Disclaimer: Everything relating to the world of Velgarth and the Kingdom of Valdemar is the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey. That talking white horse is entirely due to etcetera-cat not knowing when to quit.
The thing you have to understand, see, about mine and Alexander’s Circuits is that… well. There’re actually several things, really. First off is the fact that, for some reason entirely unbeknownst to me— but probably something to do with that thing with the tent and the Royal Hunt at Greenlake that one time— we always seem to end up with one of the five major Circuits that touch in some way on the Pelagirs.
The second thing, which I know the genesis of, is that we don’t have interns on our Circuits. There’s a kind of mutual understanding between us (well, okay, myself) and the Heraldic Circle: They don’t try and make us educate the youngsters, and I won’t spend seventeen and a half candle marks telling them about swamps.
In excruciating detail.
The third thing is related pretty heavily to the first thing and runs thusly: The Pelagirs (forest-type muckiness to the east and north of the region, awful rocky hilly muckiness in the south. Also: Karsites. If there’s one thing a large white talking horse doesn’t want to meet, it’s your average Karsite) are the natural breeding grounds for all kinds of Weird Things. A stunningly awful combination of my bad karma and the quite frankly twisted magic in the Pelagirs means that nine and three-quarter times out of ten, those Weird Things will take the shape of great big hairy monsters with teeth.
And a desire to chow down on one of my legs.
Take now, for instance. To set the scene, there is forest. Now, this isn’t some piddly little shrubbery, oh no. This is proper-job wilderness, with the trees and the vines and the trees and… I mentioned the trees? There are a lot of trees. It’s also some significant time past midday. I’d wager a bag full of oats and half my wits, in fact, that’s it’s getting significantly towards the evening part of the day.
The large white sweaty thing barging through the bushes (and shrubs, vines, brambles and the good Lord Kernos only knows what else) is me. I’m running, as fast as I can when some annoying bugger has stuck a bunch of sodding trees in my way. I’ve been running since about half past stupid this morning, when a certain someone (here’s a hint: he’s currently plastered flat against my back, using the kind of language that I wasn’t aware he knew) decided that his morning routine was going to involve attracting the attentions of a stupidly large and nasty big hairy thing with teeth, claws, and the apparent flaming stamina of a whole herd of Companions all squished together.
Nasty big hairy thing with teeth wanted Herald, with a side of Companion, for breakfast. Hence: running.
I’m getting really bored of running. Also: the trees. If I never see another tree in my life it’ll be far too soon.
Unfortunately, the damn hairy thing with teeth doesn’t seem inclined to get bored of running, nor does it seem to be at all dissuaded about the idea of snacking on one of my limbs. So I keep on running, and dodging trees. And, occasionally kicking up clumps of brambles that smack Alex across the face and spark off round of swearing.
Because, see, my oh so clever Chosen was forced to leap on me bareback. I’m entirely as nature intended: No hackamore, no blanket and certainly no saddle. The only thing I’ve got in the way of adornments is the stupid Herald clinging to my back with his arms wrapped round my neck.
Oh, and the probable half-hundred weight of foliage and mud and the Gods only know what else that I seem to have acquired this past seven or so marks.
I can see what you’re thinking: I should be a past master at evading the big hairy things with teeth. They are, after all, practically a daily occurrence in the Pelagirs. The thing is, you’d be right. Normally I either trample the living snot out of them, or Alex shoots them full of arrows (or sometimes, an interesting combination of the two), or— if faced with really big ones, or lots of the small ones— I high tail it to the closest settlement and let the residents work out some of their bottled up resentment about living in the smelly armpit of nowhere. With trees.
Ha— yes. Normally.
Normally when I listen to my Chosen’s directions to go that way! it’s because he does actually have some sense of direction.
Today we have experienced more of the Pelagirs than I really want to think about, and I’ve got a horribly uncomfortable itching inside my skull that is telling me quite firmly that we aren’t in Valdemar any more.
:Oi! I hope you realise that we’re running off the edge of your stupid map.: Subtlety is not one of my stronger traits.
Alex’s reply— in Mindspeech, because I think he’s actually using his teeth to hang onto my mane as I’m doing the minimal in the way of trying to keep him on my back because hello! Giant monster chasing me!— is not particularly civil, being as how it consists almost entirely of words that I’ve only ever heard him use during bouncy time with Sam.
Before he can really get into a rhythm and pollute my pure, innocent mind, the river happens to us.
If you want to know in detail the beautiful and highly mathematic arc I describe as I run off the side of the (stupidly high) bank and into the fast flowing and (stupidly cold) water, you can go pester an Artificer. I’m going to stick to simple words: Big splash, lots of swearing, even more gurgling and some creative flailing that in no way resembles actual swimming, but does manage the job of punting us out of the main current and into a big old patch of muddy water weed.
The first good bit of luck we’ve had all day comes when I swirl around enough in an eddy (and Alex stops trying to dig into my left shoulder with his chin) and that big hairy thing with teeth follows us straight off the bank and into the middle of the river.
And it can’t even produce the kind of creative and interpretational flailing that stopped us from being swept out to sea, so it rapidly goes under the surface, followed by a trail of bubbles which vanish down river.
My rump bumps against the rocky soil of the bank (despite all appearances to the contrary, I do actually float. After a fashion) and I decide that now is a good a time as any to sit down. There’s mud, of course, and slimy silt and an over abundance of bulrushes and reeds and weeds and yuck. But— and this is crucial— there is absolutely nothing that requires me to do anything other than get stuck in the mud while sitting down.
If only all the trees vanished, circumstances would be looking a lot brighter.
“I get the feeling that we’ve been in this situation before,” Alex mumbles in the general direction on my ear, before he loosens his grip and slides gracelessly down the side of my neck to plop next to me in the silt of the reed bed.
:Completely off the map in the deepest, darkest Pelagirs after being chased by a murderous thing with teeth?: I give him a disbelieving look. I may be scatter brained, but I’d distinctly remember if this or anything like it had happened before.
“Mmph.” Alex sags all of his weight against me. “Sitting in muddy water. Cold muddy water.”
:You have a point. Get up then.:
“Don’t want to move. I think my arms and legs are trying to fall off.”
I snort loudly and jolt him upright. :Your legs? Just who is it who’s been galloping through every damned patch of brambles between here and the Waystation for the past seven marks?:
“Mmph,” Alex says indistinctly to my shoulder. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Heraldic Idiot (note to self: Suggest to Groveborn that all foals be giving instruction in the various stupidly incoherent ways their future Chosen will use to communicate) so I don’t have a clue what he’s getting at.
:Hey!: I shake myself from side to side until he’s actually sitting up and glaring at me. :Do I look like a flaming draping post for Heralds? I know this is the Pelagirs, but really. Were you intending on getting out of my way so I can get out of this beastly collection of plants before giant mutant frogs eat my ears?:
As if to underscore my words, an ominous croaking starts up in the bulrushes to my right and I do a fair impression of someone who’s just had a lit cannon poked up her bottom.
:Out the river! Out the river!:
Alex yelps and is absolutely no help as I latch onto the back of his tunic with my teeth and bodily haul the pair of us up the bank and onto the relatively dry mulch of the forest floor.Once I’m sure that giant mutant frogs (this is the Pelagirs. It could happen) aren’t about to emerge and eat us for tea, I let go of the back of Alex’s tunic. Unfortunately, he hasn’t got his legs under himself properly, so he sits down hard. And I get treated to more bad language. I’m going to be having a serious word with Harali about the kind of vocabulary her Chosen has taught my Chosen at some point.
I’m also going to lie down now. Before I fall down.
Well, okay, so maybe it’s more of the latter than the former, but I do end up with my rear planted on the ground and my legs splayed out around me. A faint cloud of leaf-litter dust hangs around me and I sneeze loudly.
“That was really graceful,” Alexander says from somewhere between my front legs. “I think I have horse snot in my hair.”
“I’m just saying, Teva.”
:You can just say all you like.: I poke him in the back with my nose and deliberately sniff loudly, making him jump. :Just refrain from doing it near me and don’t expect any sympathy, I’m mourning the loss of my hooves.:
Alex regards my front feet. “Your hooves look fine.”
:They feel like they’re about to drop off. I have just spent most of the day running around this beggaring wilderness trying to not get eaten.:
“Not forgetting the river.”
:I’m hardly likely to forget— Alex?: I break off lecturing my Chosen as I actually notice our surroundings. They include trees (bloody trees) and forest-type stuff, but they also include a dead tree stump. Perched on the dead tree stump is a bird the size of dog.
:There’s a giant mutant hawk staring at us. I think it wants dinner.:
Alex twists to look at me then follows my line of sight. He hisses out a breath and stiffens as he catches sight of the bird. His back presses against my chest and neck. “Teva, I haven’t got any weapons,” he whispers over his shoulder. “What the hell do we do?”
I’m trying to think of a reply that isn’t smart, sarcastic or smart and sarcastic, when the bird flips its wings and meets my gaze.
:Big soggy horse!:
:Argh!: I yelp and leap to my feet. Alex lurches backwards and ends up sprawled underneath me.
:It talked!: I almost indulge in one of my circling dances of what is it? It might be mushrooms but remember, just in time, that trampling all over Alexander will not help the situation any.
“What talked?” Alex crawls out from under me and staggers to his feet. His Whites are now most definitely not. I imagine I look similar.
:The bird. The bird is talking to me,: I take the opportunity to dance from foot to foot— a Companion has to do what a Companion has to do— and unnecessarily add: :In my head.:
Alex swipes one hand across his face, smearing it with mud, and looks between me and the bird.
Said talking hawk is rocking slightly from foot to foot and making a variety of sounds that sound suspiciously like laughter. The Mind-sounds I’m getting sound definitely like laughter.
“The bird is talking to you?”
:The bird is laughing at me,: I say darkly, flattening my ears and lowering my head slightly.
Stepping closer to me, Alex wraps one hand in my mane and switches to Mindspeech. :Think where we are, Teva.:
:What?: I look at my Chosen sideways, then twitch my head back around to fix the chortling hawk with a glare. :Look, you. I’m not a horse!:
:Funny shouty horse!:
An elbow nudges me. :The Pelagirs, Teva. It’s got to be one of the Hawkbrother’s birds. Please don’t antagonize it.:
:It’s calling me a horse.: I divide my attention between glaring at the bird and trying to crane my head around far enough to glare at my Chosen. :I’m not exactly going to take that lying down, am I?:
Alex sighs loudly and makes some show of massaging the back of his neck with his free hand. :I’d noticed.:
Any further discussion (Harali and Sam call it bickering, I call it discussion and I am, after all, the one doing it, so I should know) we might have is cut short by the simultaneous sounds of a twig snapping and someone clearing their throat politely. We both start and turn in the direction of the sound, myself lowering my head and peering suspiciously round Alex’s side.
There’s a man who looks like a tree standing next to the giant mutant hawk.
Great. Just marvelous. We are never going to hear the end of this— the only way we’re going to hear the end of this is to not hear the start of this. And that would involve both of us being eaten by a big hairy thing with teeth, the giant mutant bird, or the Hawkbrother who’s now staring at us.
This is the Pelagirs. It could happen.
I hastily slap on every kind of mental and magical shield that I can think of, plus a few I’m fairly sure I make up on the spot by stitching together half remembered ideas from me before and from some lesson Veran gave that I wasn’t paying attention to. Nothing to see here, move on along. Just a large white horse who absolutely isn’t all that magical, no sir.
Alex flinches in the middle of trying to produce a non-threatening smile for the walking tree (the sad thing is that we probably look quite a lot like him. Except that his is deliberate) and flicks a look my way.
:What in the name of Kernos are you doing?:
:I have no intention of being shot because I’m magical, non-human and standing in the Pelagirs,: I say acidly. :You give me away and I’ll help them eat you.:
Alex closes his eyes and sighs quietly, muttering something unflattering under his breath.
“Trade tongue?” The Hawkbrother is giving us an uncertain look and gesturing at his ears. “You understand, yes?”
Alex nods warily. I paste on a vacant expression and stare at the Hawkbrother’s left shoulder.
“Ah.” The Hawkbrother nods vigorously and points at Alex. “Valdemar-Herald?”
I internalize my wince at the terrible accent (and truly inspired pronunciation of ‘Valdemar’. He makes it sound like a Karsite plague). Alex isn’t as successful.
“Yes, I’m a Herald from Valdemar,” he replies, also in Trade tongue. “We were chased by some kind of Changewolf and got lost about five candlemarks back.”
The Hawkbrother produces an expression to compete with mine on the vacancy scale and waves his hands at us. I realise with a start that he can’t be more than fourteen. Even more marvelous. We’ve been accosted by an adolescent tree.
“Not understand, sorry. Um… only least words.”
Alex blinks and shifts his weight from foot to foot. His hips and knees make interesting popping sounds. “Ah,” he says somewhat unintelligently. “Um… Alexander— Alex.” He points at himself. “Teva.” He pats me on the neck and I flick an ear at him. Finally he gestures around us in a wide circle. “Lost.” He says slowly.
:This would be a lot easier if you’d just Mindspeak him or the bird,: he adds in a snippy tone of Mindvoice.
“Ah!” The Hawkbrother grins and points at himself and then says something which I’m guessing must be his name. Sounds like a swan fart if you ask me. After assessing Alex’s expression, he clears his throat and says in Trade tongue. “Snow… star.”
:Snowstar?: I give a derisive mental snort. :What kind of name is that? Why, hello, my name’s Lump of mud!:
:I’m just saying. Stupid name, if you ask me.:
The discussion finishes just in time for us to catch Snowstar pointing at the giant mutant hawk and saying, “Hilaari.”
:Talk more funny shouty horse!:
I glare at the bird, on general principles, and very definitely keep my mouth shut and my shields sealed.
“Um.” Snowstar gives us an uncertain look. “You follow, yes? To—“ some quite frankly incomprehensible string of words in the tune of butterfly fart, “—home, yes?”
I can feel Alex’s attention focused on me, even though he’s actually heeding my wish to be inconspicuous and isn’t looking at me or talking to me out loud. :What do you think?:
I twitch my tail from side to side and give Snowstar a penetrating look. :He seems harmless enough, if you discount the arrows, that evil looking stick thing and the huge raptor. If you mean ‘should we follow him?’ then I feel I should point out that it’s probably our best offer.:
:What happened to your conviction that the Hawkbrothers would eat us?:
:Oh, it’s still there, simmering. But, if they want to eat us, they’re going to have to clean us up first and, frankly, that’s appealing to me right now. Besides, Herald-Mage Vanyel was adopted by the Hawkbrothers, wasn’t he? So I guess we’re fairly safe.:
Yes, I know that I’m being vague but, in case you hadn’t noticed: Chosen. Who only believes in and knows about true magic in an abstract fashion. I do not want to pull my tail out of this mess, only to have Veran chew it out for me at a later date.
Alex tries to pronounce the butterfly fart word, and then settles for saying. “Yes.” And “Home.” And nodding vigorously.
“Ah, good, good! Follow!”
Alex goes first, following after the adolescent walking tree who is practically skipping along now (I’m not entirely sure how he’s managing to make such a small amount of noise. I can’t smell anything other than the barest hint of magic on him, and even that feels more like it’s something that’s… rubbed off… on him rather than belonging to him), and I trail after them.
We must look like an utter state.
You hear stories, you see. Sort of like tales around the campfire in an evening, except that instead of stories, they’re rumours. And the campfire’s a stable complex. And the campers aren’t human, but you get my drift, right? So: stories. About the Hawkbrothers. Hawks— obviously— and the kind of xenophobic isolation complex that makes your average Karsite fundamentalist look like a sane and well adjusted member of society (whilst they do many odd things, Karsite fundamentalists are not noted for their tree-like wardrobes and their desire to live in a place where it is entirely possible that some grass will kill you). And the magic.
Oh, yes. We all hear about the magic, and about Herald-Mage Vanyel and, you know, stuff.
None of that stuff even remotely resembles ‘oh, and by the way they stick giant, seething, super-charged mage nodes in the middle of their homes.’ I mean, why would you mention a piddly little detail like that? It’s not like any Companions that might find themselves in the general vicinity of a flock of Hawkbrothers and be invited over for tea (possibly quite literally) would want to know that they’d be doing so perched on top of certain magical doom.
No wonder swan-fart boy smells like magic.
I glare around myself in an offended fashion as said adolescent leads us down one of the weird looking pathways inside the weird looking place inside the weird looking shields that he, apparently, calls home.
I mentioned the weird? Good. How about the magical equivalent of the alchemy lab of Lord Rossbart, a man known equally for his tendency to walk sideways into inanimate objects as he is for his perennial lack of eyebrows?
Right. I think I have all of the bases covered, then. I’ll just continue to have the screaming heebie jeebies in the privacy of my head. I can’t even really share the heebie jeebies with my Chosen because of the whole magic? What’s that then? thing that Valdemar has going on at the moment.
Bloody Karsites. Bloody Dark Lord Whatsit from the North. Bloody great big hairy monsters with teeth.
I neatly bash my nose into Alex’s shoulder as I don’t notice that he’s stopped walking.
“Ow! Teva, watch where you’re going.” Alex shoots me a quick glare and I flatten my ears.
:Oh, I’m sorry. I was too busy trying to reconnoiter the area just in case anyone tried to eat us.:
Alex clears his throat and I give him a blank look. His eyes flick forwards, then back to me and one of his eyebrows raises.
:What?: I continue with the blank staring as he rolls his eyes and then proceeds to turn away and ignore me in favour of smiling disarmingly at the group of five people who look like a humanitarian disaster in the Healer’s greenhouses.
Wait— there’s five more of them! I squeak purely in the confines of my own mind and give these new Hawkbrothers a wide-eyed look.
Swan-fart’s jabbering away at them in their heathen lingo and all five of them are paying far too much in the way of attention to both Alex and myself. Even though I’m covered in the Gods only know what, I’ve never felt like a bigger white target in my life and I’ve seen duty down on the Karsite Border.
One of them— who’s dressed in an eye searingly bad red and yellow… I don’t know… disaster? Visual representation of the Karsite Genocides in Randale’s reign?— steps forwards and starts rattling on in Trade Tongue. Normally, I’d be paying attention to help Alex with translations, but at the moment significant portions of me are busy having acute conniptions because that man— Mister My Clothing Has A Narrative— is radiating pure mage energy like he’s certain magical doom.
They’re all insane!
“I said, I’ll see to my Companion first if she’ll just pay attention.” Alex jabs me in the neck with his elbow and I blink at him, wondering how he’d managed to moved from in front of me to next to me so quickly.
:How’d you do that?:
:What?: Alex asks in a somewhat savage tone of Mindvoice. :Look like an ass because I’m talking to my supposedly clever-like-their-birds horse who insists on staring at a bush and dribbling?:
:I was not dribbling!:
:Well, that’s not exactly the same thing, is it? You have a terrible habit of exaggerating things, Chosen.:
For some reason, Alex is grinding his teeth together. He continues to do so as he nudges me again and points theatrically at Swan Fart, before walking towards him. I sigh loudly and trail after the pair of them. If anyone tries to stuff me in a cooking pot, I shall not be impressed.
I am pleasantly surprised. Both Alex and myself actually got to have baths— hot baths— and are now completely clean. Well, Alex actually had two baths, because the first one was with me and he wound up looking worse than when he started. I think I had about a third of the Pelagirs lodged in my tail. After the baths we then got fed (praise Kernos and all his little angels). The food was definitely more than enough to compensate for the fact that the reason the baths were hot was because these nutters use that whacking great big node of Certain Magical Doom to do all sorts of things, heating water included.
I’m now happily ensconced in some little meadow thing in one corner of this bonkers magical greenhouse, and by ensconced, I , mean that I’m sprawled on my side and may well be a few moments away from snoring rather loudly.
I’ve decided that the Hawkbrothers probably aren’t going to eat us, and therefore I don’t need to actually make an effort to actively guard Alex right at the moment. Besides: I’m exhausted and Alex can look after himself. Being a noble, he grew up knowing which end of a sword to poke people with. The first time he turned up for a trainee session I’m pretty sure the Weaponsmaster cried tears of happiness over this fact (you think I’m exaggerating? Have you ever seen a weapons work induction class comprised of newly Chosen fisher folk, bumpkins and the questionably sane? My point stands).
Well, obviously, I’ve still got that little bit of my brain paying attention to what he’s doing, in a general sort of fashion. I wouldn’t be an overly smart talking white horse if I didn’t. The rest of me, however, is most definitely… going… to… slee—
I’m upright and my hair’s all standing on end for a good few moments before I realise what’s going on. A mental— not even really a call for help, more like a whoops— is still ringing around my skull and it’s very definitely coming from my Chosen.
:Alex?: No reply— some kind of magical filter is stopping Mindspeech between us. Great.
I shake myself from head to tail and bolt out of the little clearing and onto the wood-bark covered path. Casting around for a moment, I manage to get an idea of whereabouts my Chosen is and set off in his direction. In a pretty much straight line. Sod being diplomatic or dumb.
:Coming through! Move it or lose it!: I whoop as I thunder past a stunned looking group of Hawkbrothers, jump over a bush and nearly fall nose-first into a hot pool containing more Hawkbrothers. I masterfully manage to keep my balance and vault over the pool, raining bits of bark and broken foliage down on the occupants and I will not, even on my death bed ever think about just what they were getting up to ever again. Ever. I didn’t think people even bent that way.
I’m beginning to attract an audience and damn but these weirdoes can move fast— they’re up ahead of me already and there’s an awful lot of pointy and weapons becoming apparent. Still. No-one ever got anywhere by being subtle with this lot.
:You even try and stick on of them in me, you unimaginable pillocks, and I will personally mash your noses out through your left buttocks!: A threat which carries me rather neatly right into the gathering-circle affair where a whole bunch of the Certain Magical Doom brigade have gotten my Chosen surrounded. I skid across the clearing mostly on my hind hooves and only return to foursquare when I’m actually directly over Alex, who’s sitting on the floor looking concussed. My front hooves hit the ground with an audible ringing sound and I direct a glare at the man directly in front of me, who happens to be Mister My Clothing Has A Narrative. :That goes doubly for you, boyo.:
The assorted Hawkbrothers take a collective step back and stare at me with something approaching shock. Their assorted birds are kicking up a racket fit to deafen a person and I take the opportunity to drop all of my ‘horse’ shields and punch myself a link to one of the ley-lines they’ve got littering the place. Hoo boy those things are powerful, which was probably why they had them shielded— not that I played fair and respected that because hey, I figure I pretty much outrank them on the spiritual scale (I’m currently beating them over the head with my aura of disgusting goodness and general Messenger of the Gods thing) and they were threatening my Chosen.
“What… is the meaning of this?” Narrative Clothing asks in a heavily accented voice, his facial expression indicating that he’s trying to ramp his way up from shock to outrage.
:You heard me.: I take advantage of the ley-power currently making my hair stand on end to make myself glow in the visible spectrum and ratchet my aura to something just short of Irritated Groveborn (we can all do it, it just knocks us sideways for about a day after when we let it catch us up). :Touch one hair on my Chosen’s head and I will personally boot your nose out your backside, then paste it back on to repeat the procedure with my other foot.:
“He is a shielded mage!” Narrative Clothing asserts hotly. “He was trying to subvert the vrondi with his own creations— like you!”
I stare blankly at the Hawkbrother as he points wildly at Alexander, who is trying gamely to crawl out from underneath me and inch his way up my side.
“What?” Alex asks weakly.
:Hush, you,: I tell him, before rounding on the Hawkbrother.
:Are you blind, or just an unbelievable idiot? Do I look like some half-baked construct?: Up another few notches on my aura.
“Teva,” Alex mumbles, leaning heavily against my neck. “You’re glowing.”
:I said hush.:
Narrative Clothing backs up a step as I direct a malevolent glare at him. :Well, is this the aura of the creation of some Mage Gifted turnip with too much spare time on his hands— a description I’m sure you feel a close kinship to— or not? I’d really rather advise you to pick the ‘not’ option or you will not believe the amount of trouble that I will bring down to square-dance on your trampled remains.:
Diplomacy… yeah. I heard about that once. Sounded boring.
I swing my head slowly from side to side to make sure that the rest of the walking trees are getting the general gist of what I’m saying (essentially: me gloop you now!). Many of them are squinting. Well, good.
I start violently as the ridiculously chirpy Mindvoice bounces around the inside of my skull and groan as the owner— a stupid looking blue cloud with facial features flashes into existence right in front of my nose and bobs up and down in excitement.
:Go away,: I hiss, flattening my ears. The vrondi twirls in a circle, giggling like a mentally retarded Blue, and squeaks as two more appear.
:Magic/Herald/magic!: they chorus delightedly. :Protect/guard/watch!:
“See, it tries to subvert the vrondi!” Narrative Clothing gestures wildly and the three vrondi squeal and dash towards my head, presumably to hide behind me. Not a chance.
:Out of it, you irritating bits of cloud!: I shake my head violently from side to side, snort loudly and then, when that doesn’t work, squeal loudly and snap my teeth inches from the closest one.
:Wah!: Two of the vrondi vanish with popping sounds and the third one dives for Alexander, where it wraps itself around his head like a stupid little fluffy hat. A glowing blue fluffy little hat that’s only visible to mages.
“Teva, what the hell is going on?” Alex’s voice is muffled from where he’s clinging to my neck, trying to maintain his balance as I unsuccessfully try to stop myself from having a stamping fit by way of relieving my temper.
:Nothing. Everything’s fine. You just hush.:
:Bad/mean/nasty Companion! Not like/want/follow.:
:Well why don’t you just flaming well bugger off, then?: I whisper in a savage tone of voice, although I’m beginning to have some horrible suspicions about why this vrondi has stuck around and is clinging to Alex like glue.
Suspicions confirmed. I resist the urge to kick myself in the head. Why— in the name of Astera’s pet fish— did one of the Web’s stupid watch dogs have to go and follow us all the way out here? :You can shut up, too.:
“I didn’t say anything!” Alex backs away from me a step. The vrondi uses one of his ears as a push-off point and twirls around his head, squeaking happily. They both look like pillocks.
I have no idea how we’re going to get out of this. I have no idea how we got in to this in the first place. Everyone else gets bandits or Karsites. I’d kill for some Karsites shooting arrows at us. It’d practically be a holiday.
“Demonspawn!” I tune into the last word of the impassioned speech that Narrative Clothing has been gracing the clearing with for the last however long and stare at the finger he’s pointing in my direction. Well, at least he’s got that bit about doing the impression of a Karsite right, I guess.
“I think we should maybe all calm down.” This new voice isn’t particularly loud, but it cuts effortlessly over the increasing drama that the clearing is turning into. En masse, we all turn to stare at the newcomer.
An elderly woman— and when I say elderly, it’s not that she looks it, it’s just that you can sense the weight of the years around her, and believe me when I say I’m somewhat of an expert when it comes to that kind of thing; my boss is, after all, immortal unless someone pokes him with something pointy— is regarding us, her head tilted slightly to one side and one silver-white eyebrow elegantly arched upwards. Her clothing is also the first set that I’ve seen that isn’t either mobile foliage or eye-searingly over the top. She’s wearing some kind of robe, cut to fall in a strange fashion, and entirely indigo-coloured with some understated silver embroidery.
“Starfrost, I think you should hold your tongue before you leap over any more conclusions; Lady, if you would please do our eyes a favour and cool down slightly, I think we are all well aware of what you are; those of you who aren’t part of the council can leave. Now.”
The woman’s gaze doesn’t move one iota from Alex and myself throughout her whole string of orders. I’m so surprised that she’s not joining Narrative Clothing in the whole label Teva a demon thing that I do actually stop illuminating the whole area with my overly divine presence. This means that I can actually sense the fact that a rather large number of people are leaving the vicinity.
I risk a glance around and notice that there are less people around, and the rustling of the foliage around the edge of the clearing indicates that I probably had a larger audience than I thought. I also notice that Alex is standing there, blinking at me and completely unaware of the vrondi, which is now using a tendril of itself to swing from his nose.
:Oh, Lord,: I sigh and flatten my ears. :I found him under a bush one day. You can keep him if you want.:
:In fact, you can have both of them.:
The woman’s lips quirk momentarily into a smile and she gives me about the friendliest look I’ve seen since arriving in the magic greenhouse and steps into the clearing proper. She walks over to stand a short distance in front of my and inclines her head slightly. “I am Silverleaf,” she introduces herself. “Head of the Elder Council of Clan k’Shona. I’d like to extend the welcome of k’Shona Vale to you and your partner during your stay.”
I masterfully manage to rein in a derisive snort about the welcoming part and shake my head slightly as I try to put myself in a properly intelligent mindset for talking to people, not threatening them with death, destruction and a protracted glooping.
:I’m Teva,: I offer. :Companion Teva. That’s Herald Alexander Malken, my Chosen.:
“And the vrondi?” Silverleaf asks delicately.
“One of that construct’s siblings!”
I swing my head around and stare in disbelief at Narrative Clothing before looking back to Silverleaf, who’s frowning. She rattles something off in her native tongue and Narrative Clothing has the grace to flush.
“I apologise for Starfrost’s… rashness,” Silverleaf says to me, switching languages without the flicker of an eyelid.
:The wild accusations make it almost like being at home,: I offer, with a loud sigh. :I’d love to say that the vrondi isn’t with us but it unfortunately is, and I’d say that you’re welcome to keep it, except that I unfortunately can’t because Veran will boot my tail from one end of Valdemar to the other. Several times over.:
I blow out a long sigh and give Silverleaf an appraising look. :How much do you know about Valdemar?:
“Bits and pieces,” Silverleaf says cautiously. “A few generations ago I believe that two of your Heralds were adopted into k’Treva, and shortly after that you…” she pauses, seemingly searching for the correct word, “…lost all of your mages.”
:If by ‘lost’, you mean ‘murdered’ then yes,: I say flatly. There are no few of us Companions that were around then and would very much like to track down the tattered remains of Leareth in order to give him a good kicking. :Vanyel Ashkevron was the last Herald-Mage and one of your Wingsibs. One of the final things he did was change the protective spells over Valdemar. He, and others, somehow made it so that we were all linked by the Web and set a certain amount of vrondi to act as watch dogs.: I glance over at Alexander, and his still swinging passenger. My Chosen is gaping at me.
Silver leaf nods. “But vrondi being what they are—“ she offers delicately.
:Vrondi being what they are, they take the Borders to be anywhere that there’s a Herald and Companion. Normally that isn’t a problem because normally Heralds and Companions don’t end up in the bum end of nowhere in the middle of a godawful forest. No offense.:
:One thing the bloody pests are good at, though, is watching, which is why Valdemar doesn’t get mages wandering through it. It was decided that it was safer that way, after Vanyel died. Those in the country who have the Mage Gift… well, it generally stays latent or they leave the country.: Another sigh. :Or, most likely, they’re Chosen and it’s trained as Sight and we keep it under wraps.:
Silverleaf raises an eyebrow and looks at Alex, who’s now staring at me with his eyes bugging out of his head. “And by we?”
:The Companions,: I say succinctly. :The Valdemaran ley is locked to us as much as it can be. There were reasons— pressing reasons— and then it seemed safer and now… well. We manage perfectly fine without mages.:
“So we have heard,” Silverleaf says smoothly. “Speaking of the ley…?”
:I’ll disconnect as soon as you give us safe passage.:
“On my honour as an Elder,” Silverleaf replies instantly, ignoring the strangling sounds coming from Starfrost’s direction.
:Good.: It’s with a feeling akin to relief that I detach myself from the ley line I hijacked. All at once, my bones no longer feel full of lightning and I lose the rabid-bees-under-my-skin sensation that raw mage energy always gives me. I also feel the sudden and pressing urge to fall onto my nose.
“Teva?” Alex shakes off enough of his shock to scramble to my side and look worried as I visibly wobble on my feet.
:I think,: I say carefully as I sit, and then lie, down before I do topple over. :That I may well pass out for a bit.:
The last thing I hear, before I do just that, is Silverleaf saying to Alex in a conciliatory fashion. “Perhaps I can help with some of your questions while your lady sleeps.”
:It seemed like a good idea at the time.: I wince slightly as the sunlight flashes on the surface of the pan of water I’m drinking from and blink several times. Alexander, who appears to have spent the whole time that I was sleeping the sleep of the magically drained having his head stuffed full of the magic-flavoured History of Everything, crosses his arms over his chest and looks at me.
“You could have warned me— you could have hinted at… at… this before lighting up like a bonfire.”
:Well, I’m sorry if I thought that preventing you getting your tail fried was more important than giving you the Companion’s History of Valdemar,: I say tartly. :Not to mention the operative word in that name being Companion. I don’t see you sprouting hooves and a mane.:
Alex sighs and gives me an exasperated look as I warily crop a mouthful of grass and chew slowly, debating the whole time whether or not my insides are going to hate me some more for trying to eat. Two days I’ve been moping around like this, it’s getting to be beyond a joke.
For the record? If I ever try and act like I’m an Adept-level mage again while still a Companion, please, for the love of not feeling like my head’s been stuffed with hot coals, knock me unconscious before I get anywhere.
“I can’t believe you’ve all been lying to us.”
:Hey!: I snort and give Alex an affronted look. :We have never lied— it’s impossible to lie mind-to-mind, as you well know— we’ve just… omitted some things.:
“A lie by omission is still a lie,” Alex says, with a mulish look on his face.
Standing in the middle of the mutant magical greenhouse home of a bunch of magic hoarding lunatics, arguing with my Chosen about the morality of the Heralds not knowing everything. Welcome to my life. Want to trade?
:Alexander,: I say after a long moment— in which I neither push him into a pond, kick him in the ear or bite his nose off— :You’re making this into some big conspiracy.:
“Well, isn’t it?”
:No— well, yes, to an extent, but it’s not like we initially had a choice and I know that Silverleaf made that clear to you because she was explaining things using my memories as a reference.:
“So, you’ll share things with her, but not with your own Chosen?”
:Oh, for the love of Astera’s pet fish.: I glare at Alexander, mentally parcel up all of the information I have about the Web and Valdemar’s lack of magic (minus, of course, my own, rather participatory, role when Valdemar had magic) and shove it untidily down our bond and into his head. His’ eyes immediately unfocus and he sits down hard. I give him a look of irritated satisfaction as he blinks, obviously trying to sort through the knowledge he’s just received.
“You have an… energetic… relationship.”
I glance away from my Chosen to find that Silverleaf is watching us from the edge of the clearing that we are in and— given her expression of somewhat bemused amusement— has probably been doing so since the start of our bickering.
:Rolling stones gather no moss, and all that,: I say airily.
“Indeed.” I can hear the smile in Silverleaf’s voice, even if she’s too polite to show it. “Our Shin’a’in cousins have a similar proverb. I was coming to see how you were faring and to report that the hertasi are nearing completion on your tack and equipment.
I glance involuntarily at Alex (still looking like a man contemplating either Deep Thoughts, or a really persistent bout of constipation), who has spent the past two days floating around in clothing donated by the Hawkbrothers. Today’s ensemble is, well, green. Ish. In places.
Silverleaf allows this chuckle to escape. “Do not worry, I reminded them repeatedly of your requirements, and they have kept entirely to the blue and silver colour scheme, with minimal ornamentation.
I heave my sides in a sigh. :Well, good. That last thing I need, on top of having to explain just why we saw fit to vanish off the edge of the map, is to do that explaining while dressed in some outlandish get up.:
Silverleaf smiles widely. “So I informed them. Hastin was most upset.”
:Is he the bossy greenish one who had raptures over the colour of my eyes?:
“That would be him, yes.” Silverleaf nods. “I was also coming to find you both to tell you that it is nearly time for the midday meal. The hertasi have finally arranged a feast of sufficient proportions to satisfy even their exacting standards.”
I give Silverleaf a somewhat sceptical look, which she correctly interprets. “Do not worry, they are used to catering for individuals with specific dietary requirements. I believe you’ve already made acquaintances with some of the dyheli herd that live under our protection?”
:Ah, yes,: I say somewhat inanely. It seems really stupid for a talking white horse to be thinking this, but the presence of the hertasi and the dyheli (intelligent talking lizards and deer, respectively) makes me feel all… unusual. I mean: I know what I am: prancing around with white hair and a set of hooves because I’m slow on the uptake and I used to be one of those daft buggers in Whites, but they are actually, you know, non human all the time. As it were. In the case of the hertasi, non human, shy, and yet still incredibly bossy all of the time.
“We shall be in the main clearing, starting in about a quarter mark,” Silverleaf says, with a diplomatic look in Alex’s direction. “Bright the day,”
:Wind in your tail,: I say absently, staring myself at my Chosen as Silverleaf quietly departs.
Alexander seems to have collected himself somewhat and is looking at me with an expression similar to that of a stunned sheep. :What, I’ve got grass in my teeth or something?:
“You can really see that, all the time? And that’s why you know about all the other Companions?”
I shuffle my hooves and turn my head so that I’m looking at him sideways. :Obviously.:
“And that’s why we don’t have any mages in Valdemar? So the stories that the King tells of when he was young and met those Outlanders from the Plains are true?”
I roll my eyes and don’t dignify that with an answer. My Chosen: master of the obvious statement.
“This is a lot to take in!”
:Quite,: I say with a flick of my tail. :Do you think you could cogitate and walk at the same time? Those unspeakably nice hertasi are throwing a party in our honour and it would be the height of bad manners to be late.:
Alex stands up and brushes himself off slowly, before giving me a mischievous look. “I thought they were ‘those unspeakably picky’ hertasi yesterday?”
:That was when they were flapping about measuring trim and ornamentation for this tack of mine. How many times, may I ask, does a Companion need her neck measured? Not that many times. Today there is food involved. That puts a whole new complexion on things.:
“I rather thought it might.” Alex nudges my side with his elbow as we wander leisurely down one of the many winding paths that crisscross the Vale. “We’re going to have to leave soon, aren’t we?”
I give him another sideways look as he vents a wistful sigh. :All this paradise would get very boring very quickly.:
“I doubt that.”
:Harali would hunt me down for the explicit purpose of booting me in the ear.:
“Why ever would she do that?”
:I’m sorry, I must be thinking of a different Herald Samyel, one who doesn’t turn into a child scaring ogre around about month three of any bout of enforced celibacy.:
We continue bickering cheerfully until things involving music and lots of food (some of it, disturbingly, at the same time) happen to us extensively.
:Home sweet home.: I give the enormous pine trees looming around us a distinctly unfavourable look and heave out my sides in a long sigh.
“What?” Alex shifts in my new saddle (the hertasi excelled themselves; I’m now decked out in a practical and attractive tack all in assorted colours of blue leather with ornate silver tooling, and a positively majestic looking new saddle blanket covered in geometric blue patterns— apparently based on a Shin’a’in design) and stares at my ears in bemusement.
:Valdemar, Alexander,: I point out as I continue trotting along the woodland path. :We’re back in it. Any minute now we’re going to trip over some villager being menaced by a great big hairy monster with teeth.: Another sigh. :I almost wish we could’ve stayed in the Vale. I’m sure we could have gotten secret directions to Harali and Sam. We could have been, like, emissaries or something.:
“To a race of people that most of Valdemar don’t think exists outside of scary bedtime tales?” Alex snickers and prods me with one knee. “Not being very Companion-like, are you?”
:You like being chased by great big hairy monsters with teeth? I knew you were wrong in the head when I picked you up. I wonder if I can trade?:
“Charmed, I’m sure.” Alex executes as much of a precisely insolent Court bow as he can without falling out of the saddle and landing headfirst in a pile of leaf mould. “Just think of all the fun you’re going to have bragging about this back in the Field. Not to mention showing off your new things.”
:Clothes horse,: I accuse on general principles. As well as tack, the hertasi saw fit to make up several sets of well-if-they-have-to-be-Whites for Alexander and we now cut quite the pair. Hopefully, our somewhat novel look is going to make the more tiresome and petty villagers decide that maybe they really don’t want to waste our time telling Alex all about What Farmer A Said About Our Sheep.
“I never denied it. Sam’s going to turn green when he sees this little lot.”
I sigh and roll my eyes. :Boys.:
With the corner of my mind that seems to be tuned to such things, I notice with a kind of vague satisfaction as Alex’s immediate memories of the exact ins and outs of magic begin to sink down to a level akin with his subconscious. The Web spell at work, what a marvelous thing. At least Veran’s less likely to want to chew my ears out all over the Stables when we get back if Alex is back to the ‘oh, magic, it’s this stuff that other places have: we have Gifts’ state of mind that helps keep our particular patch of the world just the way we like it.
Alex is right about one thing though, I may well have to pose artistically all over the Field in order to show off this new tack. There are, it turns out, compensations for being chased though the great wide back end of nowhere by monsters. Who knew?