. "I thought I was so lucky when it turned out my resonances worked best with rose-quartz-not like Deedre who was stuck with topaz, or Justen, with ruby. Nice, cheap stone, I thought. Won't have to go bankrupt trying to get a good one. Little did I know how hard it was to find a good, unflawed, large crystal!"

"Little did you know you were going to turn out a Guardian," he replied drowsily.

"Hmm, true." Her mind touched softly on his. Vanyel, ke'chara, you are not well. There's more silver in this lovely black hair.:

He couldn't lie mind-to-mind, not to her, so he temporized. :The silver's from working with the nodes; you should know that. As for the rest - I'm just weary, teacher - love. Just weary. Too many hours fighting too many battles, and all of it too much alone.:

:Heart - wounded?: Her Mindvoice was etched and frosted with concern.

:No, heart - whole. Just lonely. Only that. You know. I haven't time these days to go courting a friend. Not on battle - lines. And I won't ask for more than friendshipgods, how could I ask anyone to make an emotional commitment to somebody who's out trying daily to get himself killed? I'm better off alone.:

The hand on his hair trembled a little, and rested.

:I know,: she replied, finally.  :There are times when I wish with all my heart I could take some of that from you.:

:Now, now, don't encourage me in my self-pity. Honestly, you and 'Fandes-: “If wishes were fishes, we'd walk on the sea, teacher - love," he said aloud. "I'd rather you could keep Father and Mother off when I'm home.” “So you're finally making that major visit they've been plaguing you for?" She took the unspoken cue and switched to less - intimate vocal speech.

"Randale sent me word just as I was leaving the Border. Several weeks leave of absence at least. And I must say, that while I'm looking forward to the rest, I'm not at all sanguine about this little sojourn in the bosom of my loving family."

"Out of experience I'm forced to tell you: even if they behave themselves, you're all too likely to find yourself the court of appeal for every family feud that's been brewing for the last ten years," she said, and laughed. "And no one will like your judgments and everyone will accuse you of favoritism."

He opened his eyes and moved his head around, propping his chin against the seat cushion. "And Mother will haul every eligible female for leagues about in on 'visits,' and Father will go cross-eyed trying to see if I 'm attempting to seduce any of the young men on the estate. And dear Father Leren will thunder sermons about fornication and perversity every holy day, and glare. Jervis will snipe at me, try to get me angry, and glare. And Mother's maid Melenna will chase me all over the property. And on and on." He made mournful eyes at her. "If I hadn't promised, I'd be greatly tempted to take my chances with Randale finding another emergency and stay here."

"I thought Lissa was stationed right near Forst Reach. She always used to be able to protect you." Savil gave him a half smile. "She was a very good little protector when you were a child."

"I don't think she's going to feel she can leave her assigned post," he said. "It seems that Border is heating up."

"Just what we need. Another Situation."

"Exactly."

"You could have dealt with this earlier, I suppose."

He snorted. "Not likely. That whole monstrous mess of tangled emotions and misconception is why I never have spent more than a day at home if I can help it. If it isn't Mother flinging women at me, it's Father watching me out of the corner of his eye." He throttled down savagely on the wave of bitterness that crawled up his throat, but some of it emerged despite his good intentions. "Gods, Savil, I am so damned tired of the whole dance. I really need to take a couple of weeks to rest, and where else can I go? You know I daren't stay here; if I do, Randale will recruit me. He won't want to, he won't mean to, but something will come up, and he'll have to-and I won't be able to say no. If I went to Liss-assuming she has someplace to put me -she'd end up doing the same thing. I'm a tool, and neither of them dares let a tool stand idle, even when it might break."

"Easy, lad," Savil cautioned, her face clouded and troubled.

He grimaced. "Did it again. Sorry. I won't break. I'm not sure I can break. The fact is, I still look all right, and I really don't want Randi to guess how drained out I am. If he knows, he'll feel guilty, and there's nothing he can do. He has to do what he does to me. So - " Vanyel shrugged. "The strain doesn't show; it won't take long to put right. I'm as much to blame for the overload as Randi. I could say 'no' - but I never have the heart to."

"Maybe you should choose somewhere to go besides Forst Reach. Or only stay there for a day or two, then go off visiting friends, or by yourself."

"I don't want to go off somewhere alone, I'll just brood. And I haven't anyone to go to; k'Treva is too far away. You, at least, have had Andy for longer than I've known you." He sighed. "I'm sorry, I'm whining again. I can't seem to help it, which might be a symptom of how on edge I am. That is the only thing that really worries me; I'm hair - triggered and dangerous, and I need some peace to get balanced again. All I can hope is that Mother and Father decide that I look as bad as you and Jays think, and leave me alone for a bit. Long enough to get some reserves back, anyway."

It was the closest he'd come to admitting that he wasn't really certain how much - or how little - reserves he still had, and he quelled the rest of what he almost said.

"You don't look good, even they should see that, ke'chara.'' She toyed with a bit of his hair, and worried at her lower lip with her teeth. "You know, I haven't been back in - ye gods, not since I checked you all for Mage-Gift! My Familial Visitation is more than overdue."

"But - you're a Guardian - " Hope rose in him. If only Savil would be there, he'd have one kindred soul in the lions' den! He had no doubt she was more than up to the trip; he could feel her strength even as he leaned on it.

"Won't take me but a day to set my focus in the Web and then I can Guard from Forst Reach as easily as from here. It's only a matter of Sensing threat and sending the alert, you know. It's not as if I actually had to fight anything. And it's only because I need to keep that little corner of my mind tuned to the Web waking and sleeping that I don't have a protege - ten years ago I could have done what Jays is doing; Guard and teach three." She nodded. "This is no bad notion. Provided you don't mind having me there-"

“Mind?” He seized her hand and kissed it.

"Then expect me in about - oh, two weeks after you arrive. It'll take Kellan a little longer to make the trip than you youngsters."

"Savil, if you only knew how grateful I am - "

"Pish. I'm selfish, is what I am." A smile started to twitch at the corners of her mouth. "We can guard each other's backs this way. I'm counting on you to save me from Withen as much as you are counting on me to save you."

He rose and kissed her forehead. "I don't care what you say, it's the most generous, unselfish thing anyone's done for me in a year. And you just may save this visit from becoming the legend of how Herald Vanyel went berserk and left his entire family tied to trees with rags stuffed in their mouths! About what time is it? I'm all turned round about from being so far south."

She checked the angle of the sun coming in her window. "I'd guess just after Court."

"Good; I have to catch Randale and Shavri and say

good-bye. He promised if I didn't come when he was being 'official' he wouldn't find something for me to do."

"Then off with you, ke'chara, and I'll see you at Forst Reach-and thank you for thinking of me," she finished, touching the stone on the table beside her.

“Because you think of me, love.'' He kissed her cheek, then her forehead again, and left her suite.

He stopped first at his room to change back into a set of Tran's Whites and put on the soft, low boots Heralds wore indoors; not as comfortable as going barefoot, but they beat the riding boots hands down. And if he didn't change, he might not be let into the King's quarters - every time he came back, it seemed fewer folk knew his face.

That accomplished, and now every inch his usual neat self, he headed down to the oldest part of the Palace, the extensive set of rooms shared by King Randale; his lifebonded and King's Own, Shavri; and their daughter.

He had scarcely crossed the threshold of the sparsely furnished audience chamber-his unfamiliar face giving a moment's apprehension to the two Guards posted at the door-when a six-year-old, curly-headed, miniature whirlwind burst through the farther door and flung herself across the audience chamber at him, evidently blithely certain he would catch her before she fell.

Which he did, and swung her around, up and over his head while she squealed with excitement and delight. "Uncle Van!" she crowed at the top of her lungs. "UncleVanUncleVanUncleVan!"

He started to put her down, but she demanded a hug and a kiss with the same infectious charm her "father" Randale could display whenever he chose. Vanyel hoisted her into a comfortable carrying position and complied without an argument, thinking as he did so that it was a good thing that she was still so tiny.

"Now how did you know I was coming?" he asked her, as her bright brown eyes looked solemnly down into his.

"Felt you," she said, giving him another hug. "Felt you in my head, all blue - glowy and swirly."

He nearly dropped her in shock. That was surely the most vivid-and accurate-description of his aura he'd ever heard out of anyone but another high - ranking Herald-Mage.

"Or a Healer," said Shavri, coming up beside him as he gaped at the child, and Jisa giggled at the face he was making. "Healers see you that way, too, Van. And no, I wasn't eavesdropping on your thoughts-they were plain enough from that poleaxed look on your face." There was strain and fear under Shavri's light tone, as if she walked a narrow bridge above a bottomless chasm. “Besides, you aren't the only one she's 'felt in her head' during the last three months. Let's start this greeting over; hello, Van, have you a hug for me?"

"Always." He was already bracing himself for trouble; with that look on her face there was something seriously wrong. And that meant he'd have to be the strong one.

He included Shavri in his arms, while Jisa flung her arms around both their necks and cuddled. "Jisa sweet, can I put you down long enough for presents?''

"Presents?" Jisa was no different from any other six-year-old when that word came up. She squirmed a little, and he set her down, then extracted the little Companion-figure from his pouch and handed it to her. She shrieked with delight, and ran outside to show it to the two Guards. Shavri watched her go, her gypsy-dark eyes darker with unconcealed love - and something else. Something secret and profoundly unhappy. His first reaction was to want to hold her, protect her, make that unhappiness go away.

Randi's lifebonded -

"That's quite a little impling you're raising, Shavri," he said, instead. "Incredibly unspoiled, given that I'd lay odds she's the pet of the Circle."

"You say that every time you see her, beast," she replied, flashing an uncertain smile, startlingly bright in her sober, dark face.

"Well, it's true." Vanyel Looked quickly around, ascertained that they were going to be alone for a few moments, and asked quickly, "How is he?"

The smile vanished, and the fear and unhappiness were plain for anyone who knew her to read. :Oh, gods-Van, he's sick, I can't make it go away, and I think he's dying. And I don't know why :

:What?: He gathered his scant resources to support her-and to hide the fact that her fear was making him tremble inside.

"He's well enough," she said lightly, but Mindspoke him with a vastly different tone :There's something wrong; it isn't affecting him much at the moment other than steady weakness and a dizzy spell now and againbut it keeps getting worse with each spell. And - oh, Van - I'm so afraid -:

He tightened his arm around her shoulders. :Easy, flowerlet - : “Then it sounds like there's no problem with my taking this leave.” :How long has this been going on?:

Her unshed tears knotted both their throats :Eight months. It's something I can't Heal, the gods know I've tried!:

He felt chill creep over him. :Forgive me, Shavri, but I have to ask this. Given worst case - if it is something life-threatening, and it keeps getting worse, how long do you think he has ?:

:If he keeps weakening at the same rate? Fifteen years-maybe less, certainly not more. Gods, Van, he won't even see fifty - he won't even see his grandchildren! Elspeth was seventy-six when she was Called!:

There was another thought, unspoken-but Vanyel felt it, since it touched so nearly on his own private loneliness.

I'II have to go on alone-

He held her close to his chest, with her face pressed into his shoulder as she struggled not to cry, and clamped down a tight shield to prevent any stray thought from reaching her and frightening her. Savil supported you. You support Shavri the same way, he told himself, below the threshold of her ability to Mindhear. Let her know she won't be alone. Gods, gods, they're both so young, not even twenty-five . . . and so sheltered all their lives. Oh, Shavri - your pain hurts me-

"Easy, love," he murmured into her hair. :Does he know ?:

:No. Not yet. Healer's Collegium does; they’re working on it. We don't want him to know until it's certain. Now you know why I won't marry him. Van, I couldn't, I'm not strong enough, I can't rule! Not alone! And when he dies - and I won't have Jisa forced onto the throne too young, either.: Her mind-voice strengthened with stubbornness. :So long as we're unwedded, it can't be forced on me nor on Jisa until all the collateral lines are exhausted. I - :

He felt the surge of terror and grief, and tried to project strength to her, not allowing her to see how fragile that strength was at the moment. With grim certainty he knew that she would not be able to cope if the worst came - unless someone she trusted was there to help. And the only one she trusted to that extent - the only one Randi trusted - was him. Gods. They really think I can do anything - and I'm no more ready for this than she is.

He pushed the thought away, concentrated on trying to ease some of that fear. . - Gently, sweet. Don't borrow trouble. Don't assume anything. You may cure him yet; this may turn out to be something ridiculous - and you both may get run over by a beer-wagon tomorrow!:

That startled a weak chuckle out of her, and she blinked up at him through tears she was doing her best not to release.

:Worry about tomorrow when it comes; enjoy now. Now, what's all this with Jisa “feeling people in her head?”:

Footsteps made both of them look up. "Are you seducing my lady, Herald Vanyel?" asked Randale, King of Valdemar, holding out his arms to embrace both of them.

"I'd rather seduce you, you charmer," Vanyel replied coyly, batting his eyelashes at the King. But there was an edge of bitterness there in his banter, and despite his best intentions it must have crept into his voice. He saw a hint of startlement, then of worry, creep into both their expressions.

Lighten up, dammit, he told himself angrily. They've got their own problems – they don't need yours.

He grinned and winked, and both of them relaxed again.

Randale laughed heartily, and hugged him hard, taking Shavri away from Vanyel as he did so. And Vanyel felt a strange twinge; another flash of uneasiness.

Gods, what's wrong with me?

He didn't stop to think about it. The hug wasn't as hard as it had been a year ago - and there was a transparency about Randale that made Vanyel's heart lurch. Randale had grown a neat brown beard - was it to hide the fact that his cheeks were a little hollower? Was that tidy-to-a-fault brown hair a little lackluster? There were shadows under his dark eyes; were they there from lack of sleep, or some more sinister reason? Within a few breaths Vanyel had noted a dozen small signs of "something wrong" - all of them little things, things that someone who saw him day - in, day-out might not have noticed. But Vanyel had been away for a year, and the things he saw shook him. Gods, gods - my King, my friend - Shavri is right. You’re ill, at the very least -

Randale was not a Herald-Mage; his Gift was FarSight, and his Mindspeech was not as sure a thing as Vanyel's and Shavri's. For once Vanyel was grateful for that lack. He changed the subject before Randale could note his unease.

"It seems your little shadow is developing precocious Gifts," he said. "At least she said she 'felt me coming in her mind.' Jisa ran back in, and attached herself to Vanyel's leg. "Didn't you, imp?" He looked down at her, surprised by the surge of love he felt for the child.

She nodded, very well pleased with herself.

"We thought about taking her to Savil, but she's been so busy," Randale replied, shrugging. "I don't suppose you'd test her, would you? That's a major spell for anyone else but you and Savil."

“Now I see the reason for all the concern that I stop by!" Vanyel teased. “Not that you've missed me!” “Van - " Shavri said indignantly. "I never - "

Randale chortled, and she hit his shoulder. "You can just stop that, you beast."

Jisa giggled, and Vanyel looked down at her. "Hold still for a minute, impling," he said. "I'm about to make your head feel funny, like Mama did when you had the measles."

"All right," Jisa said calmly, and Vanyel had the sudden unsettling feeling that she would permit her totally-trusted "Uncle Van" to chop off her hand if he wanted to.

He rested his palm on the top of her brown curls, and focused out and down -

-and came out again, blinking. "Well."

"Well, what?” Shavri and Randale demanded in the same breath.

"She won't be a Herald-Mage, not unless she gets blasted open the way I did - which I do not recommend," he added lightly, trying to catch his breath. Even that little magic had been more of a strain than he had thought it would. "But she's carrying the potential in a double dose; she'll certainly pass it to her children. She will be a MindHealer; she is an active Empath, and her Mindspeech center is opening early, too. With that combination, Randale, she'll very likely be King's Own after Shavri."

Gods, she is so like me. Right down to the Mage-potential. Jisa, sweetling, I swear I will do anything to keep you safe -

Shavri trembled, and Randale's arm tightened around her shoulder. "Is she likely to be Chosen anytime soon?"

Vanyel did not answer immediately :'Fandes?: he called, softly. :Are you awake?:

:And following the conversation. Yes, provided it's needful for her to get the training and she stays as sweet as she is. I'd say by age ten. Maybe sooner, two years from now :

"Yfandes guesses that if she needs the training, between age eight and ten. Remember, for the presumptive King's Own, that won't be a bonded Choosing - she won't bond until - until she gets the office. Then she'll bond with Taver.'' Vanyel ignored both Shavri's frightened face and Randale's elation. "So, given that - there's a little something she and I ought to do."

He focused himself down again, pulling on Yfandes' strength to assist his own, and thanking the gods he could do so, because Jisa should not remain as open as she was now. This time he did not close his eyes, but locked them with the child's, and showed her without words - for she did not yet have sufficient Mindspeech to use words- how to shield herself from unwanted thoughts and emotions, and unshield again at will. He was, he feared, the only person who could have taught her at this stage; Empathy not being a normal Heraldic Gift, and most Healers not using it in the way a Herald-Mage could.

He showed her how to find her center - she knew with an instant of studying him how to ground. The fundamentals it had taken him so long and so painfully to learn came to her with the ease of breathing, perhaps because learning was as easy as breathing at her age, and perhaps because his learning had come at the cost of so much loss and pain that had nothing to do with his Gifts.

" - there. That should hold her until she's got enough to be taught formally. Teach her yourself, Shavri. You won't find anyone in the Heralds with Empathy as strong as hers. When she's got it at full power, she'll be able to control a mob in full cry."

Shavri had herself back under control again, and the smile she gave Vanyel was genuine. "Thank you, love."

He shrugged. "No thanks needed. Before I forget it - I brought you two some 'pretties' also."

Shavri took the pendant with an exclamation of genuine delight as he handed the matching cloak-brooch to Randale. "Van, you shouldn't have - " she began.

"Of course I should have," he said. "Who else have I got to bring things to?" It came out bleaker than he intended.

"Oh, Van - " Her eyes softened, and Randale cleared his throat and blinked. They reached out in the same moment and each took one of his hands. He closed his eyes, and for an instant allowed himself to feel a part of their closeness.

But it was their closeness, not his.

And I have no right.

"Mama, I have lessons," said a small voice, still at I Vanyel's knee.

"Bright Havens, so you do! Shavri exclaimed "Van - "

"Go," he said, wrinkling his nose at her. “I'll be back in a few weeks, and maybe this tyrant of a King will let me stick around for a while this time."

She shooed Jisa out and followed her with the light step of a young girl. Randale's gaze followed both of them.

"You sire wonderful children, Van," he said softly.

“You raise better ones, Vanyel replied, uneasily. “You are Jisa's papa, don't you ever forget it. I was nothing more than the convenient means to a rather attractive little end."

The King relaxed visibly. "I keep thinking you're going to want her back-especially now that she's showing Gifts. She's more like you than you know."

Vanyel laughed. "Whatever would I do with her? Great I good gods, what kind of a parent would I make? I can't even train the palace cats to stay off my pillow! No, Randi, she's all yours, in everything that counts. I would rather be Uncle Van, who gets to spoil her."

Randale reached out without looking and snagged a chair with one hand. He swung it around and put it in front of Vanyel. "She'd make a good Queen."

"She'd make a very bad Queen," Vanyel replied, draping himself over it as Randale took another. "The things that make a good Monarch's Own are weakness in the Monarch."

"Like?"

"Empathy. She'd be vulnerable to everyone with a petition and the passion to back it. She'd be tempted to use projective Empathy on her Council to make them vote her way. MindHealer are drawn to the unbalanced; but a Monarch can't waste time dealing with every Herald in trauma she encounters." Vanyel shook his head. "No. Absolutely not. Jisa is going to be a lovely young woman and a good Monarch's Own; be satisfied with that."

Randale gave him a wry look. "You sound very sure of yourself."

"Shouldn't I be?'' Vanyel folded his arms over the back of the chair and rested his chin on them. "Forgive me if I sound arrogant, but other than Savil, I am the expert in these things. Ask my aunt when I'm not around and I'll bet money she'll tell you the same thing."

Randale shrugged, and scratched the back of his head. "I guess you're right. I was hoping you'd back me, though-"

"Why?" Vanyel interrupted. "So you can have something else to pressure Shavri into marrying you?"

Randale winced at his bluntness, and protested weakly, "But that's - I mean-dammit, Van, I need her!"

Gods, so young . . . so uncertain of himself, of her. So afraid that without bonds he won't hold her. “You think she doesn't need you? Randi, she's your lifebonded, do you really need any further hold on her than that? She'd rather die than lose you!"

Randale studied the back of his hand. "It's just ... I want something a little more-"

"Ordinary?" Vanyel finished wryly. "Randi, Heralds are never ordinary. If you wanted 'ordinary,' you should have become a blacksmith."

Randale shook his head.

Vanyel gritted his teeth and prepared to say to Randale what no one else could - or would. “Now you listen to me. You're making her miserable with the pressure you've been putting on her. She's doing exactly what she should; she's putting Valdemar and Valdemar's King ahead of her own wishes."

Mostly.

"She knows the situation we have just as well as you do, but she's willing to face it. Things went to pieces when your grandmother Elspeth died, and they've been getting worse since-steadily."

"I'm not blind, Van," Randale interrupted. "I - "

"Quiet, Randi. I'm making a speech, and I don't, often. I want you to think. There's a very real probability that you'll have to buy us peace on one of our Borders with an alliance marriage - exactly how your grandmother bought us peace with Iftel. And why do you think she never married Bard Kyran after your grandfather died, hmm? She knew her duty, and so should you. You have to stay free for that."

Randale was flushing; Vanyel didn't need Empathy to know he was getting angry. "So what business is it of yours?" he burst out. "I thought you were a friend - "

"I am. But I'm a Herald first. And my first duty is to Valdemar, not to you." Vanyel sat straight up and let his face grow very cold; knowing what he was doing and hating himself for it. Randi wanted his friend, and at some levels, needed his friend. He was going to get Herald-Mage Vanyel Ashkevron. "You, Herald-King Randale, cannot permit your personal feelings to interfere with the well-being of this kingdom. You are as much Herald as I. If you cannot reconcile yourself to that - give up the Crown.''

Randale slumped, defeated. No one knew better than he that there was no Heir or even Heir-presumptive yet. The Crown was his, like it or not. "I ... I wish I . . . there's no one else, Van. No one old enough."

"Then you can't resign your Crown, can you." Vanyel made it a statement rather than a question.

"No. Damn. Van-you know I never wanted this-"

Memory.

Balmy spring breezes played over the lawn. Randi laughing at something, some joke he had just made- Shavri playing with the baby in a patch of sun. Bucolic, pastoral scene -

Shattered by the arrival on a lathered horse of a Queen's Messenger. In black.

Randi jumped to his feet, his face going white. The man handed Randale a sealed package wrapped in silk, but Randi didn't open it.

“Herald Randale - your grandmother the Queen sends me to tell you that your father - ”

The package fell from Randale's fingers. The blue silk wrappings unwound from the contents.

The silver coronet of the Heir.

An accident. A stupid accident - a misstep on a slippery staircase in full view of everyone-and the Heir, Herald-Mage Darvi, was dead of a broken neck. And Randale was Heir.

Vanyel's heart ached for him. And he dared not show it. Pity would be wrong at this moment, but he softened his voice and his expression.

"I told you Jisa would make a bad Queen. I meant every word. Shavri knows all this, too, you can bet on it. And I'm telling you you're tearing her in pieces, putting her between love for you, and what she knows is her duty." Randale looked at him as if he wanted to interrupt. "No, hear me out - you've sympathized often enough with me and my matchmaking mother. How in Havens do you think Shavri feels with you putting that same kind of pressure on her?"

"Not good," Randale admitted, after a long moment.

"Then stop it, before you put her under more pressure than she can take. Leave her alone. Let it lie for another ten years; if things haven't come to a conclusion one way or another, then bring it up. All right?"

"No," Randale said slowly. "It's not all right. But you're absolutely correct about there being no choice. Not for any of us."

Vanyel rose, and swung the chair he'd been slouched over out of the way. Randale did the same.

"Don't spoil what you have with what you only think you want, Randale," he said softly, taking his friend and King's arm. "This is experience talking; the one thing about the brief time I shared with my love that I have never regretted is that I never consciously did anything to make him unhappy. Had our time been longer, maybe I would have; I can't ever know. But at least I have no memories of quarrels or hard words to shadow the good memories."

Randale took his hand. "You're right; I'm wrong. I'll stop plaguing her."

"Good man."

Rand I -oh, Randi - Close; Randale was coming too close. It was beginning to hurt - Then Randale's servant entered behind him, the King's formal uniform draped over one arm, the royal circlet in the other hand, and a harried expression on his face.

Vanyel forced a laugh, and took the welcome opportunity to escape. "Now unless I haul myself out of here, I'm going to make your man there very unhappy."

"What?" Randale turned, startled. "Oh. Oh, hellfire. I have got that damned formal audience before dinner, don't I?"

"Yes, sire," the servant replied, as expressionless as a stone.

"Then I'd better get changed. Vanyel -"

Vanyel put his arm around the younger man's shoulders and gave him an affectionate embrace. "Just go do your duty, and make her happy. That's what counts. I'm off; I'll see you by Midwinter, certainly."

"Right. Van, be well." Randale looked at him - really looked at him, for the first time. He started to reach for Vanyel's arm with an expression of concern; Vanyel ducked his head to conceal the signs of weariness.

"I'm never ill. Go, go, go-before your man kills me with a look!''

Randale managed a grin, and followed the servant back into the private rooms of the suite. Vanyel spent a moment with his eyes closed in unvoiced prayer for him, then took himself back to his own room and his longed - for reunion with his bed.

Three

Morning. Vanyel woke slowly, surrounded by unfamiliar warmth and softness, and put bits of memory together as they drifted within reach.

He vaguely remembered getting to his room, surrounded by fatigue that increasingly fogged everything; recalled noting a brief message from Tran, and getting partially undressed. He did not remember lying down at all; he didn't even remember sitting on the bed.

By the amount of light leaking around the bedcurtains it was probably midmorning, and what had wakened him was hunger.

His soft bed-clean sheets, a real featherbed, and those wonderful dark curtains to block out the light-felt so good. Good enough to ignore the demands of his stomach and give preference to the demands of his weary body. He'd had a fair amount of practice in shutting off inconvenient things like hunger and thirst; there'd been plenty of times lately when he'd had no other choice.

He almost did just exactly that, almost went back to sleep, but his conscience told him that if he didn't get up, he'd probably sleep for another day. And he couldn't afford that.

Clothing, clothing, good gods, what am I going to do about clothing?

There was no way his uniforms would be cleaned and mended, and he was going to need to take a few with him even if he didn't plan to wear them. And he had to have uniforms to travel in, anyway; technically a Herald traveling was on duty.

Wait a moment; wasn't there something in that note from Tran about uniforms?

He pushed off the blankets with a pang of regret, pulled the bed curtains aside, winced away from the daylight flooding his room, and sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for leftovers from half - recollected dreams to clear out of his brain. His shoulders hurt.

Have to do something about that muscle strain before I start favoring that arm . . . remember to put liniment on it, and do some of those exercises.

Birds chirped news at each other right outside his win - dow. It had been a very long time since he'd paid any attention to birdcalls - except as signals of the presence or absence of danger.

The musical chatter was quite wonderful, precisely because it was so sanely ordinary. Ordinary. Peaceful. Gods, I am so tempted just to fall back onto the mattress and to hell with starting for Forst Reach today.

But a promise was a promise. And if he delayed going one day, it would be easy to rationalize another delay, and another, all of which would only lead to Randale's recruiting him. Which was what the trip was supposed to prevent.

He pulled himself up out of bed with the aid of the bedpost and reached for one of Tantras' uniforms. Clean, Lord and Lady, clean and smelling of nothing worse than soap and fresh air. Once he managed to get himself started, habit took over.

He reached with one hand for one of yesterday's leftover apples in their bowl on the table, and Tantras' note with the other.

Go ahead and take my stuff with you. I don't need these; they're spares that were made before I put on all that muscle across the shoulders. A bit tight on me, they ] should be just a little big on you. Tell me what you want done and get out of here; I don't mind taking care of some of your paperwork for you. I'll see that your new uniforms are ready by the time you get back; Supply told me there's no chance of salvaging your old ones. Tran.

More than a little big, Vanyel thought wryly, standing up and surveying himself in the rather expensive glass mirror (a present from Savil) on the back of the door. He'd had to tie the breeches with an improvised drawstring just so they'd stay up, and the tunic bagged untidily over his belt. He looked - except for the silver in his hair - rather like an adolescent given clothing "to grow into.” They'd have been all right a year ago, but - oh, well. Nobody's going to see me except the family. I certainly don't have anyone to impress!

But Tran's volunteering gave him a notion about some other things he needed. He rummaged out the pen and paper he'd used yesterday; by now he reckoned those notes were well on the way to the Border and Forst Reach. Another reason to hail out of here. If I don't arrive soon after the letter, they'II worry. His letters should beat him to the holding by a few days, at least.

He wrote swiftly, but neatly; "neat as a clerk," Tran was wont to tease. Order me new cloaks, would you? And new boots. I need them badly; I'd be ashamed to stand duty the way they are now.

And since you're being so kind as to keep track of this, ask Supply to work me up a set of spare uniforms to leave here, and have them keep a set here at all times. Next time there might not be anyone my size with extras for me to borrow! Thanks, Van.

He packed quickly, without having to think about what he was doing, now that he'd finally gotten his momentum. After the last four years, he could pack fatigue - drunk, pain - fogged, drugged to his eyebrows, or asleep-and he had, at one time or another.

He swung his cloak - it was more gray than white, and a little shabby, but there was nothing to be done about that - over his shoulder, picked up his packs, plucked his lute off the chair, and headed out. In the dark and echoing hall on his way to Companion's Field and the stable, he intercepted a page, gave the child the note for Tantras, and asked for some kind of breakfast to be brought to him while he saddled Yfandes.

She was already waiting calmly for him at the entrance to the tackshed :They've cleaned all my tack,: she told him, :but the saddle needs mending and the rest isn't what it should be. I wouldn't trust the chestband to take any strain at all, frankly.:

:Swordcuts and bums aren't fixed with saddlesoap,: he reminded her :We'll just have to - wait a moment - what about your formal gear? That's next thing to brand new. Gods know we've used it what - once? Twice?:

Her ears went up - her sapphire eyes fixed on him -

And he had that curious and disorienting doubled image of her that he'd gotten sometimes in the past, the image of a dark, wise - eyed woman, weary, but smiling with newly - kindled anticipation, flickering in and out with the graceful white horse.

Gods, if I needed a sign of how dragged-out I am, that's it. Hallucinating again. Dreaming awake. Got to be because I never really think of her as a “horse” even when I'm riding her.

He blinked his eyes and forced himself to focus properly as she replied, as excited as a girl being told she could wear her holiday best- :Chosen, could we use it? Please?:

He chuckled. :You like being dressed up and belled like a gypsy, don't you?:

She tossed her head, and arched her neck. :Don't you? I 've heard you preening at yourself in the mirror of a morning, especially when there was someone to impress!:

"You fight dirty," he said aloud; and went in search of her formal tack, grinning.

One of the kitchen wenches, a bright-eyed little brunette, barely adolescent, brought him hot bread and butter, cider, and more apples about the time he managed to find where Yfandes' formal panoply had been stored. The saddle was considerably lighter than the field saddle, and fancier; it was tooled and worked with silver and dyed a deep blue. The chest and rump bands had silver bells on them, as did the reins of what was essentially an elaborate hackamore. The reins were there more for his benefit than his Companion's, and more for show than either. There was light barding that went along with the outfit, but after regarding it wistfully for a moment, Yfandes agreed that the barding would be far more trouble than it was worth and Vanyel bundled it away.

He paused a moment and bit into the bread; it was dripping with melted butter, and he closed his eyes at the unexpected pleasure the flavor gave him.

Oh, gods - fresh bread!

The taste was better than the manna that the priests said gods ate. "Bread" for the past year had meant rock-hard journey-bread at best, moldy crusts at worst, and anything in between - and it was never fresh, much less hot from the oven. There had been butter – sometimes - rancid in summer, as rock-hard as the journey-bread in winter.

It's the little things we miss the most - I swear it is! Ordinary things, things that spell “peace” and “prosperity.“ He thought briefly of the sword-comrades he'd left on the Border, and sent up a brief prayer. Brightest gods, grant both, but especially peace. Soon, before more blood is shed.

After that he alternated between bites of food and adjusting of harness. The kitchen wench lingered to watch him saddle Yfandes, draped over the open half - door of the stable, squinting into the sunlight. There was something between hero-worship and starry-eyed romance in her gaze; finally Vanyel couldn't stand it any longer and gently shooed her back to her duties.

He noted out of the corner of his eye - with more than a little alarm-that she was clutching the mug he'd drunk from to her budding bosom as though it had been transformed into a holy chalice.

:Looks like you've got another one, Chosen,: Yfandes commented sardonically as he fastened his packs behind her saddle.

:Thank you for that startling information. That's just what I needed to hear :

:It's not my fault you have a face that breaks hearts.:

:But why - oh, never mind.: He gave the girth a last tug and swung up into the saddle. :Let's get out of here before someone else decides she's fallen in love with me.:

They got through the city as quickly as they could, and out onto the open road where it was possible to breathe without choking on the thick cloud of dust and other odors of the crowded city. It was a little strange to ride with the soft chime of the bells marking every pace Yfandes took; it made him nervous for the first few leagues, until he managed to convince his gut that they were in friendly territory, and in no danger of alerting enemy scouts with the sound. After that, the sound began to soothe him. Like muted, rhythmic windchimes -

I've always adored windchimes. And I never get to meditate to them anymore.

He slowly began to relax. Yfandes was in no great hurry, although her "traveling" pace would have run a real horse into the ground after half a day. This had been a gentle summer, turning into a warm and even gentler fall, just enough frost to ensure that the harvests ripened, not enough yet to turn the leaves. Once out of Haven, Exile's Road wound lazily through rustling, golden grain - fields, and fields of sweetly ripening hay. The morning air was slightly cool, but the sun was warm enough that Vanyel soon rolled his cloak and bundled it behind his saddle.

It was very hard to stay awake, in fact. His muscles relaxed into the familiar configurations of riding.

Memory flicker - the k'Treva Vale. Savil, schooling him on Yfandes. “You think you're a rider now, lad. When I'm done with you, you'll be able to do anything ahorse that you can do on the ground.''

Himself, slyly. “Anything?"

She threw a saddlebag at him.

From here to the Border the land was the next thing to flat; long, rolling hills covered with cultivated fields, interrupted by fragrant oak groves that occasionally amounted to small forests.

:You really could sleep, you know,: Yfandes chided him. :I'm not going to let you fall off. It won't be the first time you've taken a nap that way.:

"I'm hardly going to be company for you like that."

She shook her head, and the bells on her halter laughed for her. :Your presence is company enough, Chosen. I ran lone for ten years before you bonded to me. Just having you with me, whole and healthy, is pleasure; you needn't think I need entertaining when we aren't working.:

With a brief flash of pain and pleasure he remembered how he had never needed anything but Tylendel's presence either....

:Yes,: she agreed, following the thought :Exactly.: So he hooked his leg around the saddle pommel, crossed his arms and tucked the ends of his fingers into his belt, then sagged into a comfortable slouch; chin on chest. It didn't take long.

He came awake all at once, his hand reaching automatically for the sword he wasn't wearing. There was an instant of panic before he remembered where he was going, and why he was going there.

"Why did you stop?" he asked Yfandes, who had come to an unmoving halt-which was what had waked him-in the middle of the completely deserted road. There was nothing but open meadow on either side of him, dotted with sheep, though there was no sign of the shepherd. Crows cawed overhead, and the sheep bleated in their pastures; otherwise silence prevailed. The sun was low enough ahead of them to force him to squint. It must be late afternoon, early evening.

:There's an inn just beyond the next curve, sleepy one,: Yfandes said, a hint of amusement tingeing her thought. :It's later than lunch and earlier than dinner, but I'm tired and I'd really like to stop before I go any farther.:

"Havens, love, you should have-"

:No, I shouldn't have. This is the first time you've really relaxed in I don't know how long. Have you thought about the way we resonate?:

He saw instantly what she meant. "So - you were relaxing with me."

:In very deed, and reveling in it. First journey I've been able to enjoy in a while. But I would like to stop now :

"Then so would I." He unwrapped his leg from the pommel and stretched it; she waited until his foot was back in the stirrup, then resumed her easy amble, not quite a walk, not quite a canter. "Is this a temporary halt, or are we stopping for the night?''

:The night?: she asked, wistfully. There was a hint of something more there than she was sending.

"You're not telling me everything," he accused. "Why this inn?"

:Well-you won't be the only Herald there. Herald-Courier Sofya is there-:

"Chosen by?" He had a shrewd hunch where this was leading.

She curved her neck coquettishly, and looked up and sideways at him out of one huge blue eye. :Gavis :

He shook his head at her. "Ah, yes-the one that has been setting all the courier-records lately. Why this penchant for over-muscled courier-types, all legs and no brains-"

:He is not over-muscled,: she replied indignantly, breaking into a teeth-rattling trot to punish him.

"But brainless?" he taunted, feeling unusually mischievous.

:He just doesn't speak up unless he has something to say. Unlike certain Herald-Mages I know.: She kicked once, jarring every vertebra in his spine, before settling, all four feet braced in the dust of the road, and plainly going nowhere.

He reached forward before she could stop him, and tweaked her ear. "Well, since you want to arrange a little assignation, don't you think you'd better get the cooperation of your Chosen?"

:I can't imagine why,: she replied.

"We could move out of the center of the road, and I could groom you so that you looked your usual lovely self when we rode into that inn yard, instead of being all covered with road dust. I could even braid your tail up with some of the blue and silver cord that was with the barding. If I felt like it."

:-Vanyel-I-: she floundered.

"And I do feel like it, you ridiculously vain creature," he said, leaning down and putting both arms around her neck, resting his cheek on her crest. "And to think that they call me a peacock! Has it been so long since I teased you that you've forgotten what it sounds like?"

:Oh, Vanyel - it has been a long time.:

"Then we'll have to remedy that." He dismounted, still a bit stiff from his long doze, and opened the pack with the currycomb in it. Something else occurred to him as he wormed his hand down inside the pack. "Just-do me a very big favor, sweetling-"

:Hmm?: She turned her head and blinked back at him.

He fished out the comb and the cords. "Please, please remember to shield me out of your trysting, all right? You forgot to, the last time. Here, let's get out of the road." He stifled a sigh, as they moved under the shade of tree beside the roadway. "I don't grudge you any pleasure at all, but it's been a very long time since I did any number of things - and teasing you is only one of them."

Yfandes twitched, the closest to blushing a Companion could come.

Vanyel allowed no hand to tend Yfandes but his own, no more than he would have permitted a stranger to see to the comfort of his sister, the cloistered priestess. 'Fandes frequently protested this wasn't necessary, but this afternoon she wasn't complaining. Especially not when young Gavis pranced up to the fence of the inn's open wagon - field with a proud curve to his neck and a certain light of anticipation in his eye. Vanyel kept his amused thoughts to himself as Yfandes flirted coyly with the handsome Companion, and wished her nothing more risque than a "pleasant evening" when he opened the gate into the meadow for her.

She gave him a long look over her shoulder. . - Vanyel, you aren't made of stone. I wish you would find a - comrade. You would be much happier.:

He winced away from the idea. :I've been over this with Savil. And you. Until I can stop trying to replace 'Lendel, I'm not going to cheat myself and my would-be partner :

:I don't see that. If you're friends, it wouldn't be cheating . . . never mind.:

:Go, and enjoy yourself.:

:Oh, I think I can manage that,: she said with deliberate innocence, gave him a slow wink, then frisked off with Gavis in close attendance.

The tack he did entrust to the stableboy, though the lad's wide - eyed awe in his presence left him feeling just a bit uneasy. "Awe" was not something he wanted aimed in his direction. It felt too close to "fear."

He stepped into the open door of the inn's common room with his packs over one shoulder, and stood blinking in the sawdust - scented gloom, waiting for his eyes to adjust. The lean and nervous innkeeper was at his elbow in a breath, long before Vanyel could see anything other than shadows, more shadows, and a dim white form in one corner that was probably Herald Sofya. It seemed as if he and the other Herald were the only guests this early in the afternoon, but this was harvest-season. The locals were undoubtedly making the maximum use of every moment of daylight.

"Milord Herald, an honor, a pleasure. How may this humble inn serve you, milord?"

"Please -" Vanyel flushed at his effusiveness. "Just dinner, a room if you've one to spare, use of your bathhouse, food for my Companion - I took the liberty of turning her loose with Companion Gavis." Now his eyes had adjusted enough that he could see what he was doing; he fumbled in his belt-pouch and pressed coins into the innkeeper's hand. "Here; I'm on leave, not on duty. This should cover everything." Actually it was too much, and he knew it - but what else did he have to spend it on? The man gaped at the money, and began babbling about the room: "Royalty slept there, indeed they did, King Randale himself before his coronation -" Vanyel bore with it as patiently as he could, and when the man finally wound down, thanked him in a diffident voice and entrusted everything but the lute to the hands of one of the servants to be carried away to the rented room.

Now he could make out Herald Sofya in the corner; a dark, pretty woman, quite young, quite lean, and not anyone he recognized. She was paying studious, courteous attention to her jack of ale; Vanyel drifted over to her table when the innkeeper finally fled to the kitchen vowing to bring forth a dinner instantly, which - from the description - would have satisfied both the worst gourmand and the fussiest gourmet in the Kingdom.

"Herald Sofya?" he said quietly, and she looked at him in startlement. He surmised the cause, and smiled.

In all probability her Companion had been so taken up with Yfandes that he'd neglected to tell his Chosen Vanyel's identity. Or else she wasn't much of a Mindspeaker, which meant Gavis wouldn't be able to give her more than images. She had probably assumed the same was true for him. "Your Gavis Mindspoke my Yfandes on the road, and she told me both your names before we arrived. Might I join you?"

"Certainly," she replied, after swallowing quickly.

He sat on the side of the table opposite her, and saw the very faint frown as she took in the state of his Whites. "I apologize for my appearance." He smiled, feeling a little shy. "I know it won't do much for the Heraldic reputation. But I only just got leave, and I didn't want to wait for replacement uniforms. I was afraid that if I did, they'd find some reason to cancel my leave!"

Sofya laughed heartily, showing a fine set of strong, white teeth. "I know what you mean!" she replied. "It seems like all we've done is wear out saddle - leather for the past three months. There're four of us on this route, and the farmers are beginning to count on us like a calendar; one every three days, out to the Border and back."

"To Captain Lissa Ashkevron?"

"The same. And let us hope the Linean Border doesn't heat up the way the Karsite Border did."

Vanyel closed his eyes, as a chill crawled up his backbone and shivered itself along all of his limbs. "Gods spare us that,” he said, finally.

When he opened his eyes again, she was staring at him very oddly, but he was saved from having to say anything by the appearance of the innkeeper with his dinner.

Vanyel started in on the smoked-pork pie with an appetite he didn't realize he'd had until the savory aroma of the gravy hit him. Sofya leaned back against the wall and continued to nurse her drink, giving him an odd and unreadable glance from time to time.

He'd been too numb from the long, grueling ride to appreciate his meal yesterday. He'd stowed it away without tasting it, as if it had been the iron rations or make-do of the combat zone. But this morning - and now - the home fare seemed finer than anything likely to be set before Randale.

"I hope you don't mind my staring," Sofya said at last, as he literally cleaned the plate of the last drop of gravy, "but you're going after that pie as if you hadn't seen food in a week, and you're rather starved-looking, and that seems very odd in a Herald-unless you've been standing duty somewhere extraordinary."

He noticed then the "blank" spot in the back of his mind that meant 'Fandes was keeping her promise and shielding him out. He grinned a little to himself; that probably meant that Gavis was doing the same, so Sofya's curiosity about him must be eating her alive.

"I've seen nearly no food for a week," he replied quietly, and paused for a moment when the serving girl took the plate away and replenished his mug of cider. “I don't know if you'd call my duty extraordinary, but it was harder than I expected. I've been on the Karsite Border for the last year. Meals weren't exactly regular, and the food was pretty awful. There were times I shared 'Fandes' oats because I couldn't even attempt eating what they gave me; half-rotten meat and moldy bread aren't precisely to my taste. All too often there wasn't much to go around. And, to tell you the truth, sometimes I just forgot to eat. You know how it is, things start happening, and the next thing you know, it's two days later. That's why -" he gestured at his too - large uniform, and grinned wryly. "The situation was harder on clothing than on stomachs."

Her sable eyes widened, and softened. "You were on the Karsite duty? I don't blame you for running off," she replied, with a hint of a chuckle. "I think I would, too, Herald - you never did give me your name."

"Vanyel," he said. "Vanyel Ashkevron. Lissa's brother. I know, we don't look at all alike -"

But her reaction was not at all what he had expected. Her eyes widened even farther, and she sat straight up. "Herald-Mage Vanyel?” she exclaimed, loud enough that the farmers and traders who'd begun trickling in while Vanyel was eating stopped talking and turned to look with their mouths dropping open. "You're Vanyel?” Her voice

carried embarrassingly well, and rose with every word. "Vanyel Demonsbane? The Shadow Stalker? The Hero of - "

"Please -" Vanyel cut her off, pleadingly. "Please, it - yes, I'm Vanyel. But - honestly, it wasn't like you think." He groped for the words that would make the near-worship he saw on her face go back to ordinary friendliness. "It wasn't like that, it really wasn't - just - things had to get done, and I was the only one to do them, so I did. I'm not a hero, or -I'm just - I'm just - another Herald," he finished lamely.

He looked around the common room, and to his dismay saw the same worship in the expressions of the farmfolk around him. And something more. Fear.

An echo of that fear was in Sofya's eyes as well, before she looked down at her ale.

He closed his eyes, settling his face into a calm and expressionless mask, that belied the ache that their fear called up in him. He'd wanted - acceptance, only that.

Tran, Tran, you were right, I was wrong. “Be careful what you ask for, you may get it.'' Gods, I asked for signs that Tran was right. And now I have them. Don't I?

He opened his eyes again, but the reverence and adulation hadn't vanished. There was a palpably clear space around him where the "common folk" had moved a little away, as if afraid to intrude too closely on him. Even Sofya.

And the room had taken on the silence of a chapel. I'm about to ruin their evening as well as mine. Unfair, unfair - there must be something I can do to salvage this situation, at least for them.

"You know," he said, with forced lightness, "if there was one thing I missed more than anything, it was a chance for a little music -"

He reached blindly down beside him for the lute he'd left leaning against the wall, stripped the case off it and tuned it with frantic speed. " - and I hate to sing alone.

I'll bet you all know 'The Crafty Maid,' don't you?"

Without waiting for an answer, he launched into the song. He sang alone on the first verse - but gradually other voices joined his on the chorus; Sofya first, with a kind of too-hearty determination, then a burly peddler, then three stout farmers. The local folk sang timidly to begin with, but the song was an old and lively one, and the chorus was infectious. By his third song the whole room was echoing, and they were no longer paying much more attention to him than they would have to a common minstrel.

Except between songs.

And except for Sofya, who worshiped him with eyes that sent a lump of cold to live in the bottom of his throat. She waited on him herself, as if he was some kind of angel, to be adored, but not touched.

He slipped out of the room early, when she was getting something; another musician had joined the crowd, a local, and he used the lad's talent as a screen to get out during a particularly rowdy song. He thought he'd gotten away without anyone noticing, but the innkeeper intercepted him in the hallway.

"Milord – Vanyel -" The tallow candles lighting the hall smoked and flickered and made the shadows move like the Shadows he'd once hunted. The memory knotted his stomach. He concentrated on the innkeeper, but the man gulped and would not meet his eyes. A breath of cooked onions drifted up the hall from the common room. "Milord, if I'd known who it was I was serving, I'd have made you special fare, and I'd not have accepted your coin."

“Please,” Vanyel interrupted, trying to conceal his hurt. The innkeeper jumped back a pace. "Please," he said; softly, this time. "I told you, I'm not on duty, I'm on leave. I'm just another traveler. You fed me the best meal I've had in months, truly you did. You've earned every copper I paid you, and honestly."

"But milord Vanyel, it was nothing, it was common plowman's pie - surely you'd have preferred wine to cider; venison or a stuffed pheasant - and you paid me far too much -"

Vanyel felt a headache coming on. "Actually, no, inn-keeper. The truth is I've been on iron-rations for so long anything rich would likely have made me ill. And venison - if I never have to see another half-raw deer - Your good, solid fare was feast enough for me. I'll tell you what -" He decided on the lie quickly. "I've been too long within walls. I have a fancy for trees and sky tomorrow; if you'll have your excellent cook make me up a packet for breakfast and lunch, I'll consider us more than even. Will that serve your honor, good sir?"

The innkeeper stared, chewing his mustache ends nervously, as if he thought Vanyel might be testing him for some reason, and then nodded agreement.

"Now I - I'm just a little more tired than I thought. If I could use the bathhouse, and get some sleep, do you think?"

To the man's credit, he supplied Vanyel with soap and towels and left him alone. In the steamy quiet of the bathhouse Vanyel managed to relax again. But the cheer of this morning was gone.

He sought release in sleep, finally, in what must have been the finest room in the inn - a huge bed wide enough for an entire family, two featherbeds and a down comforter, and sheets so fresh they almost crackled, all of it scented with orris and lavender. Far below he could still hear the laughter and singing as he climbed into the enormous bed. He blew out the candle then, feeling as lonely as he had ever been in his life, and prayed that sleep would come quickly.

For once his prayers were answered.

"I wish I dared Gate," he mused aloud, carefully examining, then peeling a hard-boiled egg. Yfandes had not said anything about his early-morning departure from the inn, or the fact that he had not waited for breakfast. It was chilly enough that he needed his cloak, and there was a delicate furring of frost on some of the tall weeds beside the roadway. "Gating would shorten this trip considerably."

:You try and I'll kick you from here to Haven,: Yfandes replied sharply, the first time she'd spoken to him this morning :That is absolutely the stupidest thing you've said in months!:

He bit into the egg and looked at her backward - pointing ears with interest. "Havens, ladylove - didn't your tryst go well?"

:My “tryst” went just fine, thank you,: she replied, her mind-voice softening. :I just get sick every time I think about what happened the last time.:

"Oh, 'Fandes, it wasn't that bad."

:Not that bad? When you were unconscious before you crossed the threshold? And hurting so badly I nearly screamed?:

"All right, it was bad," he admitted, popping the rest of the egg into his mouth and reaching into the "breakfast packet.” “And I'm not stupid enough to Gate without urgent need." He studied a roll, weighing it in his hand. It seemed awfully heavy. As good as the food had been so far, it didn't seem likely that it was underbaked, but he was not in the mood to choke down raw dough. He nibbled it dubiously, then bit into it with a great deal more enthusiasm when it proved to have sausage baked into the middle of it. "It would just be very convenient to not have to stop at inns."

:Don't tell them your real name,: she interrupted.

"What?"

: If reactions like last night bother you, you don't have to tell them your real name. Tell them you're Tantras. Tran won't mind.:

" 'Fandes, that's not the point - never mind." He finished the last of his breakfast and dusted his hands off. A skein of geese flew overhead, honking. The farmers already out in the fields beside the road, scything down the grain and making it into sheaves, paused a moment and pointed at the "v" of birds. "Tran was right, and I'm going to have to get used to it, I guess. And I can't do that hiding behind someone else's name." He managed a wan smile. "It could be worse. They could be treating me like a leper because I'm shay'a'chern, instead of treating me like a godlet because I'm Herald-Mage Vanyel Demonsbane." He grimaced. "Gods, that sounds pretentious."

She slowed her pace a trifle. :It isn't that important - is it?:

"It's that important. I'm a very fallible mortal, not an Avatar. Magic is a force - a force I control, no more wonderful than a Mindspeaker's ability, or a Healer's. But they don't see it that way. To them it's something beyond anything they understand, and they're not sure it can be controlled." He sighed. "Or worse, they think magic can solve every problem."

:You thought that, once.:

"I know I did. When I was younger. Magic seemed to offer solutions to everything when I was nineteen." He shook his head, and stared out at the horizon. "For a while - for a little while - I thought I held the world. Even Jays respected me, came to be a friend. But magic couldn't force my father to tell me I'd done well in his eyes - or rather, it could force him, when I wanted the words to come freely from him. It couldn't make being shay'a'chern any easier. It couldn't bring back my Tylendel. It was just power. It's dividing me from ordinary people. Worse than that - it seems to be doing the same between me and other Heralds - and 'Fandes, that scares the hell out of me."

:You won't be getting any of the godlet treatment from your kin, I can promise you that.:

“I suppose not.''

It was getting warmer by the moment. He bundled his cloak, and wondered if he should get out his hat. Gods! Change the subject-before you brood yourself into depression again. “Do you think Father will be able to keep Mother off my back?"

:Not to put too fine a point upon it, no.:

"I didn't think so." His shoulders were beginning to hurt again. He clasped his arms behind him and arched his back, looking up at the blue, cloudless sky. "Which means she'll keep trying to cure me by throwing every female above the age of consent within leagues at me. I could almost feel sorrier for the girls than I do for myself."

:You ought to, Van.:

He looked down at Yfandes' ears in surprise.

:Did it ever occur to you that you could well have broken a fair number of susceptible young hearts?:

He raised an eyebrow, skeptically. "Aren't you exaggerating?"

:Think! What about the way you charmed that poor little kitchen girl back at the Palace?:

He winced a little, recalling the romance in her eyes, but then irritation set in. " 'Fandes, I've never done anything other than be polite to any of them."

She snorted :Exactly. Think about it. You're polite to them. Gallant. Occasionally even attentive. Think about the difference in your station and that kitchen maid's. What in Havens do you think she was expecting when you were polite to her? What does any young man of rank want when he notices a servant or a farmer's daughter?:

Now he was something more than irritated. "I don't suppose it's occurred to you that it might just be the simple fact that I'm a Herald, a safe sort of romance object? Great good gods, 'Fandes, I doubt she had any notion of my rank!"

:Well what about all those young women your mother parades before you - telling them they're prospective brides? What do they think that gallantry is?:

"I would imagine that Mother tells them plenty," he replied with heat, beginning to flush, and very glad there was no one about to overhear this conversation.

:Well, you imagine wrong. Talking to servants is beneath her. As for the others, all she ever tells them is that you - and I quote - ”lost your first love tragically. “ Now what in the Lady's name do you think that makes them want to do?:

"Gods, 'Fandes, is that somehow my fault? Was I supposed to interrogate them while they were chasing me?"

:You,: she said, ice dripping from every word, :never asked. Or bothered to ask. Or wanted to ask. It never occurred to you that Withen might not want it spread about the neighborhood that his first-born son prefers men ?:

" 'Fandes," he replied, after a long, bitter moment of silence. "I don't see where it's any of your business. It has nothing to do with my duties as a Herald."

Silence on her part. Then, :You're right. I'm sorry. I . . . overstepped myself. I - I just wanted you to think about what was going on.:

"Is that what I've been doing?" he asked quietly.

:Well - yes.:

"Then I should apologize. I can't afford to react automatically to things - not even in my personal life. And - gods. Not when I'm hurting people."

A wash of relief. Then a tinge of sarcasm. :You're thinking. And about time, too. Now are you going to enjoy a long wallow in self-accusation?:

Something about the tone of her mind-voice - and the exact wording she'd used - made him pause for a moment. "Wait a minute - let me look at this from another angle." He made a mental checklist of all the young women Lady Treesa had pushed off on him, and what they'd done when he'd failed to succumb to their various charms. And the more he thought about I t-

"You are exaggerating, aren't you?" he accused.

:Well - yes. But the situation exists. What are you going to do about it?:

"Be careful, I suppose. But I'll have to watch what I say."

:Good. You're still thinking.:

"The ones Mother keeps flinging at me are the hardest. If I tell them the truth, I'll hurt Father. I'll shame him, at the least. Even if I pledge them to silence, it'll get out."

:So?:

"I don't know. But I'll think about it."

:Now that is the Vanyel I Chose.: Her mind-voice was warm with approval :You’re not “just” reacting anymore :

"Havens, I've been going numb between the ears for the past year, haven't I?"

: Well - yes. You had reason but -

He nodded, slowly. "This last year - I've gotten into a lot of habits."

:Exactly. You can't let your heart or your habits control you. Not when you're who you are, and wield the power you do. Think about reacting emotionally in a battle situation. Think about even reacting reflexively, instead of tactically.: He did, and shuddered.

He always stopped at Halfway Inn - the name, he'd learned since, was a conscious pun - the hostelry that sat in the middle of the forest that cut Forst Reach off from the rest of the Kingdom.

In a way, what he had become had started here. The Inn had certainly marked his passage into a different world, though young Vanyel Ashkevron, more than half a prisoner of his escort, had not gotten the attention that Herald-Mage Vanyel got now.

It was an enormous place, and in the normal run of things very few travelers even saw the Innkeeper. A Herald was an exception. The Innkeeper himself saw to Vanyel's every whim - not that there were very many of those. The Inn was quite comfortable even for those who were less noteworthy than Vanyel.

There was less of the hero - worship here than there had been in other inns along the road. Vanyel was "local; everyone attached to the inn and most of those staying there knew his family, his holding. They seemed to regard him with proprietary pride rather than awe, as if the things he had done were somehow reflections on them; as if his fame brought them fame. And as if they had something to do with what he had become.

In a way, perhaps they had. If events that occurred here had not made him feel so utterly alienated from the rest of the world he might not have responded as strongly as he had to Tylendel.

He left Halfway Inn just after dawn, hoping to reach Forst Reach by early afternoon at the very latest. He had always made excellent time on this last leg of his journey every other time he'd made his trips home - though he always left much faster than he arrived. . . .

But he stopped Yfandes before they had traveled more than a candlemark, while fog still wreathed the undergrowth and it was dark beneath the silent trees. The air was damp-smelling, with the tang of rotting leaves, and a hint of muskiness. No birds sang, and nothing rustled the fallen leaves underfoot or the branches overhead. This forest was always quiet, but this morning it was too quiet,

"Something's wrong," he said, straightening in his saddle, and pulling his cloak a little tighter around his shoulders.

:I can feel it, too,: Yfandes agreed, :but it's very subtle.:

This forest-unnamed, so far as he knew - had frightened him to the point of near-hysteria the first time he'd traveled this road. Now he knew why; there was magic here, old magic of the kind that the Tayledras used, that they frequently drained off in order to weaken it, and open the lands to more ''normal" human settlements The kind of magic that made the Pelagir Hills the changeling-haunted places they were. Anyone with so much as the potential for the Mage-Gift could feel enough to make them unhappy and uncomfortable.

But this magic had been dormant for a very long time.

"I'm going to probe," he said, and closed his eyes going in, then opening out -

The magic was still there, but it lay even deeper below the fabric of the forest than it had the last time he had passed this way. Now that his Gift was fully trained, he could even see the traces that told him it had been drained by the Tayledras at least twice, which meant it should be "safe." The Hawkbrothers never left wild magic behind when they abandoned an area.

But that draining and abandonment had been long ago - very long ago.

Yes, the magic still slept, deeper than the taproots or the trees and harder to reach - but it slept uneasily. All magic was akin, and all magic touched all other magic - an affinity that made the Gate-spell possible. But close proximity meant stronger ties to magics that neighbored one another; disturbance to one site frequently disturbed another.

Vanyel could feel that disturbance in the magics here A resonance with another pole of power at a distance - probably across the Border, and most probably in Baires given that the ruling family was composed of mages Something somewhere was powerfully warping kindred magic fields, and this field housed in the forest was resonating to that disturbance, like a lute string resonating to a touch on the one beside it.

But it was too far away, and the resonances too tenuous, for Vanyel to determine who was causing it, or where it originated, or even what was being done. Although -

Vanyel brought himself up out of his scanning-trance, and bit his lip in thought.

" 'Fandes, did you get anything?"

:No more than you,: she replied uneasily, resuming her pace without his prompting.  - .Except - the root of all this is evil.:

"And I know better than to ask you to probe anything I can't reach. But I don't like it either. I like it even less now, with the Border uneasy. It makes me wonder if someone is forcing an issue - and if so, what, and to what end?"

:Tell Lissa. That's all you can do for now.:

He glanced uneasily to either side of him. "I'm afraid you're right, ladylove," he agreed. "I am afraid you're only too right."

Four

Despite everything he'd told himself, despite being adult and with experiences behind him Withen could not even imagine, Vanyel felt his shoulders beginning to knot with anxiety the moment he crossed the gate marking the edge of the Forst Reach lands. By the time he rode through the gate in the wall that surrounded the Great House of the estate, he was fighting to keep himself from hunching down in the saddle like a sullen, frightened child.

It never changes. Outside these walls I may be a Herald-Mage who can admonish the King himself; inside I'm Vanyel, prodigal son, with habits we don't talk about, and tastes best politely ignored. Gods, when are they ever going to accept me for who I am ?

:Perhaps never. Perhaps when you accept yourself, Chosen.:

The unsolicited reply nettled him a little.

:Perhaps,: she continued, :when you know who you are, and know it well enough that you can't be reduced to an adolescent just by riding through the gates.:

He glanced down at Yfandes' ears, and then ahead, down the road to the destination that was causing him such discomfort. :Are you saying I don't know who I am ?:

She didn't reply, but picked her pace up to a trot - the easy kind-and rounded the final curve and hill that brought them within sight of Forst Reach itself, bulking heavy and gray against the brilliant autumn sky.

The building had once been a defensive keep, and still had something of that blocky, no - nonsense look about it. It had long since been renovated and converted into a dwelling far more comfortable, though even at this distance Vanyel could see the faint outline of the moat under the lush grass surrounding it. Surrounded as it was by newer, smaller outbuildings of whitewashed stucco, it resembled a vast and rather ill-natured gray granite hen squatting among a flock of paler chicks.

Someone had been watching for him. Vanyel saw a small, fairly androgynous figure leave a position on a little rise beside the road and run toward the main building. It vanished somewhere in the vicinity of one of the old postern gates, which were now doors, and Vanyel assumed he (or she, though it was probably a page) had gone to tell the rest of the household that he had arrived. Heralds were distinctive enough to be spotted at any distance, and few enough that it would be safe to assume that any Herald coming to Forst Reach was going to be Vanyel.

Sure enough, people began emerging from doors all over the building, and by the time Vanyel and Yfandes reached the main doors - impressive black oaken monstrosities that had been set into a frame in what had once been the gateway to the center court - there was a sizable group waiting for him.

There was the usual babble of greetings - Treesa wept all over him, Withen gingerly clapped him on the shoulder, his brothers all followed Withen's example. There was the usual little dance when Withen told a page to "take Vanyel's horse" and Van-again-had to explain that Yfandes wasn't a horse, she was a Companion and his partner and that he would see to her. And as usual, Withen looked puzzled and skeptical, as if he was wondering if his son wasn't a bit daft.

But Vanyel was firm - as usual - and got his way. Because if he hadn't insisted (and the first visit home, he hadn't) Yfandes would be stripped of tack and given a good rubdown, then locked into a stall like the "valuable animal" she seemed to Withen to be. Van hadn't known what had happened that time until she wistfully Mindspoke him at dinner, asking if he'd come let her out, since she couldn't reach the lock on the door of the stall.

That night he had gone immediately down to the stable leaving his dinner half-eaten, and with profligate use of magic, created a new split door to the outside in one of the big loose boxes Withen used for mares in foal. Whenever he came home now, that stall was Yfandes', no matter if he had to move a mare out and scour it down to the wooden floor with his own two hands first. And no matter what sort of contrivance Withen had installed on the new door to keep it locked, Vanyel magicked it so that Yfandes could come and go as she pleased. Maybe Withen wondered why the box never had to be cleaned; certainly the stablehands did. But Withen never seemed to grasp that Yfandes was exactly what his son said she was; a brilliant, thinking, creative lady, with all of a great lady's manners and daintiness, who just happened to be living in a horse's body.

Yfandes was still moderately amused. But Vanyel frequently thought that it was a good thing he'd never mentioned Withen's proposition on that first visit to breed her to the best of his palfrey-studs, or he'd have been using his magic to repair the gaping holes in the stable, instead of adding a door.

This time, at least, Withen had learned enough through repetition that the loose box had been vacated, scoured and bleached, and then filled with straw. But he still had left the outer door latched and double-locked.

Vanyel just sighed, magicked the locks in the open position, and pulled the top half of the door wide. He moved the latchstring for the lower half back through the hole to where Yfandes could get at it, then rummaged through his own packs for a longer bit of string so that she could pull it closed if she chose. Needless to say, the strap he'd attached there last time was gone.

"How hungry are you?" he asked her, stripping her tack and hanging it over the edge of the stall for the stablehands to clean, then beginning to rub her down. Straw dust tickled his nose and made him want to sneeze.

:Very,: she replied, testing the depth of the straw with a forehoof and nodding approval. Just take the sweat off and get the knots out of my tail; I'm going to roll when I get out, and maybe swim in the pond.:

He heard Withen's footsteps on the path to the stable, and switched to Mindspeech. :Fine, love, just have your swim when nobody's watching or they'II send half the stablehands to pull you out. Now watch; I will bet you money that Father says, “Are you sure you should leave her that much food so soon after a long ride? She might founder.“: He finished currying her, took the bucket off its hook, and went after grain for her.

"Are you sure you should leave her that much food so soon after a long ride?" Withen said dubiously from the stable - door proper, his square bulk blocking nearly all the light. "She might founder."

"Father, she isn't a horse; she knows better than to stuff herself silly. She told me she's very hungry. It's been a hard tour of duty for both of us, and both of us need to get back a little weight." Vanyel hung the bucket of mixed grains where Yfandes could get at it easily. :Now he'll say, “I suppose you know best, son, but-”:

"I suppose you know best, son, but-" Withen moved cautiously up to the loose box as Vanyel forked in hay.

"Father, would you stuff yourself sick after a long day at the harvest?" At harvest - time Withen made it a point of spending one day with each of his tenants and several days with his own fieldhands, working beside them. It was one of the many things he did that endeared him to his people.

"Well -" Withen's heavy brows creased, and for once he looked uncertain. "- no."

"So, neither will she." He rinsed her water-bucket until it squeaked, filled it with absolutely clear, cold water, and hung it beside the grain bucket. Withen stepped forward as if he couldn't help himself.

"Son, she'll foul the water."

"Would Mother drop food into the wine in her goblet?" Vanyel sighed.

"Well - no."

"So, Yfandes wouldn't.” Since she has better manners than Mother.

He Mindtouched Yfandes gently. :All set, ladylove?:

:Quite, beloved.: Yfandes' mind-voice was yellow and effervescent with amusement. :Does he do that to you every time we come?:

Vanyel rubbed her forehead between her eyes and she closed them with pleasure. :Just about. Normally he doesn't follow me into the stable, but I get it when he hears from the stablehands what I did with you. Watch out for that so - called “Shin'a'in stallion;” I think he's sometimes allowed to run loose in this field. He might try and bully you; he might decide you’re one of his mares and give you a little excitement.:

She bared her front teeth delicately. :I'd rather like to see him try anything on me. I could use a good fight.:

He nearly choked. :Now, love, you 'II scare him impotent, and how will I explain that to Meke?:

:Cleverly, of course. Go on with you; I'm fine and your father is fretting.:

"All right, Father, she says she's comfortable," he said aloud, forcing himself not to grin. "Let's go."

"Are you sure she should be left like that? What if she gets out?"

"Father," Vanyel sighed, sending the gods a silent plea for patience, "I want her to be able to come and go as she pleases."

"But - "

Vanyel wondered if his father ever really heard anything he said. "She's not, “he repeated for the hundredth time, "a horse. “

Vanyel was in time for dinner, a pleasure he would just as soon have done without. But once bathed, settled into the best guest room, and dressed in clean clothing - not uniform, he wasn't on duty now, not even technically - his good sense prevailed over his reluctance. When the summons for dinner came, he followed the page and took his place at the high table. Withen tried to put him at his right, between himself and Vanyel's mother. Vanyel managed to convince him to let him take the usual seat guests took, on the end, displacing Radevel, who didn't look at all unhappy to be sitting down at the low table.

Sitting at the end he was spared having to make conversation with two people at once. His seat - mate proved to be Mekeal's thin, little red-haired wife Roshya, who took all the burden of conversation from him. She chattered nonstop, sparrowlike, without ever seeming to pause for breath. All he had to do was nod and make vague noises of agreement or disagreement from time to time, and he actually didn't mind; Roshya's gossip was cheerful and never malicious - if she had a fault it was that she seemed to assume he must know every highborn and family member for leagues around. After all, she did.

The dark, high-ceilinged hall seemed far more cramped than Vanyel remembered - until he counted heads, and realized that there were twice the number of folk dining than there had been when he was fifteen. He blinked, but the number didn't change. The low table had been lengthened, and a second table set at right angles to it at the other end, making an "H" shape with the high table.

And the high table had been lengthened, too; when Van had been sent to Haven and his aunt Savil, only Withen, Treesa, Jervis, Father Leren, and any guests they might have had been seated there-which had then included Vanyel's Aunt Serina and her Healer. Now, besides the original four, the table included the unmarried children, all three married sons, and their wives.

Great good gods, this isn't a family, it's a tribe!

The only one missing since his last visit seemed to be his youngest sister Charis; it looked like the only ones still home were the boys. After a moment of thought it seemed to him that he recalled getting word of Charis' wedding to somebody-o other just after Elspeth's death. Did I send a present? I must've, or I'd have heard about it five breaths after being greeted. That's right - I remember now - I sent that hideously pious tapestry of the Lady of Fertility. Aunt Savil took care of Meke and Roshya for me, and I sent Deleran those awful silver-and-crystal candlesticks...

But gods, did I do anything about Raster and whatever-her-name-is? That was just seven or eight months ago, I was so tangled up in the Border-fight - I don't remember -

He continued to fret about that until Roshya's dropped comment about the "delightful bedcurtains, Kaster and Ria were so pleased," told him that if he hadn't, Savil must have sent something in his name. At that point he relaxed a little. From Roshya's chatter, Vanyel learned that she and Mekeal had six children thus far; Deleran and his wife had two, and Raster's rather plump new bride -

Looks ready to spawn at any moment. Lord and Lady, they certainly didn't waste any time.

It made his head swim to think about it. Forst Reach was hardly a small holding, but it must be near to bursting at the seams.

He must have looked as if he were marginally interested in the new bride. Roshya waved her beringed hands in an artful imitation of Treesa, and launched into a dissertation on Lady Ria that was partly fact and mostly fancy - Vanyel was in a position to know. She'd been one of the young women his mother had thrown into his path the last time he'd been home. She looked content enough now with Kaster, which was something of a relief to his conscience.

He looked back down at the low table in one of Roshya's infrequent pauses for breath.

No wonder she's thin. She never stops talking to eat.

Radevel was the only face he recognized down there, although a good half the youngsters had the Ashkevron build and look. Radevel was stolidly munching his way through a heaping plateful of bread and roast when he caught Vanyel looking at him, and gave the Herald a shrug of the shoulders aimed at the mob of children, then a slow and quite deliberate wink.

Vanyel stifled a laugh. So Father is still fostering dozens of cousins, and Radevel is still stuck here. Poor Rad; what is he, fifth son ? Nowhere else to go, I guess. I bet Father's put him in charge of the younglings. Good choice. He 'II keep them moderately in line. Better him than Jervis.

He looked back up in time to catch crag - faced Jervis, the Forst Reach armsmaster, giving him an ugly glare. He met the glare impassively, but with an inward feeling of foreboding. He's going to try something, I feel it in my bones. Great, that means I'll get to play cat-and-mouse with him through the whole visit. He looked away when the armsmaster's eyes fell, only to find that saturnine Father Leren was giving him a look of ice and calculation, too, from beneath hooded lids. Delightful, so I have both of them to deal with. Just what I needed. What a wonderful friendly visit this is going to be.

He continued to make the appropriate noises at Roshya, and ignored the further stares of Jervis and Leren.

Mekeal had become so like Withen that Vanyel had to blink, seeing them together. Broad shoulders, brown beards trimmed identically, brown hair held back in identical tails with identical silver rings, dark brown eyes as open and readable as a dog's-dissimilar clothing was about all that differentiated them. That, and a few wrinkles in Withen's face, a few gray streaks in his hair and beard. Meke was perhaps a touch less muscular; not surprising since Withen's muscles had been built up in actual fighting during his career as a guard officer, and Meke had never seen any righting outside of an occasional skirmish with bandits. But otherwise - Withen did not look his age; with all the silver in his hair and the stress-lines around his eyes, Vanyel could be taken for older than his father.

Treesa, on the other hand, had not aged gracefully. She was still affecting the light, diaphanous gowns and pale colors appropriate to a young girl. Even if he had not been aware of the various cosmetic artifices employed by the ladies of Randale's Court, Vanyel would have known the coloring of her hair and cheeks to be false.

She's holding onto youth with teeth and nails, and it's still getting away from her, he thought sadly. Poor Mother. All she ever had to make her feel like she had some worth was being pretty and me, and she's losing both. Every year I become more of a stranger to her; every year her looks fade a little more. He glanced over at Roshya, who seemed to be doing her best to imitate Lady Treesa, and was relieved to see a gleam of lively good humor in her green eyes, and to hear a little of that sense of humor reflected in what she was saying. Treesa would likely become a bitter, unpleasant old woman on her own - but not with Roshya around.

The rest of Vanyel's brothers had become thinner, more reckless copies of Meke. They ate heavily and drank copiously and roared jokes at each other across the length of table, emphasizing points with a brandished fork. They’re probably terrors on the hunt - and I bet they hunt every other day. And probably fighting when they aren't hunting. They need something to keep them occupied, can't Father see that?

The more Vanyel saw, the uneasier he became. There was a restlessness in Withen's offspring that demanded an outlet, but there wasn't any. No wonder Meke is hoping for a Border-war, he realized as the meal drew to a close. This place is like a geyser just about to blow. And when it does, if there isn't any place for that energy to go, someone is going to get hurt. Or worse.

Servants began clearing the tables, and the adults rose and began to drift out on errands of their own. By Forst Reach tradition, the Great Hall belonged to the youngsters after dinner. Vanyel lingered until most of the others had gone out the double doors to the hallway; he was not in the mood to argue with anyone right now, or truly, even in the mood to make polite conversation. What he wanted was a quiet room, a little time to read, and more sleep.

It didn't seem as if the gods were paying much attention to his wants, lately.

Withen was waiting for him just beyond the doors.

"Son, about that horse-"

"Father, I keep telling you, Yfandes is not-”

Withen shook his head, an expression of marked impatience on his square face. "Not your Companion- Mekeal's horse. That damned stud he bought."

"Oh." Vanyel smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. Lately my mind stays in the same path unless you jerk its leash sideways. Tired, I guess."

For the first time Withen actually looked at him, and his thick eyebrows rose in alarm. "Son, you look like hell.”

"I know," Vanyel replied. "I've been told."

“Bad?'' Withen gave him the same kind of sober attention he gave to his own contemporaries. Vanyel was obscurely flattered.

"Take all the horror stories coming north from the Karsite Border and double them. That's what it's been like."

For once Withen's martial background was a blessing. He knew what Border-fighting was like, and his expression darkened for a moment. "Gods, son - that is not good to hear. So you'll be needing your rest. Well, I won't keep you too long, then - listen, let's take this out to the walk."

The "walk" Withen referred to was a stone porch, rather like a low balcony and equipped with a balustrade, that ran the length of the north side of the building. Why Grandfather Joserlin had put it there, no one knew. It overlooked the gardens, but not usefully, most of the view being screened off by the row of cypresses he'd had planted just beneath the railing. It could be accessed by one door, through the linen storeroom. Not many people used it, unless they wanted to be alone.

Which actually made it a fine choice for a private discussion.

Blue, hazy dusk, scented with woodsmoke, was all that met them there. Vanyel went over to the balustrade and sat on the top of it, and Withen began again.

"About that horse - have you seen it?"

"I'm afraid so," Vanyel replied. His window overlooked the meadows where the horses were turned loose to graze, and he'd seen the “Shin'a'in stud" kicking up his heels and attempting to impress Yfandes who was in the next field over. She had been ignoring him. "I hate to say this, Father, but Meke was robbed. I've seen a Shin'a'in warsteed; they're ugly, but not like that beast. They're smaller than that stud; they're not made to carry men in armor, they're bred to carry nomad horse-archers. They have very strong hindquarters, but their forequarters are just as strong, and they're a little short in the spine. 'Bunchy,' I guess you'd say. And their heads are large all out of proportion to the rest of them. The only thing a Shin'a'in warsteed has in common with Meke's nag is color. And besides, the only way an outsider could get a warsteed would be to steal a young, untrained one— and then kill the entire Clan he stole it from—and then kill the other Clans that came after him. No chance. Maybe somewhere there's Shin'a'in blood in that one, but it's cull blood if so."

Withen nodded. "I thought it might be something like that. I've seen their riding-beasts, the ones they will sell us. Beautiful creatures—so I knew that stud wasn't one of those, either. The animal is stupid, even for a horse, and that's going some. It's vicious, too—even with other horses; cut up the one mare Meke put it to before they could stop it. It's never been broken to ride, and I'm not sure it can be—and you know how I feel about that."

Vanyel half-smiled; one thing that Withen knew was his horses, and it was an iron-clad rule with him that all studs had to be broken for riding, the same as his geldings, and exercised regularly under saddle. No stud in his stable was allowed to laze about; when they weren't standing, they were working. It made them that much easier to handle at breeding-time. Most of Withen's own favorite mounts were his studs.

A mocker-bird shrilled in one of the cypresses, and Vanyel jumped at the unexpected sound. As he willed his heart to stop racing, Withen continued. "It hasn't taken a piece out of any of the stablehands yet, but I wonder if that isn't just lack of opportunity. And this is what Meke wants to breed half the hunter-mares to!"

Vanyel shook his head. Damn! I hope this jumping-at-shadows starts fading out. If I can't calm myself down, I'm going to hurt someone.

"I don't know what to tell you, Father. I'd have that beast gelded and put in front of a plow, frankly; I think that's likely all he's good for. Either that, or use the damned thing to train your more experienced young riders how to handle an unmanageable horse. But I'm a Herald, not a landholder; I have no experience with horsebreeding, and Meke is likely to point that out as soon as I open my mouth."

 “But you have seen a real Shin'a'in warsteed," Withen persisted.

"Once. With a real Shin'a'in on its-her-back. The nomad in question told me they don't allow the studs anywhere near the edge of the Dhorisha Plains. Only the mares 'go into the world' as he put it." Even in the near dark and without using any Gift, Vanyel could tell his father was alive with curiosity. Valdemar saw the fabled Shin'a'in riding horses once in perhaps a generation and very few citizens of Valdemar had even seen the Shin'a'in themselves. Probably no one from Valdemar had ever seen a nomad on his warsteed until he had.

"Bodyguard, Father," he said, answering the unspoken question. "The nomad was a bodyguard for one of their shamans, and I met them both in the k'Treva Vale. I doubt the shaman would have needed one, except that he must have been nearly eighty. I tell you, he was the toughest eighty-year-old I'd ever seen. He'd come to ask help from the Tayledras to get rid of some monster that had decided the Plains looked good and the horses tasty, and moved in."

Withen shivered a little; talk of magic bothered him, and the fact that his son had actually been taught by the ghostly, legendary Hawkbrothers made him almost as uneasy as Vanyel's sexual inclinations.

The mocker-bird shrieked again, but this time Vanyel was able to keep from leaping out of his skin. "At any rate, I don't promise anything more except to try. But I want to warn you, I'm going to go at this the same way I'd handle a delicate negotiation. You won't see results at once, assuming I get any. Meke is as stubborn as that stud of his, and it's going to take some careful handling and a lot of carrots to get him to come around."

Withen nodded. "Well, that's all I can ask. I certainly haven't gotten anywhere with him. And that's why I asked you to stick your nose into this. I'm no diplomat."

Vanyel got up off the railing and headed for the door. “The fact is, Father, you and Meke are too damned much alike."

Withen actually chuckled. "The fact is, son, you're too damned right."

Vanyel slept until noon. The guest room was at the front of the building, well away from all the activity of the stables and yards. The bed curtains were as thick and dark as he could have wished. And someone had evidently given the servants orders to stay out of his room until he called for them. Which was just as well, since Van was trusting his reflexes not at all.

So he slept in peace, and rose in peace, and stood at the window overlooking the narrow road to the keep feeling as if he might actually succeed in putting himself back together if he could get a few more nights like the last one. A mere breath of breeze came in the window, and mocker - birds were singing-pleasantly, this time - all along the guttering above his head.

He could easily believe it to be still summer. He couldn't recall a gentler, warmer autumn.

He sent out a testing thought - tendril :'Fandes?:

:Bright the day, sleepy one,: she responded, the Hawkbrother greeting.

He laughed silently, and took a deep breath of air that tasted only faintly of falling leaves and leafsmoke. :And wind to thy wings, sweeting. Would you rather laze about or go somewhere today?:

:Need you ask? Laze about, frankly. I think I'm going to spend the rest of the day the way I did this morning- napping in the sun, doing slow stretches. That pulled tendon needs favoring yet.:

He nodded, turning away from the window. :I don't doubt. Makes me glad I was running lighter than normal after you pulled it :

She laughed, and moved farther out into her field so that he could see her from the window. :I won't say it didn't help. Well, go play gallant to your mother and get it over with. With any luck, she hasn't had a chance to bring in one of the local fillies.:

He grimaced, rang for a servant. One appeared with a promptness that suggested he'd been waiting right outside the door. Vanyel felt a pang of conscience, wondering how long he'd been out there.

"I'd like something to eat," he said, "And wash water, please. And-listen, there is no reason to expect me to wake before midmoming, and noon is likelier. I surely won't want anyone or anything before noon. So pass that on, would you? No use in having one of you cool his heels for hours!"

The swarthy manservant looked surprised, then grinned and nodded before hurrying off after Vanyel's requests. Vanyel hunted up his clothing, deciding on an almost - new dark blue outfit about the time the wash water arrived. It felt rather strange not to be wearing Whites, but at the same time he was reveling in the feel of silk and velvet against his skin. The Field uniforms were strictly utilitarian, leather and raime, wool and linen. And he hadn't had many occasions to wear formal, richer Whites. No wonder they call me a peacock. Sensualist that I am - I like soft clothing. Well, why not?

The manservant showed up with food as Vanyel finished lacing up his tunic. He considered his reflection in the polished steel mirror, and ended up belting the tunic; it had fit perfectly when he'd last worn it, but now it looked ridiculously baggy without a belt.

He sighed, and applied himself to his breakfast. It was always far easier to gain weight than to lose it, anyway, that was one consolation!

After that he felt ready to face his mother. And whatever lady-traps she had baited and ready.

She always asked him to play whenever he stayed long enough, so he stripped the case from his lute and tuned it, then slung it on his back, and headed for her bower. Maybe he could distract her with music.

"Hello, Mother," Vanyel said, leaning down to kiss Treesa's gracefully extended, perfumed fingertips. "You look younger every time I see you."

The other ladies giggled, pretended to sew, fluttered fans. Treesa colored prettily at the compliment, and her silver eyes sparkled. For that moment the compliment wasn't a polite lie. "Vanyel, you have been away far too long!" She let her hand linger in his for a moment, and he gently squeezed it. She fluttered her eyelashes happily. Flirtation was Treesa's favorite game; courtly love her choice of pastime. It didn't matter that the courtier was her son; she had no intention of taking the game past the graceful and empty movements of the dance of words and gesture, and he knew it, and she knew he knew it, so everyone was happy. She was never so alive as when there was someone with her willing to play her game.

He fell in with the pretense, quite pleased that she hadn't immediately introduced anyone to him; that might mean she didn't have any girls she planned to fling at him. And she hadn't pouted at him either; so he was still in her good graces. He had much rather play courtier than have her rain tears and reproaches on his head for not spending more time with his family.

In the gauze-bedecked bower, full of fluttering femininity in pale colors and lace, he was quite aware that he looked all the more striking in his midnight blue. He hoped it would give him enough distinction-and draw enough attention to the silver in his hair - so that Treesa would remember he wasn't fifteen anymore. "Alas, first lady of my heart," he said with a quirk of one eyebrow, "I fear I had very little choice in the matter. A Herald's duty lies at the King's behest."

She dimpled, and patted the rose - velvet cushion of the stool placed beside her chair. "We've been hearing so many stories about you, Vanyel. This spring there was a minstrel here who sang songs about you!" She fussed with the folds of her saffron gown as he took his seat at her side. Her maids (those few who weren't at work at the three looms placed against the wall) and her fosterlings all gathered up their sewing and spinning at this unspoken signal and gathered closer. The sun-bright room glowed with the muted rainbow colors of their gowns, and Vanyel had to work to keep himself from smiling, as faces - young, and not-so-young, pretty and plain - turned toward him like so many flowers toward the sun. He'd not gotten this kind of attention even when he was the petted favorite of this very bower.

But then, when he'd been the bower pet, he'd only been a handsome fifteen-year-old, with a bit of talent at playing and singing. Now he was Herald-Mage Vanyel, the hero of songs.

:And all too likely to have his foot stepped on if he comes near me with a swelled head,: said Yfandes.

He bent his head over the lute and pretended to tune it until he could keep his face straight, then turned back to his mother.

"I know better songs than those, and far more suited to a lovely lady than tales of war and darkness."

There was disappointment in some faces, but Treesa's eyes glowed. “Would you play a love song, Van?" she asked coquettishly. "Would you play 'My Lady's Eyes' forme?"

Probably the most inane piece of drivel ever written, he thought. But it has a lovely tune. Why not?

He bowed his head slightly. "My lady's wish is ever my decree," he replied, and began the intricate introduction at once.

He couldn't help noticing Melenna sitting just behind a knot of three adolescents, her hands still, her eyes as dreamy as theirs. She was actually prettier now than she had been as a girl.

Poor Melenna. She never gives up. Almost fourteen years, and she's still yearning after me. Gods. What a mess she's made out of her life. He wondered somewhere at the back of his mind what had become of the bastard child she'd had by Mekeal, when pique at his refusing her had led her to Meke's bed. Was it a boy or girl? Was it one of the girls pressed closely around him now? Or had she lost it? Loose ends like that worried him. Loose ends had a habit of tripping you up when you least expected it, particularly when the loose ends were human.

He got the answer to his question a lot sooner than he'd guessed he would.

"Oh, Van, that was lovely,” Treesa sighed, then dimpled again. "You know, we haven't been entirely without Art and Music while you've been gone. I've managed to find myself another handsome little minstrel, haven't I, 'Lenna?"

Melenna glowed nearly the same faded-rose as her gown-one of Treesa's, remade; Vanyel definitely recollected it. "He's hardly as good as Vanyel was, milady," she replied softly.

"Oh, I don't know," Treesa retorted, with just a hint of maliciousness. "Medren, why don't you come out and let Vanyel judge for himself?"

A tall boy of about twelve with an old, battered lute of his own rose slowly from where he'd been sitting, hidden by Melenna, and came hesitantly to the center of the group. There was no doubt who his father was - he had Meke's lankiness, hair, and square chin, though he was smaller than Mekeal had been at that age, and his shoulders weren't as broad. There was no doubt either who his mother was - Melenna's wide hazel eyes stared at Vanyel from two faces.

The boy bobbed at Treesa. "I can't come close to those fingerings, milord, milady," he said, with an honesty that felt painful to Vanyel.

"Some of that's the fact that I've had near twenty years of practice, Medren," Vanyel replied, acutely aware that both Treesa and Melenna were eyeing him peculiarly. He was not entirely certain what was going on. "But there's some of it that's the instrument. This one has a very easy action - why don't you borrow it?"

They exchanged instruments; the boy's hands trembled as he took Vanyel's finely crafted lute. He touched the strings lightly, and swallowed hard. "What -" his voice cracked, and he tried again. "What would you like to hear, milord?"

Vanyel thought quickly; it had to be something that wouldn't be so easy as to be an insult, but certainly wouldn't involve the intricate fingerings he'd used on "My Lady's Eyes."

"Do you know 'Windrider Unchained'?" he asked, finally.

The boy nodded, made one false start, then got the instrumental introduction through, and began singing the verse.

And Vanyel nearly dropped the boy's lute as the sheer power of Medren's singing washed over him.

His voice wasn't quite true on one or two notes; that didn't matter, time, maturity, and practice would take care of those little faults. His fingerings were sometimes uncertain; that didn't matter either. What mattered was that, while Medren sang, Vanyel lived the song.

The boy was Bardic Gifted, with a Gift of unusual power. And he was singing to a bowerful of empty-headed sweetly-scented marriage-bait, wasting a Gift that Vanyel, at fifteen, would willingly have sacrificed a leg to gain. Both legs. And counted the cost a small one.

It was several moments after the boy finished before Vanyel could bring himself to speak - and he really only managed to do so because he could see the hope in Medren's eyes slowly fading to disappointment.

In fact, the boy had handed him back his instrument and started to turn away before he got control of himself. "Medren - Medren!” he said insistently enough to make the boy turn back. "You are better than I was, even at fifteen. In a few years you are going to be better than I could ever hope to be if I practiced every hour of my life. You have the Bardic-Gift, lad, and that's something no amount of training will give."

He would have said more - he wanted to say more - but Treesa interrupted with a demand that he sing again, and by the time he untangled himself from the concentration the song required, the boy was gone.

The boy was on his mind all through dinner. He finally asked Roshya about him, and Roshya, delighted at having actually gotten a question out of him, burbled on until the last course was removed. And the more Vanyel heard, the more he worried.

The boy was being given - at Treesa's insistence - the same education as the legitimate offspring. Which meant, in essence, that he was being educated for exactly nothing. Except – perhaps - one day becoming the squire of one of his legitimate cousins. Meanwhile his real talent was being neglected.

The problem gnawed at the back of Vanyel's thoughts all through dinner, and accompanied him back to his room. He lit a candle and placed it on the small writing desk, still pondering. It might have kept him sleepless all night, except that soon after he flung himself down in a chair, still feeling somewhat stunned by the boy and his Gift, there came a knock on his door.

"Come -" he said absently, assuming it was a servant.

The door opened. "Milord Herald?" said a tentative voice out of the darkness beyond his candle. "Could you spare a little time?"

Vanyel sat bolt upright. "Medren? Is that you?"

The boy shuffled into the candlelight, shutting the door behind him. He had the neck of his lute clutched in both hands. "I - " His voice cracked again. "Milord, you said I was good. I taught myself, milord. They - when they opened up the back of the library, they found where you used to hide things. Nobody wanted the music and instruments but me. I'd been watching minstrels, and I figured out how to play them. Then Lady Treesa heard me, she got me this lute. ..."

The boy shuffled forward a few more steps, then stood uncertainly beside the table. Vanyel was trying to get his mind and mouth to work. That the boy was this good was amazing, but that he was entirely self-taught was miraculous. "Medren," he said at last, "to say that you astonish me would be an understatement. What can I do for you? If it's in my power, it's yours."

Medren flushed, but looked directly into Vanyel's eyes. "Milord Herald-"

"Medren," Vanyel interrupted gently, "I am not 'Milord Herald,' not to you. You're my nephew; call me by my given name."

Medren colored even more. "I-V - Vanyel, if you could - if you would - teach me? Please? I'll -" he coughed, and lowered his eyes, now turning a red so bright it was painful to look at. "I'll do anything you like. Just teach me."

Vanyel had no doubt whatsoever what the boy thought he was offering in return for music lessons. The painful - and very potently sexual - embarrassment was all too plain to his Empathy. Gods, the poor child - Medren wasn't even a temptation. I may be shaych, but - not children. The thought's revolting.

"Medren," he said very softly, "they warned you to stay away from me, didn't they? And they told you why."

The boy shrugged. "They said you were shaych. Made all kinds of noises. But hell, you're a Herald, Heralds don't hurt people."

"I'm shaych, yes," Vanyel replied steadily. "But you - you aren't.''

"No," the boy said. "But hell, like I said, I wasn't worried. What you could teach me - that's worth anything. And I haven't got much else to repay you with." He finally looked back up into Vanyel's eyes. "Besides, there isn't anything you could do to me that'd be worse than Jervis beating on me once a day. And they all seem to think that's all right."

Vanyel started. "Jervis? What - what do you mean, Jervis beating on you? Sit, Medren, please."

"What I said," the boy replied, gingerly pulling a straight-backed chair to him and taking a seat. "I get treated just like the rest of them. Same lessons. Only there's this little problem; I'm not true-born." His tone became bitter. “With eight true-born heirs and more on the way, where does that leave me? Nowhere, that's where. And there's no use in currying favor with me, or being a little easy on me, 'cause I don't have a thing to offer anybody. So when time comes for an example, who gets picked? Medren. When we want a live set of pells to prove a point, who gets beat on? Medren. And what the hell do I have to expect at the end of it, when I'm of age? Squire to one of the true-born boys if I'm lucky, the door if I'm not. Unless I can somehow get good enough to be a minstrel."

Vanyel's insides hurt as badly as if Medren had punched him there. Gods - His thoughts roiled with incoherent emotions. Gods, he's like I was - he's just like I was - only he doesn't have those thin little protections of rank and birth that I had. He doesn't have a Lissa watching out for him. And he has the Gift, the precious Gift. My gods -

" 'Course, my mother figures there's another way out," Medren continued, cynically. "Lady Treesa, she figures you've turned down so many girls, she figures she's got about one chance left to cure you. So she told my mother you were all hers, she could do whatever it took to get you. And if my mother could get you so far as to marry her, Lady Treesa swore she'd get Lord Withen to allow it. So my mother figures on getting into your breeches, then getting you to marry her - then to adopt me. She says she figures the last part is the easiest, 'cause she watched you watching me, and she knows how you feel about music and Bards and all. So she wanted me to help."

Poor Melenna. She just can't seem to realize what she's laying herself open for. “So why are you telling me this?" Vanyel found his own voice sounding incredibly calm considering the pain of past memories, and the ache for this unchildlike child.

"I don't like traps," Medren said defiantly. "I don't like seeing them being laid, I don't like seeing things in them, and I don't much like being part of the bait. And besides all that, you're - special. I don't want anything out of you that you've been tricked into giving."

Vanyel rose, and held out his hand. Medren looked at it for a moment, and went a little pale despite his brave words. He looked up at Vanyel with his eyes wide. "You -you want to see my side of the bargain?" he asked tremulously.

Vanyel smiled. "No, little nephew," he replied. "I'm going to take you to my father, and we're going to discuss your future."

Withen had a room he called his "study," though it was bare of anything like a book; a small, stone-walled room, windowless, furnished with comfortable, worn-out old chairs Treesa wouldn't allow in the rest of the keep. It was where he brought old cronies to sit beside the fire, drink, and trade tall tales; it was where he went after dinner to stare at the flames and nurse a last mug of ale. That's where Vanyel had expected to find him; and when Vanyel ushered Medren into the stuffy little room, he could tell by his father's stricken expression that Withen was assuming the absolute worst.

"Father," he said, before Withen could even open his mouth, "do you know who this boy is?"

Candlelight flickered in his father's eyes as Withen looked at him as if he'd gone insane, but he answered the question. "That's – uh - Medren. Melenna's boy."

"Melenna and Mekeal's, Father," Vanyel said forcibly. "He's Ashkevron blood, and by that blood, we owe him. Now just how are we paying him? What future does he have?'' Withen started to answer, but Vanyel cut him off. "I'll tell you, Father. None. There are how many wedlock-born heirs here? And how much property? Forst Reach is big, but it isn't that big! Where does that leave the little tagalong bastard when there may not be enough places for the legitimate offspring? What's he going to do? Eke out the rest of his life as somebody's squire? What if he falls in love and wants to marry? What if he doesn't want to be somebody's squire all his life? You've given him the same education and the same wants as the rest of the boys, Father. The same expectations; the same needs. How do you plan on making him content to take a servant's place after being raised like one of the heirs?"

"I - uh - '

"Now I'll tell you something else," Vanyel continued without giving him a chance to answer. "This young man is Bardic-Gifted. That Gift is as rare - and as valued in Valdemar - as the one that makes me a Herald. And we Ashkevrons are letting that rare and precious Gift rot here. Now what are we going to do about it?"

Withen just stared at him. Vanyel waited for him to assimilate what he'd been told. The fire crackled and popped beside him as Withen blinked with surprise. “Bardic-Gifted? Rare? I knew the boy played around with music, but - are you telling me the boy can make a future out of that?”

"I'll tell you more than that, Father. Medren will be a first-class Bard if he gets the training, and gets it now. A Full Bard, Father. Royalty will pour treasure at his feet to get him to sing for them. He could earn a noble rank, higher than yours. But only if he gets what he needs now. And I mean right now."

"What?" Withen's brow wrinkled in puzzlement.

Vanyel could see that he was having a hard time connecting "music" with "earning a noble rank."

"You mean - send him to Haven? To Bardic Collegium?"

"That's exactly what I mean, Father," Vanyel said, watching Medren out of the corner of his eye. The boy was in serious danger of losing his jaw, or popping his eyes right out of their sockets. "And I think we should send him as soon as we can spare him an escort - when the harvest is over at the very latest. I will be happy to write a letter of sponsorship to Bard Chadran; if Forst Reach won't cover it, I'm sure my stipend will stretch enough to take care of his expenses."

That last was a wicked blow, shrewdly designed to awake his father's sense of duty and shame.

"That won't be necessary, son," Withen said hastily. "Great good gods, it's the least we can do! If - if that's what you want, Medren."

"What I want?" the boy replied, tears coming to his eyes. "Milord – I - oh, Milord - it's -" He threw himself, kneeling, at Withen's feet.

"Never mind," Withen said hastily, profoundly embarrassed. "I can see it is. Consider it a fact; we'll send you off to Haven with the Harvest-Tax." The boy made as if to grab Withen's hand and kiss it. Withen waved him off. "No, now, go on with you, boy. Get up, get up! Don't grovel like that, dammit, you're Ashkevron! And don't thank me, I'm just the old fool that was too blind to see what was going on under my nose. Save your thanks for Vanyel."

Medren got to his feet, clumsy in his adolescent awkwardness, made clumsier by dazed joy. Before the boy could repeat the gesture, Vanyel took him by the shoulders and steered him toward the door.

"Why don't you go tell your mother about your good news, Medren?" He winked at the boy, and managed to get a tremulous grin out of him. "I'm certain she'll be very surprised."

That sentence made the grin widen, and take on a certain conspiratorial gleam. Medren nodded, and Vanyel pushed him out the door, shutting it tightly behind him.

He turned back to face Withen, and there was no humor in his face or his heart now.

"Father-we have to talk."

Five

What?" Withen asked, his brow wrinkling in per -

plexity.

"I said, we have to talk. Now." Vanyel walked slowly and carefully toward his father, exerting every bit of control he possessed to keep his face impassive. "About you. About me. And about some assumptions about me that you keep making."

He stood just out of arm's length of Withen's chair, struggling to maintain his composure. "When I brought Medren in here, I knew what you were thinking, just looking at your expression."

The fire flared up, lighting Withen's face perfectly.

And you’re still thinking it-

Vanyel came as close as he ever had in his life to exploding, and kept his voice down only by dint of much self-control. It took several moments before he could speak.

"Dammit, Father, I'm not like that! I don't do things like that! I'm a Herald - and dammit, I'm a decent man - I don't molest little boys! Gods, the idea makes me want to vomit, and that you automatically assumed I had -"

He was trembling, half in anger, half in an anguished frustration that had been held in check for nearly ten years.

Withen squirmed, acutely uncomfortable with this confrontation. "Son, I -"

Vanyel cut him off with an abrupt shake of his head, then held both his hands outstretched toward Withen in entreaty. "Why, Father, why? Why can't you believe what I tell you? What have I ever done to make you think I have no sense of honor? When have I ever been anything other than honest with you?"

Withen stared at the floor.

"Look," Vanyel said, grasping at anything to get his point across, "let's turn this around. I know damned good and well you've had other bedpartners than Mother, but do I assume you would try to-to seduce that little-girl chambermaid of hers? Have I looked sideways at you whenever you've been around one of her ladies? So why should you constantly accuse me in your mind - assuming that I would obviously be trying to seduce every susceptible young man and vulnerable little boy in sight?"

Withen coughed, and flushed crimson.

He'd probably be angry, Vanyel thought, in a part of his mind somewhere beyond his anguish, except that this frontal assault isn't giving him time to be anything other than embarrassed.

"You - could use your reputation. As a - the kind of person they write those songs about." Withen flushed even redder. "A hero-worshipping lad would find it hard to-deny you. Might even think it your due and his duty."

"Yes, Father, that's only too true. Yes, I could use my reputation. Don't think I'm not acutely aware of that. But I won't - would never! Can't you understand that? I'm a Herald. I have a moral obligation that I've pledged myself to by accepting that position."

By the blankness of Withen's expression, Vanyel guessed he had gone beyond Withen's comprehension of what a "Herald" was. He tried again. "There're more reasons than that; I'm a Thought-senser, Father, did you ever think what that means? The constraints it puts on me? The things I'm open to? It's a harder school of honor than ever Jervis taught. There are no compromises, mind-to-mind. There are no falsehoods; there can't be. A relationship for me has to be one of absolute equals; freely giving, freely sharing-or nothing." Still no flicker of understanding. He used blunter language. "No rape, Father. No unwilling seduction. No lies, no deception. No harm. No one who doesn't already know what he is. No one who hasn't made peace with what he is, and accepted it. No innocents, who haven't learned what they are. No children.''

Withen looked away, fidgeting a little in his chair. Vanyel moved swiftly to kneel between him and the fire, where Withen couldn't avoid looking at him. "Father - dammit, Father, I care about you. I don't want to make you unhappy, but I can't help what I am."

"Why, Van?" Withen's voice sounded half - strangled. "Why? What in hell did I do wrong?"

"Nothing! Everything! I don't know!" Vanyel cried out, his words trembling in the air, a tragic song tortured from the strings of a broken lute. "Why am I Gifted? Why am I anything? Maybe it's something I was born with. Maybe the gods willed it. Maybe it's nothing more than the fact that the only person I'll ever love happened to be born into the same sex body that I was!" Grief knotted his throat and twisted his voice further. "All I know is that I am this way, and nothing is going to change that. And I care for my father, and nothing is going to change that. And if you can't believe in me, in my sense of honor - oh, gods, Father -"

He got to his feet somehow, and held out his open hands toward Withen in a desperate plea for understanding. "Please, Father - I'm not asking for much. I'm not asking you to do anything. Only to believe that I am a decent human being. Believe in Herald Vanyel if you won't believe in your son. Only - believe; believe that no one will ever come to harm at my hands. And try to understand. Please."

But there still was no understanding in Withen's eyes. Only uncertainty, and acute discomfort. Vanyel let his hands fall and turned away, defeated. The last dregs of his energy had been burned out, probably for nothing.

"I - I'm sorry, son-"

"Never mind," Vanyel said dully, bleakly, walking slowly toward the door. "Never mind. I've lived with it this long, I should be used to it. Listen; I'm going to make you a pledge, since you won't believe me without one. Medren is safe from my advances, Father. Your grandsons are safe. Every damned thing on this holding down to the sheep is safe. All right? You have my damned oath as a damned Herald on it. Will that be enough for you?"

He didn't wait to hear the answer, but opened the door quickly and shut it behind him.

He leaned against it, feeling bitterness and hurt knotting his gut, making his chest ache and his head throb. And eleven years' experience as a Herald was all that enabled him to cram that hurt back down into a little corner and slap a lid on it, to fiercely tell the lump in his throat that it was not tears and it would go away. Maybe he would deal with all this later—not now. Not when he was drained dry, and not when he was alone.

"Heyla, Van!" The voice out of the dark corridor beside him startled him, and he whirled in reaction, his hands reaching for weapons automatically.

He forced himself to relax and made out who it was.

Gods—just what I needed.

"Evening, Meke," he replied; tired, and not bothering to hide it. "What brings you out tonight?"

Lady Bright,^ that sounds feeble even to me.

"Oh," Mekeal replied vaguely, moving into the range of the lantern beside the study door, "Things. Just— things. Where were you off to?"

"Bed." Vanyel knew his reply was brusque, even rude, but it was either that or let Meke watch him fall to pieces. "I'm damned tired, Meke; I've got a lot of rest to catch up on."

Mekeal nodded, his expression softening a little with honest concern. "You look like hell, Van, if you don't mind my saying so."

Gods. Not again.

"The last year hasn't been a good one. Especially not on the Borders."

"That's exactly what I wanted to talk to you about," Mekeal interrupted eagerly, coming so close that Vanyel could see the lantern flames reflected in his eyes. "Listen, can you spare me a little time before you go off to bed? Say a candlemark or so?''

Vanyel stifled a sigh of exasperation. All right, stupid, you gave him the opening, you have only yourself to blame that he took it. "I suppose so."

 “Great! Come on." Mekeal took Vanyel's elbow and hauled him down the ill - lit corridor, practically running in his eagerness. "You've seen that stud I bought?"

"From a distance," Vanyel replied cautiously.

"Well I want you to come have a good look at him, and he really doesn't settle down until well after dark."

I can believe that.

They walked rapidly down the hollow-sounding corridor, Mekeal chattering on about his acquisition. Vanyel made a few appropriately conversational sounds, but was far more interested in reestablishing his "professional" calm than in anything Meke was saying. Meke was obviously heading for the corridor that led to one of the doors to the stable yard, so Vanyel pulled his arm free and picked up his own pace a little. Might as well get this over with now, while I'm still capable of standing.

Mekeal obviously had this planned, for when they emerged into the cool darkness and a sky full of stars, Vanyel saw the dim glow of a lantern in the stable across the yard. They crossed the yard at something less than a run, but not for lack of Mekeal's trying to hurry his steps.

The famous stud had pride of place, first stall by the entrance, by the lantern. Vanyel stared at it; if anything it was worse up close than at a distance.

Ugly is not the word for this beast.

It glared over its shoulder at him as if it had heard his thought, and bared huge yellow teeth at him.

I've never seen a nastier piece of work in my life. You couldn't pay me enough to try and saddle - break this nag!

"Well?" Meke said, bursting with pride. "What do you think?''

Vanyel debated breaking the bad news easily, then remembered what his little brother was like. He not only did not take hints well, he never even knew there was such a thing as a subtle hint. Vanyel braced himself, and told the truth. "Meke - there's no way to say this tactfully. That monster is no more Shin'a'in than I am. You were robbed."

Mekeal's face fell.

"I've seen a Shin'a'in warsteed," Vanyel said, pressing his advantage. "She was under a Shin'a'in. The nomad told me then that they don't ever sell the warbeasts, and that they literally would not permit one to be in the hands of an outsider. And they never, never let the studs off the Dhorisha Plains. I'll give you a full description. The mare I saw was three hands shorter than this stud of yours, bred to carry a small horse-archer, not anyone in heavy plate; she was short-backed, deep-chested, and her hindquarters were a little higher than her forequarters. She had a big head in proportion to the rest of her; and if anything, this stud's head is small. Besides being large, her skull had an incredibly broad forehead. Lots of room for brains. Need I say more? About the only things she had in common with your stud are color and muscles." He sighed. "I'm sorry, Meke, but -"

"A half-breed? Couldn't he be a cross?" Mekeal asked desperately.

“If a common stud caught the mare in season and if she didn't kill him first and if the mare's owner decided - against all tradition - to sell the foal instead of destroying it or sending it back to the Plains. Maybe. Not bloody likely, but a very bare possibility. It is also a very bare possibility that this stud has Shin'a'in cull blood somewhere very far back in his line." Vanyel rubbed his nose and sneezed in the dust rising as the stud fidgeted in his stall. The precious stud laid his ears back, squealed, and cow-kicked the door to the box as hard as he could. More dust rose, there was a clatter of hooves all through the stable, and startled whinnies as the rest of the horses reacted to the stud's display of ill - temper. "Meke, why did you buy this monster? Forst Reach has the best line of hunters from here to Haven."

"Hunters won't do us a hell of a lot of good when there's an army marching toward us," Mekeal said, turning to look at him soberly. "And even if this lad isn't Shin'a'in, crossed into our hunters he'll sire foals with the muscle to carry men in armor. I just hope to hell we have them before we need them."

Incredulous at those words coming from this sibling, Vanyel looked across his shoulder at his younger brother. “That's what this is about?"

Meke nodded, the flickering lantern making him look cadaverous-and much older. "There's trouble coming up on the West. Even if it doesn't come from Baires and Lineas, one or both, it'll come from the changeling lands beyond them. It's been building since Elspeth died. Every year we get more weird things crossing over into Valdemar. Plenty of them here. Check the trophy room some time while you're visiting; you'll get an eyeful. Liss thinks they're either being driven here by something worse, or they're being sent to test our defenses; neither notion makes me real comfortable. Hunters are all very well, but they can't carry a fighter in full armor. And the tourney-horses I've been seeing lately don't have the stamina for war. One thing this lad does have is staying power."

Gods. Oh, gods. If the problems are so evident even Meke is seeing them - Vanyel's spine went to ice.

"Do you want my advice with this beast?" he asked bluntly.

Mekeal nodded.

"Given what you've told me, he might be useful after all. Breed him to the best-tempered and largest of the hunter-mares. And see what comes of breeding him to plowhorse mares. Maybe make a second-generation three-way cross - if you have time."

Meke nodded again, smoothing his close-cropped beard. "I hadn't thought about plowbeasts; that's a good notion. He is vicious. I like the willingness to fight, but I can do without viciousness. So, you agree with me?"

Vanyel turned slowly, a new respect for his brother coloring his thoughts. "Meke, even if this Border stays quiet, there's Karse, there's Hardorn, there's Iftel-Rethwellan seems quiet, but their king is old and that could change when he dies. There's even the north, if those barbarians ever find a leader to weld them into a single fighting force. May the gods help us - you'll have a ready market all too soon if you can breed the kind of horses you're talking about." Vanyel pondered the worn, scrubbed wooden floor of the stable. “What have you heard? About here, I mean."

"The Mavelans want Lineas. Badly enough to chance a war with us, I don't know. The Lineans don't much like either Baires or Valdemar, but they figure Valdemar is marginally better, so they'll put up with us enforcing the peace as third-party. It all comes down to what's going to happen with this mess with Tashir being disinherited."

Lady Bright, more words of political wisdom where I never expected to find them. His view may be shortsighted - he may not see the larger picture - but where his neighbors are concerned, my little brother seems to have them well weighed and measured.

"I heard Lord Vedric is behind the protests," Vanyel ventured. Mekeal looked skeptical.

"One thing I've learned watching them, anything the Mavelans do openly has about fifty motives and is hiding a dozen other moves. The protest might be a covering move for something else. Vedric might have the backing of the family. Vedric might be operating under orders. Vedric might be acting on his own. Vedric might have nothing to do with it. And Vedric might really be Tashir's father - and might actually be trying to do something for the boy. The gods know he hasn't any true-born offspring and it's not that he hasn't tried."

Vanyel nodded and stowed that tidbit away. "I'll tell you what, Meke, I'll do what I can to get Father to see why you want to breed this stud - and persuade him that since you aren't breeding hunters, he ought to leave you alone to see what you can come up with. But those sheep - "

Mekeal coughed and blushed. "Those sheep were a damnfool thing to do. There's no market, not with Whitefell just south of us, with furlongs of meadow good for nothing but sheep. But dammit, the old man goes on and on about it until I'm about ready to bash him with a damned candlestick! I am not going to give in to him! We aren't losing money, we just aren't making as much. And if I give in to him on the sheep, he'll expect me to give in to him on the stud."

Vanyel groaned. "Lady bless! The two of you are stubborn enough to make an angel swear! Look - if I manage to get him to agree on the stud, will you please agree to clear out the damned sheep? Bright Havens, can't one of you show a little sense in the interests of peace and compromise? ''

Mekeal glowered, and Mekeal grumbled, but in the end, on the way back to the keep, Mekeal grudgingly agreed.

The silken voice stopped Vanyel halfway between the keep and the stables, dimming the bright autumn sunlight and casting a pall on the sweetness of the late - morning sky.

"Good-morning, Herald Vanyel." The slight hesitation before the second word called pointed attention to the fact that it lacked little more than a candlemark till noon. The cool tone made it clear that Father Leren did not approve of Vanyel's implied sloth.

Vanyel paused on the graveled path, turned, and inclined his head very slightly in the priest's direction. "Good afternoon, Father Leren," he replied, without so much as an eyebrow twitching.

The priest emerged from the deeply recessed doorway of the keep's miniature temple, a faithful gray-granite replica of the Great Temple at Haven. Leren had persuaded Withen to build it shortly after his arrival as Ashkevron priest, on the grounds that the chapel, deep within the keep itself, couldn't possibly hold the family and all of the relatives on holy days. It had been a reasonable request, although the old priest had managed by holding services in shifts, the way meals were served in the Great Hall. Vanyel alone had resented it; the little gray temple had always seemed far too confining, stifling, for all that it was five times the size of the chapel. The homely wood-paneled chapel made the gods seem - closer, somehow. Forgiving rather than forbidding. He had hated the temple from the moment he'd first stepped into it at the age of five - and from that moment on, had refused to enter it again. In fact, Vanyel wasn't entirely certain that Leren had ever even set foot in the old chapel-which was why, as a boy, he had accomplished his own worship there.

"I have seen very little of you, my son," came the cool words. The priest's lean, dusky face beneath his slate. - gray cowl was as expressionless as Vanyel's own.

Vanyel shrugged, shifted his weight to one foot, and folded his arms across his chest. If he wants to play word-games - "I'm not surprised, sir," he replied with detached civility. "I have spent very little time outside of my room. I've been using this time alone to catch up on a year's worth of lost sleep."

Leren allowed one black eyebrow to rise sardonically. "Indeed? Alone?" His expression was not quite a sneer.

Oh, what the hell. In for a sheep - Vanyel went into a full-scale imitation of the most languid fop at Haven.

The man in question wasn't inclined to shay'a'chern, as it happened: rumor had it he played the effeminate to irritate . . . not Vanyel - but certain of his colleagues - and he also happened to be one of the finest swordsmen outside of the Circle or the Guard.

Following that sterling example, Vanyel set out to be very irritating.

“Quite alone, sad to say," he pouted. "But then again, I am here for a rest. And company would hardly be rested.”

The priest retreated a step, surprise flashing across his face before he shuttered his expression. "Indeed. And yet - I am told young Medren spends an inordinate amount of time in your rooms." His tone insinuated what he did not-quite-dare say.

I won't take that from Father, you snake. I'm damned if I'll take that from you. Vanyel transformed the snarl he wanted to sport into an even more petulant pout. "Oh, Medren. I'm teaching him music. He is a sweet child, don't you think? But still, a child. Not company. I prefer my companions to be somewhat older." He took a single slow step toward the priest, and twitched his hip ever so slightly. "Adult, and able to hold an adult conversation, to have adult-interests." He took another step, and the priest fell back, a vague alarm in his eyes. "More - masterly. Commanding." He tilted his head to one side and regarded the priest thoughtfully for a moment. The alarm was turning to shock and panic. "Now, someone like you, dear Leren -"

The priest squawked something inarticulate about vessels needing consecrating, and groped behind him for the handle of the open temple door. Within a heartbeat he was through it, and had the gray-painted door shut - tightly - behind him.

Vanyel grinned, tucked his head down to hide his expression, and continued on toward the stables and Yfandes.

"Meke, is there going to be a Harvest Fair this year?" he asked, brushing Yfandes with vigor, as she leaned into the brush strokes and all but purred.

Mekeal did not look up from wrapping the ankles of one of his personal hunters. "Uh - huh," he grunted. "Should be near twice as big as the ones you knew. Got merchants already down at Fair Field."

"Already?" This was more than he'd dared hope. "Why?"

"Liss an' her company, dolt." Meke finished wrapping the off hind ankle and straightened with another grunt, this time of satisfaction. "Got soldiers out here with pay burnin' their pockets oif, and nothin' to spend it on. There're only two ladies down at Forst Reach village that peddle their assets, and three over to Greenbriars, and it's top far to walk except on leave-days anyway. So they sit in camp and drink issue-beer and gripe. Can you see a merchant allowin' a situation like that to go unrelieved? There's a good girl," he said to the mare, patting her ample rump. "We'll be off in a bit."

:Keep brushing. You can talk and brush at the same time :

Vanyel resumed the steady strokes of the brush, working his way down Yfandes' flank. "Would there be any instrument makers, do you think?" Forst Reach collected a peddling fee from every merchant setting his wagon up at the two Fairs, Spring and Harvest. Withen found that particular task rather tedious - and Vanyel hoped now he'd entrusted it to Mekeal.

Meke sucked on his lip, his hand still on the mare's shoulder. "Now that I think of it, there's one down there already. Don't think we'll likely get more than one. Why?"

"Something I have in mind," he replied vaguely. And, to Yfandes, :Lady-my-love, do you think I can interest you in a little trip?: She sighed. :So long as it's a little trip.:

:This soft life is spoiling you.:

:Mmh,: she agreed, blinking lazily at him :I like being spoiled. I could get used to it very quickly.: He chuckled, and went to get her gear.

 

Before Vanyel even found someone who knew which end of Fair Field the luthier was parked in, he had picked up half a dozen trifles for Shavri and Jisa.

He paused in the act of paying for a jumping jack, struck by the fact that they were so uppermost in his mind.

What has gotten into me? he wondered. I haven't thought about them for a year, and now - Well, I haven't seen them for a year. That's all. And if I can give Shavri a moment of respite from her worry - He pocketed the toy and headed for the grove of trees at the northern end of the field.

He spotted the faded red wagon at once; there was an old man seated on the back steps of it, bent over something in his hands.

Shavri, bent over a broken doll some child in the House of Healing had brought to her. Looking up at me with a face wet with tears. Me, standing there like an idiot, then finally getting the wits to ask her what was wrong. “1 can't bear it, Van, I can't - Van, I want a baby -” He shoved the memory away, hastily. "Excuse me," Vanyel said, after waiting for the carver perched on the back steps of his scarlet traveling - wagon (part workshop, part display, and part home) to finish the wild rose he was carving from a bit of goldenoak. He still hesitated to break the old man's concentration in the middle of such a delicate piece of work, but there wasn't much left of the afternoon. If he was going to find the purported luthier -

But the snow-pated craftsman's concentration had evidently weathered worse than Vanyel's gentle interruption.

"Aye?" he replied, knobby fingers continuing to shape the delicate, gold-sheened petals.

"I'm looking for Master Dawson."

"You're looking at him, laddybuck." Now the oldster put down his knife, brushed the shavings from his leather apron, and looked up at Vanyel. His expression was friendly in a shortsighted, preoccupied way, his face round, with cloudy gray-green eyes.

"I understand you have musical instruments for sale?"

The carver's interest sharpened, and his eyes grew less vague. "Aye," he said, standing, and pulling his apron over his head. There were a few shavings sticking to the linen of his buff shirt and breeches, and he picked at them absently. "But - in good conscience I can't offer 'em before Fair-time, milord. Not without Ashkevron permission, any rate."

Vanyel smiled, feeling as shy as a child, and tilted his head to one side. "Well, I'm an Ashkevron. Would it be permissible if I made it right with my father?''

The old man looked him over very carefully. "Aye," he said, after so long a time Vanyel felt as if he was being given some kind of test. "Aye, I think 'twould. Come in the wagon, eh?"

Half a candlemark later, with the afternoon sun shining into the crowded wagon and making every varnished surface glow, Vanyel sighed with disappointment. "I'm sorry, Master Dawson, none of these lutes will do." He picked one at random off the rack along the wall of the wagon interior, and plucked a string, gently. It resonated - but not enough. He put it back, and locked the clamp that held it in place in the rack. "Please, don't mistake my meaning, they're beautiful instruments and the carving is fine, but - they’re - they're student's lutes. They're all alike, they have no voice of their own. I was hoping for something a little less ordinary." He shrugged, hoping the man wouldn't become angered.

Strangely enough, Dawson didn't. He looked thoughtful instead, his face crossed by a fine net of wrinkles when he knitted his brows. "Huh. Well, you surprise me, young milord - what did you say your name was?"

Vanyel blushed at his own poor manners. "I didn't, I'm sorry. Vanyel."

"Vanyel – that - Vanyel Ashkevron - my Holy Stars! The Herald?” the luthier exclaimed, his eyes going dark and round. "Herald Vanyel? The Shadow -"

"Stalker, Demonsbane, the Hero of Stony Tor, yes," Vanyel said wearily, sagging against the man's bunk that was on the wall opposite the rack of instruments. The instrument maker's reaction started a headache right behind his eyes. He dropped his head, and rubbed his forehead with one hand. "Please. I really - get tired of that."

He felt a hard, callused hand patting his shoulder, and he looked up in surprise into a pair of very sympathetic and kindly eyes. "I 'magine you do, lad," the old man said with gruff understanding. "Sorry to go all goose-girl on you. Just - person don't meet somebody folks sing about every day, an' he sure don't expect to have a hero come strollin' up to him at a Border Harvest Fair. Now - you be Vanyel, I be Rolf. And you'll have a bit of my beer before I send you on your way - hey?''

Vanyel found himself smiling. "Gladly, Rolf." He started to pick his way across the wagon to the door at the rear, but the man stopped him with a wave of his hand.

"Not just yet, laddybuck. As I was startin' to tell you, I got a few pieces I don't put out. Keep 'em for Bards. And I got a few more I don't even show to just any Bard - but bein' as you are who you are - an' since they say you got a right fine hand with an instrument -" He opened up a hatch in the floor of the crowded wagon, and began pulling out instruments packed in beautifully wrought padded leather traveling bags. Two lutes, a harp - and three instruments vaguely gittern-shaped, but-much larger.

Rolf began stripping the cases from his treasures with swift and practiced hands, and Vanyel knew that he had found what he was looking for. The lutes-which were the first cases he opened-bore the same relationship to the instruments on the wall as a printed broadside page bears to an elegant and masterfully calligraphed and ornamented proclamation.

He took the first, of a dark wood that glowed deep red where the light from the open door struck it, tightened a string, and sounded a note, listening to the resonances.

"For you, or for someone else?"

"Someone else," he said, listening to the note gently die away in the heart of the lute.

"High voice or low?"

"High now, but I think he may turn out to be a baritone when his voice changes. He's my nephew; he's Gifted, and he is going to be a fine Bard one day."

"Try the other. That one is fine for a voice that don't need any help, it's loud, as lutes go - and all the harmonics are low. The other's better for a young voice, got harmonics up and down, and a nice, easy action. That one he'd have to grow into. The other'll grow with him."

Vanyel looked up in surprise at the old man.

Rolf gave him a half-smile. "A good craftsman knows how his work fits in the world," he said. "I got no voice, but I got the ear. Truth is, the ear is harder to find than the voice. Though I doubt you'd find a Bard who'd agree."

Vanyel nodded, and picked up the second lute, this one of wood the gold of raival leaves in autumn. He tightened a string and sounded it; the note throbbed through the wagon, achingly true. He tried the action on the neck; easy, but not mushy.

"You were right," he said, holding the chosen instrument out to the luthier. "I'll take it. No haggling." He looked wistfully over at the other. "And if I didn't already have a lute I love like an old friend. ..."

Rolf waggled his bushy eyebrows, and grinned, as he took the golden lute from Vanyel and began carefully replacing it in its bag. "Care to try a friend of a new breed?" He nodded at the gittern-shaped objects.

"Well . . . what are those things?"

"Something new. Been trying gitterns with metal strings, 'stead of gut; you tell me how it came out." He laid the chosen lute carefully down on his bunk, and stripped the case from the first of the gitterns. "I keep 'em tuned; this one is a fair bitch to demonstrate if I don't. Hoping to get to Haven one day, show 'em to the Collegium Bards."

"Great good gods." Vanyel's jaw dropped. “Twelve strings? I should say"

"Fingers like a gittern. That one's like it; the other has six. Use metal harpstrings."

Vanyel took it carefully, and struck a chord -

It rang like a bell, sang like an angel in flight, and hung in the air forever, pulsing to the beat of his heart.

He closed his eyes as it died away, lost in the sound; and when he opened them, he saw Rolf grinning at him like a fiend.

"You," he said, sternly, "are a terrible man, Rolf Dawson."

"Oh, I know," the old man chortled. "It don't hurt that the inside of this wagon's tuned, too. That's one reason why them student lutes sound as good as they do. But that lady'll sound good in a privy."

"Well, I hope you're prepared to work your fingers to the bone," Vanyel replied, snatching up the leather case and carefully encasing his gittern. "Because when I take her back to Haven and Bard Breda hears her, she will send packs of dogs out to find you and bring you there!"

Rolf chuckled even harder. "Why d'you think I pulled her out and had you try her? You're going to do half my work for me, Herald Vanyel. With you t'speak for me, an' that lady, I won't spend three, four fortnights coolin' my heels with the other luthiers, waitin' my turn to see a Collegium Bard"

Vanyel had to chuckle himself. "You are a very terrible man. Now - you might as well tell me the worst."

"Which is?"

He felt a twinge for his once-full purse. Well, what else did he have to spend money on? "How much I owe you."

Vanyel shut the door to his room behind him, and set his back against it, breathing the first easy breath he'd taken since he left his chamber this morning. "Gods!" he gasped. "Sanctuary at last! Hello, Medren. Oh, you brought wine-thank you, I need it badly."

The boy looked up from tuning the new strings on his new lute. Giving it to him had given Vanyel one of the few moments of unsullied joy he'd had lately, a reaction worth ten times what Vanyel had paid.

Medren grinned. "Mother?"

"That was this morning," Vanyel replied, pushing away from the door, heading for the table beside the window seat and the cool flask of wine Medren had brought. "I swear, she chased me all over the keep, with stars in her eyes and the hunt in her blood."

Poor Melenna. Gods. She's driving me insane, but I can't bring myself to hurt her. I've been the cause of so much hurt, I can't bear any more.

"And lust in her -"

"Medren!" Vanyel interrupted. "That's your mother you're slandering!"

"- heart," the boy finished smoothly. "What did you do?"

"I took a bath," Vanyel replied puckishly. "I took a very long bath. When I finally came out, she'd given up."

"So who was chasing you this time, if it wasn't Mother?"

"Lord Withen. On the Great Sheep Debate. Meke wants to keep the sheep on Long Meadow until spring shearing; Father wants yearling cattle back there immediately, if not sooner." Vanyel groaned, and held both hands to his head. "If it wasn't for the fact that once this door is shut they leave me alone-gods, the Border was more peaceful!"

Water droplets beaded the side of the flask and ran down the sides as Vanyel picked it up. "Whoever gets you as protege will bless you for your thoughtfulness, lad." He poured himself a goblet of wine, and took it with him to sip while he stood over Medren at the window seat. No breath of air stirred without or within, and even the birds seemed to have gone into sun-warmed naps. "That instrument still as much to your liking?"

Medren nodded emphatically, if with a somewhat preoccupied expression. He was tuning the last string, a frown of concentration making his young face look adult.

Vanyel warmed inside, as he picked up his own lute.

It takes so little to make the child so happy - and gods, the talent.

"Well, then," he said, laying a hand on the boy's shoulder, "Ready for your les - "

The boy winced away from the light touch on his shoulder. Not in emotional reaction - but in physical pain.

Vanyel snatched his hand away as if it had been a red-hot iron he'd inadvertently set on the bare skin of the boy's back. "Medren! What did I-"

"It's all right," the boy said, and shrugged-which called up another grimace of pain. "Just-old Jervis reckoned we all ought to see how you could trick somebody into dropping his shield and then come in overhand. Guess who got to be the victim." His tone was so bitter Vanyel could taste it in the back of his own mouth. “Like always."

The blur of the blade coming for him, always coming for him; the weight of the shield on his arm getting heavier by the moment. The shock of each blow that he couldn't dodge; shock first and then pain. Breath burning in lungs, side aching with bruises; cramps knotting his calves. Stumbling backward, head reeling, vision clouding.

"Van?"

Cold sweat down his back and the taste of blood in his mouth. Bitter, absolute humiliation. Metallic taste of hate and fear.

"Hey, Vanyel-are you all right?"

Vanyel shook his head to clear it, and locked down his own agitation as best he could, but the memories were crowding in on him so vividly he was almost reliving that moment so many years ago when Jervis finally got him in a corner he couldn't escape.

"I'm all right." His left arm began to ache, and he massaged the arm and wrist, reflexively. It still aches, after all these years. I still have numb fingers. Oh, gods, not Medren.

"We could skip the lesson," he began, with carefully suppressed emotion.

"No!" Medren exclaimed, clutching the lute to his chest and jumping to his feet. "No, it's nothing! Really! I'm fine!"

"If you're sure," Vanyel said, wondering how much of that was bravado on the boy's part.

"I'm sure. I got some horse-liniment, I'd have rubbed it on right after, but I didn't want to stink up your room.'' The boy grinned half-heartedly and sat down again, his eyes anxious.

"I've got something better than that - if you aren't afraid I'll seduce you!"

The boy made an impudent face at him. "You had your chance, Vanyel. What's this stuff you got? I don't mind telling you my shoulder hurts like blazes."

"Willow and wormwood in ointment, with mint to make it smell reasonable. I always have some." He put his lute down and leaned over to rummage in the chest at the foot of his bed. "I'm one of those people who bruise just thinking about it. Get your shirt off, would you?"

When he turned around with the little jar in his hand, the boy had stripped to the waist, revealing a nasty bruise the size of his hand spreading all over the left shoulder. It was an ugly thing; purple the next thing to black in the center, blue-gray and red mottled through it.

Crack like lightning striking as the shield split. Sudden darkness, dizziness. Waking to Lissa's anxious face, and a pain in his left arm that sent the blackness to take him again.

"Good gods!"

Medren shrugged with one shoulder. "I bruise that way. Looks worse than it is, I guess. Young Mekeal took one just as hard and you can't hardly see a mark on him." He looked longingly at the pot of salve. "Vanyel, you going to stand there and stare all day, or use that stuff?"

"I'm sorry, Medren." He shook off his shock; got several fingersful of the ointment, and began to massage it as gently as possible into the bruised area, working his way from the edges inward. The boy hissed with pain at first, then gradually relaxed.

Vanyel, on the other hand, was profoundly disturbed, and growing tenser by the moment, his own shoulder muscles knotting up like snarled harpstrings. Gods, what can I do? Damned if I'll let Jervis ruin Medren the way he ruined me - but how? If I force a confrontation, he'll only take it out on Medren. If I take him on myself - gods, I do not trust my temper, not with that old bastard. Not with the hair-trigger I've got right now. He'd make one wrong move, or say something at the wrong time - and I'd kill him before I could stop myself. What can I do? What can I do?

"Lady Bright," the boy sighed. "I feel like I got a shoulder again, instead of a piece of pounded meat."

"Medren, is there any way you can avoid practices until you're safely out of here?" Vanyel asked.

Medren considered a moment. "Now and again," he said, slowly. "Not on a regular basis."

"Are you sure?” Vanyel pursued, urgently. "Isn't there any place you can hide?"

"Not since they opened up the back of the library. Anyplace I go, they'll find me, eventually. Isn't there anything you can do?"

Vanyel shook his head with bitter regret. "I wish there were. I can't think of anything at the moment. I'll work on it; if there's a way out for you, I'll find it. Look, avoid him as much as you can. Try and stay out of his line-of-sight when you can't avoid the practices. If he doesn't actually see you in front of him, sometimes you can manage to keep from becoming his target for the day."

Medren sighed, and shrugged his shirt back on. "All right. If that's all I can do, that's all I can do." He twisted his head around and gave Vanyel a slightly pained grin. "At least you believe me. You even sound like you know what I'm going through."

Vanyel stared at the wall, but what he was seeing was not wood panels, but a thin, undersized boy being used as an object upon which a surly ex - mercenary could vent his spleen. "I do, Medren," he replied slowly, a cold lump settling just under his heart. "Believe me, I do."

Vanyel was more than happy to see his Aunt Savil's serene, beaky face again. And was glad he'd decided to ride out and meet her. It was a lot easier to tell her what had been going on without wondering who was going to overhear.

". . .so that's the state of things," Vanyel concluded, Yfandes matching her pace to Savil's taller Companion. "The only real problems-other than the fact that Lineas and Baires could go for each other's throats any day - is Medren. Melenna I can avoid. The Great Sheep Debate is going to go on until the sheep are gone from Long Meadow. Father seems to have accepted Meke's breeding program, although he's got his agent out looking for an alternative to that awful stud Meke bought. But Medren - Savil, I know what you're thinking, you're thinking I'm overreacting to seeing another lad in the same position I was in. You didn't see that monster bruise he showed up with. He's not getting love-pats. That bruise was the size of my spread hand, finger-tip to thumb-tip, easily."

"Huh," Savil replied, frowning in thought.

"And to make it worse, Meke told me Jervis wants to - I quote-'go a few rounds with me.' To spar." Vanyel snorted. " 'Spar' indeed. It'll be a cold day -"

She nodded. "Probably a damned good idea to avoid him. He'll push you, Van; he'll push you all he can."

"And I've just spent the last year on the Border."

"Exactly. If he pushed you too far - well, you know that better than me. Kellan, can you and 'Fandes kindly wait until you're loose for the chatter and gossip? We're trying to have a serious briefing here."

Vanyel chuckled. :Trading stories about the muscular, young courier - types?:

:Shut up and ride.:

Vanyel caught Savil's eye, and they exchanged a look full of irony. "I can see," she said aloud, "that this is going to be a very-lively-visit."

Six

"The argument had been in full flower since Vanyel had arrived at the stable, and from all that he could tell it had evidently begun (well fertilized with invective) long before then. The stable was a good fifty paces from the keep itself, but the voices reached with unmistakable clarity well beyond the stable. The stablehands were doing their best to pretend they weren't listening, but Vanyel could all but see their ears stretching to catch the next interchange.

Havens, Savil has a strong set of lungs!

"Now listen, you stubborn old goat -"

"Stubborn!" The indignation in Withen's voice was thick enough to plow. "You're calling me stubborn? Savil, that's pot calling kettle if I ever -"

"- and provincial, hidebound, and muddle - headed to boot!"

Vanyel smothered a grin and kept the movement of the brush steady along Yfandes' glossy flank. She sighed with contentment and leaned into each stroke.

:Feel good?:

:Wonderful. All Companions should choose musicians; you have such talented hands. Speaking of which -: She flicked an ear at the open window through which Savil and Withen's argument was coming so very clearly.

:Music to my ears. If he's yelling at Aunt Savil, he can't be yelling at me. You’re looking better. Those hollows behind your withers are gone. And your coat is much healthier.: He paused for a moment to admire the shine.

:I'm recovering faster than you are.: She swung her head around to fix him with a critical blue eye. :Are you getting enough sleep?:

:If I slept any longer, I'd wake up with headaches.: He turned his mental focus up toward that open window, avoiding any more of Yfandes' questions.

The fact was, he didn't know why he was still sleeping so long, and tiring so easily. He always felt hollow, somehow, as if there were an enormous empty place inside him that he couldn't fill. But he had recovered enough that all the problems, major and minor, were starting to make him feel restless because he couldn't do anything about them.

Other problems were starting to eat at him, too.

Shavri; I like her-too much? Gods. I must think about her and Jisa every night. I loved 'Lendel. I know I loved him. But have I let Shavri get into me deeper than I'd thought? Gods, she's Randi's lifebonded. He must be my best friend in the world next to Savil. She's one of my best friends. How can I even be thinking this? Gods, gods. Am I really even shaych? Or am I something else?

The question ate at him, more than he cared to admit.

Am I avoiding Melenna because I'm shaych, or because I hate to be hunted?

He shied away from the uncomfortable thoughts, and sent out a thin, questing thought-tendril toward Savil.

:What can I do for you, demon-child?: came her prompt reply.

:Just wondering if you needed rescuing.:

The answer came back laughter-tinged. . - Havens, no! I'm enjoying this one! I'm opening your father's eyes to politics and policies under Randale. Elspeth was always conservative, and got more so as she grew older. Randale is her opposite. This is coming as quite a shock to Withen.:

Vanyel fought down another grin. :What's he up in arms about now?:

:The mandatory education law Randale and the Council just passed :

:Remind me; I'm behind.:

:Every child in Valdemar is to be taught simple reading, writing, and arithmetic in the temples from now on; every child, not just the highborn, or the few the priests single out as having vocations or being exceptional.

Morning classes in the winter from harvest - end to first planting. And it's the duty of the Lord Holders to see that they get it.

Vanyel blinked. :Oh, my. I can see where he wouldn't be pleased. I know where Randale's coming from on this one, though; he talked it over with me often enough. I just didn 't know he'd managed to get it past the Council intact.:

:Enlighten me, I need ammunition :

:He believes that an informed populace is more apt to trust its leaders than an ignorant populace, assuming that they feel the leaders are worthy of trust.:

:That isn't much of a problem in Valdemar,: Savil replied.

:Thanks be to the gods. Well. The only way to have an informed populace is to educate them, so they don't have to rely on rumors, so they’re willing to wait for the official written word. It was the near-panic when Elspeth died that decided him.:

:I didn't know that; good points, ke'chara. Young as he is, our Randale can be brilliant at times. As soon as your father pauses for breath-:

"Now see here, you old boneheaded windbag! Do you want those farmers of yours to be the prey of every scoundrel with a likely rumor under his hat?" Savil had the bit in her teeth and she was off again. Vanyel gave up trying to control himself, and leaned all his weight against Yfandes, laughing silently until his eyes teared.

This is ridiculous, Vanyel thought irritably, pausing for a moment on the narrow staircase. Absolutely ridiculous. Why should I have to act as though I was sneaking through enemy-held territory just to get to my own bed every night?

He took the last flight of back stairs to the fourth floor, poorly lit as they were, with not so much as the betraying squeak of a stair tread. He flattened himself against the wall at the top, and probed cautiously ahead.

No Melenna.

So far, so good.

His right eye stung and watered, and he rubbed at it with one knuckle; his eyelids were sore and felt puffy. I should have gotten to bed candlemarks ago, except every time I tried, Melenna was lurking around a corner to waylay me. I hope she's given up by now.

He peered down the dark corridor one more time before venturing out into it. This was the servants' floor, and if she were still awake and hoping to ambush him, Melenna wouldn't think to look for him up here.

He counted the doors-the fifth on the right opened, not into a room, but into a tiny spiral staircase that only went as far as the third floor. He probed again, delicately. Nothing in the staircase, or at the foot of it.

The stair was of cast iron, and in none too good repair. He clung to the railing, gritted his teeth, and moved a fingerlength at a time to keep it from rattling. The journey through the stuffy darkness seemed to take all night.

Then his foot encountered wood instead of metal, and he slipped off the staircase and groped for the door. He put one hand flat against the wooden panel and concentrated on what lay beyond it. This stair let out only two doors from his own room, and if Melenna were waiting, she'd be in the corridor.

Politeness - and Heraldic constraints - forebade Mind-searching for her, even if he had the energy to spare. Which he didn't, he had been chagrined to discover.

And anyway, the non-Gifted were always harder to locate by Mindsearch than the Gifted.

I'm getting very tired of this. I don't want to set Mother off, and I don't really want to hurt Melenna, but if this cat-and-mouse game keeps on much longer, I may have to do just that. I tell her “no” politely, and she doesn't believe it. I avoid her, and she just gets more persistent. I almost killed her two days ago when she popped out of hiding at me. He leaned his forehead against the door for a moment, and closed his aching eyes. I'm about at my wits' end with that woman. Damn it all, she's old enough to know better! I don't want to hurt her; I don't even want to embarrass her.

Well, there was no sign of her in the corridor. He relaxed a little and stepped out onto the highly polished wood of the hall of the guest rooms, where the brighter lighting made his smarting eyes blink and water for a moment.

He opened the door to his own room -

And froze; hand still on the icy metal of the doorhandle.

Candles burned in the sconces built into the headboard. Melenna smiled coyly at him from the middle of his bed. She allowed the sheet to slide from her shoulders as she sat up, proving that she hadn't so much as a single thread to grace her body.

Vanyel counted to ten, then ten again. Melenna's smile faltered and faded. She tossed her hair over one shoulder and began to pout.

Vanyel snatched his cloak from the peg beside the door, turned on his heel without a single word, and left, slamming the door behind him hard enough to send echoes bouncing up and down the corridor.

:'Fandes, beloved,: he Mindsent, so angry he was having trouble staying coherent :I hope you don't mind sharing sleeping-space.:

Straw was not the most comfortable of beds, although he'd had worse. And he'd spent nights with his head pillowed on Yfandes' shoulder before this. But "day" for the occupants of the stable began long before he'd been getting up. The stablehands had no reason to be quiet - and neither did the horses. Meke's famous stud was the worst offender; he began cow-kicking the side of his stall monotonously from the moment color touched the east.

. - Stupid brute thinks that if he keeps kicking, somebody will come to let him out,: came Yfandes' sleepy thought. :I usually move out under a tree about now.:

Vanyel raised his head and yawned. He'd gotten some sleep, but not nearly as much as he would have liked. :You move. I think I'll go back to my room. If Melenna hasn't taken herself off to her own room by now, I swear I'll throw her out. Maybe a dose of humiliation will convince her to leave me alone.:

:Sounds as good a plan as any.: Yfandes waited for him to move out of the way, then got herself to her feet and nudged open the outside door. Vanyel stood up, shoulders aching from the strange position he'd slept in, and brushed bits of straw off his clothing. He ignored the startled glances of the stablehands, picked up his cloak and shook it out as Yfandes ambled out into her meadow.

:Go get some more sleep, dearheart,: she Mindsent back toward him.

:I'II try,: he replied, smoldering. :Maybe I'll bring my sleeping roll down here. Maybe when word gets around that I'm sleeping with horses she'll stop this nonsense.:

:And if she's stupid enough to try and waylay you down here, I'll chase her around the meadow a few times to teach her better manners,: Yfandes sent, irritation of her own coloring her thoughts a sullen red. :This is getting exasperating. I don't care if she thinks she's in love with you, that doesn't excuse imbecilic behavior.:

Vanyel didn't reply; he was too close to temper that could do the woman serious damage. He folded his cloak tidily over his arm, pretending he didn't notice the whispers of the stablehands as he let himself out of the stall and shut the door behind him.

"There was a problem with my bed last night," he told Tarn, the chief stableman and Withen's most trusted trainer.

Tarn was no fool, and he'd been quietly on Vanyel's side since Van was old enough to ride. He was one of the few at Forst Reach who hadn't changed his behavior toward Vanyel when the nature of Vanyel's relationship with Tylendel became known at the holding. Since his wife was one of the cooks, he was quite conversant with "house" gossip. He smiled slowly, showing the gap where he'd had three teeth kicked out. "Aye, milord Van. I ken. There's some invites a body wish t' give hisself."

Van winced inwardly a little, knowing that this was going to do Melenna's reputation no good at all once this tale got around the keep.

The stablehands went back to their chores, and he wound his way past them, out into the yard between the outbuildings and the keep. He blinked at the sunlight, seeing just one other person, a vague, unidentifiable shadow in the door of the armory.

"Vanyel," called a raspy, far-too-familiar voice. "A word with you."

Jervis. The armsmaster moved out past the door of the armory to stand directly in his path and Vanyel felt his stomach start to churn. In no way could he successfully avoid a confrontation this time. Jervis was between him and the keep.

"Yes, armsmaster?" he said.

"I left you messages, Meke told me he'd passed them on." Jervis moved closer, a frown making his seamed and craggy face more forbidding than usual.

Vanyel kept his own feelings behind an expressionless mask. "That you wanted to spar, yes I know. He did tell me. I'd rather not, thank you."

"Why not?"

"Frankly, because I don't feel up to it," Vanyel replied with cool neutrality, though his back was clammy with nervous sweat. Because I know damned well it won't stay polite exercise for long. Because I know you’re going to push me just as far as you can, armsmaster. I'm going to have to hurt you. And dammit, I don't want to let you do that to me.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Jervis growled, his face darkening. "You think this old man isn't good enough for you?"

"I'm worn out, for one thing. I just spent the night in the stable because there was an unwelcome visitor in my room; that's not my bed of choice, and Meke's damned stud makes more noise than a herd of mules. For another - Jervis, I've been on a battle-line for the last year. Youwere a mercenary, what does that tell you?"

I don't want to inflict more pain when I don't have to. And I'm on a hair-trigger; gods, think about this, you old bastard! Remember what it was like, how some things became reflex, no matter how hard you tried to control them.

Jervis narrowed his eyes. "You look in good enough shape to me. There's nothing you can do, young Vanyel, that I can't handle. Unless you're really no better than, say, young Medren, no matter what all those songs say about you."

The reminder of the treatment Medren was receiving at Jervis' hands was the spark to the tinder. Vanyel's temper finally snapped. "On your head be it," he growled. "I take no responsibility. You want to spar so badly, all right, let's get it over with."

He stalked off toward the armory, a sturdy wooden building between the stables and the keep, with Jervis at his heels. He had a set of practice gear here, made up soon after he returned from k'Treva, gear put together at Withen's insistence and unused until now. It was gear unlike any other set at Forst Reach: light, padded leather gambeson; arm, thigh, and shin guards; main - gauche and heavy rapier; and a very light helm, all suited to his light frame and strike-and-run style.

The armory was not dark; there were clerestory windows glazed with bubbly, thick third-rate glass; stuff that wouldn't admit a view, just light. Vanyel found the storage chest with his name on it. He pulled his gear out and stripped off yesterday's tunic, pulling on the soft, thick linen practice tunic, strapping on the gambeson and guards, and gathering up his helm and weighted wooden practice blades.

This armory was new; built since Vanyel had left home. There was enough room for sparring inside; most of the interior had been set up as a salle. Vanyel was just as pleased to see that. The older building had been so small that all practices had to be held outside. So far as Vanyel was concerned, the fewer eyes there were to witness the confrontation, the better he'd like it.

He was shaking and sick inside; he was going to give Jervis a lesson the old man would never forget, and the very idea made his gut knot. He was not proud of what he was going to do.

But the old man asked for it. He wouldn't take “no,” and he wouldn't back down. Dammit, it's going to be his fault, not mine!

Van dwelled on that while he armed up; a sullen anger making him feel justified, and burning the knots out of his gut with self-righteousness and a growing elation that he was finally going to pay Jervis back for every bruise and broken bone.

Until he realized where that train of thought was leading him.

I'm rationalizing the fact that I want to beat him bloody. That I want revenge on him. Oh, gods.

The realization made him sick again.

He went to the center of the practice area, crossing the unvarnished wooden floor with no more noise than a cat. Jervis looked around after donning his own gear - much heavier than Vanyel's - as if he had actually expected Van to have slipped out while he was arming. He seemed surprised to see Vanyel standing on the challenger's side, waiting for him.

I'II let him make the first move, Van thought, keeping himself under tight control. He's probably going to give me a full rush, and I wouldn't be surprised if he tried to hurt me. Damned bully. But I will not lose my temper. I can't stop my reflexes, but I can keep my temper. I will not let him do that to me.

But Jervis astonished him by simply walking up to his side of the line, giving a curt salute that Vanyel returned, and waiting in a deceptively lazy guard position.

Dust tickled Vanyel's nose, and somewhere in the building a cricket was chirping. Well do something, damn you! he thought in frustration, as the moments continued to pass and Jervis did nothing but stand in the guard position. Finally the waiting was too much for his nerves. He rushed Jervis, but he pulled up short at the last second, so that the armsmaster was tricked into overextending. There was a brief flurry of blows, and with a neat twist of his wrists, Vanyel bound Jervis's blade and sent it flying out of his hands to land with a noisy clatter on the floor to Vanyel's left.

Now it comes. Vanyel braced himself for an explosion of temper.

But it didn't. No growl of rage, no snatching off of helm and spitting of curses. Jervis just stood, shield balanced easily on left arm, glaring. Vanyel could feel his eyes scorching him from within the dark slit of his helm for several heartbeats, while Vanyel's uneasiness grew and his blood pounded in his ears with the effort of holding himself in check. Finally the armsmaster moved only to fetch the blade, return to his former position, and wait for Vanyel to make another attack.

Vanyel circled to Jervis' right, bouncing a little on his toes, waiting for a moment when he could get past that shield, or around it. Sweat began running down his back and sides, and only the scarf around his head under his helm kept it out of his eyes. He licked his lips, and tasted salt. His concentration narrowed until all he was aware of was the sound of his own breathing, and the opponent in front of him.

Jervis returned his feints, his blows, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Vanyel scored on him far more often than vice versa. But every time he made a successful pass, Jervis would back out of reach for a moment. It was maddening and inexplicable; he'd just fall completely out of fighting stance, shuffle and glare, and mutter to himself, before returning to the line and mixing in again.

This little series of performances began to wear on Vanyel's nerves. It was far too like the stalking he used to get when Jervis wanted to beat him to a pulp and didn't quite dare - and at the same time, it was totally unlike anything in the old man's usual pattern.

What's he doing? What's he waiting for? Those aren't any love-taps he's been giving me, but it isn't what I know he's capable of, either.

Finally, when he was completely unnerved, Jervis made the move he'd been expecting all along - an all-out rush, at full-strength and full-force, the kind that had bowled him over time after time as a youngster - the kind that had ended with his broken arm.

Blade a blur beside Jervis' shield and the shield itself coming at him with the speed of a charging bull, the horrible crack as his shield split - the pain as the arm beneath it snapped like a green branch.

But he wasn't an adolescent, he was a battle - seasoned veteran.

His boot-soles scuffed on the sanded wood as he bounced himself out of range and back in again; he engaged and used the speed of Jervis' second rush to spin himself out of the way, and delivered a good hard stab to Jervis' side with the main - gauche as the man passed him -

- or meant to deliver it. For all his bulk, Jervis could move as quickly as a striking snake. He somehow got his shield around in time to deflect the blow and then continued into a strike with the shield-edge at Vanyel's face.

Vanyel spun out of the way, and let the movement carry him out of sword range. But now his temper was gone, completely shattered.

“Damn you, you bullying bastard! Preach about honor and then turn a shield - bash on me, will you!" His voice cracked with nerves. "Come on! Try again! Try and take me! I'm not a child, armsmaster Jervis. I'm not as easy to knock down and beat up anymore! You can't make a fool and a target of me the way you do with Medren! I know what I'm doing, damn you, and my style is a match for yours on any damned field!"

Jervis pulled off his battered helm with his shield hand, and sweat - darkened tendrils of gray - blond hair fell into his eyes. "That's enough," he said. "I've seen what I wanted t' see. Seems those songs got a grain of truth in 'em."

Vanyel choked his temper down. "I trust you won't require any more sparring sessions, armsmaster?''

Jervis gave him another long, measuring look. "I didn't say that. I'll be wantin' t' practice with you again, master Vanyel."

And he turned on his heel and left Vanyel standing in the middle of the salle, entirely uncertain of who had won what.

Have we got a truce ? Have we ? Or is this another kind of war?

“My Shadow-Lover, bear me into light,'' Vanyel sang softly, as the odd, minor chords blended one into another, each leaving a ghost of itself hanging in the air for the next to build from. This new gittern did things to this particular song that carried it beyond the poignant into the unearthly. He paused a moment, brushed the last chording in a slow arpeggio, and finally opened his eyes.

Medren sat on the edge of the bed, his mouth open in a soundless "O."

Vanyel shook off the melancholy of the song with an effort. "How long have you been there?" he asked, racking the gittern on its stand, and uncoiling from his window seat.

"Most of the song," Medren shivered. "That's the weirdest love song I ever heard! How come I never heard it before?"

"Because Treesa doesn't like it," Vanyel replied wryly, stretching his fingers carefully. "It reminds her that she's mortal." He saw the incomprehension on Medren's face, and elaborated. "The lover in the song is Death, Medren."

"Death? As -" the boy gulped, "- a lover?"

The stricken look on the boy's face recalled him to the present, and he chuckled. "Oh, don't look that way, lad. I'm in no danger of throwing myself off a cliff. I have too much to do to go courting the Shadow-Lover."

The boy's face aged thirty years for a moment. "But if He came courting you-"

I'd take His kiss of peace only too readily, Vanyel thought. Sometimes I'm so damned tired. He thought that - but smiled and said, "He courts me every day I'm a Herald, nephew, but He hasn't won me yet. What brings you here?"

"Oh," Medren looked down at his hands. "Jervis. Some of the other kids - they told me he's got something special going today. For me."

Vanyel thought of the "sparring session" and went cold. And a seed of an idea finally sprouted and flowered. He stood, and walked slowly to the bed, to put his hand lightly on Medren's shoulder. "Medren, would you rather deal with Jervis, or be sick?"

"What?" The boy looked up at him with the same incomprehension in his eyes he'd shown when Vanyel had spoken of the Shadow-Lover.

“I have just enough of the Healing-Gift that I can make you sick." That wasn't exactly what he would do, but it was close enough. "Then I can keep you sick; too sick to go to practice, anyway." There was measles in the nursery; that would keep the boy down for a good long time.

"Will I lose my voice?" The boy looked up at him with the same complete trust Jisa had, and that shook him.

He grinned, to cover it. "No, you'll just come out in spots, like Brendan. In fact, I want you to sneak into the nursery and spend a candlemark with Brendan when I 'm done with you.” As much as I'm going to depress his body, if he isn't fevered by nightfall I'll eat my lute. “Make sure nobody sees you, and go straight to your mother after and tell her you have a headache."

"As long as I won't lose my voice," Medren said, grinning, "I think I can take spots and itching."

"It won't be fun."

"It's better than being beat on."

"All right." Vanyel put his hand on Medren's shoulders, and focused down and out -

"Funny about Medren," Radevel said, "coming down with spots so sudden-like. I would've sworn he had 'em once already.''

Vanyel just shrugged. He was in Radevel's room following another "sparring session" - this time one in which he sparred with Rad under Jervis' eye. It had been easier to deal with than the last one, but Jervis was still acting out of character. We have a truce of sorts. I don't know why, but I won't take the chance that it will extend to cover Medren. I daren't.

Radevel had invited him here afterward in a burst of hearty comradeship, and Vanyel had decided to take him up on it. Over the past hour he'd come to discover he liked this good - natured cousin more than he'd ever dreamed.

“‘Mother funny thing I can't figure," Radevel continued, feet propped up on a battered old table, mug of watered wine in hand. "Old Leren. Saw him watching you an' Jervis an' me at practice this afternoon, an' if looks were arrows, you'd be a damned pincushion. What in hell did you ever do to him?''

Vanyel shrugged, took a long drink of the cool wine, and turned his attention back to repairing his torn leather gambeson with needle and fine, waxed thread in a neat, precise row of carefully placed stitches. The past four years had seen him out more often than not beyond the reach of the Havenbred comforts and the servants that saw to the needs of Heralds. He'd gotten into the habit of repairing things himself, and around Radevel, that habit (which Radevel shared) made itself evident at the smallest excuse. "Don't know," he said shortly. "Never did. I would almost be willing to pledge to you that he's hated me from the moment he came here. Mother swears it's because I asked too many questions, but I thought priests were supposed to encourage questions. Our old priest did. I may have been only four when he died, but I remember that.''

Radevel nodded agreement. "Aye, I remember that, too. Jervis always said that Osen was a good man. Made you feel like taking things to him, somehow. 'The gods gave you a brain, boy,' he'd say. 'If you want to honor them, use it.' Never made you feel like you were beneath him." He brooded over his mug, his plain face quiet with thought. "This Leren, now - huh. I dunno, Van. You know, I stopped going to holydays here a long time ago - hike down into the village with Jervis when we feel like we need a dose of priest-talk. Tell you something else - young Father Heward down in the village don't care much for Leren either. He did his best not to let on, but he was downright gleeful to see us come marching down to the village temple, an' I know he don't care much for fighters, being a peace-preacher. Figure that.”

"I can't," Vanyel replied.

He "felt" Savil's distinct "presence" coming up to the door of Radevel's room, so he didn't jump when she spoke. "Is this a 'roosters only' discussion, or can an old hen join?''

Vanyel did not bother to turn around. Radevel grinned past Vanyel's shoulder at Savil, and reached - without needing to look - into the cupboard over his head for another mug. "I dunno," he mused. "Old hens, welcome, but old bats-?"

“Give me that, you shameless reprobate," she mock-snarled, snatching the clean mug out of his hand and pouring herself wine from the jug. She tasted it and made a face. "Gods! What's that made of, old socks?"

"Standard mere ration, milady Herald ma'am, an' watered down, too. Grows on you, though. Got into liking it 'cause of Jervis."

"Huh. Grows on you like foot-rot."

Vanyel stuck the needle under a line of stitches and moved over to make room for her. She sat down beside him, careful to avoid unbalancing the bench. She sipped again. "You're right. Second taste has merit - unless it's just that the first swallow ate the skin off my tongue. What was all this about Leren?"

“Radevel said he was watching me and Rad spar with Jervis this afternoon," Vanyel supplied, frowning at his work. The leather was scraped thin here, and likely to tear again if he wasn't careful where he placed his stitches.

"To be precise, he was watching Herald Van, here. Like he was hoping me or Jervis would slip - up like and break his neck for him," Radevel said. "I'll tell you again, I do not like that man, priest or no priest. Makes my skin fair crawl with some of those looks he gives."

"I've noticed," Savil said soberly. “I don't like him either, and damned if I know why.''

Radevel held up one hand in a gesture of helplessness. "I spent more time around him than either of you, and I just can't put a finger on it. Treesa doesn't like him either; only reason she goes to holyday services is 'cause she reckons herself right pious, and facing him's better'n not going. But if she had her druthers, he'd be away and gone. It's about the one thing I agree with that feather-head on. Pardon, Van."

"Mother is a featherhead; I won't argue there. But - Savil, did you realize that she's very slightly sensitive? Not Thought-sensing, not Empathy, but like to it - something else, some kind of sensitivity we haven't identified yet. The gods only know what it is; I haven't got it nor have you. But it's a sensitivity she shares with Yfandes."

"Treesa? Sensitive like a Companion?” Savil gave him a look of complete incredulity. "Be damned! I never thought to test her.”

He nodded. "The channel's in 'Fandes, wide open. The same channel Treesa has, only hers is to 'Fandes the way a melting icicle is to a waterfall. I don't know what it is, but I'd say we shouldn't discount feelings of unease just because Treesa shares them. She could very truly be feeling something."

"Huh," Radevel said, after a moment. Then he grinned. "I got a homely plain man's notion. That mare of yours ever dropped a foal?"

"Why, yes, now that you mention it. Two, a colt and a filly-both before she Chose me. Dancer and Megwyn. Why?"

"Just that about every mother I ever saw, human to hound, knew damned well when somebody had bad feelings toward her children, no matter how much that somebody tried to make out like it wasn't true. Even Milady Treesa." He grinned as Vanyel's jaw fell, and Savil's expression mirrored his. "Now Savil, you never had children, and it'd take a miracle from the Twain themselves to make Van a momma. So, no - what you call - channel. Make sense?''

"Damned good sense, cousin," Vanyel managed to get out around his astonishment. "For somebody who has no magic of his own, you have an uncanny grasp of principles."

Savil nodded. "You know, this enmity could also be partially that the man was pushed into the priesthood by his family and hates it. A priest with no vocation is worse than no priest at all."

"Could be," Radevel replied. "One thing for sure, it wasn't this bad 'fore Van came home. It's like something about Van brings out the worst in the old crow. Thought I'd say something." He shrugged. "I don't like him, Jervis don't like him. Jervis's got a feel for things like enemies sneakin' up on your back. You might want to keep an eye on Leren."

Oh, yes, cousin, Vanyel thought quietly. If you are seeing the hint of trouble, stolid as you are, I will surely keep an eye on him.

:Things in your bed again?: Yfandes asked sweetly.

Vanyel snarled, hung the lantern he was carrying on a hook, climbed up on the railings of the box, and hauled his bedroll down from the rafters above her stall. "This is not my idea of a good time," he replied. "I didn't come home with the intention of sleeping in the stable!" The bedroll landed on the floor, and he jumped down off the top rail to land beside it. "Here I thought I'd get past her by getting dinner with the babies and sneaking up to my room at sunset, and there she is waiting for me, bold as a bad penny. Not nude this time, but in my bed. 'Fandes, this is the third night in a row! Has the woman no shame? And I locked the damned door!"

:Why didn't you just put her out the door?:

He glared at her, and heaved the bedding into the stall. "I do not," he said between clenched teeth, "feel like engaging in a wrestling match with the woman. Dammit, there's going to be frost on the ground in the morning. It's getting chilly at night."

:Poor abused baby. I know somebody who 'II gladly keep you warm.:

He glared at her again, poised halfway over the railings of the box - stall, one foot on either side. " 'Fandes, you're pushing my patience."

:Me.:

"Oh, 'Fandes. ..." His tone cooled a little, and he swung his leg over the top rail of the stall, and hopped down beside her to hug her neck. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't take the fact that I'm ready to kill her out on you.”

She rubbed her cheek against his, her smooth coat softer than any satin, and nibbled at his hair. Her breath puffed warm against his ear, sweet, and hay-scented. Farther down in the stable, beyond the light of Vanyel's lantern, one of the horses whickered sleepily, and another stamped.

:I'm rather selfishly glad to have you with me,: she said, watching him heap up straw and spread his sleeping roll on it :I like having you here with no danger to keep us wakeful, a quiet night, nothing to really disturb us.

Remember how you used to spend nights out in the Vale with me, watching the stars?:

"And waiting for Starwind to take a header out of his treehouse!" Vanyel laughed, with her rich chuckle bubbling in his mind. "You're right; that was a good time, even if I did spend the first few months of it in various states of hurting. Gods of Light, 'Fandes, I miss them. It's been far too long since I last saw them. Brightstar must be-what-nearly ten? I wish we had time to go back there."

They don't shake me to my shoes the way Shavri and Randi do. Is it only because I don't see them too often, or -

Yfandes' interrupted his thought.

:'You 'd have to Gate, or else spend months on the road.: she replied sadly. :We daren't take the time, and I won't let you Gate yet, not unless it's an emergency. You’re still drained :

Her tone cheered him a little. "Yes, little mother," Vanyel chuckled, climbing into his crude bed, good humor fully restored. And to prove that he wasn't quite so drained as Yfandes seemed to think, he snuffed the lamp with a thought.

:Show-off,: she teased, settling down carefully next to him so that he could curl up beside her, for all the world like a strange sort of gangly foal. He wriggled himself and blankets in against her warm, silken side, and slipped one hand out to rest on her foreleg.

He yawned. With his anger gone, his energy seemed to be gone too. " 'Night, dearheart," he mumbled, suddenly unable to keep his eyes open.

She nuzzled his cheek. :Goodnight, beloved.:

They howled around him, trying to crawl inside his mind. Horrible, vile, they made him retch to look at them, but he couldn't look away from their distorted faces and maimed bodies. They drove fear before them and raised terror about them, making a whirlwind with himself in the center; they had knives for teeth and scythes for claws, red eyes full of madness and an insatiable hunger he could feel beating at his frail shell of protection in waves of heat. They were shadows, deadly, kitting shadows, and they couldn't get at him, but they could and would find other prey. They howled off and away on the wind, and he screamed (or tried to) and hid his head and made himself as small as he could while the killing and dying began. And he wept with terror and shrieked-

Vanyel shook off the grip of the nightmare and came up out of it with a rush, choking against the black bile of fear in his throat. He clawed his way out of his blankets, and lay panting and unthinking against Yfandes' side in the aftermath of all-consuming horror, while his heart pounded in his ears.

The night about him was quiet, peaceful, undisturbed.

On the surface. But -

Beneath the surface?

Automatically he reached out with his Othersenses, to touch the energy currents that lay beneath the material night.

No, it hadn't been a nightmare; his Othersenses showed him the new, churning eddies in the currents of power all about him. Something had happened tonight. Somewhere out there something had used Power, used it freely, and to a terrible end. His nightmare had only been the far-off echo of something much, much worse. There was evil on the Otherwinds-and the world beneath shivered to feel it.

If I'd been in my room, I'd never have felt this, he realized, coming fully awake. My room is shielded and so is Savil's. But I never shield when I'm with Yfandes. That means Savil hasn't felt this. I'm the only one who knows there's something wrong.

" 'Fandes?" He reached out for her shoulder; the muscles were bunched with tension, and her head was up, sniffing the crisp breeze.

:Hush. Listen.:

Faint, and far off - a mind-cry for help? Or just a mind crying in despair? It wavered maddeningly in and out of his sensing-range.

:That's because he's bonded. It's a Companion, a young one. He's Chosen, and his Chosen is emperiled. I can hardly hear him.: She stretched her neck out, as if simply trying harder could make what she sensed clearer :That's - he 's caught in his Chosen 's fear, and he's nearly hysterical :

"Which, Companion or Chosen?" Vanyel scrambled completely out of his bedroll, and flared the lamp to life with a blink of thought. We'd better deal with this. We may be the only ones close enough to hear them.

:Both - the Companion, at least.: She lurched to her feet, her eyes black with distress. Moonlight poured in through the open upper half of the door to the paddock, silvering her :Vanyel, please - we must go to them!:

"What's it look like I'm doing?" he demanded, throwing her blanket over her, then pulling down the saddle itself. "I'll have you saddled in half a moment. Where is this?"

:Lineas. Highjorune :

"The Linean throne-seat." He made a quick check of his mental maps. "That's relatively near our Border. Can we be there by dawn? “

:Before: All her attention was back on the West.

"Good, because I have the feeling what we're about to do isn't legal, at least by Linean standards, and I'd rather not break laws while people are awake to catch me. Kellan!"

A stamp and a whicker told him that Savil's Companion had heard him.

"Get Savil awake and tell her what we know and where we're going. And why."

Snort of agreement.

" 'Fandes, wait a minute, I'd better change." He began stripping his clothing off, cursing the laces that wouldn't come undone, and snapping them when he realized how much time this was taking.

She swung her head around to stare at him frantically. :We can't afford the time!:

"We can't afford not to take the time," he said reasonably. "Think about it, love. I had damn well better be in uniform. Even the Lineans will think twice about stopping a Valdemar Herald, but a man on a white horse won't rate that second thought. I am something less than fond of being a target, even a moving one." He rummaged in the saddlebags, coming up with a slightly crumpled set of Whites. "Thought I left those here. Thank the gods for battle-line habits." He shrugged on the breeches and tunic and belted them tight; pulled on the boots he'd pulled off when he'd wormed into his blankets. "Good thing I've only got the one pair of boots. Damn, I wish I'd thought to leave a sword here."

:Meke left one in the tack bin by the stud.:

"Bless you -"

He vaulted the railings to fetch it; it was not a good blade, but it was serviceable. He strapped it and his long dagger on, inserted the short ones into their pockets in his boots.

His cloak-he looked for it quickly; he'd need it out there. There it was, half tangled with the blankets. He pulled it out of the tangle, shook it out, flung it over his shoulders, fastened the throat-latch, and returned to the task of harnessing Yfandes. He swung the saddle onto her back, gave a quick pull of the cinch, got chest- and rump-bands buckled and snugged in - she was ready.

He snatched her hackamore off its peg and tossed it over her head; he mounted while she shook it into place as the bells on it jangled madly. She booted the bottom of the door into the paddock open with her nose while he grabbed for the reins and brought them over her neck, and then with a leap a wild deer would envy she was off into the darkness.

Seven

Gods, it's like another Border-alert. Though Yfandes was frantic with the call in her mind, Vanyel kept his wits about him and reached out with a finger of power to snuff the lantern as they cleared the stable-door.

Yfandes raced across the black-velvet of the paddock, hooves pounding dully on the turf, uncannily surefooted in all the moon-cast, dancing shadows. He'd forgotten for a moment that their path out was going to be blocked. He glanced ahead barely in time to see the fence at the far end coming at them and set himself instinctively when he felt her gather under him. They flew over the bars and landed with a jar that drove his teeth together and threw him against the pommel of the saddle. He fought himself back into balance and felt her begin to hesitate in mid-stride.

:Van?:

He clenched his teeth and wrenched himself into place. :Just go - I'm fine.:

She stretched out flat to the ground and ran with all the heart that was in her. Vanyel pulled himself down as close to the level of her outstretched neck as he could, kept his silhouette low and clean, and balanced his weight just behind her shoulders where she could carry it easiest. And fed her with his power.

No one except another Herald could know how exhausting "just riding" could be, especially on a ride like this. He was constantly moving, altering his balance to help her without thinking about it. It was work, and involved tiny muscle adjustments to complement her exertions.

He kept his cloak tucked in all around, but it didn't help much; the wind cut right through it, and chilled him terribly. His hands and face were like ice before a candlemark had passed. The wind whipped his hair into snarls and numbed his ears, and there was nothing he could do except endure it all, and keep his Othersenses alert for trouble.

I'll have to do something about the Border Guards when we get there. Something that isn't intrusive.

The Border - friendly in name only, neutral in truth - was guarded by sentries and watchtowers. They reached it at just about midnight, and Vanyel blinked in amazement when the first of those towers loomed up above the trees on the horizon, a black column against moon - whitened clouds. He'd had no way to judge Yfandes' speed in the dark; only the wind in his face and the thin, steady pull of power from him, power that he in turn drew from the nodes and power-streams they passed as they came into sensing range. Her speed wasn't natural, and required magic to sustain over any distance.

:The watchtowers-: That was the first time she'd Mindspoken him since they'd leapt the paddock fence, and her mind-voice, though preoccupied, was dark with apprehension. :The Border Guards-:

:I've got it figured,: he told her; got a wash of relief, and then felt her turn her attention back to the race and her footing, secure in the belief that he would handle the rest.

He closed his eyes against distractions, and Looked out ahead. He found and identified each mind that could possibly see them passing - those who were awake and those who were not - he left nothing to chance anymore. Not after he'd once been detected on a crawl through the enemy camp by a cook who happened to head for the privy-trench at just the wrong time. So, calling on more of that node-energy he'd garnered on the run, he built a Seeming that touched all those minds.

There is nothing on the road, his mind whispered to theirs. Only shadows under the moon, the drumming of a partridge, the hooves of startled deer. You see nothing, you hear only sounds you have heard before. There is nothing on the road.

There were plenty of circumstances that could break this Seeming. It was too delicate to hold against a counterspell and it would certainly break if they had the misfortune to run into someone physically. But anyone touched by the spell would see only shadows, hear only sounds that could easily be explained away.

More importantly, they would feel a subtle aversion to investigating those sounds, a bored lassitude that would keep them in the shelter of their posts.

They passed the Border - guard station, vaulting the twin gates that barred the road, Valdemar and Lineas sides, as lightly as leaves on the wind. The Linean Guard was actually leaning on the gatepost, lounging beneath a lantern, his face a startlingly pale blur above his dark uniform. He looked directly at them, and Vanyel felt him yawn as they leaped the gate. Then he was lost in the dark behind as they raced on. Vanyel did not look back, but set the spell to break the moment they were out of sight. He would cloak his own passing; he would not leave the Border to spell-mazed guardians.

He spent no more magical energies in such spells; he didn't particularly care if the common folk of Lineas saw them. They were familiar enough with the uniform of the Heralds. If any Lineans saw him, they would assume, reasonably enough, that he'd been properly dealt with at the Border and belonged here.

Yfandes raced on, through pocket-sized villages in tiny, sheltered river-hollows, even through a larger town or two. All were as dark as places long abandoned. Finally, in the dead hours of the night, the time when death and birth lie closest, they came to Highjorune.

Most of the city was as dead and dark as the villages, but not all; no city slept the night through. More and stronger magic would be required to get them to their goal - whatever it was-without being stopped. Vanyel reached, seeking node-energy to use to pass the city gates as they had the Border, and recoiled a little in surprise.

For a place so adamantly against mages and their Gifts, Highjorune was crawling with mage-energy. It lay on the intersection of three - five - seven lines of force, none of them trivial, all flowing to meet at a node beneath it, liquid rainbows humming the random songs of power, strong enough for even new-made Adepts to use, provided they had the sensitivity to detect them-though the node where they met would be too wild, too strong for any but an experienced Adept.

:Yfandes, stop a bit.:

Yfandes obeyed. He raised his hands, preparing to spin out a true spell of illusion and sound - dampening; taking the power directly from the closest stream, bracing himself for the shock as his mind met the flow of energy.

The city gate was too well-guarded and well-lit, and the city itself too crowded with people to chance the kind of spell he'd worked on the Border Guards. He wanted to hurry the spell, but knew he didn't dare. Careful - he told himself. This is Savil's area of expertise, not yours. Rush it, and you could lose it.

Yfandes fidgeted, her bridle - bells chiming, her hooves making a deeper ringing on the hard paving of the road. :Hurry,: she urged, her own Mindvoice dense with fear. :Please. He'll die, they'll die - there's another Companion, she's nearly gone mad, she can't speak -:

: 'Fandes, don't interrupt. I'm working as fast as I can, but if I don't pull power now, I won't have anything when we need it.: The raw power was beginning to fill him, fill all the echoing emptiness. Natural, slow recovery had not been able to do this! He was going to have to wait until the achingly empty reservoirs of power within him were full again before he could spin a shield this complicated, though at this rate it wasn't going to take long. Besides, he was all too likely to need power. If everything went to hell and he had to Gate out of here -

Gods. It's like - eating sunlight, breathing rainbows, drinking wind - Force poured into him, wild and untamed, and for the first time in months he felt complete and revived. There was nothing this strong anywhere near Forst Reach.

No mystery now why the Mavelans wanted Lineas, not with this kind of power running through Highjorune going untapped and unused. He could almost pity the mage-lords. It must be like living next to people who mined up precious gems with their copper, and threw the gems out with the tailings, but wouldn't let you in to glean them. Got to hurry this. We're running out of time.

Cautiously he pulled at the power, until it responded, flowing faster into him.

That's it. Now I make it mine.

He tapped into the wild power he'd taken; learned it, tamed it to his hand.

He was sweating now; both with effort and impatience. Gods, this takes too much time, but I can't afford any surprises.

Slowly, carefully, he began to spin the energy out into threads, visible only to his Othersight, making a cocoon of the threads that would absorb sound within it, and send the eyes that lit upon it to looking elsewhere. Layer on layer, thread on delicate thread, this was a spell that required absolute concentration and attention, for the slightest defect would mean a place where the eye could catch and hold, where sound could leak out. Yfandes stood like a statue of ice in the moonlight, no longer fidgeting.

Finally, with a sigh of relief, he completed.the web. He replaced what he had spent, then cut off his connection to the mother-stream.

His arms hurt, but he had the feeling that more was going to hurt than his arms before this was over.

:Go!: he told Yfandes, who leaped off into the dark, heading for the open city gates ahead of them.

He grabbed for the reins and pommel as she shot forward, a white arrow speeding toward a target only she knew.

:'Fandes! Where are we going?:

:The palace!:

The streets wound crazily round about, with no sense and no pattern; some were illuminated by torches and lanterns, some only by the moon. They sped from dark to light to dark again, Yfandes' hooves sliding on the slippery cobbles. They splashed through puddles of water and less pleasant liquids. He could hear her hooves, oddly muffled, beneath him; and both intriguing scents and noisome, foul stenches that met his nose only to be snatched away before he could recognize them. There were people about; street cleaners, beggars, whores, drunks, others he couldn't identify. The spell held; the eyes of the townsfolk they passed slid past the two of them with no interest whatsoever.

:The first Companion, the young one - I can't even reach him now, he's too crazed, Van, he's so frightened!: Yfandes was not particularly coherent herself; stress was distorting her mind-voice into a wash of emotion through which it was hard to pick up words. :The second one - she's - her Chosen - she can't bear what he's doing, she's shutting everything out :

Vanyel clung to the pommel and balanced out sideways a bit as Yfandes rounded a corner, hindquarters skewing as her hooves slipped a little. This "second one-she was probably the Companion with Randale's envoy. But what could a Herald be doing that would stress his Companion to the point of breakdown?

Vanyel didn't have long to wait to discover the answer; they entered a zone of wider streets and enormous residences; homes of the noble and rich. The streets were near daylight - bright with cressets and lanterns of scentless oils. The palace can't be far, he thought, and just as he finished the thought, they pounded around a corner and into a huge square, then down a broad avenue. At the end of that processional avenue was a huge structure, half fortress, half fantasy, looming above the city, a black eagle mantling above her nest against the setting moon. And at the eagle's feet, an egg of light-the main courtyard, brightly lit. Vanyel banished the spell of unsight as they thundered in the gilded gates.

The dark-charcoal palace walls cupped the courtyard on three sides, the wall they'd just passed beneath forming the fourth. There must have been a hundred lanterns burning.

He only got a glimpse of confusion; to his right, half a dozen armed and armored men, and a Companion down and moaning on the black cobbles. To his left-a younger Companion, blood streaked shockingly red on his white coat, teeth bared and screaming with rage and battle - fury; a blond boy clinging dazedly to his back, and-

It was like something out of his worst nightmares. A Herald, with a heavy carter's whip, beating the stallion until his skin came away in strips and blood striped bright on the snowy hide, trying to separate him from the boy.

Yfandes literally rode the Herald down, swerving at the last moment to shoulder him aside instead of trampling him. Vanyel leaped from her saddle as he had so many times before in Border - fights; hit the cobbles and tumbled to kill his momentum, and sprang to his feet with sword drawn.

He didn't give the other Herald a breath to react. Whatever insanity was going on here had to be stopped. Without thinking, Van reversed the grip on the sword in his hand.

And lashed up to catch the stranger squarely on the chin with a handful of metal.

The other Herald went flying backward, and landed in an untidy heap.

Damn, he's still moving.

Vanyel put himself in righting stance between the young stallion and his abuser. He touched the young ones' minds just long enough to try and get some sense out of either the boy or the stallion - but from the first picked up only shock, and from the second, fear that drowned everything else out.

Vanyel pulled on the power within him, feeling it leap, wild and undisciplined, as the other Herald staggered to his feet, bleeding from a split lip, and prepared to lash out with the whip again. Flinging out his left hand, Van sent a lash of his own, a lash of lightning from his outstretched finger to the whipstock. The spark arced across the space between them with a crackle and the pungent smell of burning leather, and the dark, sallow-faced Herald dropped the whip with an exclamation of pain. Behind him, Yfandes was holding off the armsmen with squeals, lashing hooves and bared teeth; faced with her anger, they were not inclined to come to the Herald's rescue.

"What in hell do you think you're doing?" Vanyel thundered, letting the other feel his outrage, a wave of red anger. The older man backed up an involuntary pace. "What in the name of the gods themselves is going on here?"

Vanyel sheathed his sword then. The other Herald drew himself up, nursing his injured hand against his chest, rubbing the blood off his bruised chin with the other. "Who are you to interfere -" he began, his face a caricature of thwarted authority.

Vanyel tried to Mindspeak, but the other's channel was weak, and he was blocking it besides. And the personality was not one for much hope of compromise. Stolid and methodical - and affronted by the stranger's intervention in his jurisdiction. The young stranger, too young, surely, to have any authority.

Gods bless - I'm going to have to pull rank on this thickheaded idiot. And he's never going to forgive me for that.

And the only reason I didn't put him out is because he's so damn thick - headed!

"Herald-Mage Vanyel Ashkevron," Vanyel cut him off. "Called Demonsbane, called Shadowstalker, First Herald-Mage in Valdemar. I outrank you, Herald, and your damn fool actions tonight called me out of my bed and across the Border. You've exceeded your authority, and I'm ordering you to let this boy be. Who in hell are you?”

Vanyel could feel the older man's resentment and smoldering anger, heavy and hot, a ponderous weight of molten emotional metal. "Herald Lores," he said sullenly, rubbing his hand. "King Randale's envoy to the court of Lineas."

Over his shoulder, Vanyel watched Yfandes backing away from the armsmen. She cautiously nudged the downed Companion's shoulder-still keeping one eye on them. After a couple of false tries, the other mare managed to get back to her feet, but stood with her head down and her legs splayed and shaking.

:'Fandes?:

:She 's Hearing again, and Speaking, a little; when you got her Chosen to stop, it resolved the conflict inside her -

but she is not well. She is still in turmoil, and her heart bleeds :

:Take care of her.: He turned his attention back to Lores. "Tell me – slowly - just what you thought you were doing, taking a whip to a Companion, trying to drive him away from his Chosen."

Lores snarled. "That boy is a bloody-handed murderer, and that thing you call a Companion is his demon shape - changed! He called it up and was trying to escape on it."

"What?" Vanyel backed up a step, inadvertently bumping into the young stallion, who snorted in alarm but stood rock - steady, ready to protect his Chosen against anything, be it man, beast, or creature of magic. Vanyel reached out, still keeping his eyes on Lores, and laid his hand along the stallion's neck. If anyone in the wide world would know what a demon "felt" like, he did, after having them close enough to score his chest with their claws, and after turning them back against Karse! He extended his mind toward the young stallion's, and touched again, gently. No demonic aura met his mind, only the pure, bright, blue - white pulsing that was the signature of a Companion, an aura that only a Companion, of all the creatures he had ever Mindtouched, possessed.

Anger rose in him, as his hand came away bloody, and the young stallion shivered in fear and pain. He clenched his fist and stared at the older Herald. "You -" he groped for words. "If I didn't know Randale, and know that neither he nor Shavri would send anyone at all unbalanced out here as an envoy, I'd say you were insane." The man gaped at him, taken completely aback. "As it is, I'm forced to say I've never encountered anyone so incredibly stupid in my life!" He relaxed his clenched fist and patted the stallion's neck without looking around, then advanced on Lores with such anger filling him that he was having trouble keeping his voice controlled. "What in hell makes you think this youngster is a demon?"

"You could be fooled, spell-touched-"

"Not bloody likely! And a demon could never fool my Companion, nor yours. Gods, man, if they wouldn't know. After she Chose, and after - her Chosen - was pressed past all sanity. It has no bearing on what happened here. You would not listen to your own Companion try to tell you the truth."

He took a step toward the other, bloody finger pointed in accusation. "You blocked her out with your anger and your fear. You allowed your emotions to interfere with your ability to see the truth. You blocked her so you couldn't hear what you didn't want to hear."

Lores' resentment smoldered in his eyes, but he could not deny Vanyel's accusations.

:Van - the boy -:

Vanyel spun, just in time to see the young man losing his death grip on his Companion's mane, sliding to the ground. He sprinted to the boy's side, startling the young stallion so that he threw up his head and rolled his eyes, and caught the boy in mid - collapse, draping the boy's arm over his own neck and shoulder, supporting him, and looked around for an open door - any door-

:Your left,: Yfandes prompted: one of the double doors into the main entranceway was cracked open. He half-carried, half-dragged the boy there, with Lores following sullenly behind, and kicked the door open enough to squeeze through.

It was pitchy dark in the palace - which was damned odd for the throne-seat, even at a few hours till dawn. Even odder, all that commotion in the main courtyard had brought no one out to see what the ruckus was about. Van couldn't see a thing past the little light coming in the doorway. The building might just as well have been deserted.

First things first; they needed light. So - Be damned to local prejudice, he thought, and set a globe of blue mage-light to spinning above his head. Behind him, he heard a stifled gasp as Lores watched it appear out of nowhere.

They were in a bare entryway; that was all he had time to notice in his brief glance. Someplace to put this boy - A seat was what he was looking for, and he spotted one: a highly-polished wooden bench, bare of cushions and bolted to the floor, over against the wall just clear of the door. Presumably it was for the use of low-rank servants waiting for something or someone at the main entrance. Whatever, it was a seat. He supported the boy over to it, and got him seated, shoved his head down between his legs, and worked the little Healing he knew to clear the shock out and get him conscious again.

The boy was aware enough to interpret that as some kind of coercion or confinement; he tried to fight, and raised his head into the light.

And Vanyel saw his face for the first time.

It was Tylendel's face, dazed with shock and vacant-eyed, that looked up at him in confusion beneath the blue mage-light.

Vanyel choked, and the floor seemed to heave beneath him. Only one hand on the wall saved him. For a moment he thought that his heart had stopped, or that his mind had snapped.

His eyes cleared again, and he took a closer look, reached out to tip the boy's face into the light, and almost Mindtouched -

But he stopped himself, as he began to see the little differences. The boy couldn't be more than sixteen, and looked it; 'Lendel had always looked older than he really was. The boy's nose was snubbed, or more than 'Lendel's had been; the eyes were farther apart and larger, the chin rounded and not squared, the hair wavy, not curly, and darker than the golden-brown of Tylendel's. Subtle differences, but enough to let him shake off his ghosts, enough to tell him that this was not Tylendel.

Whatever the boy in turn saw or sensed in his eyes, it reassured him enough that he stopped fighting, and obeyed Vanyel's half-audible order to keep his head down.

Not now, he told himself. Deal with your ghosts later, not now.

For the first time since entering the gilded door, he looked around to see if there was finally anyone coming. He looked past the barren entryway - and froze at the sight of the wreckage in the mage-light.

He'd seen less destruction after the sacking of a keep.

No wonder no one came, he thought, dumbly. Nobody human could have survived this.

Vanyel stood at the edge of the staircase and stared. This entry was hardly more than twenty feet long, and made of the same black stone as the exterior, but polished to a reflective shine; it led to a short stone stair that in turn led down into the wood-paneled Great Hall. This Hall had been a reception area - lit by chandeliers and wall sconces, hung with tapestries, lined with dark wood tables and chairs polished to mirror-brightness. It was demolished.

The chandeliers had been torn from the beams, tapestries ripped from the walls. The walls, the floor, the ceiling beams themselves were scored and gouged as though with the marks of terrible claws. The tapestries had been shredded, the furniture reduced to splinters, the wreckage scattered across the floor as though a whirlwind had played here.

Vanyel remembered his dream, and felt his hair rise and a chill creep up his backbone.

"What -" His voice cracked, and he tried again. "What happened?”

Lores' lip lifted a little, but he answered civilly enough. "That boy - that's Tashir. You know who he is?"

Vanyel nodded. "Tashir Remoerdis. Deveran of Lineas' oldest child."

"You know Deveran figured him for a bastard, the worst kind, fathered on Ylyna by her own brother, so they say."

"Is that really germane?" Van looked back at the wreckage.

"Damn right it's germane.” Lores lifted his lip scornfully. "It's why the brat did all this."

"Lores, you'd better tell me everything you know." Vanyel requested simply, still trying to take in the implications of the wrecked palace.

Lores snorted and rambled on. "Ylyna was no virgin, though in honesty the Mavelans never claimed she was. Still, fourteen's a bit young to have been as - let's say - experienced as she was. Tashir was born eight months after the wedding. That's suspicious enough. Boy looks like his uncle Vedric and nothing like Ylyna or Deveran did. That's the second reason; another is that he's known to have Gifts; Fetching, for one-things have been flying around when he got upset ever since he was thirteen. No Gifts manifested in Ylyna, and there's never been any in Deveran's line. The locals called it wizardry and pressured Deveran to disinherit Tashir.''

"I'd heard about the Gift," Vanyel said, looking back at the boy to see if he'd overheard them. They were only twenty paces away, and Lores was making no effort to keep his voice down. Tashir was still sitting where they'd left him, head and hands dangling between his knees. "How did the boy take being disinherited?"

"The boy?" For a moment Lores seemed puzzled. "That was the odd part; boy seemed relieved. It was Vedric Mavelan that made all the fuss. But tonight - something happened at dinner, and I'm not sure exactly what." Lores wrapped his arms around his chest, and his expression turned introspective, and a little fearful.

"Were you there?" Vanyel asked.

Lores nodded. "Always, as the Valdemar envoy. Tonight..." He looked into the distance, frowning. "I remember I was chatting with Deveran's armsmaster and the boy came up to the high table to say something to Deveran. Next thing I knew, they're at it hammer and tongs, screaming at each other, the boy going white and Deveran going red. Then Deveran backhanded the boy, knocked him to the floor.''

Vanyel chewed his lip. "Was that unusual?"

Lores shrugged. "Well, it had never happened in public before. Deveran asked us all to leave in the kind of voice that makes an order out of a request. We left - don't look at me like that, what else could we do?"

"I don't know," Vanyel replied soberly. "I wasn't there. But I don't think I would have left a situation that volatile."

"Well I left; it's not Valdemar and it wasn't my business. I went out to the stable and Jenna, was outside with her for a while." He shook his head. "They'd moved the fight up to Deveran's study, toward the back of the palace; I could hear 'em both shouting at each other through the window. Then it got real quiet for a bit - and then all hell broke loose." He gestured at the wreckage in the Great Hall, and his expression became strained. "You can figure what that sounded like; enough screaming for a war. Nobody wanted to break in on that, and anyway we found out that the doors were all like they were welded shut."

His voice was casual, but he was trembling and sweating, and his skin was dead white.

"It didn't last long. Then it was quiet again, sudden, like everything had been cut off. Me, the outside servants, and Deveran's armsmen from the palace, and the town guard and a couple of the town council with some courage in them, we all broke the doors open."

"And you found?"

“That's what we found. The boy knocked out under that bench, and when we went to look for bodies - gods. Everyone inside these walls... was dead. The boy's sibs, the servants, everybody. Torn to pieces, just like . . . that stuff. Nothing bigger than palm-sized pieces of everybody else." He was shaking now, his teeth chattering, and his pupils dilated. “Nothing,“ he repeated.

"You're not saying Tashir did all that?" Vanyel said incredulously. "That's impossible - it's insane!" The mage-light flared a little, setting shadows shrinking and growing again, flickering as he whirled to look at the boy, and his attention wavered.

Lores turned away from the wreckage, clutching his arms against his chest, and gradually stopped trembling. His eyes fell on Tashir again; just the sight of the boy seemed to reawaken his anger. "What's insane about it?" he demanded. "Fetching can wreck, or even kill. I should know that better than you, it's my Gift."

"It's one of my Gifts, too, you damned fool!" Vanyel growled. "And at one point I almost got out of control, but my Gift was blasted open and I was in pain enough to drive a strong man mad. Nothing like that happened here! This boy never showed a hint of anything on this scale! And he was untrained? Not bloody likely!"

"How do we know he was untrained?" Lores demanded, his eyes reflecting blue glints from the mage - light over Vanyel's head. "He was the only one left alive! He had to have done it!''

Vanyel had a dozen retorts on the tip of his tongue, but none of them seemed wise.

So how did you come to be such an expert on Gifts and magic, you idiot? And did you search to find someone who might have hidden himself - or herself - until you 'd found and dealt with Tashir? Or did you identify everyone, or at least count all the bodies and come up with the same number as those known to be in the palace ?

He kept his teeth shut on all those questions. It was obvious that this had been bungled from the start, and dressing down this fool wasn't going to undo the bungling.

"We couldn't really believe it, not at first," Lores admitted reluctantly. "We thought it must have been - oh, something out of the Pelagir wilderlands, or even something cooked up by the Mavelans. We really didn't know what it could have been, especially not the Lineans, but there wasn't anyone or anything else, and when we tried to question Tashir, the boy wouldn't answer. At first he was - dazed-like. Then he just refused to speak except to say he didn't remember." Lores shook his head. "Not remember? How could he not remember something that did that? Unless he was lying, or he'd done it in anger and had blanked it out of his mind." Lores clasped his folded arms still tighter against his chest, as if he was trying to protect himself. "What could we do? The guards were spooked, nobody wanted something like that on their hands. In the end, we just threw him in the guardhouse at the front gate there, since the townsfolk didn't want him in their jail and nobody wanted to have to go down to the cells under the palace. We sent off a messenger for Vedric, since he was the one making all the fuss about the boy in the first place. He may be a Mavelan, but he's not going to be able to talk the boy out of this mess. He'll have to deal with him, and he is a mage. We reckoned it was better for one mage to deal with another. Especially a murderer."

"That's not proved."

Lores glared at him. Vanyel repeated his words stubbornly. "That's not proved. Nothing is proved. And furthermore, I'd like to know how the hell a Herald could come to attack a Companion."

Lores began pacing, four steps away from Vanyel, four steps back. "We shoved him in there, picked up the bodies - what was left of them. Things quieted down. Then, less than a candlemark ago, that demon showed up."

“Companion.''

Lores wheeled to glare again, but the look in Vanyel's eyes cowed him. "That Companion showed up; he began breaking down the door. The guard got me, I sent for reinforcements - I thought it was a demon - more men showed up about the time the de- Companion got the door smashed in and started to run off with the boy. That whip was in the guardhouse and I grabbed it - figuring demon or not, it was horse-shaped." He shrugged. "You know the rest."

"Didn't you even try the boy under Truth Spell?" Vanyel snarled, out of patience with the lack of thought, the complete bullheaded stupidity of the man.

Lores looked baffled. " 'Truth Spell'? Why? What's that got to do with me?"

"Goddess Incarnate! Any Herald can work first-stage Truth Spell! Didn't your mentor ever -" Vanyel paused at the dumbfounded look on Lores' face. "Your mentor never told you?"

Lores shook his head.

“Gods,” Vanyel strode over to the adolescent, who was still slumped over his own knees. "Tashir?" he said, gently, kneeling beside him. He braced himself when the young man looked up, it still made his heart lurch to see those eyes, that face - and that dazed, lost, and pleading expression. "Tashir, do you remember anything that happened tonight? Anything at all?''

Tashir's eyes were still not focusing well; he shook his head dumbly.

Vanyel shook him gently. "Think. Dinner. Do you remember your father calling you up at dinner?"

"I..." The boy's voice was quite low, almost a match for Vanyel's baritone. "I think so. Yes. He ... wanted me to go somewhere."

"Where, Tashir?" Vanyel prompted.

"I ... don't remember."

"Do you remember arguing with him?"

A hesitant nod. There were shadows under Tashir's eyes that had nothing to do with the way the light was falling on him. "I didn't want to go. He wanted to send me somewhere. I don't remember where, I just remember that I didn't want to go. I told him I wouldn't. He hit me."

"Did he hit you very often?"

The eyes cleared for a moment, bright with fear. "Often enough," the boy confessed cautiously. "When I was around too much. I tried not to get in his way. Sometimes he'd get mad about something, and take it out on me. But not in front of people, not before tonight."

“So he hit you. Then he sent everyone else away. What then?"

"He . . . came around the table. He grabbed me before I could get away, twisted my arm up behind my back, and made me go with him to his study. And ..."

The eyes clouded again.

"And?"

"I don't remember!" Tashir wailed softly. "Please, I don't remember!”

Vanyel set in motion the spell that called the vrondi, the mindless air elemental that could not abide the emotional emanations associated with falsehood. In his hands, because he could give it energy beyond its own, the vrondi would be able to settle within the youngster's mind: he would be incapable of lying so long as it was there. Vanyel watched the vrondi settle into place, a glowing blue mist like a visible aura about Tashir's head and shoulders. He would not see it, but Vanyel and Lores certainly could. He glanced over at Lores, and saw the older man's lips compress, his face grow speculative.

"Are you sure, Tashir?" he urged. "Think. Your father took you up to his study; what happened in the study?"

'I don't remember!” Tashir whimpered. "I don't!”

Vanyel sighed, and dismissed the vrondi with a word. The mist dissolved, faded away, but slowly, not all at once as it would have if it had met with a lie. There was only one other thing he could try. He reached out tentatively with a Mindtouch.

Tashir should not have been able to detect it. But suddenly he jerked away, his eyes wild and unreasoning, and a shield snapped up so quickly Vanyel barely had time to pull back his Touch.

“Look out!” Lores cried, diving for die floor, as half a vase rose from the wreckage, flung itself across the room and smashed against the door. More fragments followed it, all rising from the wreckage to smash against the door, creating a rain of flying shards that pelted them both like fine hail.

Vanyel didn't move so much as a hair. He clenched his jaw, and reached out with his own power to damp Tashir's Gift with an external shield.

Sudden silence.

"Tashir," he reached out for the youngster, with his hand this time, not his mind. "Tashir, I want to help you. I believe you. I will not allow anyone to harm you, or to imprison you for something you didn't do."

The adolescent's eyes slowly calmed; grew saner. He stared at Vanyel for a long moment, then buried his face in his hands and began sobbing, trembling on the jagged edge of hysteria.

"I-don't-remember -" he choked. "Oh, please, I don't, I really don't."

Before he could do anything to comfort or calm the youngster, Vanyel heard a noise in the distance, muffled by the door, that made his hair stand on end.

The sullen, angry roaring of a mob -

Lores' head snapped up, and a look of grim satisfaction spread over his face. "The armsmen," he said smugly. "They must have spread the word. That's the people of Highjorune out there, Milord Herald-Mage. You don't rank them, and they aren't likely to listen to you. What's your plan now? They're going to want the boy. I think you should let them have him."

Tashir gave a kind of choking gasp, and looked straight into Vanyel's eyes, his whole body pleading for rescue. His eyes were swollen, tears smeared across his face, and hair tumbled into one eye, his expression was tragic and hopeless.

Vanyel could no more have resisted a boy who looked like that than he could have given up Yfandes.

"I still outrank you, Lores," he said coldly. "You are still under my orders. Get out there and do what you can to keep them off."

“Keep them off? You're madder than he is!"

“Move!” Vanyel snapped, rising to his feet, as the flickering of torches lit the gap in the open door Lores made no further protest; he snorted, and stalked across the entryway to the door, his backbone stiff with unspoken resentment.

Vanyel followed him as far as the door, and once he had barely cleared it, slammed it shut practically on his heels. He heard a muffled exclamation, and the muttering of the mob grew louder and nearer. Vanyel threw the bolt into place across the door; it was metal, but it was not going to hold up against a concerted attack.

"That . . . isn't going to hold them for long," Tashir said fearfully, brushing the hair out of his eyes with the back of one hand.