Disclaimer:  Everything relating to the world of Velgarth, and the kingdom of Valdemar, is the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey.  Original characters, the plot line and the general outbreaks of strange belong to etcetera-cat.  Trannen Ashkevron and Shadowflame k’Saurai were originally thought up by Cat McDougall.  I stole them, because I’m like that.

Notes:  Worryingly, I actually know where this story is going.

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Chapter Seven.

A Council of a different sort – Walking sticks and their vital role as instruments of diplomatic discussion – An observation about soft furnishings – Apparently, this is diplomacy

The sun, whilst not completely fled from the sky, was certainly hanging on to the horizon by nothing more than the skin of its metaphorical teeth.  Dusk was well and truly established, shadows stretching long from everything, creating spiky and distorted negative images across the grounds.

The strange half-light was not at all comforting and Giff had to keep on resisting the urge to sidestep and shy away from the encroaching shadows, despite this being the Grove, and therefore about the safest place a Companion (or Herald) could be.  Giving himself an internal shake, Giff turned his attention back to the meeting that Dadero had convened as soon as the non-Companions had vanished back to the Palace for assorted emergency Council sessions.

This was something that not even the Heralds usually saw; the Companion equivalent of the High Council and it was the first time that Giff himself had any part to play that didn’t involve skulking on the sidelines and eavesdropping.  Given that roughly half of the Companions in the loose circle were staring at him, with expressions that ranged from utter confusion (a Companion called Fitch) right the way through to verging-on-malevolence (Kit— who else?), Giff was rather completely convinced that he preferred the sidelines.

:—happened to Zica?:  That was Adakimba, Companion to the Seneschal’s Herald, his Mindvoice raw with grief.  Not surprising considering Zica had been his younger, much doted over, sister.

Giff pricked up his ears— nor was he alone.  He suspected that most of the Companions were in the same boat as himself; they’d felt Zica die, after she had lost Nattan, and they’d felt that it had been painful but, beyond that… nothing.  Dadero, however, had certain advantages over ‘normal’ Companions.

:They were attacked,: the Groveborn said slowly, continuing before anyone could voice any angry comments.  :Zica did not get a clear look at whatever it was, and therefore neither did I.:

:Then we know nothing,: Adakimba sounded defeated, his drooping head and flattened ears mirroring his tone of defeat.

:That is not true,: Dadero corrected.  :It was some kind of animal, of that much I am sure, and I am also sure that it was nothing produced by nature… not even tainted nature such as the Pelagir-lands.:

That statement certainly caused no-few widened eyes and unsettled snorts.  It was Kit, typically, that managed to speak first.

:A mage construct, then?:  She fixed her attention on Dadero, waiting for his affirmative nod before continuing.  :From who?  There are no dark-inclined mages of any great power within the bounds of the Alliance.:

Now Dadero did look defeated; he sighed heavily and dropped his head slightly.  :I do not know,: he admitted.  :I have warned all Companions out on Circuit to be on guard and to expect trouble, however.:

:All of them?:  Giff was appalled to realise that it had been himself who asked that question.

Dadero turned an unreadable gaze onto the young Companion, and Giff wished suddenly that the ground would open up and swallow him.  The ground didn’t oblige.

:Yes, Companion Giff.:  Dadero said simply, rather than biting off Giff’s head as he— and several others— were expecting.

:May I suggest—: the tone of Mindvoice was acidic, authoritative, and belonged to Kit, :—that rather than listening to this fascinating conversation, that we actually pay attention to what is going on with the High Council at this very moment?:

Dadero gave the mare a faintly reproving look, before wordlessly projecting the ‘offer’ of the kind of rapport that the Companions could use to collectively eavesdrop on any group that contained Heralds— whether or not their own Herald was actually there, if they even had one.

Rapidly, all of those present linked into the growing meld— those with Heralds that had seats on the Council adding their own contribution to the collective impression of the events unfolding in the Council Chamber.

As Michael was currently reading as blank wall, no-one here to Giff, the young Companion was forced to rely on the meld for information.

It was an unsatisfying position to say the least.


Without being sure in any way how such a thing had happened, Michael had ended up being carried off with the ‘crowd’ when the actually human people (as far as he could tell, at any rate) had finally left the field.  The ever-so-helpful voice inside his head, put there courtesy of the dyheli, was insistent that Michael capitalise the ‘f’. 

He resisted.  Petty, but likely to be the only kind of victory he was going to experience any time soon.

Once off the grass and walking through what looked like the cleanest stable yard ever to exist, Michael had found himself being appropriated by a wrinkled old man (wearing the completely white clothes that indicated a ‘Herald’) who caught hold of his elbow in one hand and began to deftly steer both of them over towards a large building, built out of grey stone.  Despite looking about ninety, and the guaranteed first place winner in any number of wrinkled old men competitions, the grip on Michael’s arm was surprisingly strong, and the young man wouldn’t like to place any bets of being able to beat the old man in a fight.

Likelihood of being trampled by an irate white horse completely non-withstanding.

Once inside the building— and this was the first time Michael could say that he’d ever been inside a genuine medieval castle.  It was warmer than he expected— the old man cleared his throat and introduced himself.

“Gillan,” he said shortly, glancing sideways at Michael before clarifying.  “Queen’s Own Herald Gillan, Chosen by Dadero.  He is of the opinion that we should trust you, the infallibility of Companion’s Choice and all that.”

“Who?”  Michael asked in a bewildered fashion.

“Dadero,” Gillan gave Michael another sideways look, this one heavy on the scepticism, as if he couldn’t quite believe how dense Michael was being.

Well, let him trying waking up in a drug trip where all the animals talk and have a degree in sarcasm, and then be told that it’s what passes for reality around here.  Michael thought rebelliously.

Gillan cleared his throat and made a non-committal sound.  “This is the Council Chamber,” he said as they reached an ornate, carved stone doorway.  The dark oak doors were already wide open and there seemed to be a veritable circus milling around in the corridor outside.  “Halla requested that you be present at this session, since it does concern your… presence… in Valdemar.”

Stifling a groan, Michael rubbed at his face with one hand.  Well, mister Queen’s Own Herald Gillan sure sounds like a fan of the U. S. of A.

It was amazing how much respect the stark looking white uniform seemed to generate.  People certainly cleared a path for Gillan— and, perforce, Michael, who was now trailing in the wake of the grey haired Herald— allowing him to stride into the small room that served as an ante-chamber to the actual Council Hall.

More than a little bemused by the multitude of bright and conflicting (sometimes in the same outfit) colours and costumes, Michael wasn’t entirely looking where he was going when he tripped over something on the floor and careened sideways, hitting the back of a person who appeared to be wearing a cloak made entirely out of feathers.

“I, uh… sorry—“ Michael stumbled backwards, apologising, then froze.  He hadn’t walked in to someone wearing a feathered cloak.  He’d walked into someone wearing feathers, and the reason that they were wearing feathers was because Michael was looking at one of their wings.

Feeling as if his eyes were about to pop out of his head, Michael managed to track his attention up, towards the face of whomever (or whatever.  Whatever was always a valid option in Valdemar) he’d been apologising too.

“Eep!”  It wasn’t a pretty sound, nor was it a manly sound.  It was a squeak.  It was the kind of sound that a severely asthmatic mouse would have been ashamed of.

Michael felt entirely justified in producing it because the face that owned the wing he’d walked in to happened to have a meat-hook shaped beak the size of his head in the middle of it.

The eyes above the beak with a dark green-gold colour and full of amusement as the creature regarded Michael with open curiosity.  It was covered head to toe in feathers that ranged from a pale grey to markings in a deep charcoal colour.  In addition, someone appeared to have painted bits of it black and silver.  He wondered idly if it had objected, and if it’d eaten the person afterwards.

A hand landed heavily on Michael’s right shoulder and he started with surprise, attention jerked away from the gryphon— thank you very much, inner-dyheli translation thing— and back onto Gillan.  The elderly Herald looked annoyed.

“I apologise, Tarii,” Gillan said in an exasperated tone of voice. 

The gryphon sat back slightly on its haunches (at which point Michael realised that the creature was in fact sitting down, despite it doing a pretty fine job of looming over every other human in the vicinity) and rumbled quietly.  Belatedly, Michael realised that the sound was laughter.

Great, maybe if I’m really lucky, it’ll start talking inside my head like all the others…

“That isss quite alrrright, Queen’sss Own,” despite the hisses and trills that overlaid the words, Michael found that he could understand what the gryphon was saying quite clearly. 

He wasn’t entirely sure that this was a reassuring thing. 

The fact that the gryphon hadn’t pounced on him and torn him limb from limb?  That was reassuring. 

So was the fact that it seemed entirely disinclined to babble away inside his head like the horses (Companions! shouted the inner-dyheli translator.  Michael ignored it), deer (dyheli!) and giant killer wolves (kyree!). 

Being able to understand the actual vocal speech of something that was so very obviously not human it wasn’t true?  Not reassuring.  Not reassuring at all.

“Thisss, then, would be yourrr new trrrainee, the one that isss causssing all thisss—“  the gryphon waved one fore claw airily around at the room, trying to pick a suitable description, “—interrressst?”  It finally decided.  It cocked its head to one side, flicked a large, charcoal-black and molten-silver colour, ear tuft and looked quizzically from Michael to Gillan and back again.

Gillan snorted something inaudible and Michael felt his face get hot.  It was perfectly obvious that the old man didn’t approve of him in the slightest.

“Yes, this is Michael, Chosen by Giff,” Gillan said in a perfunctory fashion.  “Michael, this is Tarii Vesakae; Silver Gryphon scout and aide to the Kaled’a’in-Haighlei Ambassador.”

“Aide,” Tarii mused, “I like that terrrm.”

 “It’s more diplomatic than ‘paid to chew on people who offend the Ambassador’, Tarii,” the new speaker was a youngish looking man with deeply golden skin and blue eyes.  He was dressed head to toe in a stylised black uniform, a single silver badge pinned to his chest, and his hair was dyed the same black and silver as Tarii’s wing feathers and ear tufts.

“Tccah,” Tarii shook her head.  “Diplomacssy isss sssomething you posssssessss little of,” she told the young man, before pointedly ignoring him and fixing her attention on Michael.

He had a sudden, uncomfortable insight into how a rabbit felt in the moment before something ate it.

“Pay no attensstion to Goldleaf, he thinksss that he isss funny.  It isss a delusssion that the Healerrrsss have not yet found a currre forrr.”  The gryphon rolled her eyes expressively, serenely ignoring the poke in the side that Goldleaf gave her.

There was a brief lull in the conversation and Michael felt moved to contribute something.  He managed a faint sounding “oh.”

Gillan snorted once more and caught hold of Michael’s arm.  “Time to sit down and get this mess on and going,” he said shortly.  “Hopefully the esteemed Council members will take the hint if at least some people sit down.

Tarii and Goldleaf traded looks.  “I will go and find Ambassador Amalogi,” Goldleaf decided.  Both the Kaled’a’in and the gryphon nodded to Gillan and Michael, then vanished into the mingling crowd.

Using the grip he had just above Michael’s elbow, the Queen’s Own steered him into the large Council Hall and deposited him on a plain, low-backed wooden chair that had apparently been provided for precisely that purpose.  Once he was sure that Michael was sitting down— and would stay there— Gillan pursed his lips and bustled back out in the direction of the corridor.

Left to his own devices, Michael cautiously looked around at the room he had been deposited in.  It looked like every single Hollywood stereotype of a castle Hall ever.  There was lots of stone.  And wood panelling.  And banners; if it could be used to hang something off (and the decorator of this room seemed to have a broad definition of this that included randomly nailing wooden poles everywhere), then there was something hanging off of it.  A lot of it involved brocade and the kind of stylised heraldic creatures that looked as if they’d jumped fully formed out of Salvador Dali’s sketchbook.

There was also a fireplace that was actually larger than the bathroom in Michael’s apartment in Chicago.  It was swept out and there was no fire burning— there wasn’t even a fire laid.

The majority of the room was taken up by a trio of large, almost bench like, tables that had been arranged in a horse-shoe shape.  The fourth side of the square consisted almost entirely of the largest pile of cushions and soft furnishings that Michael had ever seen outside a haberdashery (his ex-girlfriend had convinced him that they needed to help her mother pick out linens.  The resultant humanitarian disaster had been one of the main reasons that Michael had finished with her).  Whoever had piled the cushions and so on up had apparently put some thought into it; the fabrics were all shades of blue and grey that harmonised together.

They also matched the tapestries and hangings that covered the wall opposite Michael.  The table set in front of this, the most decorated wall, was raised on a slight dais.  Obviously, that was where the important people sat.  Michael’s chair was set between the bottom edge of one of the flanking tables and one end of the pile of cushions, the better for people to stare at him in a scary fashion, he supposed.

Noise at the doorway to the ante-chamber caught his attention, and Michael craned his head around.  The circus from the corridor was being to move it collective rear into the room.  The raised table was quickly colonised by people who were clad in either Heraldic white, or in archaic— it’s a medieval fantasy land, Michael.  Of course it’s archaic!— robes in either green, red or a warm golden-brown.  The people taking their places at the other two tables were dressed in clothing that ranged from what Michael (or rather, Hollywood) thought of as ‘typical medieval/castle wear’ right the way through to over-the-top arrangements that could very well have been picked, fully formed, off of a tree somewhere.

The rainbow of colours produced was not something that Michael would like to look at if he was hung over.

A moving flash of silver in the corner of Michael’s eye was the gryphon— Tarii.  She was walking over to the pile of cushions, deep in conversation (at least, Michael presumed it was conversation; he didn’t understand the strangely musical language the gryphon was speaking) with a kyree that he recognised.

The pair settled near to Michael and, as the large wolf-like creature fixed its eyes on him, he realised why he recognised it.  It was Hirrn, the ‘Healer’ he’d last seen arguing loudly with Yaul.

Speaking of the devil… Yaul also seemed to be privy to this Council; the dyheli had just walked through the door, his cloven hooves clicking on the stone flooring as he walked over.  Yaul glanced at Hirrn, who hadn’t yet seen him, and elected to go and stand at the far end of the spread of cushions. 

Michael was quite glad about that; he didn’t think his nerves were up to another shouting match happening inside his head.

Another kyree, something that looked like a five foot tall bipedal lizard, and an absolutely huge cat that had vaguely lynx-like markings, joined the others already seated on (or standing around) the drift of blue and grey cushions.  They all gave the young man curious looks, and the lizard pulled out what looked like a notepad and some kind of pencil, before propping itself in a comfortable position and licking the end of its pencil.

Darting his eyes around the room, in an attempt to look around without drawing undue attention to himself, Michael noted that pretty much all of the seats were now filled.  As he had predicted, no few of the people in the seats were staring at him.

It was worse than being in theatre with Dr. Jefferson (a big-shot consultant surgeon who felt that it was against the law for him to operate unless he had the eleven members of his personal theatre team instead of the usual theatre team, and who’s operating sessions consequently covered every aspect of the word ‘theatre’) on a busy day.

An intelligent looking woman, who was sitting at the raised table, next to Gillan, cleared her throat.  The sound was quiet, but it never the less garnered the attention of the room, and silence fell.  Resting both of her hands on the table, the woman leaned forwards slightly.  Her pointed features had a cast of tiredness about them, and her several wisps of her dark blonde hair had escaped from the utilitarian knot the body of it was confined in.  She opened her mouth, about to say something, but was interrupted by the sound of the door to the ante-chamber being pushed roughly open.

The hinges squeaked loudly, drawing the attention of all of the Council, as well as Michael.

As soon as the door was open far enough, an outlandishly dressed figure stumped in, her expression fixed in a scowl and the heavy stick she used to aid her walking thumping heavily against the floor in a counterpoint to the woman’s limping steps.

“Ambassador Shadowflame,” the woman said in a friendly tone of voice.  “I’m glad that you could join us.”

“Hah,” the woman snorted rudely and stalked towards the single empty seat left for her; next to Goldleaf, a dark-skinned man to whom the scout was deferring to, and a woman with intricately beaded black hair and an outfit that was similar in cut to Shadowflame’s.  Whereas the unknown woman’s clothing were brightly coloured (in keeping with the functional cone cells are for the weak! mentality of the rest of the council), Shadowflame’s outfit was done up entirely in bland greens and browns.  It looked— to Michael’s eyes— remarkably similar to camouflage gear.

“I would have been faster,” Shadowflame continued, in a hostile tone, “except that the blithering idiot that built the ekele saw fit to bury it out in the hinterlands of that wretched field your Companions prance about in.”

The whole time she was talking, the Ambassador was limping onwards, her walking stick striking the ground with a measured beat.  It almost sounded like the baseline for a tune.  A very specific tune.  All the Ambassador needed were the Storm Troopers and the black helmet.

Michael bit down on his lip and fought the completely inappropriate urge to laugh.
Pulling out her chair with a loud scrape, Shadowflame took her seat with ill grace and glared around at the Council Chamber.  “I presume there is a point to this fashion parade?”  No-one else reacted to Shadowflame’s complete… lack… of diplomacy, so Michael concluded that she was probably usually that abrasive.

Realising that didn’t help his urge to hum the Imperial March in the slightest.

“If we could have some order, please.”  It was a statement, not a request. 

True silence fell over the room as expectant faces were turned towards the speaker; the blonde woman at the raised table.

“Thank you,” she nodded her head shortly.  “We have rather a lot to cover today and we’re not exactly sure how much time we have.  As some of you may be aware, one of our Companions has recently Chosen under somewhat… unique… circumstances.”  The woman’s blue eyes flickered in Michael’s direction briefly, as somewhat predictable out roar broke out in the room.

“Unique is certainly one way to put it,” the exotic looking woman with the beaded hair, sitting next to Goldleaf.

“It is the easiest way to put it, Foxdance,” Gillan said, not bothering to lean forwards.  “It sounds more under control than ‘bloody hindering great disaster’,”

:Have you been taking lessons in diplomatic language from Shadowflame, Queen’s Own?:  Hirrn sat up and cocked her head in the Herald’s direction, ignoring the loud snort that echoed from the Tayledras Ambassador’s direction.

Shadowflame snorted and tapped her fingers on the table in front of her, a set expression on her face.

“No, Healer Hirrn, my patience has merely been well and truly tried in the past two days,” Gillan said to the kyree, who flicked one ear in an unconcerned fashion.

“Thank you, Gillan,” the woman with the blonde hair sighed.  She looked tired.  Michael wondered who she was— she certainly seemed to have more than a little authority.  “If we could continue…?”

Michael suddenly found himself the focus of the woman’s attention.  He resisted the sudden urge to hunch over on himself, despite the fact that he could feel further pairs of eyes fastening on him.

“I am sorry that we have not had time for introductions before this moment,” the woman said.  “As you may have gathered, we already know a little bit about you, Michael, and I hope that Yaul has given you something of an understanding about the situation you are now facing with us.”

She made his name sound Slavic.  Michael blinked and wondered if he should say anything into the brief silence.  The woman began speaking again, however.

“I am Halla, Chosen of Regin and Queen of Valdemar.”

Michael wondered if his eyes were going to fall out of his head.  Queen?  He was being talked to by royalty?

He’d ended up in some crackpot land that actually had functional royalty that did more than wave occasionally and marry their own cousins?

I think my headache is coming back…

“This is all very nice and touchy-feely, but don’t we have more… pressing… matters to attend to?”  Shadowflame sounded extremely bored, and was now leaning back in her chair, absentmindedly bouncing her stick off of the floor.

Michael winced.  On the edge of his hearing, he heard the gryphon make a trilling sound and he wondered if that was how birds sighed.

“Quite,” that was the woman Gillan had called Foxdance.  “I’m sure that we all heard your Companions ringing their Bell earlier, and I for one, can’t help but wonder why such an occurrence has precipitated this meeting.”  She shrugged.  “A Herald dying is not exactly an uncommon event.”

“Ambassador Foxdance I must protest strongly—“

“I do not feel—“

“If it wasn’t for the Heralds then the Alliance—“

Michael flinched as the room erupted with a burst of sound that made the previous one seem like a whisper at the bottom of a well.  Broadly speaking, it seemed to be a case of the People in White vs. Everyone Else. 

“All I was merely pointing out was the sad but true fact that Heralds die!  I really don’t see why—“

Given that he now had one of the horses that qualified one as a Person in White, Michael supposed that he should side with them.

:You’re all behaving like adolescents.:  The thing about Mindspeech was that it cut over any mere vocal shouts.  Michael glanced sideways at Hirrn, in time to catch her curling her lip.

“Like you can comment, Healer Hirrn—“

:I am more than qualified enough to comment when people are behaving in a fashion obvious enough even to the blind.:  The kyree said acidly.

Michael cast around.  He wasn’t entirely sure whether he was looking for something to fix his attention on or an escape route.

They’d probably make the gryphon sit on me.  Michael sighed.  The Queen was sitting with one elbow on the table, her head resting on her hand as the argument blazed around her.

Her headache looked as bad as Michael’s was becoming again, and he felt a stab of sympathy for the strange woman.

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