by etcetera-cat
Disclaimer:  Any and all concepts relating to the world of Velgarth, and the kingdom of Valdemar, are the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey.  Grammatical slip-ups, spelling mistakes, bad puns and predictability are solely the fault of etcetera-cat.
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Chapter One
In which Kaya does a favour for a friend, Retsin decides that his brand of brave is more accurately titled ‘stupid’, and a bully learns to fly.

:Hold on, I’m coming!:
Kaya had never run this fast before; the ground seemed to fly underneath her silver hooves at a speed that was almost frightening… or would have been almost frightening if she’d actually had an opportunity to pay attention to it.  Likewise, in other circumstances, she would have loved to shamelessly stare at the countryside around her.
But there wasn’t any time, as the fading thread of Mindtouch from Ipka, was letting her know.  Her contact with Ipka was fading for no suspicious reason; simply that neither he, nor she, had anything above an average range for casual Mindtouching and Speaking, and it was no place for her to be trying to trance to maintain contact with him.
A shake of the head.  It all seemed like such a simple idea— a snort.  Just go and pick up Ipka’s Chosen for him before he drove every other resident of the Stables potty with his mono-focused moaning about going on Search.
Ears pricked, Kaya looked around and abruptly decided to leave the road; she could see the continuing loop of it on the far side of the field before her, and time was now of the essence.  Shortening her stride for a few steps, she gathered herself and launched over the dry-stone wall marking the near edge of the field, lofting over it easily and landing on the thick grass on the far side.  The bells attached to her formal tack jangled even louder for a moment, before settling back into the rhythmic chiming in counterpoint to her movements.
Oh yes, such a simple idea.  The thought continued.  Up until his mildly imperiled Chosen-to-be decides to go jump down a well… or something.  Kaya was aware that it probably wasn’t a well, but all she had been able to gather from Ipka was that his Chosen was in trouble.
A name would have been nice.  The wall at the far side of the field was lower than the first one, and Kaya merely needed to hop over it in one easy move, landing on the hard packed road with a chime of bridle bells and hooves.  Hell— a cynical snort, —a gender would have been nice!
Even though this wasn’t her Search at all, Kaya got the feeling that she was getting close.  Kaya was racing towards a Choosing that wasn’t even hers for several reasons.  Firstly, Ipka was, despite her current train of cynical thoughts, her best friend, and secondly, he would have done the same for her.  Except that he won’t have to, because I intend to not fall in the Terilee and break a leg!
And that was precisely what Ipka had done the previous week.  A fact that meant that he was currently stuck, literally hanging around, in an ingenious sling set up that was the brainchild of a group of artificers and Healers, in a loose box in the Companion Stables. 
The Healers had, after much lecturing on the folly of running along muddy banks at dusk, worked their magic on the bones of his back leg, and absolutely forbidden Ipka from putting even a feather’s worth of weight on his leg for a week.  Predictably, as Kaya had noted with increasing cynicism, it was the next day that Ipka’s Call manifested in no uncertain terms.
Which all boiled down to Ipka strung up like a marionette, and Kaya doing the whole ‘valiant dash across the countryside’ thing.  Oh, yay…
She could smell horses and people close by, off to one side, in the woodland that had sprung up on the left of the road, and changed her tack.  Without being able to articulate it, Kaya knew that she was heading in the right direction.  Quickly and surely, she wound her way deeper into the trees, ears straining forwards to catch any relevant sounds to give her a clue of what she might me about to stumble into.
Retsin Jihaldi, third in line for the title of ‘Lord’ of his father’s holdings was bored, with a sharp edge of unease.  The boredom was due to the entire morning being spent on a completely fruitless hunt with his two older brothers and a collection of the local noble-born children, and the unease was because Jaspar, the heir to the holdings and Retsin’s older brother, was picking on Radic.  Again.
The poor stable boy had been brought along on an old pony, to carry back any catches that the party would make… which, being none, meant that Jaspar was in an increasingly bad mood.  A bad mood that he was taking out on Radic.
Retsin leaned against his bay mare’s side, forehead against her neck and sighed softly.  I wish Jaspar would just… I don’t know!  Develop a conscience or something.  He’d dismounted when it became apparent that the hunting party wasn’t going to be moving from the clearing for a while; but what had been idle chatter had somehow gravitated around to Jaspar’s second favourite pastime of bullying.
And, of course, no-one will contradict Jaspar because they either agree with him, or are too worried about bring his attention around to themselves.  Retsin tried to swallow around the cold lump in his stomach.  Myself included, he admitted bitterly to himself, darting a glance at the loud voiced figure of his oldest brother.
Jaspar was a heavy set man, nearing his twenty-first summer, his skin browned from marks spent out hunting, shooting and fishing, his hulking figure pretty much what the Keep’s Weaponsmaster considered ‘ideal’.  Dull blonde hair straggled either side of his face and his eyes were cold and dark.  Currently he was pushing his hard-mouthed gelding into prancing and curvetting towards Radic, who was standing dumbly in front of him.
Retsin bit his lip and looked away, the cold lump hardening.  He knew from experience, that any attempt to intervene would only switch Jaspar’s attention onto himself, and then back to Radic at a later time, when there was no-one else around.  Retsin had also managed to filter out the voices, so it was with a start that he came back to himself, momentarily disorientated.
What was that?  It took a moment for the young noble to realise that the sound had been a pained yelp— a quick look revealed Radic clutching at his head, blood oozing between his fingers, Jaspar smirking, his riding crop raised to land another blow.
“Jaspar— stop it!”  Without being entirely sure how he got there, Retsin found himself across the clearing, his mare abandoned to her own devices as he stood in front of Radic, who was now down on his knees, swaying.  Ret clenched his fists at his sides and stared up at his older brother with what he hoped was an expression of defiance.
The heir leaned forwards, a thin smile stretching his lips and Retsin gulped.  I’m in trouble—
“Weeell,” Jasper’s voice had a mocking tone to it, “look who’s gone and developed a spine.”  He stared contemptuously down at his younger brother.  “Get out of the way, weed, or I’ll ride Faarthe over you as well.”  To emphasise his point, Jaspar kneed his mount in the sides, making the beast roll its eyes and hop-step towards Retsin.
“You— you wouldn’t dare.”  Retsin managed, whilst the voice inside his headed insisted to the contrary, oh yes he would and you know it—
“Try me little brother.”  Jaspar laughed, a cold sound that was immediately echoed by the rest of the group, transformed as they were into a group of his cronies.  The gelding pranced closer, its front hooves flying as Jaspar forced it to pavane.  Retsin flinched backwards a step, raising his hands in a futile warding gesture.  “I guess you want hoof prints on your pretty face then—“
Whatever else Jaspar was about to say was lost amid a trumpeted neigh that didn’t sound like the product of any normal equine throat.  Retsin had just enough time to wonder, What—? before the owner burst into the clearing.
A large white something barrelled into the side of Faarthe, knocking the gelding sideways to the ground and dislodging Jaspar, who went flying through the air to hit the leaf strewn forest floor in a tumble of fine leather and limbs.  The heir’s indignant yelp was cut short by the application of the ground to his face.
Somehow, the white something, sounding like a collapsing silver smithy, managed to vault over the sprawled form of Faarthe, landing in front of Jaspar just as he made it to his feet.  The noble had enough time to look up, his eyes wide with shock, before the white monster wheeled in a tight circle and lashed out with it’s hind feet, catching Jaspar solidly in the stomach and sending him flying backwards with a whoosh of lost breath.
Ret stared at the creature— oh my Gods, that’s a Companion— as it glared around at the other, suddenly silent, nobles.  Despite it being essentially horse-shaped, the expression of disgust on its face was plain.
Suddenly, Retsin found himself the focus of the Companion’s incredible dark blue eyes, and he froze.  The intelligence behind that stare was unnerving in the extreme and it was with some difficulty that he managed to stand up straight and remember to breathe— an activity that distinctly became harder as the Companion began to walk towards him.  I hope it doesn’t want to kick me too— the obscure worry crossed his mind, before being abandoned as it brushed past him and went to nose Radic, who was kneeling on the ground, his expression unfocused.
Radic got Chosen?  A brief stab of jealousy, that Ret managed to overcome with some difficulty.  Well, it’s hardly like anyone else around here is worthy to be a Herald.  He pointed out to himself.
:You.:  Retsin couldn’t help it; he jumped, squeaked, and looked around wildly as the word arrived in his head; his ears were firmly denying that they had heard it.  :Yes, you.  The one with the blonde hair.:  Retsin turned around slowly.
The Companion was staring at him.
“Uh…”  Retsin tried to make himself look as unthreatening as possible to it.  Something, the cynical internal voice pointed out, that isn’t exactly any great task. 
:She, not it.:  The… voice?... was firm.  And female.  :Stop staring like a village idiot and help him.:  A jerk of the Companion’s white nose indicated the stunned looking Radic.
“Wh— what am I supposed to do?”
A derisive snort, Retsin flushed hotly.  :He’s concussed, you ninny, he needs help mounting, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, the stirrups on my saddle need lengthening rather a lot.:  Ret hadn’t noticed, actually; he’d been too busy staring in shock at the large white horse that was talking to him… well… lecturing him.
:We haven’t got all day, boy.:  It— no, her— tone was positively acidic, but was enough to prod Retsin into action.  He approached the Companion with some trepidation and fumbled at the unfamiliar straps on the blue and silver saddle she was wearing before managing to lengthen the left stirrup.
A deep breath and he ducked quickly under her nose— after seeing Jaspar go flying, Ret wasn’t about to go near her hind legs— to her right side and pulled down the other stirrup to match.
“Will that do?”
Tossing her head, the Companion briefly examined his handiwork.  :I suppose.:  She said shortly.  :Help him to stand up.:
Retsin rushed to comply, uncomfortably aware that everyone else in the clearing was staring at him.  Well, not at him solely, but certainly enough to make the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.  Radic was conscious… but his expression was completely vacant and dazed, a thin line of blood drying across his forehead and down the left side of his face, and he was leaning heavily on Retsin’s shoulder.
“Um,” Ret found himself flushing again as the Companion swung her head around to stare at him, “um, I don’t think he’ll be able to stay in the saddle.”
:Get him up and we’ll see.:
Retsin nodded and managed to get Radic over to the left side of the Companion, whose neck was craned round to watch them.  “Radic?  You need to put your foot in the stirrup—“  Ret stared at the stirrup; it seemed far too high up in the air.
Radic moaned under his breath and pawed futilely at his temple.  “’m head hurts,” he protested.
“I know… um,” Retsin looked at the stirrup again; if anything, it seemed higher, then gave the Companion a hopeless look.  She heaved her sides out in a sigh and shook her head, dislodging her forelock from out of her eyes.  Then, to Ret’s surprise she lay down… only… she managed to do it a lot more gracefully than any mere horse.  For a moment, the jealousy surged forwards and gnawed at his insides; Radic was going to spend the rest of his life with this wonderful creature—
:Well?:  —wonderful creature with a tone of voice that you could shave rocks with.
Retsin cursed the fact that his cheeks where going red again and managed to get Radic to sit on the saddle, with both feet in the stirrups.  Somehow.  As soon as Ret let go of Radic’s shoulders, however, the stable boy seemed unable to maintain his balance and started to slide sideways.
“This isn’t going to work—“ the young noble caught hold of Radic’s shoulders and helped him rebalance.
:You’re going to have to get on and steady him.:  The Companion said in a matter of fact way.  :Mount up in front of him and get him to lean on you.:
Retsin stopped dead and looked down at her.  “But—“
:But what?:  She looked at him with one large eye.  :You said it yourself; he won’t stay on on his own, and I wasn’t planning on this being the kind of pleasure ride where some of the participants end up unconscious, so I overlooked the saddle ties when I was packing.:
“Oh,” vaguely, Ret was aware that he should be protesting more, but in all honesty his brain had stopped functioning fully when the Companion had first talked to him, and he couldn’t think of any real reasons.  Besides, the inner voice pointed out in a persuasive tone, you’re helping a future Herald— and this is going to be the only chance you get to ride an actual Companion.
His father would kill him if he just vanished.  And what, exactly, do you think Jaspar is going to do to you when he gathers his wits together?  You’re going to be the only one he can get to that he can blame…  That decided it, and Ret wasted no time in dislodging Radic’s feet from the stirrups and seating himself as best as he could, so that he occupied the saddle and Radic was riding pillion behind him.  The boy seemed to realise what Retsin was trying to do and looped his arms about his waist before sagging against Retsin’s back.
“I think we’re ready,” Retsin looked at the reins tied to the front of the saddle— loose, so the Companion had complete freedom of movement— and elected to wrap both hands around the pommel.  After all, he wasn’t her Chosen, and given her waspish tone and manner, she would probably show little compunction in injuring him in some fashion.  She just assaulted my brother, after all…
The thought reminded him of Jaspar, and he looked over to see the young man sitting up, his face pale as he nursed his bruised abdomen.  The Companion easily gained her feet, with minimal jarring to her passengers, and followed Retsin’s gaze.
:Hah.:  She sounded unrepentant.  :I shoved him, nothing major is broken.  He should be glad I’m not Ipka.:
Who is Ipka?  Ret found himself wondering, before straightening.  “My horse—“ he pointed at the bay mare, who had taken the lack of supervision as an opportunity to severely prune a nearby bush.
:I’m sure one of your little friends can take her home for you.:  Sarcasm dripped from the word ‘friends’ and Retsin winced.
“They’re not my friends,” he insisted in a whisper, “they’re just local nobles and fosterlings that live at Father’s Keep.”
:Hmm.:  The Companion didn’t sound convinced.  :Well, we’re going now.:  With that, she turned neatly on her heels, giving Retsin a quick look at the whole of the clearing— dumbstruck (and in one case; bruised) nobles and all— before setting off at a trot that seemed almost impossibly smooth.
As his hands griped at the pommel, and the sound of bridle bells filled his ears, Retsin blinked.  What the Hells have I gotten myself into?


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