The Black Herald
Steve dropped. The void in his mind was all-encompassing. Nothing. But it wasn’t nothingness. Nothingness was preferable. This was emptiness.
His Companion was dead.
How would he prevail?
Why hadn’t he died with Remayne?
Steve opened his eyes. The ceiling above his head was daubed white. The scents on the air were medicinal and astringent.
A Healer’s Collegium. The whiteness was actinide. His eyes watered. So white. So well-maintained; likely Haven, the capital of Valdemar.
I should have died.
“Oh, you forbid it?” Steve watched the motes of sunlight dancing in King Daniel’s hair. As dreams went, this seemed rather concrete.
He and King Daniel were year mates, born on the same day, Chosen by Companions -- Horse-like Avatars -- on the same day thirteen years later, graduated as Heralds on the same day five years later. And then Steve and Remayne had gone on Circuit with a grizzled, grumpy veteran Herald and her equally curmudgeonly Companion. The heir to the throne of Valdemar and his Companion, Lumina, had stayed in the Capital. They had rarely seen each other since.
Steve had missed Danny more than he could express.
“Yes.” King Daniel puffed out his chest as he stalked back and forward beside Steve’s bed. “I forbid it. And stop thinking King Daniel. I’m Danny, your friend. Even if we haven’t been able to see each other over the past few years because of duty. We are friends.”
“Is that a decree?” Steve asked uninterestedly.
Danny plopped down on the mattress, hip pushing into Steve’s side.
“Do you want me to make it a decree? I can.” Danny dredged up a smile from somewhere. “I need you, Herald.”
“Even without Remayne.”
Heralds surviving their Companions was rare. They normally died together. Those that did survive often found another Companion heartbeats after the loss. None had stood up for Steve. None had found him worthy. He couldn’t look at himself in a mirror. He had believed himself an honourable man; yet, no Companion came forth. He had left Remayne behind, guarding their retreat as he helped the villagers escape from a blitzkrieg.
Why hadn’t he died?
Steve sighed and stared out the window. The curtains wafted lightly in the breeze. Spring was proving to be a gentle handmaiden leading the land of Valdemar into summer. How long had he been here?
The autumn campaign had been hard fought, and insane. Who in their right mind brokered war as winter nipped at their heels? The battle had been for ideology. A tin pot dictator who objected to Valdemar’s motto There is no one true way as an affront to their belief in the god Mam’mon. That the village of farmers and artisans had been set over a richly veined rock strata of yellow ore had played no small part in the Believers of Mam’mon’s target.
A beautiful landscape of patchwork fields, forests and water courses was now a devastated wasteland all in the name of Mam’mon. The True Believers had not gained a foothold on Valdemar. Remayne had called down an obliterating Final Strike, once his Herald and their charges were out of the area of affect.
“Sshh.” Cool fingers brushed the tears from his cheeks. “Turn away from those memories.”
Steve blinked the moisture from his eyes. Huh, the King was still here. He wasn’t a dream. A Healer robed in green blocked out the sunlight. Where had she come from? Had she Fetched herself into the room in the blink of an eye?
“Steve,” Danny said sharply. “You’ve been here a long time. Your Channels were practically charred when your Companion sacrificed himself and obliterated the so-called Lord Punt, the Mad Lord Punt. You almost died, but you’re alive. You have to start living.”
The Mind Healer had had similar conversations with him, albeit conversations weren’t the correct descriptions for their meetings. One sided -- Statements of Intent -- since perhaps the burnt Channels, which directed his Mage gifts and mindspeech, prevented the young woman from plying her skills directly on his mind. She had been restricted to words, and they were not her forte, unlike Danny.
“Steve!” Danny gripped his chin. “Concentrate!”
He had a headache. He always seemed to have a headache. Burnt Channels, perhaps?
“Steven, I, King Daniel Williams of Valdemar, need you. I need your experience and insight. I need you well. I need you out of this bed.”
“Your Majesty,” a voice, somewhat familiar, said, “you cannot just berate someone better.”
“I know you mean well, but this is not the way,” the Healer spoke sharply.
“I am sorry, Steve,” The King apologised. “Come on, sit up, please.”
Steve moved on the mattress. He was weak. Staring at his hands, he marvelled at the narrowness of his wrists.
“That’s it.” Danny scooped an arm around his shoulders and helped him sit up. The green robed Mind Healer set a cushion at his back.
“Nice to see you awake, Steve,” she said.
Healer Garivald, Steve recalled.
“If you would like to help Herald Steven with his breakfast?” She pointed to the tray beside his bed.
Surely she didn’t expect the King to feed him. Danny reached for the bowl.
“No.” Steve held his narrow, angular hands out for the porridge. He would feed himself.
Come sit outside. Walk around the gardens. Come sit outside. Walk around the gardens, went the refrain. Sunlight. Sit in the light. The sun is good for you. To shut up Garivald, he would make the steps to the double doors and flop on the garden seat or make a turn around the Mind Healers’ enclosed garden and then sleep for hours.
The sun helped, but it couldn’t make him care. He walled up his grieving behind a wall of his own making. The wall was fragile, so very fragile. He stared into the void, and the void stared back.
“Tincture of Verity.” Garivald set the tall, sweating glass beside him. “It’s a beautiful day. Don’t you think?”
He drank because otherwise she would berate him, politely and graciously, until he did. The tincture made the cool water taste of lime and grass.
He shielded his eyes from the morning sun shining directly across the gardens and into his eyes, until a shadow fell across him. Danny like to stand between him and the sun. The sun playing in his fine hair was an effect that he knew Danny favoured.
“Why don’t you sit in the shade?”
“The sun is supposedly good for me,” Steve said.
“I don’t know.” Steve shrugged listlessly. “You could ask them”
“I will later. But come on.” Danny, King Daniel, extended his hand. “Let’s go for a walk outside of here. There’s something that I want to show you.”
Steve eyed the hand. Danny wiggled it enticingly from side to side.
Heaving out a sigh, Steve grabbed it, and allowed Danny to heave him out of his pile of cushions.
Young voices, soft and whispery.
Steve lifted his chin. The verdant green of the Companions’ Field was spread out before them. Mist burned off the lightly rolling plain. Through the mist, three, pure white, Companion foals gambolled on long legs towards them.
“No,” Steve whispered. Companions, they would know, they would know that he had left Remayne. He would scare them.
“They always come to say hello when I have my morning constitutional.” Danny tossed an apple from hand to hand, prepared for the babies. “Don’t leave, please.”
Bleating for ::Danno::
“They’re young.” Danny deftly flipped a short knife out of his sleeve, and began to pare the apple.
Surrounded. He would have to push them aside, and hurt them, to run – stumble – away.
“This is Leverage, this is Ritten, and this is Arivis.” Danny pointed at each identical foal as if they were different as night and day.
Steve kept his hands down by his sides; he didn’t close them into fists.
A soft, velvet nose nuzzled his fingers.
“Here.” Danny passed him a piece of apple.
Arivis bleated a neigh and pranced from side to side in anticipation. Arthritically, Steve set the apple on his palm and stretched his fingers and thumb away. Soft, softly, Arivis lipped the treat.
::Thank you:: she giggled in his mind.
Oh, he could still hear Companions. He could still hear Companions. Arivis planted her forehead against his chest and demanded ear scratches. Steve had no choice but to scratch. Her pleasure was a balm.
He looked up to see Danny smiling knowingly at him.
“I guess they think you’re okay.” He stroked the foals who were begging for treats. “Leverage, don’t nibble at my clothes. The seamstress will yell at me again.”
Wreathed in light mist, their hides glowing whitely, Steve could see two adult Companions watching them. Leverage’s mother, and the mother of the twins.
::Herald:: the mother of the twins acknowledged.
Herald -- Steve stood mouth open. Herald, he was still a Herald. The Companions thought that he was a Herald.
::Come, Arivis:: Her mother said.
::Gotta go:: Arivis skipped off, legs with bony knees going hither and yon. Her brother chased after her, was promptly distracted by a butterfly and frolicked after it.
He heard Leverage clearly.
“They’re very cute.” Danny rocked back on his heels.
“Yes.” Steve was suddenly exhausted.
Danny curled an arm around his waist. “Let’s get you back to the Healers. I come see the babies most mornings. Unless, of course, duties get in the way.”
Steve gripped Danny’s sleeve.
“That wasn’t--” he couldn’t put his thoughts in order.
“The Companions understand,” Danny said. “They don’t blame you for Remayne’s death. They sorrow. They grieve with you.”
Steve sagged, and Danny turned him into his body. A strong hand pushed his head into the crook of Danny’s neck. Intricate embroidery scratched his damp nose. He sniffed. The seamstress would yell at Danny if he got the needlework wet.
“Shush.” The strong hand stroked the nape of his neck. “Shush.”
It was Danny's knife.
Perhaps it had also been his grandmother’s, Queen Astrid's?
Regardless, it was Danny's sharp knife.
He flipped the blade through his fingers and let it dance over his knuckles. A little nick welled with blood.
It was a pretty blade, but also lethally sharp and functional.
Danny said that the Companions held no guilt over his head. The foals nuzzled kisses into the palms of his hand. A hand that now held a knife.
Steve tossed the blade into the air. It turned over once, twice, reached the apex of its climb, and then started to drop. Steve watched it like an impending avalanche falling towards him. He caught it at the last possible moment, flipped it once, and slipped it into his sleeve.
This time he was told to go for a walk and not just sit.
Ostensibly, ‘they’ wanted to clean his room; in reality, they were just being annoying. Ants in his pants -- Garivald was probably going to tweak his medication again -- he dragged around the walled gardens. It did not escape his notice that the Mind Healers gardens were walled. To protect him, or protect others? A young man shadowed by a carer was absorbed by a tree in the far corner of the maze of raised beds and carefully tendered grottos.
Steve stared at the young woman weeding… doing something gardeny in a loamy patch of soil. He wasn't a complete gardening-ignoramus; he recognised that she was tending a herb patch.
“Hello,” she tried.
Steve stared a little more. Valdemar was a country of many peoples. However, there were not a lot of Tayledras or Shin'a'in; the people preferring their forests and open plains, respectively, to city living. Steve guessed she was Tayledras from the flowing leaf and flower patterned robes, clearly chosen to match the Healers’ gardens, and her ridiculously long, impractical hair.
“You're being rude.” She effortlessly rolled back from her squat to sit cross-legged on one of the paving stones around the plot.
“Sorry,” Steve said, surly. “I can leave.”
“Could you pass me that pot, please?”
There was an entire tray of woody and leafy dark plants by his foot. Steve considered her opening gambit, and, curious, decided to go along with it.
“Chamomile, first,” she said.
Steve squatted. Each pot had a carefully pencilled label. One row was chamomile. Steve handed across the first pot in the line.
“Thank you. You can call me Kono, by the way.” She smiled, dimples showing. “I don't understand the 'bytheway' but my Teacher says it is polite. I usually get funny looks when I say it. Did I say it right?”
She felt young. He could see her through his damaged othersense, bright and vibrant. Tayledras aged effortlessly, especially those who swam in magic, and surfed the ley lines, nodes, and heartstones. She could be in her eighties or twenties. Her eyes, though, were a pale brown, only just starting to bleach as she learnt the ways of magic – young.
She wasn’t ill. The vibrancy he saw dispelled that. And wasn’t that a curious thing, to be able to see and know that a person was ill. He craned his head over his shoulder, to look at the man by the tree. He turned back quickly to stare at the young Tayledras.
“I miss home,” she said, conversationally into the empty spaces where Steve didn’t speak. “Our Vale is a green living place. Here there are walls. The Palace gardeners are very protective of their flower beds and bushes, and everyone has their role. I offered my help to the Healers, and they were happy to allow me to spend time in their gardens waking the plants to spring.”
She carefully stroked the leaf of the chamomile, now planted in the soil, and it perked up under her care.
“The palace gardeners should have let you help,” Steve said, thinking that dismissing her offer was their loss. Steve had worked with and spent a small amount of time with Tayledras scouts in the Pelagirs. He had only visited one of the Tayledras Vales a handful of times and met the reclusive Tayledras Mages. Judging by the way the woman brightly resonated with the greenery around her, she was a Tayledras Healing Adept or a Tayledras Healing Adept-in-training.
“I can do better work here,” she said, and smiled sunnily.
“Kono isn’t a Tayledras name,” Steve said. Oh. Clearly, Garivald’s medicines had robbed him of diplomacy. Albeit there was not a lot of diplomacy to be eroded.
“You know my people? My use name is Knowing Iron. By the way, that does not sit well with the Court of Valdemar. Lady Knowing Iron seemed to offend them. I don’t understand. Perhaps you could explain? My name could be translated as Kono, so I chose to use that. Next plant, please.”
Steve settled down on the paving stone opposite her and handed across a second chamomile.
“People who don’t travel or don’t meet other cultures don’t…” Steve struggled to put his words in order. “They think that there are only a few ways.”
“But is not the code of K’Valdemar There is no one true way?”
“Yes, but people don’t always remember that, and being reminded can make them--.” Steve wanted to say stupid, ignorant, and offensive but he couldn’t get the words out. “I can call you Knowing Iron.”
“Kono is easier, and I do not mind. I am apprenticed to Treasured Vast Water, Diplomat to K’Valdemar from K’Treva, and I am here to learn your ways.”
“I’ve travelled fairly extensively,” Steve said slowly. He took in a deep breath. “Mostly in the north and north-west into the Pelagirs, but I have travelled to Jkatha and the Dhorisha Plains. I can answer questions. And I don’t get offended. Not by honest questions.”
Steve had thought that Kono had smiled brightly before.
“You mentioned,” Steve said into the void, “you needed me?”
It was the first time, he thought, that he had asked a question in recent memory.
“Well, yes!” Danny kicked a stone into an ornamental bush. “Don't get me wrong. I adore Nagar but he was my -- is? -- my Grandmother's personal Herald. I mean, by definition, he is 'now' the King's Own Herald and is my trusted adviser. But he was the Queen's Own Herald first.”
“Breathe, Daniel.” Steve cocked an eyebrow at him.
Danny stuck his tongue out.
“You know what I mean, Steve.” Danny came to a dead stop on the cobbled path, and turned on his heel to face him. “Nagar has so much experience – a veritable wealth of experience -- but that's kind of the problem. I love him; he's essentially my Grandfather, and genuinely remembers changing my nappies. I need a friend.”
“He's also seventy,” Steve said, thinking he wouldn't be very spry getting between Danny and an assassin.
“Yeah, poor guy, needs naps. I think he deserves naps,” Danny said, completely missing the threat. “But the King's Own can't retire -- he doesn’t want to, I don’t want him to, and he can’t because he's a font of valuable information. Still, he’s my adoptive grandfather and I need a friend. Not that a grandfather can’t be a friend, but --”
“Breathe, Danny,” Steve repeated.
“So, I need you,” Danny said. Unconsciously, he clasped his hands together, shaking his entwined fingers back and forth.
“Yes,” Steve said simply. “I will stand by your side.”
He could do it.
The Seamstresses’ Hall, and the bevy of professionals that serviced the Crown, was his destination. He waited patiently at the doorway to be spotted.
Purely based on his size -- lack of size -- the doorkeeper was a new apprentice, in post to aid and direct. The child didn't recognise Steve, but he erred, logically, on the side of caution, since they were On The Hill -- despite Steve’s plain soft trousers and tunic.
“I'd like to speak to Seamstress Aualaine, please.”
“Who should I say is calling?” the apprentice asked diplomatically.
Steve framed the words in his head first. “Herald McGarrett.”
“Yes, sir.” He bobbed his shaggy brown head.” Please follow me.”
Seamstress Aulaine was the Duchess of Lakeland and she oversaw the Crown’s sublime works in needle and thread: Monarch’s wedding gowns; banners and tapestries; house and knaves’ coats of arms, tabards…. Providing uniforms for Heralds was part of her people's purview, but this part of her domain fashioned the Court Heralds’ uniforms. Steve, honestly, didn't know much of anything about her role, but he knew to talk to the Head.
The Duchess was working in her solar, a tiny scrap of embroidery stretched across a frame in her lap.
“Herald McGarrett,” she said eyeing him over a pince-nez, “how may I help you?”
“I have a request.”
“Yes,” she prompted when he didn't continue.
“I need some new uniforms.”
“Yes.” There was an air of of course in her tone but I’m too polite to state the obvious.
Steve knew his weight loss was dramatically apparent.
She set aside her work and stood. “Come to the measuring room.”
Steve followed even though he guessed that normally the Duchess didn't do hands-on work. He stood on the central raised platform without needing direction. Stoically, he endured her impersonal hands. She made notes in a large folio, which had his name in the title section in large copperplate.
“Yes, your measurements have changed. I can have one made up by mid-morning tomorrow. The others—”
“I need it in black,” Steve announced.
That made her blink. Steve almost cracked a smile.
“Black,” she repeated.
“Black,” Steve confirmed.
She narrowed her eyes and tilted her chin up to regard him through her glasses.
“Black it is,” she said.
End part one