Karita was aware of the Dean's presence outside her door long before the man steeled himself into tapping on it with the fingers of one hand. He never did knock; he always tapped. It was an idiosyncrasy, to go with Karita's idiosyncrasy of ignoring people until they went ahead and made their presence known like anyone with a decent grasp of manners.
Her student, an ordinary Valedmaran, a white-skinned, red-headed boy with a serious face and a serious difficulty with sums and figures, looked up sharply at the door. Taking a moment to brush her Companion's mind with her own, Karita sighed, sat up, and wheeled her chair back from the desk.
"That's probably going to be the end of this tutorial, Hesso," she told the boy, regretfully. "Work on the problems we were just going over and bring what you've managed to do to me the day after tomorrow, and we'll see how far we've got then." She raised her voice. "Come in, Torath," she said to the waiting fellow Herald, and the Trainee got up, bowed awkwardly, and then darted out the door, making a rapid escape from grave faces and serious, adult, full-Herald business.
"I swear the horses keep Choosing younger and younger every year," Karita said, as Torath came in, tugging at his short beard in a way that told her on no uncertain terms that something, somewhere, was terribly wrong.
In the back of her mind, Adanar snorted irritably, shot her an image of herself at twelve with patently exaggeration to the wide, dark, innocent eyes - but did not correct her impression of her friend and technical superior. "What's gone to devils this time, Tor?" she asked, waving him to one of the seats by the fire.
Her office was slightly larger than most, for which she traded having an office and a sitting room, as many who lived here on a permanent basis did. It let her spread things out and make certain there was room for her chair to manoeuvre. Torath lowered his tall form carefully into one of the armchairs, while Karita rolled close enough to the fire to benefit from its warmth, without bothering to change from her wheeled chair to the divan. She doubted she'd be staying in this room long enough to make it worth it.
"I'll do you the compliment of not being injured that you assume I only come to see you when something's wrong," Torath said. He helped himself to the tea that was on the warming-rock beside the fire; once upon a time manners long ingrained by a gently-bred family would have kept him waiting until she offered (preferably by pouring herself), but she'd broken him of that bad habit long ago. "Although I promise, someday I'll just come to have a chat."
"Yes, when we invent a way to control time and you can stop it for an candlemark or two," Karita said, blandly, tapping her fingertips on her chair's arm. "Or when you retire and we're both ancient and decrepit and you need one of these - " she tapped the chair arm twice with her fingernail, " - to get around as well."
"You could just ride Adanar everywhere," Torath retorted. "We both know that."
"He doesn't fit in my rooms," she countered. "Besides, sitting on him makes my back hurt after a few candlemarks."
"We'll make you a backrest," came Torath's reply, and Karita sighed. Not at his comment or the banter, no - at the fact that he'd admitted it was bad and was still bantering. Which meant even he didn't actually want to talk about the problem, was avoiding it. And that meant it was really bad.
She tossed a questioning thought at Adanar and got the full regretful grimness of his thought back, without any mischief, dry humour or even irony to leaven it. He did not seem inclined to bother putting it into words, though, so she supposed she might as well get it out of Torath.
It was often useful to see the human point of view on this sort of thing first, anyway.
"What is it, Tor?" she asked, seriously.
Her friend sighed, his long face unhappy and the worry-line between his eyebrows quite pronounced. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees and fingers steepled over the space under him. "We need you to come to the Outpost, Ari," he said.
Karita's eyebrows sent greetings to her hairline. Not that getting to the Outpost, as it was so euphemistically named, was going to be that much of a problem; if anything, the Healers had been on her case for not getting out and riding Adanar enough lately, what with the snow adding an irritating impediment to her getting herself to the stables. No - if there was a problem she was needed for and it was at the Outpost, then it was a problem indeed; then it was something which couldn't even be brought into Haven, for fear of the distress it could cause.
:Greater and lesser devils of light and air, horse,: she shot at Adanar, irritable enough to use words, :what have you and your kindred done now?:
Adanar replied with one of the mental growls that she had on numerous occasions made him seem a great deal more like a wolf than a horse; with it came a disavowal of any responsibility, and profound irritation, not directed at her.
And with that clearer sense of her Companion, Karita became quite clearly aware that his disinterest in speaking in words was not, in fact, disinterest, but rather due to the fact that he was already engaged with the problem, and it was taking up all of his attention.
"Oh wonderful," she said aloud. Torath canted his head and she said, "You're aware even the horses aren't of one mind about whatever this is?"
Torath sighed and sat up. "That explains Vara's unease," he said. "She wouldn't tell me."
Karita kept her private opinion that Torath put up with Not Being Told by his own Companion far more than he should to herself, this time. He'd already gone on, anyway. "I'd almost rather you saw for yourself before I said anything, Ari," he said. "I know that's not entirely fair, but - "
"Oh hush," Karita said, sighing. "Has anyone cleared a path through the snow to the stables yet? I mean a proper path," she added, "not 'they've packed down the snow here a bit more so we no longer get wet up to our knees when it all melts inside'. Because otherwise, you're going to have to send someone young, broad-shouldered and polite to carry me. You might as well make it someone pretty," she added, "while you're at it."
Karita had been Chosen at twelve. The delirious, giddy sense of love and protection had kept her mindless and agreeable almost three quarters of the way to Haven. Then she'd emerged from the fog of ecstatic, little-girl love, realized what had happened, and attempted to drown herself in order to expiate the sin. Within the next three weeks, she had also attempted to make use of the knife, the noose, poison, and made another attempt at drowning, just to round off the pattern.
Then she'd spent three months in absolute helpless despair, absolutely and utterly certain her soul would be consumed by devils, her family bereft of the perfect balance and denied Completion, and that she might even have allowed one of the seven evil spirits into the world.
When devils failed to devour her soul, and no curse descended either upon Haven or her family (and indeed, her father had managed a particularly prestigious match for one of her sisters, with someone the sister adored, no less, even if she had been at home until the scandalous age of eighteen summers), Karita had spent another year in an angry, terrified crisis of faith.
Not until she was two weeks shy of her fourteenth year did she so much as speak to Adanar. Not until sixteen had she made any kind of peace with the idea of being a Herald, with its profound disordering of the life appointed to one of her birth, status and obligation. The stars, omens and her placement in the order of birth - the fourth child of a fifth child and a third child, both ruled by the moon in the third house - had been very clear: Karita was to have been given to the Temple as an oblate, to devote body and soul to creating and attaining the perfect balance of spirit and world, and so bless her family and assure their place among the Exalted, when the world ended.
She had, in fact, been dressed for her Initiation when Adanar came for her.
Karita and her family had eventually reconciled; when disaster failed to materialize, her father and mother had come to the conclusion that the Creator's will was manifest in many surprising ways, and clearly this was one of them. Only one very rigid old aunt still refused to speak to her as tainted and defiled. And the twenty years between then and now had offered their own consolation gifts against a complete loss of faith and shattering of a world. Not least of which, she was fully willing to admit, was Adanar himself.
But those first years made her one of those privy to a secret few in Valdemar knew, and even fewer cared to think about. Combined with her intense and particular Empathy, and the strength and peculiar twist those years had given to the bond she shared with Adanar, it made her something of a specialist. When still in possession of both her legs, it made her a kind of a spy - and in the summertime, she was still a kind of a spy, if in a much smaller ambit.
Since her time with the Healers after the loss of her second leg, though, she was also, and more importantly, the one who could generally find solutions to particular kinds of problems.
As Karita pulled on her heavy wool cloak and did up the belt for the heavier trews of wool-lined leather for the ride to the Outpost, she was still turning over in her mind the implications of the fact that Torath didn't even want to tell her what this problem was. There were any number of things that could interfere with or poison the bond between Chosen and Companion, ranging from causes religious, emotional, all the way to the Companion in question being a devils-thoughtless careless pig-headed idiot who needed to be kicked around the pen.
To, it must be said, sheer bad luck, and a cruel world and that cruel world's circumstances. As it had been, with her and Adanar. Sometimes, the world simply didn't care how much pain it was putting people through, and the lesser of two evils turned out to be, while still evil, far preferable to the greater of two evils.
Karita still had nightmares about the day that her resentment and anger at it all had boiled over into the fire that took down half the trees in the Grove before someone else managed to stop it. Or, more precisely, she had nightmares about what would have happened, had that Gift manifested when she was at home, or in the Temple.
As it always would have.
Being called on in this way always sent her mind down those sorts of dark paths, so that when the shy and gigantic young Trainee who had come to carry her to Adanar (saddled for her already) settled her onto her Companion's back, Adanar both nudged thoughts of affection, understanding and a slight nip of humour into her mind, and turned his neck to nip physically in the direction of the remains of her legs, as she strapped herself in on either side. She leaned forward to put her cheek against his neck, briefly, before sitting back up.
Adanar's aggravation was a great deal more evident now, but when she tried a query, he gently pushed her away and echoed Torath's feeling that she should see for herself, before she was led one way or another by anyone, human or Companion.
It wasn't actually called "the Outpost". It had some official name - Something-or-other Hall - but Karita could never be bothered remembering it. It was "the Outpost", the bit of the Collegium that they kept out of the city and away from the other people, in case some day it exploded.
"I assume," she said, when Habart helped her down from Adanar's back onto the wheeled-chair she kept here for these occasions, "that you've already brought in a MindHealer, and he or she's already flapped their hands in their usual fuss about not daring to do anything while the bond between Chosen and Companion is so new and then chewed their fingernails bloody in indecision until you sent them away?"
"Sometimes I really wonder what it might have been like to meet you back when you were young and hadn't mellowed out yet," Habart remarked. He was a mountain of a man, which was convenient. Her banter aside, Karita didn't really like relying on strangers to carry her about.
"I have an irritated horse and a disaster area waiting for me, I don't have the patience to be mellow," she retorted, settling herself and noting with approval that someone had at least actually cleared this courtyard of all its snow, right down to the paving-stones. "Right," she said. "Show me what's so bad this time."
Behind her, Adanar waited with just enough patience to actually get his tack off him before he shook himself, danced around the suddenly-frozen stable-hands and then took off in strides as elegant and graceful as they could be, since he headed into looser snow. "I'd assume he's going to sit on the idiot foal," Karita remarked, given Habart's glance. "He's extremely aggravated about this one, but he won't tell me why."
"Why" became apparent the minute Habart showed her through the bottom-floor corridors (someone had been thinking, at least, or just lucky - last time she'd had to wait, rather waspishly, as they brought her little case down to where she could actually have a look at the young woman) and held open the door.
That the boy was very gently restrained and had his fingers wrapped in cloth tape merely spoke to his distress. The answer to her Companion's displeasure was in the fact that the boy was very clearly an Outlander brought very far from his home, and couldn't be older than ten. And further, and more importantly, there was a girl-child, close to the Chosen boy in age (sister, maybe? cousin? twin?) sitting on the end of the bed where the boy lay unconscious (most likely sedated). She had been sitting cross-legged and stroking the boy's hair, but the moment the adults came into the other end of the appropriately large room, she balled up, knees going bent in front of her, arms wrapped around them, small face both fierce and terrified.
She said something in a language Karita didn't even recognize, but was clearly some variation on "keep away from me and my friend-brother-cousin-whatever the hell he is, you evil strange witchy people."
Karita leaned her elbow on the arm of her chair, and put her face in that hand. She held up the other one to stop Habart from saying anything; she really did want to make all her own observations, before anyone else tried to help.
The girl and boy were both slender, but didn't looked starved. The boy had what looked like a burn-scar up by his right eye, going back into his hair, which was cut quite short. The girl's was long, braided in a single tail. They were darker even than Karita, and she and hers had stood out here in Valdemar since they migrated to the kingdom. They both wore what had to be their own clothes, and Karita thought they couldn't have been here much longer than it took Torath to come find her. The girl was a mess of fear and confusion that fair shouted against Karita's shields.
She blocked that out and then opened up a bit to the boy, and swore under her breath. The Companion bond was there, where it would usually be, but underneath it the boy's mind was a mess, a crosswork of, well, scars and calluses. The kind that you only got when a psyche had been specifically attacked, by someone with the Gift to do it.
But they were scars, not wounds, and they had the look of someone having already gone over them with sutures, so to speak. The boy had been cared for, and by someone Gifted enough to know what they were doing, and came from devils only knew where.
And then along comes some white horse out of nowhere and takes off with him, stabs a bond into his mind and soul, and frankly, Karita thought they were lucky the girl seemed to have tagged along, too.
"Right," she said aloud, with a sigh. "What kind of a state is the boy in?"
"Not good," Habart replied, grimly. "We've Healed him up, but he came in with scratches and rents of his own doing, and patches pulled out of his hair, the girl in a right state from trying to get him to stop, and of course the Companion in utter shambles. Neither of them can understand a word we say, and the girl fair threw her own fit when Donn tried to see if she could get through mind-to-mind, so much that Donn says she wished she'd ignored us and gone with her instincts and not done it." Habart grimaced. "You know how it is, Kar."
"Right," she said again. "Hold on while I talk to the horse." :Words, horse - and tell me the idiot who ran off after the boy was really, really young, or I swear I am going to have it off with the entire herd right now.:
:He's a foal, yes, and young-in-soul, too,: Adanar said in his grudging mind-voice. :Some as have no better sense don't have that excuse, though.: He sounded disgusted. :And yes, you think right, Chosen. He felt the pull, ran off across five or six borders, happened on the boy, there was about ten minutes of it being okay - you know the way - except fortunately the girl wouldn't let him go off alone, and then bang, it started downhill and picked up speed. And of course the idiot foal just kept pressing in harder to try and make the boy see that everything was fine, and, well, you can guess what good that did. He should have left the boy be.:
It was rare, for Adanar to say something like that. A good two thirds of the Companions thought it was some kind of heresy to even think it, and given their druthers - well.
Companions could walk away. It was a hard thing, cruelly hard for them, but sometimes, Karita knew, not as hard as when the Chosen human repudiated them, or threw him or herself off a building, or just slowly decayed from despair and pain. Adanar was older than a lot of the other Companions, and he'd had some idea of what he was doing when he took Karita anyway; they'd spoken of it more than once, and he'd outright said that if she hadn't been a disaster waiting to happen, he'd've let her be.
The first time he'd told her that was probably the moment she'd first been comfortable with loving him, the stupid horse.
Most of the Circle and most of the Companions considered the Choice to be divinely guided, but as far as Karita was concerned, sometimes the Gods chose wrong. :What happened to the boy?:
:To both of them, the girl just wasn't the choice. Yet, anyway; who knows what'll happen now they're here. Navan couldn't get much in the way of coherence - he just says as far as he did get, a crazy mindmage used their town for target practice for a while, and then as his private little demesne. Along came some kind of knight-mage errant - sounds a bit like a Herald, actually, but without us - and duelled him to the death, and then up and took the kids to some Temple or other of a Healing order. Which is where they were, quite happily, when Navan charged in without a moment's thought.:
Karita tapped her steepled fingers against her lips. :Joy. Rapture. Do you have anything to tell me that'll help, horse?: They were always both cranky with this sort of thing; it wasn't even worth trying to watch what they said.
:Not a damn thing, other than I've drilled into this young idiot's head that he's to keep his mind to himself until otherwise told and fuck the bond, thank you very much,: Adanar replied. :You're on your own.:
Just what she wanted to hear.
Karita took a moment or two to gather her thoughts, Habart leaning against the wall and waiting. There was a faint flush to his cheeks; Habart didn't see eye to eye with Karita on the basic morality of this sort of thing, and his Companion was outright loud about thinking that Adanar walked the edge of nearly evil ways of thinking. But to the man's credit, he kept his mouth shut.
"This is what we're going to do," Karita began.
In less than half a candlemark, Karita was alone in the room, with fresh clothes, some food and drink, and a book for herself. She settled the clothing, food and drink on a table that she dragged with some difficulty into nearly the centre of the room, and then retreated to her end, book in hand. She did it all by herself on purpose; it was a bit awkward, but it was also more than a bit difficult to be afraid of someone when you'd watch them trying to manage a table and Karita's chair at the same time.
She needed the girl to come to her.
Several hours, most of the book, a profound stretch of Karita's bladder control, and all of the food and drink later, the girl had started to look on Karita with a little less outright fear, and a little more wary interest. When Karita came to the end of the section, she put a length of string in the book to hold her place, and slid it down beside her in the chair.
Then she leaned her forearms on the chair arm, and tilted her head at the girl in what she hoped was a quizzical look, at least to the child. Slowly, very carefully, she also began to project. Just slightly. Just a sense of comfort, trust, familiarity, like the passive warmth of a room with big windows that face away from the sun, on a bright day.
As the child slowly and cautiously uncurled, and said something aloud, a kind of query, Karita made a great show of an expression of bewilderment and said, on her own part, "I don't understand you." She beckoned. "But if you come here, I think I can do something about that."
It took another few minutes of coaxing before the child would slide off the bed from beside her brother and cross, on bare feet, the distance to Karita's chair. Karita held out her hand. As if she were afraid it would burn her, the girl held out hers.
Karita held the child's fingers in hers very, very gently, and with the care and skill of twenty years, just barely brushed her mind to the child's, avoiding every pitfall she could see.
The girl started a little bit, eyes wide. "It's all right," Karita murmured, letting the mind-magic take the meaning of the words. The eyes showed white all around, and the girl yanked her hand away, took a step back. But only one step.
Karita held her hands up, palms out. "No harm, little one," she said, soft and sure. "No harm." Then she extended her hand again, just a little, and waited.
The girl remained torn. She looked at Karita; she looked at her brother sleeping. She looked at her hand, and at Karita's. And Karita just waited, in spite of the increasing ache in her back from staying so still, and the complaint of her bladder for being so damn full.
Eventually, the little warm hand was laid on hers again. The girl spoke, but this time the contact brought the sense of it into Karita's mind. "Who are you? Where are we? What did you do to my brother?"
At the last words, her eyes filled up with tears. Karita fought the urge to sigh.
It would be a long, long thing, this. But at least it was a start.