Disclaimer: Everything recognisable as relating to the world of Velgarth is the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey. The character designs of Ambassador Shadowflame and Trannen Ashkevron are used with permission of Cat McDougall, and any unexplained outbreaks of plot, violence, or violent plot can be blamed squarely on etcetera-cat.
Notes: The thing about having an actually plot to work with? All the setting up of stuff that’s going-to-be-important-later makes for strangely disjointed pre-writing notes and a headache. Ouch.
It was easy to get turned around in the twisting maze of canyons and valleys that made up the vast majority of the Comb. Of course; that wasn’t always a bad thing, and it was certainly one of the reasons that Usk had headed into the mountain range in the first place; if he was going to get completely and utterly lost, then the guard patrol following him was almost certainly going to get lost as well. A lost guard patrol was more concerned with finding itself once more than with tracking down people in order to ask them about certain unfortunate matters that had happened back in Karse.
Usk most certainly did not want to go back to Karse, and hopping over the Border to Rethwellan— whilst being the more sensible option to take when fleeing Karsite patrols— was not an option.
The last Usk had heard, the price on his head had been raised to twenty silver nobles; dead or alive, and that was not a subject he wished to discuss with any Rethwellan commoners who happened to have seen the rather poor drawing of him that accompanied the reward notice.
In retrospect, he should have looked further into the position held by the Lord he’d killed. Why his employer for that job had wanted the man dead— and in such a messy fashion— along with just who said employer was wasn’t any of Usk’s business; and he was well aware that trying to find out information such as that was likely to end up with him having a knife in his back, rather than a full money pouch at his belt. Still; it would have been nice to know that the young man he’d been hired to dispatch of was the only child of the recently widowed Provost-Marshall.
That had been why Usk had found himself in Karse— rain soaked, sheep-riddled piss-patch of a country that it was— and in need of supplies and funds.
A state of poverty which had lead rather neatly and immediately to him having to leave Karse in even more of a hurry than he’d arrived, and little better off.
The muck-splattered and thoroughly tattered looking thief rubbed at his frozen nose with the back of an equally cold hand and spat in the general direction of a scrubby patch of mountain grass as he took in his surroundings. He was in a small valley, well out of the foothills of the Combs, but not quite in to the big mountains that lay to the west of the range and there were still traces of snow on the ground and a distinct chill to the air.
At least he could no longer hear the sounds of the Karsite patrol that had followed him in to the Comb. Although the Karsites has supposedly done away with their disposition to set fire to anything that displeased them at the same time that the Priests had made demon-calling anathema, Usk strongly suspected that they’d make the exception for him.
He had no wish to be sent to a fiery grave.
Another hawked gob of phlegm and spittle splattered over the wiry grass stalks, before Usk arbitrarily picked a direction and began walking.
It was going to be getting dark soon, and he was badly in need to food, water and something in the way of shelter. If his luck decided to do anything other than continue to be abysmal, Usk might hopefully stumble across some traveller or mineral-prospector that he could relieve of such trifling inconveniences as their clothes, supplies, mount and life.
Loose shale slithered under his feet as Usk began to climb a slight incline. This whole area looked as if it had suffered some fairly major upheaval at some point in the past; the crests of the ridges looked more jagged than usual, and boulders and slipways of gravel and shale like the one that Usk was currently scrambling up covered the ground and changed the geography.
Near the top of the ridge, Usk halted and frowned faintly. He could smell smoke on the air. Smoke meant fire. Fire meant people, and people meant food and shelter. Changing his direction slightly, the thief walked along the line of the ridge, heading towards the smell.
It was early afternoon and, after a rather… eventful… morning, Michael was pathetically glad to sprawl over the bed in ‘his’ room in the Healer’s Collegium and investigate the contents of one of the books that the person he’d been introduced to as Kristin, Dean of Heraldic Collegium, had given to him last night. The one he was looking at now— and how weird was it to be able to read a language which you knew wasn’t English, yet understand it perfectly?— was bound with a plain looking dark blue leather cover and was simply called A Pertinent History of the Kingdom of Valdemar.
Surprisingly, it was almost exactly that. If medieval fantasy lands that rated their talking horses as a major attraction had such things as S.A.T.s, Michael would have been completely convinced that the Pertinent History was actually a cleaned up set of crib-notes.
Mind you, practically bullet-pointed bits of information such as; ‘Karse considered hereditary enemy of Valdemar from time of King Randale (ascended throne 798AF) until midway through reign of Queen Selenay (ascended throne 1376AF), now long time ally via the Mage Storms Alliance,’ were damn useful for beginning to understand this crackpot place he was now living in. Plus, this book had the undeniably attractive qualities of being neither a dyheli, a Companion, or in any other way inclined to talk inside Michael’s head. Hooray.
Currently, Michael was engrossed in the chapter that listed all of the known magical powers that people could possess; something which both backed up and expanded on what Datti had told him yesterday evening, and was actually proving interesting.
So interesting, in fact, that Michael completely forgot about the fact that he was— since this morning— one big bruise, and half rolled over onto his side. “Ow!” Flinching violently, Michael dropped the book and hastily sat up to clutch at his side. This only made his black eye throb and the long scrape on his left arm begin to hurt again. “Oh for the love of—“
Michael winced and pulled back the sleeve of the strange, loose shirt that was part of the clothing that had been left out for him. As he suspected, the cut had partly reopened and was now oozing blood. Mutter mutter mutter. I wonder if they have anything like antiseptic wipes around here?
The young man, when viewed from a distance, looked rather as if he’d gone three rounds with Mike Tyson.
I wish. A bitten ear would have been a Hell of a lot easier to cope with.
In fact, Michael had merely had his first lessons, or rather, assessments, in weapons work and equitation.
:It wasn’t really that much of a disaster.: Michael looked up from his arm to find Giff poking his head through the open window.
“A disaster is exactly what I’d call it,” Michael replied with a grimace. The events of this morning were right at the top of his list of memories to be repressed.
It had all started with a knock on his door this morning, and a rather stunned looking child, dressed entirely in grey, who had handed Michael a note, stared at him in mute horror (it wasn’t as much bed hair as modern art; Trichological Representation of Nuclear Explosion, maybe), and then skedaddled.
It was the note that informed Michael that— as a Herald trainee— he was expected to attend assorted lessons, the first of which was to be an assessment of his self defence capabilities, held in the salle, beginning the third candlemark past dawn.
Breakfast, and figuring out just how to dress himself (the clothes he had been wearing ever since his arrival in Valdemar were seriously looking worse for wear— falling over in front of Datti last night hadn’t helped their case any— and Michael had barely gotten back to his room before some kind of high-ranked housekeeping servant had bustled in with an armful of grey fabric clothes and dark-grey leather boots and threatened to remove his clothes with or without his help, forcing him to get changed) in the strange grey, well… uniforms… that he’d been left with had taken far longer than it should have.
Once that particular challenge had been conquered, Michael was left with half an apple to finish eating, and the note.
Scratching at his head and staring at the note with utter bemusement, Michael had finally caved and asked the empty room just what and where the salle was, and just when the third candlemark past dawn was. As he had expected, Giff appeared to be eavesdropping.
:It’s the building where the Weaponsmaster teaches different methods of fighting, weapons-use and defence, Chosen,: the Companion had said, :and about now, actually. Um… Herald Juanna doesn’t like to be kept waiting.:
So Michael had arrived at the salle (which turned out to be the large barn-like building on the other side of the river a short distance from Healer’s Collegium) puffing like a leaky pair of bellows and red in the face from running the whole way.
Weaponsmaster-Herald Juanna had turned out to be a woman who Giff assured Michael was actually old enough to be his mother and looked to be entirely constructed of toughened leather and steel. She also seemed singularly unimpressed with Michael. “Low level of athletic stamina,” she’d said to the lanky looking young man who was carrying both a sheathed sword and a thin board with paper clipped to it. The man made some notes with what looked like a stick of graphite.
Giff had appeared from wherever it was he had been and was watching from a short distance away. :Malkin is her assistant,: he said in a helpful tone of voice, :Juanna’s training him as her replacement.:
Since Michael wasn’t entirely comfortable about talking to thin air— even if such goings on were considered par for the course around the talking whites horses— nor could he think of anything intelligent to say, he didn’t reply to Giff. Instead, he merely tried to slow his breathing to something more along the lines of healthy young person, rather than the asthmatic emphysema patient argh, argh give me bronchodilators! impression he was currently giving.
“Well, let’s get started,” Juanna had then said; signalling the start of the single most painful and embarrassing two hours that Michael had ever endured.
He had to run round the inside of the salle; he had to run round the outside of the salle. He had to do push ups until his arms felt like wet noodles; then he had to do some strange squatting exercises that reduced his legs to a similar consistency and all he wanted to do was lie down on a nice, soft patch of the floor and whimper occasionally.
Just as he was considering doing that, Juanna (the evil, sadistic woman that she was) had declared him to be sufficiently ‘warmed up’.
Michael managed to keep his yelp of dismay entirely internal, although Giff did squint, and started lifting the scarily large array of weights that Malkin had produced from a concealed cupboard.
By the end of that Michael didn’t care what the floor was like; he was going to lay on it anyway. Before he could though, he’d been chivvied outside and presented with a bow, some arrows and directions to try and hit the target that was about 30 paces away.
:You did manage to get one bulls-eye.: Giff broke into Michael’s pained memories
“Yes; on a target that wasn’t even on the archery field, but was, in fact, off to the far right of the archery field,” Michael countered.
“In a shed!” That effectively shut the Companion up.
Juanna had raised an eyebrow and removed the bow from Michael’s possession before he could break it. Instead, she’d tried him with first a pointy stick—
:It’s called a javelin, Chosen.:
—and then with a sling.
“It doesn’t matter what it’s called, I was shit with it,” Michael pointed out.
:Well…: Giff sounded as if he was searching for a way to put a positive spin on the situation. :You did manage to thoroughly subdue the ground directly in front of your feet very effectively.:
“So I just ask anyone attacking me to please lay down on the ground in front of me so I can drop sticks and stones on them?”
:Uh…: Giff fell silent again.
Juanna’s eyebrow had said hello to her hairline again (several times) and then she suggested that they move back inside the salle. Once inside, Malkin had put down his clipboard and unbuckled the sword from his side and left it on a bench. He’d then picked up two blunt sticks—
:Practice staves, Chosen.:
—and offered one to Michael, who had accepted it. It had felt strangely weighted at one end, so Michael gave it and experimental shake to test this and promptly managed to smack himself in the face; hence the black eye he was now sporting.
Juanna and Malkin had exchanged a long look, then the Weaponsmaster had turned to Giff, who had followed them into the salle, and Michael.
“I think it would be best for you to simply run to your Companion and let him get you out of any trouble you may have cause to find yourself in,” she’d said in measured tones, her voice entirely neutral. “Now you have equitation lessons; next to the Stables.”
Michael had taken that as the dismissal that it was and had followed Giff out of the salle hastily. “Equitation?” he’d asked Giff in a whispered voice, heavy with trepidation, as they approached the Companion Stables. The Companion had merely nodded, then introduced Michael to the tallest man Michael had ever seen.
:This is Herald Yisk, and Companion Jilli.:
And that introduction had marked the beginning of the rest of the disaster of the morning; beginning with Michael almost managing to strangle Giff twice whilst tacking him up, and ending, after what felt like years of sliding around in the saddle, desperately trying to avoid falling off of the Companion, with exactly that; falling off the Companion.
The Equitation instructor had exchanged a long look with his Companion, before turning to Michael. “Juanna… she had advice for you after assessing you, yes?”
Michael had, from his prone position on the ground, wheezed, then managed; “She told me to get Giff to get me out of trouble.”
“Ah,” Yisk had blinked. “You would best benefit from only being to Haven assigned,” he decided in his faintly accented voice.
If he’d had the breath left in him, Michael would have sighed with relief; the prospect of not ever having to get into a position that involved riding or weapons in any combination was a very good thing.
:Are you sure that your head is okay? If there’s any chance of you having a concussion, the Healers should look you over.: Giff absentmindedly used the window frame to scratch the side of his neck, before he gave Michael a significant look. :You share your headaches now, remember.:
Coming out of the pained reminiscence of the morning, Michael pulled a face at the Companion. “I am practically a doctor, you know,” he said, mouth pulling down into a frown, “I think I’d know if I was concussed.”
:Uh…: Giff flicked an ear. :Doctor?:
Returning Giff’s bemused expression, with compound interest, Michael floundered for a moment. “A doctor,” he said slowly, “likes, someone who cures illness and— well—“ the young man waved his arms around helplessly.
:Oh—oh!: Giff tossed his head, :I didn’t realise that your people had the Healing Gifts.:
“Healing Gifts?” Michael glanced involuntarily down at the book he still held in one hand; it hadn’t mentioned anything about any Gifts of Healing.
:Um…: Giff looked uncertainly at Michael. :I think I could— I mean, it would be quicker, um— I could maybe—:
:I think we’re just, um, confusing each other further, yes?: Another uncertain look.
“Your point being?” Michael propped his head up with one bent arm and watched the Companion with curiosity. He was actually rather… surprised… at how quickly he had fallen in with this ‘new’ kind of reality. Possibly, Michael considered, whilst he waited for Giff to explain himself, I’m just going with the flow because I’m in some kind of shock; at some point something will make me crack and then people will be picking my teeth out of the ceiling.
:Well, I could… link… with you and, um, trade explanations.: The faint sound of gravel shifting under-hoof indicated that the Companion was shifting his weight from side to side nervously.
“Okay,” Michael found himself saying. After all; every other talking animal in this place seems to treat my head as a rummage sale…
Giff gave him a faintly surprised look and flared his nostrils for a moment. :Oh…um… right.:
A… well, it was actually really hard to explain the sensation of someone posting a bundle of memories and thought that weren’t your own directly into your forebrain. It felt as weird as hell though. Michael blinked, disorientated as the new information crystallised into something that he could recognise.
“People can just think things better?” he exclaimed, at the same time that Giff said;
:You can swap people’s organs around?:
Human and Companion stared at each other, wearing identical expressions of shock.
Rabbit flattened tattered ears to its head and pressed its body as low to the ground as it could manage, using the uneven, rocky ground as scant cover.
The Mistress’s newest creation had managed to go and get itself killed, and she was consequently in a truly black rage.
The rattling salvo as the pile of rocks the Mistress pointed at exploded violently and rained smouldering shards down on the vicinity underscored this fact.
The other darlings, having the advantage of flight, were out hunting; Rabbit was the only one left to bear witness to his Mistress’s anger… well, except for the not-Mistress-not-prey, but she was barely worthy of Rabbit’s attention, even when the Mistress commanded it.
More rocks detonated, dusty smoke billowing up into the air, braiding with the shrieked curses that Mistress was voicing. Even if Rabbit had had the inclination (or intelligence) to listen to the Mistress, it wouldn’t have understood the words she was using… few north of Ceejay would.
A flash of red, arcing through the air did catch the darling’s attention, however, and it blinked myopically as the small red silk bag hit the ground some twenty feet up the slope from the Mistress. The Mistress’s Power… and for her to throw it like that meant that she was truly infuriated.
“Rabbit!” Mistress snapped, “retrieve it.”
The darling whined in the back of its throat and slunk forwards. Mistress levelled a finger at it, expression black.
Rabbit yelped and skittered forwards, slipping and sliding on the loose shale as it made its way up the slope, heading diagonally for the bag that contained the Mistress’s Power. The darling was almost on top of the bag when a shadow detached from behind a large boulder and swiped the bag, holding it aloft.
“Wassit got ‘ere, then?” The voice was hoarse, grinding out the vowels of the Trade Tongue with an absolutely appalling accent.
Rabbit flattened its ears and peered at the strange— stinky!— man from underneath the hood of its tattered cloak. Gathering its clawed feet underneath its body and hunkering down, the darling tensed and hissed a warning, bearing filthy, pointed teeth.
“Ain’t you an ugly bugger?” The man sneered down at the darling, scratching at his stained and torn fur-lined tunic with one hand, the other clenched around the end of the delicate red cords of the silk bag.
“What,” that was the Mistress’s voice; every vowel well-rounded, every consonant sharp with suppressed fury, “do you think you are doing, you disgusting little man?”
Rabbit spared a quick glance towards the Mistress; her expression was stony, her lips compressed into a thin line. The air around her arms was distorting ever so slightly, like a highly localised heat haze. The darling growled once more and returned its attention to the smelly man, who was now leering down at the Mistress.
“Whassa little lady like you doin’ all alone in the mount’ins, eh?” The smelly man groped suggestively at his crotch, thrusting his hips forwards slightly.
“You pewling little corpse maggot—“
The sense of the Mistress behind Rabbit suddenly grew exponentially, pressure like the feeling before a storm pressing against the darling’s eardrums, making them whistle and pop several times in quick succession.
“Ye’ve gorra mouth on ya, haven’ ya?” the man hawked a gob of spittle onto the ground at his feet. “Mebbe I’ll sort tha’ out after I sees wha’s in this ‘ere pretty bag.”
“Put that down!” Rabbit flinched; that tone of voice generally meant that someone was about ten breaths away from having their skin removed in one piece. In the corner of its eye, it could see that the Mistress was glowing faintly with dull red-brown power.
The man sniffed, unimpressed, “so ya thin’s yar mage?” he asked insolently. “Got me some demon-charms, one little woman’s not gonna bother me—“ As he said this, smelly man was working on the draw-string of the bag. With one efficient movement, he loosed the knot and upended the bag.
A single item, a smooth, cylindrical object approximately the size of a human thumb tumbled out and hit the palm of the man’s outstretched hand with a faint smack. The weak sunlight reflected from it, creating sparks of orange and white-from-black that made Rabbit blink uncomfortably.
“Wassis ‘posed to be then?” The smelly man looked down at the Mistress’s Power, expression dense and unimpressed. “Hey—“
A thin line of smoke boiled up from the Mistress’s Power, drawing a straight line into the air. “Wha—?” the smelly man exclaimed and dropped the object… or rather, tried to drop it. No matter how hard he shook his hand— which was now pouring rank smelling smoke— he couldn’t drop the Mistress’s Power; it seemed to be melting its way under his skin.
Rabbit risked a glance at Mistress; she was watching raptly, her anger apparently gone.
A pained scream brought the darling’s attention back to smelly man. He was now standing stock still, staring in revulsion at his hand; the surface was bubbling and roiling, almost as if the limb had a life of its own that it was determined to extinguish. Another scream; then another, and another, until the man was shrieking continuously, at an ear-piercing volume, greasy smoke from the Mistress’s Power wreathing around his body.
Lights began to flicker underneath the man’s skin, shooting from the Mistress’s Power, up his arm and through his body. These quickly increased until the man’s whole body was flashing a flickering like a lightning strike; the intricate maze of his nerves shining out like a beacon. The flickering speeded up, until the light was one solid, intense glow that left a smoky imprint on the retinas. It increased in brightness, causing Rabbit to squeeze its eyes shut and look away.
And then— a moment of, not sound, but anti-sound, like the whole world had briefly ceased to exist and wasn’t sure what to do about it— and an explosion of intense pressure, followed by a ghostly echo of an explosion.
Rabbit blinked, aware that its face and left flank felt wet and warm, and cautiously looked around. The smelly man was gone; instead there was a circle of burnt rock, perhaps three yards in diameter, the perimeter of which was marked with a thick, circular, mound of something damp and red. It steamed faintly in the cool mountain air.
The Mistress’s Power, perfect and unharmed, sat on top of the red silk bag in the exact centre of the circle of devastation.
Rabbit looked down at its front paws, which were buried in the red matter. It raised one and examined it, then licked it slowly. It tasted like warm copper and salt.
“Well,” Rabbit flinched; the Mistress had moved to stand next to the darling without making a sound. Her expression was surprised and— if Rabbit was any judge— impressed, “that was certainly… unexpected.” Lifting up the hem of her cloak, the Mistress stepped daintily over the edge of the circle and retrieved her Power, pocketing it immediately.
“Rabbit,” the Mistress exited the circle in the same decorous fashion and looked down at the darling.
Ye-es— the darling responded cautiously.
“Eat that; I don’t want any traces left.” The Mistress sniffed and turned on her heel, heading back towards the base of the valley (and the ‘improved’ lodge) without a backwards glance.
Yes Mistress— the darling agreed eagerly, shuffling forwards, lowered its head and licking its lips.