Disclaimer: Anything and everything relating to the kingdom of Valdemar, and the world of Velgarth, is the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey.
Notes: The immature person in charge of the cursor is etcetera-cat. She is currently experiencing a bizarre combination of new-fandom glee and truly awful writer’s block and apologises for the sporadic nature of updates on this story.
Michael wasn’t sure how long he’d been running, or in which direction he’d been going. All he was sure of was that 1) his whole world seemed about ready to collapse, and, 2) his ankle was really starting to hurt.
Sucking his breath in through his nose and out through his mouth in an attempt to calm himself down, Michael slowed to a walk, limping in a pronounced fashion. He didn’t recognise— from what he could see through eyes that felt sandy and were burning— anything around him. He finally came to a halt when his path was neatly transacted by a wide, deep-looking brook.
Michael stood on the bank, wrapped his arms around himself and looked blankly down at his reflection on the surface of the brown, almost black bottomed water.
:You should take the pressure off that ankle; sit down.:
Michael jerked his head up and glared at the Companion who had ghosted up next to him. It gazed opaquely back at him, seemingly unperturbed.
:You almost put Giff’s eye out, you know,: the voice was familiar, but Michael couldn’t seem to sort through the soup that currently constituted his mind to attach a name to it. :And I see that those daft barriers they set up in your mind have come down in a rather untidy fashion.:
“What, you some kind of mind reader?” Michael managed to snap out.
:Observation is not one of your strong suits, is it?: the Companion flicked one ear, then reached forwards and used its chin to shove downwards on Michael’s shoulder. :Sit down before you fall down.:
“Ow.” The shove made his ankle twinge and Michael gave in to the inevitable; sitting gracelessly down on the ground.
:See, I told you.:
“You pushed me!”
The Companion stared down the length of its (really quite impressively long) nose at Michael. :Yes, we tend to do that a lot. You’re supposed to get used to it.:
“Being shoved around by horses?” Michael pulled up his trouser leg and regarded his hurt ankle cautiously. There was a quite impressive bruise.
:Amongst other things, yes.: The Companion didn’t seem to take offence to being referred to as a horse (something which Michael’s shiny implanted memories were telling him it should) and continued to watch him. For some reason, its voice seemed familiar.
:You walked into me under my willow tree.: The Companion seemed to anticipate his question. :That is what you were going to ask, yes?:
“Uh… yes.” Michael blinked. “Your name’s Datti, right?”
The Companion flicked one ear towards him, then inclined its head once. :I imagine that Giff told you,: she said, with a sniff. :I can also imagine the other things that he told you.:
Michael crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. “Yeah, well, I’m not entirely sure I believe anything that he tells me.”
:He got my name right,: Datti said, following the statement with a mental sound that could loosely be considered laughter. :As for the rest, I imagine that it was fairly accurate as well.:
There didn’t seem to be much that Michael could say to that.
:Are you planning on sulking out here for long?:
“I am not sulking.”
:Yes,: Datti said. :You are. You are also avoiding going back to the Palace, because you will likely run into someone who you think will tell you off for throwing things at your Companion yet again.:
Michael flushed and cleared his throat. “No I’m not— and even if I were, it’s not like anyone would be around. They’re all too busy fussing over this Healer’s gate thing.”
:The Gate at Healer’s Archway.:
“Yeah, that. Why aren’t you there?”
Datti fixed him with a chilly look. :I do not possess those traits that make it enjoyable for me to ogle at other people’s misfortune; nor do I particularly care for the ins and outs of politics.:
“Politics?” Michael gave Datti a mystified look. “How are some injured… people… arriving at a hospit— Healer’s anything to do with politics?”
:The Healer’s Archway Gate terminal is specifically keyed— like all of the mage shields around Haven— and, in order to activate the Gate-spell, it needs to be authorised by the Queen’s Own Herald and implemented by the Dean of Mage Collegium.:
Michael nodded slowly; he thought he was following what Datti told him.
:So, I eavesdropped. The request for Gate privilege was from the group of Tayledras due to start in Haven as the Ambassador’s delegation. That makes it very political.:
Datti stared at him for a long moment. :Regardless of whether or not I wish to go there, you need to be seen by a Healer, however you are in no fit state to find one.:
Michael glanced involuntarily down at his ankle. Datti was right. “So you’re going to bully one out here?” he guessed.
:No.: Datti shook her head then abruptly lay down next to Michael. :Get on.: She gestured to her back with a short jerk of her nose.
Michael stared uncertainly at the snowy white shoulder next to him. “I don’t know how to ride,” he said.
:That will not be a problem.:
“I fell off Giff six times in one lesson this morning.”
:I will be walking, not prancing about the equitation ring like a fool.:
“You’re not going to give up, are you?” Michael asked with trepidation.
Datti swung her head around and looked at him. :I told you; you’d better get used to being bossed around by white horses. It’s a common theme around here.:
Michael sighed loudly and shuffled himself over to Datti’s side. “At least you’re honest about it,” he said.
The Companion watched as he awkwardly pulled himself up onto his knees, and then onto her back. :I have the advantage of having very little to lose,: she told him. :Therefore I see no need to honey-coat facts to make them into palatable lies. Hold on.:
Michael gritted his teeth and clenched his fists in Datti’s knotted mane as she lurched to her feet, jostling him forwards and back. After a moment, she stood steady and curved her neck to look back at him.
“No,” Michael said grimly, squeezing his legs against her sides as hard as he could. His bad ankle twinged.
Datti voiced a disbelieving snort and stepped out into an easy walk, heading in the direction of the Palace and the House of Healing.
After a few moments, Michael realised that the rolling parkland (calling it Companion’s Field was a definite misnomer of epic proportions) they were moving slowly through was pretty much empty of all things white and equine.
“Uh… where are the, um, others?”
Datti raised her head and flared her nose before replying. :A few of the youngsters are staring at Giff in the Stables; the others in the Stables are using their Heralds to eavesdrop on Healer’s. The rest of the Herd are actually over at Healer’s, using assorted means to eavesdrop.:
Michael couldn’t think of any sensible reply to that and elected to continue clinging to Datti’s back as best he could. The rest of the ride to Healer’s Collegium was in silence.
As Datti clattered across the wide plank bridge that lead to the front of the Collegium, Michael could see the truth of her words; the whole of the open courtyard area between Healer’s, the Stables and one corner of Heraldic Collegium was full of Companions of all shapes and sizes. Mingled here and there were people either wearing full Heraldic Whites or the strange grey colour that denoted a Heraldic trainee.
Datti dealt with the crowd by seeming to ignore that it even existed; she simply marched in a straight line towards the front entrance of Healer’s Collegium, apparently perfectly ready to trample over anyone who was foolish enough to stay in her way.
A path was cleared for her with some alacrity. Michael was acutely aware that he seemed to be the focus of most of the startled looks that were being directed their way by Companions, Heralds and trainees alike.
“I think they’re staring at us,” he muttered, hoping that Datti could hear him.
:It’s not often that the resident lunatic of the Field shows up in the company of the newest lunatic in Haven.:
“I’m a lunatic?”
:You have looked in the mirror recently, haven’t you?:
Datti halted abruptly and Michael removed his concentration from staring fixedly at the back of her head with a start. They were at the front of the crowd in front of the Collegium.
Michael looked around at the exclaimed greeting, wobbling in place on Datti’s back and only keeping his balance with an effort of will. Hirrn’s assistant— Trannen, Michael thought his name was— popped up next to Datti and waved to attract Michael’s attention.
“Um, hi,” Michael managed lamely, belatedly noticing that this part of the crowd contained a selection of people wearing shades of green, red, yellow and blue.
“They kicked most of us out just as soon as we patched up the scouts— just after the Mages showed up and began shouting at each other,” the young Healer said helpfully.
Michael stared blankly at him.
:Your ankle.: Datti prompted as she made a show of examining the closed door a short distance away.
“My, uh, ankle,“ Michael managed. “I sprained it quite badly.” He managed to remove one hand from Datti’s mane without gravity abruptly reasserting its claim on him and pulled his trouser leg up a mite.
Trannen’s expression became suddenly business-like and he waved Michael’s hand away, pushing up the fabric himself to get a better look at the spectacular bruising and swelling. “You certainly have banged this up well,” he commented, gently probing the edges of the bruise with cool fingers.
Michael suppressed a wince. “I’d noticed,” he not-quite snapped. “So I’d really appreciate some painkillers and some kind of support bandage."
“Mmm,” Trannen made a non-committal sound and placed both his hands over Michael’s ankle.
“Hey! What are you—“ Michael broke off what he was saying and stared at Trannen in shock. The young man had a vacant expression and seemed to be staring off into the distance. Pins and needles tingled sharply in Michael’s bad ankle, making him yelp.
:Healers are occasionally useful.:
Datti seemed singularly disinclined to answer him, so Michael was left staring at the top of Trannen’s head. The feeling of pins and needles, accompanied by a strange warmth, intensified then abruptly stopped.
Trannen took in a deep breath, blinked a couple of times and let his hands drop from Michael’s leg. “There you go,” he said.
Michael stared at his leg in confusion; the skin was faintly yellow, almost exactly like an old, almost healed bruise and his ankle didn’t hurt in the slightest.
“You’re welcome.” Trannen grinned up at him. “Hirrn mentioned that she’d seen you about your ankle earlier.”
“Something like that.”
The young Healer grinned even wider. “Her bark truly is worse than her bite.”
Datti forestalled Michael making any kind of reply by sidestepping and shaking her head from side to side. Michael yelped and flung himself forwards, gripping at the Companion’s neck with both arms so that he didn’t fall off.
:You can get off now.:
“You couldn’t just say?” Michael pushed himself back into a sitting position and glared at Datti. She twisted her head around and gave him a flat look.
“This… is not your Companion?” Trannen had stepped back when Datti moved and was now eyeing Datti in a cautious fashion.
“Um, no.” Michael abruptly decided that maybe he did want to be less of a spectacle. He also got the distinct impression that if he asked Datti to lie down she’d do something painful to him. The ground suddenly seemed awfully far away. He eyed it with some misgiving as he tried to figure out how he was going to dismount without breaking his neck.
“Oh.” Trannen managed to imbue a world of curiosity in that one word.
Michael ignored him for a moment and finally elected to swing one leg over Datti’s neck and slither down her side to the ground. He jarred his knees slightly as he hit the ground, but completely ignored that in favour of surprise that his ankle was… better.
Datti sniffed and stepped away from him as Michael leaned on her shoulder in order to lift up his foot and examine it. :I told you that Healers occasionally have some uses,: she told him in a reproving tone. :I am not a leaning post for your personal usage.:
Trannen evidently decided that Michael was going to be little use and he stepped in front of Datti. “Healer Trannen Ashkevron, pleased to meet you ma’am.”
Michael poked at his ankle as Datti looked down the length of her nose at Trannen.
“Um.” Michael looked up from his examination. “This is Datti, she gave me a ride back from the Field.”
Trannen’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh,” he said and backed up a couple of steps.
:You were cluttering up my river bank.:
“So… what’s going on?” Changing the subject, Michael figured, was probably a good idea.
Trannen shrugged. “I didn’t see the Gate go up or come down, but Hirrn said that it originated from the Pelagirs, where they meet the end of the Comb. The scouts that came through, they were pretty shredded up, though. The one I treated— Rainfox, I think she was called— said that they were attacked by some kind of Changeling, but she wouldn’t tell me what, then the Mages showed up and hushed everyone up until they could boot us all out."
“Oh.” Michael seemed to be saying that a lot today. “So where’s Hirrn?”
Trannen grimaced. “Well, quite apart from the fact that there are very few ways to remove a kyree unless they want to go, one of the members of the party is her cousin, Dirden. One of his legs is pretty mangled up.”
:The Companions with Herald-Mages aren’t sharing what their Chosen are doing,: Datti said suddenly. :And, whatever it is, they’ve shielded the room they’re in too strongly for anyone to spy.:
“Da—Datti says the Companions can’t see what’s going on.” Michael offered, after a moment’s hesitation.
“Just before I was pushed out here, I heard them talking about bringing across the body of the Changeling,” Trannen said. “The mages are really worried about it.”
“How can you tell that?” Michael asked.
Trannen flashed him a quick smile. “I have Empathy; their emotions are strong enough to leak through the shields a bit.” His smile abruptly faded. “I don’t think that’s a good thing.”
Before Michael could think of any sensible reply (after, that is, the Shiny Implanted memories provided a definition of ‘Empathy’) the front door of Healer’s Collegium creaked open and a single figure in white stepped out.
Out of the corner of his eye, Michael noticed Datti tensing, combined with a strange empty feeling in his mind— strange, because he’d not even realised that his mind was full in any way like that— although he couldn’t imagine why. After a few moments, Michael recognised the man walking towards him as Gillan, the Queen’s Own Herald.
“You, Michael,” Gillan barked at him and gestured. “Come on, we haven’t got all day.”
“Uh…” Michael looked uncertainly around as the Herald marched up to him and gestured abruptly at the ajar door.
“Come on, come on. Get a move on.” Gillan completely ignored Michael’s personal space and grabbed hold of an elbow in order to give him a shove in the direction of the door. “It looks like we have a use for you after all.”
Michael swallowed audibly and cautiously began walking towards the door, aware that curious murmurs were rippling through the crowd behind him. When he reached the doorway he stopped and turned around. Rather than being directly behind him, as he’d expected, Herald Gillan was standing almost exactly in the spot that Michael had vacated, staring at Datti. One of his hands was half-raised, as if to touch the Companion on the nose.
Wondering what was going on, Michael shifted his weight from foot to (amazingly uninjured!) foot. Datti stared back at Gillan, the hint of expression on her equine face making Michael feel cold inside, before abruptly jerking herself away from him and stalking off into the crowd. The Queen’s Own stayed still for a long moment, single hand still half raised, before turning on his heel and stalking towards Michael, every bit abruptly as Datti had.
“Inside,” Gillan instructed as he reached around Michael to push the door open wide enough to admit the pair of them. Michael stepped through, starting slightly in the relatively dim-seeming hallway as Gillan shut the door with a loud thud.
“This way.” The Herald pushed Michael in the direction of a long corridor and quickly took the lead. Trailing after him, Michael found himself wondering about Datti, about Gillan, about what on Earth he was about to be let in for and— strangely— about Giff.