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Only deep in dreams do you appear

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Lissa sat in the shelter of a small gazebo, hugging herself and watching the rain sliding off the roof in sheets, inches from her nose.

She had made better time to Haven than she expected, and arrived late that morning. With more temerity than she had dreamed she possessed, she had marched right into the Palace and requested an audience with the Queen. She hadn’t gotten one, of course, but the Seneschal’s Herald had come to briefly speak with her after a candlemark or two spent waiting in a small but well appointed room. He had assured her, in about two sentences, that Savil was sending regular reports on the situation and that everything was, supposedly, fine, and then dismissed her. 

At which point it had occurred to her that she hadn’t made any plans beyond this point. She didn’t even have a place to sleep. She had managed to stop a page in the hallway who knew the way to Savil’s quarters, but since no one was actually there, she felt weird about letting herself in. She didn’t know anyone else in Haven, and she hadn’t bothered to find out where Lord Corey and his family would be staying. Probably someone would find space for her in the Palace guest quarters if she requested it, but she hadn’t quite been able to face the embarrassment of asking. And she could go to an inn, maybe, but the closest inns were outside the Palace walls, and some part of her desperately wanted to be as close to the Palace as she could. So she had wandered the grounds and the gardens, until it started raining and she took refuge here.

It was dark, the only light coming from a guttering torch sheltered by the overhanging room of the nearest building, and the occasional flash of lightning. She had no idea how late it was. Candlemarks after sunset, at least.

She had just been thinking of giving up and running for Savil’s rooms, until the storm had redoubled itself a few minutes ago. She would get drenched if she went out now – and she had left her saddlebags, with her changes of clothing, in the hands of the guardsmen who had accompanied her, whom she had lost track of when she stormed into the Palace and hadn’t seen since. Gods, girl, you’re not exactly making a good showing of yourself, she thought, grumpily. This had not been well thought out. You’re supposed to be too old to need a nursemaid!

She had heard some shouting a few minutes ago, she thought, just after she saw a weird flash of light from the general direction of the Heralds’ temple, but it was hard to tell over the rain. It might just have been lightning; there was certainly enough of that.

The sound of hoofbeats jerked her out of her daydreaming. She looked around in time to see a white-clad Herald sprinting out through the nearest door, on a collision course with a Companion now leaping the short wall that surrounded the ornamental garden. She had started to stand when the two met. A roll of thunder drowned out her shouted question; the Herald clambered onto his Companion’s back and moments later they were galloping in the opposite direction.

She stared after them. Something’s wrong. People only moved that fast in emergencies, and no one would be out in weather like this unless they were urgently needed. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with her…but she had a bad feeling.

For a moment she hovered under the shelter, indecisive. Then she took a deep breath and dashed out into the rain.

It was colder than she had expected and her riding leathers were drenched in seconds. Visibility was poor; she lost sight of the Herald-Companion pair when she had gone only a dozen paces. She kept running, though, she was already wet now and she might as well find out what was going on. Maybe she could make herself useful.

She was almost in sight of the river when another Companion passed her, a tall stallion, bearing a plump woman carrying a bundle of something, who she thought might be wearing Healer greens – it was hard to tell the colour in the dark, but the cut looked right. She ran harder, the breath wheezing in her chest. Gods, I thought I was in good shape!

There was a light in the distance, on the bank of the river. Clean white light, nothing that came from a torch or lantern. Her foot slipped in a patch of mud and she fell hard, catching herself and rolling over her shoulder. Ow. She scrambled up, pushed a hank of sopping hair out of her eyes, and kept running.

Gradually, the strangest diorama she had ever seem swam into view, lit by a small, glowing globe that definitely wasn’t natural. Several Companions were standing around, mud-splattered to the withers, and another, a mare, was down on her haunches, practically lying on the ground, under the shelter of…something. The rain seemed to be sliding from an invisible surface, falling in a circular sheet around the scene. An older but powerful-looking man in Herald’s Whites, so wet they were half-transparent and clung to his muscled torso, sat back on his heels. The plump Healer, another curly-haired young woman – no, she was barely more than a child, maybe twelve or thirteen years old – and a young man were kneeling around something.

A second Herald, the young man she had seen dashing out of the Palace, was leaning against his Companion’s shoulder. She could see his lips moving as he spoke to the older Herald, but a burst of thunder drowned out his words.

What’s going on?

She heard hoofbeats behind her, and moments later yet another Herald, a woman this time, had passed her on her way to the scene.

She slowed to a jog, then a careful walk; the ground was a morass of mud, the sodden grass torn up by the passage of hooves. She still almost slipped and fell again as she reached the two young Heralds, now speaking to each other.

They ignored her as she bent over and tried to catch her breath, blinking rainwater out of her eyes. What was going on? The Companion and people were clustered around a blanket-draped figure, all she could really see was a shock of wet black hair–

Her heart thudded in her chest. No, it was impossible. No, gods, no. She stumbled around the strange invisible ceiling, trying to get a better look, and then she sank to her knees.

She closed her eyes, open them. Still the same. “Van,” she breathed, feeling numb. “Oh, Van, no…” She rubbed at her eyes. What…how…?

She felt a touch on her shoulder, and lifted her head. The young man looked into her eyes. He was about eighteen, she thought, tall and slim, his blond hair darkened by rain. “Do you know him?” he said.

“He’s my brother…” She felt faint. “I don’t understand.”

“Yfandes pulled him out of the river,” the boy said, looking at her with sympathy.

Vanyel lay on his side, eyes closed, his face deathly pale and his lips bluish. His breathing was laboured and shallow. A deep cut across his cheekbone bled sluggishly, and a bruise was purpling on his forehead.

She took a deep breath, tried to slow her racing heart. Whatever was going on, panicking wasn’t going to help. She looked up at the Companion, meeting blue eyes like a piece of sky. “Yfandes, I’m guessing? I wish you could tell me what’s going on!” 

:It should be bloody obvious: a woman’s voice said in her head, dry with a hint of amusement over a great deal of anxiety. :I Chose your brother, but for some damned reason he went and jumped into the godforsaken river, and here I am hoping my Chosen doesn’t die on me before I’ve even met him!: Then the mare went back to ignoring her, too.

She sat back on her heels. “I must be dreaming,” she said to herself. “I hope I’m dreaming. Oh, gods, Van…”

“Gemma?” the older Herald said, looking at the woman in Healer’s robes. “Can we move him?”

The woman took a long moment to respond, and her voice was flat when she did. “Think we’d better. Move your barrier with us? Should keep the rain off him.”

More quiet voices behind her. Lissa looked over her shoulder. There were four Heralds now, standing around and watching, and a fifth was sliding down from her Companion’s back.

Vanyel wasn’t even supposed to be in Haven! Her mind was still skidding, not quite believing her senses, everything felt slightly unreal.

The older Herald raised his hand, beckoning to the others. “All right, we can use your hands now. I’ll move the mage-barrier and the light with us.”

Lissa stood and took a step back, trying to get out of the way, unsure if she ought to be doing something to help. It was very odd to see the water pooling and sliding from, apparently, nothing. She had never seen magic done before.

“–Wait.” The man frowned. “Taver says Yfandes says absolutely not to take him to Healers’. I can’t think why, but I suppose it’s not too far to Savil’s rooms.” He ran a hand over his face, then slowly levered himself up on one knee. “Let’s move.”

 


 

Elspeth, Queen of Valdemar, sighed and put aside the harvest-tax report she was trying to read. She could hear rain pounding away at the stone roof of the Palace, and despite the fire blazing in her private office, the storm was making her bones ache. She was tired and cranky and longed for her bed. Not that she was likely to find it at any reasonable time tonight!

Not for the first time, she wished they had more really strong Mindspeakers. Tantras was very good, but even his prodigious range could only cover half the distance between the Leshara holding and Haven, so his messages had to be passed up-chain through another Herald before reaching her. Usually that was fine; usually a delay of up to a candlemark made no difference, and it was rare that she questioned the judgement of the Herald on-site anyway.

This time they had received two fragmentary messages, only about ten minutes apart, from Savil via Tantras and then passed urgently through several intermediaries until it reached her – well, Jaysen, she herself wasn’t a Mindspeaker. And she had actually received them both at the same time, after Jaysen – correctly, probably, at the time – judged the first message didn’t need her personal attention.

One: the Ashkevron boy had apparently been missing for several hours. A search was in progress. It was a routine update message and no one sounded very alarmed at that point, just irritated.

Two: they had found his horse, dead, and a trail. They were starting a search. That message came with an emergency header.

It hadn’t been long at all after that when the Death Bell rang. Which was a very, very bad sign. Quite possibly there was another message on its way to her right now, but until then she had no way of knowing. It made her feel so helpless, as though she were blind and deaf.

Damn it, Savil, why did you have to be so careless? She could only hope that the reinforcements she had sent would reach them in time, and that the kid wasn’t already dead – she had no way of knowing at this point. She knew a Herald was dead. Savil? One of her students? Tantras? Her mind wouldn’t stop speculating, though she knew it was a morbid waste of energy. Her job was to stay calm and do her best to get some work done, since she couldn’t affect the outcome at this point anyway – in fact, it was quite possible she ought to just go to bed, and trust her subordinates to wake her if she was needed. Then again, I'll be too worried to sleep. 

The storm had redoubled its efforts a half-candlemark ago, and she was getting flashes of alarm from her Companion and a hazy image of the river; she was too agitated to drop into the kind of trance she needed to share more detailed words and concepts at this distance, and her Companion wasn’t calling to her, like he would if her personal attention was needed. For some reason, no one could find Herald Jaysen – she had some questions for him, but apparently he had left Haven. Somehow. Without asking. The page she had summoned told her that he had also seen several Heralds go tearing outside. Why? In the name of all the gods, why? No one had seen fit to stop on their way and tell her, and this late at night, her regular secretary and attendants were in bed. Not for the first time, she lamented her lack of Mindspeech. It was a damned useful Gift.

The door banged open, and she looked up just in time to see her Queen’s Own stagger into the room, soaked and covered in mud from head to toe.

“Lance!” she yelped, leaping from her seat and running to him. She led him to a chair and pushed him down into it.

“M’alright, Beth,” he said faintly. “Just tired.”

“You’re drained to a husk.” She might not have Mage-Sight, but she had known him enough years to recognize the look in his eyes. “What happened? Was there a battle of some kind?”

He shook his head. “No. I’m afraid I fed just about all my energy to a very young Healer-trainee. You know they’re not very efficient at it when they’re new.”

Elspeth stared at him. That wasn’t an answer – it only gave her fifty more questions. “Lance,” she said, with every ounce of control she had to keep her voice level. “Please start at the beginning and tell me what’s going on.” She had no idea how the disaster currently in progress could explain Lancir’s condition. Or Jaysen up and vanishing, come to think of it, since those lands were a week’s journey away even by Companion.

Lance tried to smile, but it emerged as a grimace. When he spoke, though, it was in his normal, calming tones. “We’re still piecing it together, I’m afraid. To start with the worst part: Savil’s trainee Tylendel is dead, and he took out half the Leshara lands with him.”

“WHAT?” she yelped, much louder than she had intended. Deep breath. She tried to pull together her composure. “Please explain.”

“Um. I’m not sure what the sequence of events was, but it sounds like he found Vanyel Ashkevron – rescued him from a mage, it wasn’t Evan Leshara who had him after all, though he may have been involved – and they were ambushed by wyrsa trying to escape. He must’ve gotten separated from Herald Savil and her other students somehow. I have no idea what Savil was thinking, taking her trainees off on their own without any other support! Anyway, Trainee Tylendel and his Companion had gotten pinned down somewhere, and it sounds like he was trying to Gate them out. I – We think his Companion was killed, and then it appears he called down a Final Strike.”

Elspeth managed not to yelp out loud this time. Why– But it didn’t matter why. Think about it later.

Lancir rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “Um. There are some more details there, but it’ll take too long to explain. Anyway. Savil’s alive, but she’s hurt, and her trainee Donni is with her. Her trainee Mardic went to investigate the Gate. He’s here in Haven. Jaysen was the first one who sensed the Gate-energies on the grounds, so he got to it first, and went through to reach Savil.” He stopped and swallowed.

Elspeth gave in to the urge to rub her forehead; she didn’t have to be perfectly composed all the time with Lance, and she was getting a headache. “I don’t get it, Lance, if he...how was the Gate still–”

“We have no idea, but it was tied to Vanyel, and he made it through before...well. Yes. I don’t understand how that was possible either. Except, maybe… Nevermind. Trainee Mardic took the Gate down, rather messily – he’s in bed with backlash shock. His Companion filled Taver in on most of what I’m telling you now.” Lancir stopped. He looked down.

“What about the boy?” Elspeth pushed. “Vanyel, I mean.”

Lancir took a deep breath. He tried to speak; his voice faltered, and then came out much flatter than usual. She had never heard him sound like that. “He – he wandered off, while Mardic was in shock. Made it as far as the river, and jumped in. Deliberately, I have to assume. At which point Yfandes Chose him.”

“…Wait, what?” Another blow. It felt like someone kept kicking her feet out from under her, she couldn’t find her balance.

Lancir shrugged helplessly. “She Broadsent a call for help to every Companion in the damned city, I’m sure that’s the ‘commotion’ you picked up, and went in after him. At which point there was a great deal of panic and running around.” He gestured at his clothes. “As you can see. Anyway. He’s alive, but he’s a mess, Beth. Not only did he almost drown, he’s got a bad case of backlash; from the Gate, I have to assume; and I think there’s something else, some other kind of damage, but I didn’t have time to get a closer look. I left him with the Healers and I came straight to you.”

Elspeth felt her head reeling. She had no idea how to react. “Savil’s never going to forgive us,” she heard herself saying. “Gods. What do we tell the boy’s father?”

Lancir shrugged, too casually. “I guess it depends if he survives the night.”

She massaged her forehead. “If we lose him, we’ll lose Yfandes too, won’t we? Dammit!” She gave into the temptation to stamp her foot, like a little girl. “Damn all this to high hells, Lance! I’m too old for it!” The anger drained out of her and weariness replaced it; she felt very, very small. It was too much… “What do we do?” she said, almost plaintively.

He shrugged. “What we always do, Beth. Pick ourselves up and keep going.”

She took a deep breath, trying to gather her scattered thoughts, to claim back the cloak of composure that a Queen ought to wear. “Herald Tantras. He was still with the Lesharas, wasn’t he? Is he–”

“He’s badly hurt but he’ll live. Oh, a couple more things you should know. One. The boy’s sister is here in Haven, apparently. Lissa Ashkevron. She followed us down to the riverbank, somehow, so she saw what happened. And two. Vanyel and Tylendel were lifebonded.”

“…Oh.” Of all the things.

He sighed. “I knew. I didn’t tell anyone. Savil knew the boys were lovers; they were trying to keep it concealed from Vanyel’s father, for the obvious reason. It wasn’t my secret to share. And I’d rather not spread it around now, either, but I figured you ought to know.”

“I see.” Unexpectedly, her eyes prickled. “Poor boy. No wonder he…”

“Tried to kill himself? Yeah.” Lancir leaned forwards over his knees, dropping his head into his hands. His voice was thick. “I– I’m tired, Beth. I need time to get my own feelings sorted, and I’m not sure there will be time. Not with all the cleanup to do.”

She put her hand on his shoulder. “You blame yourself for Tylendel.”

For the first time in all the long years they had known one another, she saw tears spill over from Lancir’s blue eyes. She stepped in close and pulled his head against her chest. He took a shuddering breath, trying to regain control, and then gave in and sobbed silently against her.

Oh, Lance. We need you to be strong all the time, don’t we? But you’re only human.

He pulled away from her after only a few seconds, scrubbing his face on his sleeve. “I knew Tylendel wasn’t stable,” he said, too calmly. “He lost a load-bearing support, when his brother died. I thought that with enough time to heal, he might be all right. But he didn’t get that time, did he? I pushed for us to send him home before he was ready. The damned mage kidnapped his lifebonded partner – I’m surprised he didn’t go berserk then. But they had to kill Gala too.” He sighed heavily. “He was only human. People break. He stayed in control of the Gate-spell, and he got Vanyel through to safety. Have to give him credit for that much.”

Elspeth didn’t know what to say. There were going to be repercussions to this. People would want an explanation. It would quite possibly take years for things to calm down, and more reparations than she wanted to think about, and there was a very real risk of some kind of civil war.

But she couldn’t think about the future yet; she could only think of Tylendel’s face as she had last seen him, rocking, closed into himself, pain in every line of him. There wouldn’t even be a body left, now.

Lancir guessed her thoughts, like he always did. “Not your fault either, Beth,” he said gently. “You’re only human too, and you’re no Foreseer.”

She nodded, knowing with her head it was true, wishing her heart would believe it. “Where’s the sister now?”

“With Vanyel, I expect. They’re in Savil’s quarters. For some reason Yfandes wouldn’t let us take him to the House of Healing.”

She sighed. “Someone should talk to her, if they haven’t yet. Can you take care of that while I decide what needs to be done tonight?”

He nodded and reached out, and she offered her arm for him to pull himself up. “I’ll go straight there.”

She looked down at him. “Not before you change into something else. You look like something the cat dragged in, and what will that do for our reputation?” After a moment, she shrugged. “I’ll come with you.” There was no good reason for it, she ought to be focusing on the bigger picture, but Lancir was her best friend. Right now, she wanted his soothing presence.

 


 

Lissa sat hunched over by Vanyel’s bedside, draped in one of Savil’s robes. The room they were in was big and airy; rain lashed against the windows and the glazed door that led out to the garden. Yfandes was guarding that door like some kind of gigantic dog, after trying and failing to fit through it.

It had to be well after midnight, now, and she was exhausted. Her hair was a mess, her nose was clogged shut from crying, and she didn’t dare go near a mirror.

Vanyel hadn’t stirred the entire time, not when they were carrying him or when they had stripped him out of his wet clothes and bundled him in warm blankets. He lay too still, his breathing laboured, and his hand was ice-cold in hers.

The plump Healer, Gemma, was still there, watching Van through half-closed eyelids. She had two youngsters with her, trainee-Healers who were far too excited about the opportunity to stay up all night with a critical patient. They kept whispering to each other in the corner.

There was a polite knock at the door – not the main door to the rest of the suite, but the garden door.

“Come in,” Gemma said wearily.

The door creaked open. Lissa’s jaw dropped, and then she leapt to her feet and did her best attempt at a courtly bow; she wasn’t even going to try to curtsy. “Your majesty!”

The Queen of Valdemar nodded politely to her, then gracefully shed her cloak, passing it to the older Herald who had entered after her – Lissa recognized him from the riverbank.

“You can sit down,” the Queen said. “It’s too late at night for formalities. Outside the throne room I’m just another Herald, you know.”

Lissa hadn’t known. She stayed on her feet, staring. The Queen didn’t look very queenly. She was thin, her Whites loose on her slight body, and her dark hair, slightly damp from the rain, was messy and pulled back in a simple knot. There were bruised-looking circles under her eyes. Still, somehow she had presence – it moved with her like a mantle.

The other Herald nodded to her. “Lissa Ashkevron, right? I’m Lancir.”

The Queen’s Own Herald! She felt her eyes widening again. She had last seen him limping away with his arm on Taver’s neck, soaked to the skin and covered in mud. Now he had changed into pristine Whites and his posture was perfectly erect, his face calm and open. He hung the cloak on one of the pegs by the door, then went to stand by Queen Elspeth’s elbow.

Gods, here she was in the same room as the two most important people in Valdemar!

Gemma, who hadn’t bothered to make any greeting to them other than a short nod, jerked her chin at her two trainees, and they hurried to offer their chairs to the Heralds, and then left the room. Elspeth sat, moving gracefully; Lancir shook his head.

“How is he?” he said. The Healer shrugged.

“Hanging on. I don’t dare do more than steady his vital signs.”

“Why not?” Lissa burst in before she could stop herself. She immediately regretted her rudeness, but Lancir just smiled and turned to look at her.

“It’s to do with how Healing works, Lissa. The Healer can provide most of the required energy, but some of it has to come from the patient, which means the patient has to have enough. Healing is hard on the body. Really, all a Healer does is take a natural process and speed it up a hundredfold. If you ran a hundred times faster than you could walk for a few leagues, you’d be exhausted afterwards, wouldn’t you?”

Lissa lowered her eyes and nodded, not quite following.

“I want you to look at something, Lance,” Gemma said after a moment. “I’ve got a link to him; I just need you to follow it. I don’t want to bias you until you’ve seen it too, but honestly I don’t know what I’m looking at, and I want confirmation I’m not imagining things.”

Lancir walked over to the bed, slowly. “Why me? You know I’m not a Healer – not that kind, anyway.”

She shrugged. “You’re a Herald-Mage,” she said cryptically.

Lissa watched uncertainly as Lancir sat down in her abandoned chair, scooted it close to the bed, and placed his hand on her brother’s forehead. He closed his eyes, his face going blank, and stayed there for a long time. Lissa shifted her weight nervously and resisted the urge to chew what was left of her nails; it didn’t seem like the sort of thing one ought to do in front of their monarch.

Finally he sat back, and rubbed a hand over his face. “Well, that’s something I’ve never seen before.”

“What?” Lissa said, unable to help herself. “What is it?”

“You’re going to think I’ve gone mad.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Something’s awakened all his potential Gifts. And by all, I really do mean all – Savil’s much better trained to read this sort of thing than I am, but at very least he’s got Thoughtsensing, Empathy – both projective and receptive – Foresight, I think, and by far the strongest Mage-gift I’ve ever seen.” He let his hand fall back into his lap. “And by ‘awakened’, I mean something’s blasted him open. His channels are burned raw, gods, he must be in agony. Would be if he was conscious, rather.” He glanced over at the woman. “I see why Yfandes wouldn’t have wanted to bring him to Healers’, not with untrained mind-Gifts like this. He would be projecting everywhere if he wasn’t so deeply unconscious, and probably reading us right through our shields.”

Gemma shrugged. “Reckon she’s right. Not that I’m happy being this far from backup.” She pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “I’ve been telling Aber for years that we need a shielded room over at Healers’ for exactly this sort of situation.”

Lancir was still staring into the middle distance. “I have no idea what could do this to someone,” he said finally.

“Think it’s m’fault, sir.” An uncertain voice came from the open doorway, and Lissa spun around. A short, sturdy brown-haired boy was watching them, swaying and hanging onto the doorframe with one hand, the other hand holding his head.

“You should be in bed, Mardic,” Gemma said wearily.

The boy ignored you. “Heard you talkin’.” His voice was slurred with exhaustion. “Didn’t get to t-tell anyone, when I took down the Gate, think maybe I did it wrong. Was fightin’ me, like it had a mind of its own, an’ I – I was rushed an’ I just kinda tried to smash it. And it came down, but I, I remember it didn’t just come apart – it went through him.” He pointed at Vanyel. “Like a b-bolt of lightning.” There were tears shining in his eyes. “I did somethin’ terrible to him, d-didn’t I?”

“You saved his life, lad,” Lancir said, standing up and crossing the room to place a hand on Mardic’s shoulder. “He wouldn’t have lasted another five minutes with the Gate still draining him. And I’m not sure anyone’s ever tried to take down someone else’s Gate when it was already going unstable like that. Hells, it can’t have been under control at all at that point, not with Tylendel dead. I might well have done the same thing you did.” Mardic looked dubiously at him, clearly not reassured.

Tylendel. That was Savil’s trainee, Lissa thought, the one with the family feud. Dead?

“I shoulda called Jaysen back,” the boy said miserably. “I, I shoulda told him I didn’t know what I was doin’!” His knees seemed to give out and he sat down suddenly against the doorframe, holding his head in both hands. “It’s my fault!”

Lancir just shook his head. “I don’t think we can really say this is anyone’s fault – well, except for Evan Leshara’s. And it might not’ve been related to you working with the Gate at all. Could be it happened when Tylendel set up the Gate through him in the first place; could be it’s from Tylendel’s Final Strike. Hells, Trainee Shavri was basically blasting him at random with Healing energy, it could’ve been that!”

Lissa rubbed her eyes. What is he talking about?

“Not likely, but I suppose it’s possible,” Gemma said. “It’s fascinating, actually, what she did – it’s something I’ve read about but never seen. We usually teach trainees to center their link on a patient’s heartbeat, so if his heart wasn’t beating when they pulled him out… Could be it’s the only thing that would’ve worked at all. Anyway.” She blinked owlishly. “Can you Heal this damage you’re talking about? I certainly can’t; I wouldn’t be able to see what I was doing.”

“I suspect you need Mage-sight,” Lancir said. “Maybe a Herald-Mage who also had a strong Healing Gift could do something? I’ve never heard of that, though. I wish Savil were here. She knows a lot more esoteric stuff than I do.”

“Speaking of Savil and Jaysen,” the Queen interrupted. “Lance, I want them back in Haven. We’ll need someone to stay on site to sort out the Lesharas, but it can’t be my Seneschal’s Herald.” She spoke calmly, but Lissa had the impression she was irritated. “Savil’s the only one I trust to stand up to Lord Ashkevron when he shows up here ready for murder, which he’s bound to do.” She looked sharply at Lancir. “Have we sent word to him, by the way? I would prefer he learned about this from an official source rather than the rumour mill.”

You can say that again, Lissa thought, trying to imagine how Father would react. Probably with a lot of shouting.

“I agree with you on the first item,” Lancir said, “but I don’t see how. Not unless we use a Gate again, and Savil won’t be up to it.”

“Jaysen will do it,” Elspeth said firmly. “He’s Master-level. Should be able to handle a Gate.”

Lancir groaned. “I’ll pass it on. Don’t think he’s ever tried to Gate even a quarter that distance. Gods. We’re going to set a record for Gating – and it’s not going to make this awful weather any better.”

“Well. Make it so. And send someone to Forst Reach for me.” She stood up and came over to Lissa, and her face softened. Close up she looked much older, her face webbed with lines. “I’m sorry, Miss Ashkevron,” she said quietly.

Lissa shook her head, confused, feeling her cheeks heat up, she could barely think with the goddamned Queen that close to her, let alone apologizing to her personally. “I, I don’t see how…”

“The situation was handled badly, and I should have prevented it. That’s what my job means. But thank you for understanding.”

Lissa swallowed hard. “I do want an explanation,” she said, before she could lose her courage.

The Queen nodded. “Lance, take care of that for me? I’ll go round up the senior Circle. Meet us in fifteen minutes.”

She moved gracefully, if a little stiffly. Lancir retrieved her cloak and helped her put it on, and she left through the door to the rest of the suite, closing it firmly behind her.

Lissa sat down heavily. Now that she wasn’t distracted by being in the same room as the goddamned Queen, she was suddenly angry. “I want to know what’s going on,” she said flatly. “Why did Savil take my brother with her in the first place, when they left? All I got was a cryptic letter from him.”

Lancir sighed. “I’m sorry. I keep forgetting that no one’s actually had a chance to tell you anything. Just a moment.” He knelt and gently shook Mardic’s shoulder. “Lad, you’d best get back to your bed.”

Mardic opened his eyes and looked at him blearily. “...Oh, it’s you. M’sorry.”

“Get some more rest. Let me help you up.” Lancir pulled the boy to his feet and, when he swayed and nearly fell, pulled his arm over his own shoulders and helped him out the door. He was back a brief interlude later; he closed the door firmly, then grabbed one of the abandoned chairs and pulled it over to sit next to Lissa.

“All right. There’s some background here that will help it fit together for you. Your brother and Tylendel Frelennye were lifebonded.”

She rubbed her eyes. I really must be dreaming this time. “What do you mean, how is that–”

“It appears your brother is – Savil would say shay’a’chern, it’s a Tayledras word, all the Valdemaran words are, well, also insults. He prefers his own sex.”

“Oh.” She groaned. She wasn’t as surprised as she would have thought, but. “Gods! Father’s going to have kittens when he finds that out!”

“Yes. I haven’t met your father, Lissa, but from what I’ve heard, I’m not altogether surprised that he might react, well, badly. But I would prefer to worry about that when the time comes.”

Lissa’s mind was racing. “So when Tylendel’s brother died...of course Van would’ve wanted to go with him when he went home! How could he not? But I’m still confused about where the Gate comes in.”

Lancir grimaced. “I’ll get there. We had sent in a dozen or so Heralds to secure the Leshara lands, in case the mage was still there, but they searched and didn’t find anything, so we had a couple platoons of the Guard relieve most of them, we couldn’t afford to leave that many circuits uncovered for long. Everything seemed fine… But it seems the mage hadn’t left and gone back to his own land after all. He must have been hiding, probably using magic to shield himself from the searchers. Yesterday afternoon he kidnapped Vanyel.”

She just stared at him. “You’re kidding.”

Lancir rubbed his eyes. “It surprised us about that much, too. I’m not sure if it was planned or just an attack of opportunity. We may know more in a few candlemarks, or we may not. It’s not like we can ask the mage anymore.”

Lissa glared at him. “How did they manage to kidnap Van anyway? Why wasn’t Savil keeping him safe?”

He shrugged. “We made a mistake. We thought there was no danger anymore, after we had Wester Leshara locked up and no sign of trouble for a week.”

She could feel the blood rushing to her face. “Damn right you made a mistake.” She knew she ought to get her anger under control, she had been trying to practice keeping her temper, but her blood was boiling at the unfairness and petty, pointless stupidity of the whole thing. “Anyway. So… Tylendel would’ve gone after Van; I guess he found him, and then tried to Gate back to Haven. What went wrong?” Her jaw worked. “I know what a Final Strike is. Why? Why didn’t he just come through the Gate with Van? Why did he kill himself? And nearly kill someone he loved as well? Why would he do that?” She was forcing the words out through sobs now; she fought to regain control.

Lancir met her eyes mildly as she stared him down. “One: they were being chased by some of the same Pelagirs creatures that killed his brother. They got his Companion. Heralds don’t take that well. Two: some more background. Tylendel wasn’t in a good place, after his brother died. They were twins, they shared a sort of bond, and losing that nearly destroyed his sanity. I spent candlemarks talking him out of a suicidal plot for revenge. I think he would’ve come through it okay eventually, with your brother’s help, but he was already unstable when this happened.”

That was it. She was on her feet, fists clenched, pulse pounding in her ears. “You. You sent him home. Knowing he wasn’t stable. Knowing there was likely to be danger. You, you knew he would lose it if anything else happened!” She spat the words out at him like nails. “Why. Did. You. Let. Him. Go.”

Vanyel moaned and stirred under the covers. His breath caught, and Gemma leapt to her feet and placed both hands on his forehead.

“I think you’d best calm down, Lissa,” Lancir said quietly, still seated. “Your brother has newly-awakened Gifts. Even unconscious, best assume he’s picking up everything both of us are thinking and feeling.” He stood up, and placed his hand over Gemma’s for a moment. “There. I’ve put my shields on him for the moment. Should have done that right away, I reckon we should really have one of us keeping him shielded all the time, but I guess we’re all distracted.”

Lissa took deep, heaving breaths, trying to slow her racing heart. Sheer terror had pierced through her when she saw Gemma jump up, it was never a good sign when a Healer moved fast like that, and she didn’t imagine intense fear would do Van any more good than intense anger. “All right. I’m not – I won’t get angry. But why?”

Lancir shrugged. “Because the whole situation over there was like a forest full of tinder, ready to go up at the slightest spark. We wanted things settled as soon as possible, in a way that wouldn’t just cause more resentment, and I thought Tylendel’s people would be more likely to listen to him than to any old Herald. And...and I thought perhaps it might do him good, to mourn his brother in the place where they grew up together.”

She bit her lip. She would only hurt Van if she let herself get angry again. And besides. The part of her that couldn’t help trying to be reasonable and kind was pointing out, quietly, that it sounded like a difficult and confusing situation, where one risk had to be balanced against another, where there were no really right decisions.

“I...understand,” she said stiffly, forcing her hands to unclench, rolling her shoulders to try to get them down from around her ears. You had a hard choice to make, you gambled, and you bet wrong. She still hated him for it, a little, but saying so wouldn’t be productive – she might’ve said it anyway a year ago, but she was learning.

“You’re a remarkable young woman, Lissa,” Lancir said; to her surprise, a small smile played around his lips. “And less like Savil than I thought. She wouldn’t have been able to see it so clearly, not at your age.” His face grew serious again. “Anyway, the rest you mostly know. ‘Lendel didn’t have the strength on his own to open a Gate, but somehow he pulled from Vanyel. I wouldn’t have thought that could work, concert work with Gates isn’t supposed to be possible at all; my only guess is that he could do it because of their lifebond. Mardic took the Gate down. Your brother jumped into the river. We pulled him out. And here we are.”

She nodded. “Yfandes Chose him,” she said slowly.

Lancir nodded. “Yes. If he lives through this, he’ll be a Herald. Which, by the way, means your father has no claim on him anymore.”

The reminder that Vanyel might not survive sent another pang through her chest – she had been trying not to think about it. “That’s a relief.”

“And one bright spot in all this darkness,” Lancir said. “He – he must be something really special. It’s been a decade that Yfandes was waiting to Choose someone.”

Lissa said nothing; she wasn’t sure what to say. Of course Van was special! But, he really wasn’t someone she would ever have pictured becoming a Herald. “He wanted to be a Bard,” she said – brokenly, pointlessly. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I...I think I’d better go for a walk. I’m not very good at trying not to be angry.”

To her surprise, Lancir laughed. “Go, then. I don’t blame you; I think your anger does you credit, truly.”

Lissa didn’t know what to do with that. The room, for all its airiness, felt suddenly claustrophobic. She bowed stiffly to him, walked to the garden door, opened it, and ran out into the rain.

–And right into a wall of horsehide. She had forgotten about the Companion. Shaking, she threw her arms around Yfandes’ neck and buried her face in her mane, sobbing, letting go of all control.

:This is the first time I’ve really regretted being horse-shaped: the woman’s voice said in her head again. :It’s terribly inconvenient that I don’t fit through the door:

Chapter Text

Savil opened her eyes, and immediately wished she hadn’t, as the weak grey light stabbed right through to her brain, bringing a throbbing pain with it. “Hnng,” she groaned, and closed her eyes firmly again.

She felt a hand stroke her hair. “Awake?” The voice belonged to Andrel.

“No…” She tried to burrow under the blanket covering her.

“Headache, huh? I brought willowbark tea for you, if you want it.”

The desire to just go back to sleep warred with the craving for something that would ease the pain a little and get the nasty taste out of her mouth. She cautiously opened her eyes again and tried to push herself up onto her elbows.

Andrel was at her side, his red hair a mess of greasy spikes, sticking up everywhere. Rather than his Greens, he wore an ill-fitting set of loose canvas trews and a brown woolen tunic over a bare chest. There were bits of ash in his hair. They were in an unfamiliar room with painted walls and a child’s mobile hanging from the ceiling.

“Where–” Memory hit her in a rush, and she fell back onto the bed and rolled away from him, hugging herself. She didn’t want to remember! But it all came back with crystal clarity; she had brushed against ‘Lendel’s mind, found nothing but a whirlwind of pain and rage, and she had felt an intention form – and gotten a barrier up just in time.

I’m sorry, ke’chara. I was too late to stop you. She didn’t think she would ever forgive herself for that.

She didn’t remember anything after that. Clearly she had survived, and if she had managed to shield against a Final Strike at fairly close range, no wonder she had a godawful headache!

:Kellan?: she reached out tentatively. She wasn’t surprised that Mindspeech hurt.

:I’m here, love. You’ve been out almost a day:

:Tylendel’s dead:

:Yes. I’m sorry, love:

She hardly dared ask, but she had to know. :Mardic? Donni?: A longer hesitation; she steeled herself. :Vanyel?:

:Mardic and Donni are fine. Donni’s here. Mardic went through to shut down the Gate, he’s in Haven:

The Gate? She was confused. :How?:

Kellan read the meaning of her question. :We don’t know how it stayed up, but it nearly killed Vanyel. Mardic got to him just in time:

:But he survived: That was one note of relief in a sea of horror. And her other students were all right. She tried to hold onto it, pushing back the pain. She would have to face it, at some point, but there were other priorities first. Center and ground. She made herself open her eyes, even though they burned with unshed tears, and push herself into a sitting position; Andrel watched, not trying to offer any assistance or comfort, which she appreciated.

“Sorry,” she said, a little hoarsely. “I…needed a minute.”

“Understandable. Here.” He passed her a steaming mug.

“Thank you.” It helped, having something to do with her hands. She took a sip. Tylendel’s mind brushing hers, the horizon turning to fire– Damn it. She blinked away tears. Focus. “What’s the situation?”

“Just a minute.” His expression flattened for a moment; he was Mindspeaking. “Sorry. Just letting Jay know you’re awake.”

“Jay?” She stared at him. “He’s here?”

“I am.” And he was, standing in the doorway; he crossed the room and sat down on the side of the bed, resting a hand on her shoulder. “Came through the Gate. I felt the energies, figured something was up, ran down and got to it just as your Trainee Mardic came through the other way. He took it down behind me.” His face twisted. “Had to make sure you were all right.”

She managed a crooked half-smile. “Elspeth’s mad at you, huh?”

He nodded with just a hint of sheepishness. “Mad doesn’t cover it. She says I have to Gate us back as soon as you’re able to travel. Said if I’m not strong enough, my Felar can help me. Made it an order.”

Savil almost laughed. “Of course.” It wasn’t the first time Jaysen had done something to annoy the Queen. His judgement was good most of the time, but, well… The levity quickly left her. “Stop stalling. What’s the situation out here? It can’t be good.”

“It’s not,” Andrel said quietly. “Half the Leshara lands burned in the fire – that was the worst part, the initial blast only hit a circle about a half-mile wide. More than fifty dead that we know of. Thankfully the damned mage is one of them, and it took out any men he brought with him and any of his creatures that were left – but it mostly took innocents.” He looked over at Jaysen.

“Evan Leshara’s dead,” Jaysen said flatly. “I interrogated him under Truth Spell before he went, at least, so we know a little more of what happened. He paid the mage extra to kidnap Vanyel. Figured he’d be an easier target than your Tylendel, I suppose, after he found out about their, well...” He trailed off, grimacing. “Servant gossip. He must’ve had someone passing information to him wherever he was hiding. Don’t know what you were thinking, letting them find out.”

Savil shook her head helplessly. It seemed like clearly a mistake now, in hindsight. She shouldn’t have let the boys stay together. She wished… What? That they’d known, or guessed, or at least been more careful? She had thought it would be safe – or, no, she hadn’t really thought about it in detail at all. If wishes were fishes we’d never go hungry. Move on. “Tran?”

Andrel rubbed the back of his neck. “He was burned pretty badly; he was on the near side of the Keep and he didn’t get the warning you did. I was able to do some work with him, though, and he’ll recover. The Queen wants us to take him back to Haven with us, if he can handle Gating.”

She nodded, and pushed the thought of his youthful, eager face aside; she couldn’t spare the time to worry for him, not now. “What’s the damage?”

Jaysen stepped in. “Westrel Keep is mostly intact, at least the old stone part – that’s where we are right now, as a matter of fact. Forest fire got as far as the edge of the Frelennye grounds, but thankfully the Gate brought a storm in, we were able to put it out before it did more than damage a few outbuildings. It killed a lot of livestock. At least the harvest was already in.”

He glanced and Andrel, who fidgeted and ran his hands through his hair, making it stick up even more. “This region’s going to be a long time recovering,” he said.

“What are we–”

“Elspeth sent over some orders,” Jaysen said flatly. “No negotiation, just ‘this is what we’re doing’. Used her veto with the Council, it sounds like.” Savil managed not to gasp out loud; Elspeth hadn’t used her power to override the Council in ten years, and only a few times in her entire reign. “Vanissa Frelennye will inherit over there,” Jaysen added, “she’s a cousin, and from Tylendel’s notes, he thought she was the most sensible.”

“But she’s a–”

“She’s female, yes.”

Savil tried not to grimace; she wished Jaysen would stop interrupting her, it was already hard keeping her thoughts straight with how much her head hurt.

Andrel smiled slightly. “Elspeth pointed out the obvious; how come we can have a Queen, but we can’t have a woman run a holding? And she said it’s what’s happening and that’s the end of it.”

“Right.” Reasonable enough. “What about the Lesharas?”

Jaysen shrugged. “Westrel Keep will go to some cousin or other, Perth Leshara. Tantras had interviewed him and thought he would do. So that’s the end of it. If we get the Gate up, Elspeth plans to send through some competent clerks, a crew of builders from Haven, supplies, and two generous coffers of gold. The Crown will provide for these people.”

She winced. “They can’t be very happy with the Heraldic Circle right now.”

Jaysen just shrugged. “No one’s said anything.”

“Though there are some extremely strange rumours going around,” Andrel added. “Did you know, apparently ‘Lendel summoned the wyrsa himself, Gala repudiated him, and then he called down the Final Strike in revenge?”

“Please, I don’t need to know.” She took a deep breath, let it out. “Sounds like it could just blow over sooner or later, then.” Or not. Nothing about the whole situation was good. 

“Hopefully,” Jaysen said in a low voice. “But it’s not the only problem we have.”

She looked blankly at him. “What do you mean?”

It was Andrel who answered. “Did you know the boys were lifebonded?”

“…No.” She closed her eyes again; it was too much to absorb at once. “Really?” It was the last thing she had expected…but maybe it shouldn’t have been. It explained some things. The strength of ‘Lendel’s initial feelings, for one, how quickly they had become inseparable, and maybe some of the changes she’d observed in Vanyel once he and her student were together.

She didn’t need this, damn it. It was unfair of her, to resent it for one more complication, but she couldn’t help it.

Jaysen wore a sour expression. Goddamnit. She could guess the source of his discomfort; he had just found out that ‘Lendel and Vanyel had been together, he didn’t like Van much to begin with – after all, most of what he knew about her nephew came from her complaining about him – and he had those damned prejudices. She wanted to smack him, but it wouldn’t have helped.

Andrel shrugged. “Anyway. We think Vanyel, um, went and jumped into the river. Which was the moment Yfandes picked to Choose him.”

She just blinked at him, this time, for several seconds until the words parsed. “Wait. Yfandes Chose… Are you sure?” A stupid question; it wasn’t like you could be wrong about that kind of thing. Yfandes had picked Vanyel of all people? It was the last thing she would ever have expected. Not that he was a bad kid, but she wouldn’t have said he was Herald material.

…It took her that long to catch up to the first half. “He jumped in the river? Is he all right?”

Silence.

She felt her fists clenching at her sides, and made herself relax. Center and ground. “Tell me,” she said tightly.

Andrel wouldn’t meet her eyes. “He’s in bad shape. There’s another thing. I’m not clear on how, but he’s acquired some Gifts. Including, according to Lancir, the strongest Mage-gift he’s ever seen. And a bunch more, but Lance thought he was missing some and wanted you to have a look once you’re back.” He sighed. “If he survives. The Healers thought he’d have an even chance if he pulled through the first night, and he did, so there’s that.”

She closed her eyes again, against the burning of unshed tears. It was too much to take in at once. More than she felt able to handle. Vanyel was her ward, her responsibility. She was supposed to have kept him safe.

She hadn’t.

Any more than she’d kept Tylendel safe.

Oh, Van… He had just lost, not only a lover, but a lifebonded partner.

It was a mess, and she didn’t know if she had the energy left to deal with it.

She felt Andy’s hand slip into hers, and squeezed hard. She could accept that comfort.

 


 

A candlemark later, they were all sitting around a battered wooden table in the servants’ quarters, drinking wine that was rather stronger than Savil was used to. She was trying to pace herself, but it helped.

“Still can’t believe it,” she mumbled, downing another swallow. “Vanyel of all people, Chosen!” She dragged her hand over her face. “Yfandes. What was she waiting for, anyway? He’s been in Haven for months.” So much would have been different if the boy had been Chosen even a week earlier!

“I don’t know,” Jaysen said, frowning. “I mean, he didn’t have Gifts before. Maybe that’s related.”

“Yes. Now he’s got extremely powerful, extremely untrained Gifts, which could cause all manner of problems,” she said harshly. “Right there in the Palace.”

Andrel’s eyes widened. “I hope you’re not the first person to think of that! There was nothing in the message–”

“I do have rather too much experience with an uncontrolled Mage-gift,” she said, thinking of her first months with ‘Lendel as a student. “I’m sure Lancir at least will have thought of it.” But ‘Lendel’s face was in her head, and she was blinking back tears again. It was humiliating, and she appreciated beyond measure that both Andrel and Jaysen pretended not to notice. She took another sip. The world was starting to go soft around the edges, and she welcomed it. Right now, tonight, everything that could be done had been, and there was only waiting.

Andrel put a hand on her shoulder. “Savil… How are you holding up?”

She looked at him, and felt her expression shifting, trying to convey how she was feeling, finally settling on blankness because there was no way to convey it – not with her face, not with her words, not even with her mind. She was tired and angry and she missed ‘Lendel, dammit, and no amount of guilt for her mistakes was going to bring him back. She wished Andy wouldn’t ask. “What do you think?” she said quietly. “I’ll be fine. Can we just – not talk about it right now?”

Jaysen reached for her. “It wasn’t your fault, Savil.”

She pulled back, turning her face away from him. What did it matter? Tylendel was still dead.

 


 

Lissa knocked cautiously on the door with one hand, the tray balanced on her hip. Gemma had sent her, when she asked the Healer if she could do anything helpful – she felt horribly in the way, and she couldn’t sit still any longer. 

When there was no answer, she shrugged and opened it. Dull grey light came in through the glass window. It was still raining.

Mardic stirred under the blankets as she approached, but he didn’t open his eyes until she set the tray down on his bedside table and gently shook his shoulder.

“Wha–?” he mumbled, trying to focus on her.

“Sorry to wake you. How’s your head?”

He groaned and scooted himself up in the bed. “Hurts something awful.” He managed a half-smile, though.

According to Gemma, who had stolen five minutes from Vanyel’s bedside to examine the trainee, the headache was to be expected.

“I brought you some willowbark tea,” she said. “And soup. Healer Gemma told me to make sure you ate. Come on, sit up.” When he had struggled up against the headboard, she set the tray on his lap.

He managed to lift the cup on his own, though his hand shook, and took a sip, grimacing at the taste.

“Sorry,” Lissa said. “I can put honey in it, if you want.”

He shook his head. “S’okay.” He looked blankly at the tray. Lissa waited a few seconds, then took the cup from his hand, set it down, and replaced it with a spoon.

He swallowed a few mouthfuls, unenthusiastically. Then he looked at her. “Any news?”

Any news about Donni, she finished the question silently. To be fair, he was concerned about his teacher as well, but he had asked about the other trainee relentlessly. “They’re still supposed to be trying to Gate back today,” she said. Though it was midmorning, and still no sign of them.

Mardic took the cup again, his grip steadier, and took another sip. He set it down. “How’s Van?”

She shrugged. “He’s breathing a little easier. No change, otherwise.” He didn’t merit a Healer constantly by his bedside anymore, although she wasn’t sure how much that was because he was really stabilized and how much was because the Healers didn’t have anyon to spare. He could be roused enough to take a little broth and medicine, now, but he never opened his eyes for more than a few seconds and he hadn’t said a single word. She wasn’t sure if he even knew she was there.

Mardic blinked; his eyes were suspiciously wet. “I’m really sorry.”

She looked sideways at him. “You already told me. Wasn’t your fault.” He had apologized at least twenty times yesterday – he had still been fairly muddled with the shock, and seemed to forget conversations right after they were over. Gemma thought that was normal, too, and not especially worrying.

He wasn’t looking at her anymore; his eyes stared past her, unfocused. The cup started to slide from his loosening grip, and she quickly caught it and set it down. She waved her hand in front of his eyes; no response. Damn, is this normal? “Mardic?” she said urgently.

His eyes focused again, and then he smiled – a real smile, lighting up his whole face. “Donni,” he breathed.

“Is she–?”

“Felt the Gate.” He started trying to get up, apparently having forgotten the tray of food in his lap.

“Whoa, where are you going?” She pushed his shoulders back against the pillows. “Healer Gemma said you were to stay in bed.”

Thunder rumbled outside. He started trying to push his way out of bed again; he seemed to have forgotten she was even there.

“Mardic!” she said sharply. “You don’t even have any clothes on.” She sighed and took the tray, though, it would make a mess if he pushed it onto the floor by accident.

He looked down at himself. “Oh.” Rubbed his eyes. “Help me find some?” His expression was sheepish. “Don’t want my Donni coming in on me like this.”

“Better than her finding you collapsed on the floor naked halfway to the door, I’m sure.” She sighed again. “I’ll find you some clothes, but you’re not going outside the suite, okay?”

 


 

Ten minutes later, they were both waiting at the door. The storm had worsened – thumb-sized hailstones were hammering down, flattening what was left of the garden. Yfandes had given in and fled to the safety of the stables. There would be a flood at this rate, she thought vaguely, wondering if Lord Corey had left yet, and whether he was prepared for the unusually awful weather.

Mardic, after several minutes keeping himself upright by hanging onto the doorframe, had compromised and was sitting in a chair. Lissa paced. She was restless even though every part of her ached with exhaustion – her only sleep in the last day and a half had been catnaps on the floor of Van’s room, because irrational as it was, she didn’t want to go even as far as the sofa in the living room.

There was a knock, and she leapt up and pulled the door open.

“Donni!” Mardic exclaimed, leaping to his feet with renewed energy, and a small, slim girl in clothes too big for her, with tightly curled dark hair,  bolted through the door and collided with him. They held each other as though they wanted to merge their skins into one body. Lissa looked away, feeling awkward.

“You must be Lissa,” said a dry, husky voice that was oddly familiar, even though she’d never heard it before. “You’ve got the nose.” After a moment, she realized why the voice was familiar. Her aunt sounded an awful lot like her grandmother, though she looked more like Withen than she did like Grandma Ashkevron. Herald’s Whites, or at least the tunic, worn over ill-fitting brown trews – thin silver hair pulled back in a knot – a weathered, square-jawed face set in a neutral expression – and a nose jutting out like the prow of a fishing-boat.

“Aunt Savil,” she said, with a polite bow. “It’s my pleasure to meet you.”

“What are you doing here– Never mind, doesn’t matter. Tell me later.” Herald-Mage Savil pushed past her into the room and shed her cloak, shaking muddy water onto the floor. She didn’t seem to notice. “How’s your brother?”

“Not worse.”

Savil seemed to really look at her for the first time. Her pale eyes, somewhere between blue and hazel, were a little unnerving – but she forced a smile. “I am glad you’re here, Lissa.”

A moment later she realized that two more people had followed her aunt into the suite. She rubbed her eyes; she must be really tired, to lose her usual awareness of her surroundings. One man was young, with a wide, freckled face, a pug nose, and bright red hair. He wore the green robes of a Healer, though they looked filthy. The other man was some number of years older, perhaps in his forties, very tall and lean with eyes, skin and hair that looked like they had been left out to bleach in the sun. He wore a constipated-looking expression. It took a moment before she recognized him as the Seneschal’s Herald, who had spoken briefly to her the other day; he wasn’t in Whites, and he looked like he hadn’t shaved in several days. To her chagrin, she couldn’t remember his name.

Savil turned her head, glared at him, and muttered something under her breath that Lissa didn’t catch, though she thought she heard the word ‘shields’, then glanced back at Lissa. “This is Healer Andrel and this is Herald-Mage Jaysen. They’re both friends.” She looked at the Herald. “Jay, you’d best get yourself in front of Elspeth before she sends guards to carry you in.” She gave him another hard look that Lissa couldn’t interpret.

The man nodded shortly and left again, closing the door behind him.

The Healer pulled off his own cloak, hanging it up. “Let’s go see him, then. I need to get to the House of Healing after this to check on Tran.”

Savil nodded, and the two of them headed for the bedroom at the end of the short hall, both leaving a track of muddy footprints. Lissa trailed after them.

The man sitting by the bed nodded gruffly to both of them in turn. “Savil, Andrel.”

Savil blinked. “Kilchas, what are you doing here?”

Kilchas, that was his name, Lissa thought with relief. She had forgotten it about five seconds after they had been introduced; she just knew he was one of the few Herald-Mages currently stationed in Haven. They were rotating through in six-candlemark shifts. She liked Kilchas; he was gruff with her, but not unkind, and unlike the last woman, he didn’t seem too annoyed or resentful about this new duty.

The man shrugged. “I may not have the finesse you do, but I can manage a shield, thank you. Lance asked me. Wants us keeping the lad under our shields, since he certainly can’t do it for himself yet. Not like I’ve got much else to do in my free time with the weather like this.”

Vanyel stirred under the blankets and coughed. His eyes flickered open for a moment and then closed again. Savil hesitated and then moved awkwardly over to the bed.

“How is he?” she said, her voice strained. “Gods, he looks terrible. Worse than–” She broke off and dragged her palm over her face. “Andrel? Lance wanted me to look at you-know-what. Want to help?”

The redhaired Healer nodded. Savil dragged the chair over and sat; Andrel perched on the side of the bed. Savil closed her eyes and reached for his forehead–

Vanyel screamed, his whole body going rigid. Lissa jumped a foot in the air, startled; Savil snatched her hand back as though she had burned it.

“What did you do?” Andrel said after a moment.

Savil shook her head. “I – I just tried to Mindtouch him, show him what I was going to do. I didn’t even think about it...I suppose if his channels really are as raw as Lance thought he saw, it would hurt him.”

Her brother was still whimpering, trying to curl into a ball. Lissa unfroze, stumbled around to the other side of the bed and reached for his hand. He tried to pull away from her, weakly lifting his arms over his head.

“Van, it’s just me – it’s Lissa…” He didn’t acknowledge her, didn’t even open his eyes, but he relaxed a little. She waited a moment, and then cautiously stroked his hair. “It’s me, Van, I’m here.” He didn’t fight her; he uncurled slowly and some of the tension left his face. Not all of it, but it never did – even when he was asleep, he looked like he was in pain.

“I don’t know what to do, Andy,” Savil said after a moment. “I don’t think I can do this without hurting him.”

The Healer shrugged. “I can keep him under while you do it, though I’d rather not do that for too long.”

Savil looked uncertain for a moment, then nodded briskly. “I suppose we have to. We need to know what we’re up against here.” She glanced over.

“Am I in the way?” Lissa said anxiously. “I can move…”

“You’re welcome to stay, girl, just put your hands somewhere else a minute.” Lissa obeyed, and the Healer reached in and put his hands on her brother’s shoulder. She watched all the tension go out of his body, his breathing slowing, the crease of pain between his eyebrows finally smoothing away.

“Ready, try to be quick,” he said, and Savil reached to touch Vanyel’s forehead. She closed her eyes and her face went completely blank.

Minutes passed. Lissa huddled on the bed, nervously chewing on a hangnail until she caught herself and put her hand behind her back. It was a bad habit that Lord Corey had berated her for more than once.

Finally, Savil leaned back, wiping sweat from her brow with a sleeve. “I can’t believe it. If Lancir hadn’t already said–”

“What?” Lissa interrupted, her voice coming out sharper than she’d intended.

“Patience, girl, please.” Savil took a deep breath and let it out. “He has every single Gift I could think to test for, although not all of them are very strong. Mage-Gift, FarSight, ForeSight, Mindspeech, both types of Empathy, Fetching, Firestarting, you name it. He’s even got a bit of Healing, and – and the Bardic Gift. The gods have an awful sense of humour...”

“That is seriously weird,” Andrel said. “Are you done?” Savil nodded, and he took his hands away. “Is his Mage-Gift as strong as Lancir thought?”

Savil was massaging her temples. “Don’t know what Lancir thought, and it’s hard to tell with his channels in the state they are – but he’s more powerful than me. A lot more.”

Andrel let his breath out. There was a brief silence. “I had a bit of a look of my own while you were testing him,” the Healer went on. “Nasty case of backlash, some lingering infection in his lungs, and he’s a little dehydrated. His body’s starting to burn muscle for fuel, but that’s damn near unavoidable – he needs twice as much nutrition as you or I, to fuel the Healing, and we can’t get real food into him until he wakes up more.” He tilted his head to one side. “It could be a lot worse. Physically, he’s mending, and we can help that along – but I can’t do anything about those burned channels. Can you?”

Savil shook her head, her eyes fixed in the distance. “No. Hopefully they’ll heal on their own.”

“He’s in a lot of pain, I can tell you that. Which will drain his physical energy as well. And he’s not strong enough to tolerate any painkiller powerful enough to help. Maybe in a few days.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. This isn’t even taking into account what he’ll go through emotionally, with a broken lifebond. It’s a lot for one body to handle.” He shook his head. “For now, I’m going to try to do something about his face. Figure I can Heal it so there’ll barely be a scar.”

Lissa felt a wave of unexpected appreciation for the Healer. Van would hate having a visible scar, especially on his face.

Savil just stood, rubbing her back. “I’d better go before Elspeth sends someone to drag me in. Lissa, you must be a ball of nerves – you should go get some exercise. Why don’t you run down to the weapons salon? Ask for Lord Oden; he was training your brother. Burn up some of that nervous energy, take a goddamn bath, and then you can come back here.”

Lissa, embarrassed, uncurled and stood up. She didn’t want to leave, but Savil was probably right. It sounded like Vanyel was fairly stable, he wasn’t about to die in the candlemark she would be gone – and now that she thought about it, her skin fairly crawled with the need to get clean.

 


 

Later that night:

Savil desperately wanted to put her head down on the table. She had just finished going through her side of the whole saga with Lancir, and exhaustion blurred her vision, warring with the waves of panic that washed through her body at intervals and made her heart race. She wanted it to be over.

Lancir had to be just as tired as she was, but none of it showed in his face or posture. He put his hand on her shoulder, reacting to her unspoken thoughts. “I know. We need to debrief, though. This was handled badly, you know that, and we need to make sure something like this never happens again.” He sighed. “At some point we’ll need a meeting with the whole Heraldic Circle, and I will need you to go through this again. But I don’t think any of us are ready for it yet.”

Tears filled her eyes. She knew she had made mistakes, damn it! She knew it was her fault, and more than anything she wished she could take back the last forty-eight candlemarks. Her mind was still skidding over the reality, not quite finding purchase. ‘Lendel was dead, gone, forever, it had taken only an instant, and even though that awful, endless moment went on playing in her head, it didn’t quite feel real.

“Hey, hey, hey.” Lance’s hand over hers. “Savil. Listen to me. I– I would tell you that it’s not your fault, except that I would rather not use the word, I don’t think blame is the right frame to be thinking of this at all. If we want to play that game, well, I know whose fault I think it was. But Evan Leshara and the goddamned mage are dead, and they weren’t on our side to begin with, right?”

She looked up into his eyes, blindingly blue, and then tried to turn her face away.

“Savil.” When he spoke like that, with command in his voice, she couldn’t ignore him. “Look at me. You did your best, your best was entirely reasonable, and it was almost enough. Perhaps you shouldn’t have let the boys stay together, but there was a tradeoff there, I think it’s true that Tylendel needed the support, and you weren’t to know at the time what might come of it. And besides, if Vanyel hadn’t gone riding alone without asking, if Gala hadn’t let Tylendel get separated from you... Our mistakes, they had to, let’s say, line up with each other.” He sighed. “And our enemies’ actions are always out of our control. Even whether or not you knew the mage was still there, that was out of your control as well. The part we control is the process we use to reason and make decisions. None of us are perfect, but we learn from our mistakes. Right?”

“Right.” Gods, Lancir always knew what to say. He had known her since she was fourteen years old.

“So?” He propped his elbow on the table, rested his chin on his fist. “I don’t want to go into this in too much detail, now, but I think it will help. What could you have done differently – no, that’s not the right question. How could you, how could a Herald called Savil have been different, so that she would have reacted differently, and avoided this?”

It hurt. She hadn’t been good enough... “I was too distracted,” she heard herself say, tonelessly.

“Why?” His voice was soft, gentle. “If you hadn’t been, your judgement would have been better – but we all know that. You knew it already.

She shook her head. “I, I don’t know... Pride, I guess. I don’t like to ask for help.” She felt her fingers clenching at the tabletop. “And I’m not good with people. Especially youngsters. Never have been. I wasn’t paying enough attention to the boys.”

Lancir shook his head. “I don’t know why you think that. It’s not true at all. But it does sound like you were tired, and that may have contributed.” He shrugged. “It’s hard. There aren’t enough of us, there’s always more to do than we have time for; it’s so very easy to take on too much. Especially for you.”

She nodded shakily. “I... The work I was doing, at the Frelennye keep, providing judgement for the village and smallholders – it wasn’t that important. It could have waited for the regular Herald on circuit.” She made a wry face. “I did it because I wanted to feel useful, I think. Didn’t notice at the time that wasn’t a good reason.”

Lancir nodded, his face as calm as still water. “I know. It’s hard, noticing things like that. I do that too. We’re only human, after all.” His mouth twisted, wry. “We can’t know everything and we can’t save everyone–” His voice cracked and she saw his throat move as he swallowed. “And we have to try anyway. We fall down, and we pick ourselves up and keep going. Right?”

She could only nod, unable to speak. I can’t, a part of her was thinking, it’s too much. Who cared whose fault it was, ultimately? It didn’t change the results. She had to live with them forever now; they all did.

“Listen, Savil – I know you don’t like it when I use my Gift on you, but if you’ll let me, I think I can put in a redirect that’ll help in the short run. You’re having a bit of a panic reaction every time you’re reminded of what happened, no?”

Was she? The sky full of fire, Mardic was screaming next to her and it was already too late– Damn it. “Yes.”

“Okay. I can at least block that. I’m not blocking off the memories, that’s a bad idea in the long run, but it’ll make it easier to stay calm. Is that okay?”

She nodded. Gods, she was supposed to sit in on a Council meeting in a candlemark, and she could barely face the thought. “All right.”

“Good.” She felt the corners of the room go soft as he ramped up his Gift. “Now, I’ll need you to tell me about what happened one more time–”

 


 

“–So that’s the proposal,” Jaysen finished. “I’ll open up the floor now. Questions?”

Savil shifted her weight, trying to ease the ache in her back. The meeting was running over time, after Lord Kedgar and Lord Leverance had gotten into a debate on the relative importance of good road repair versus Guard patrol staffing in preventing the bandit problem up north. Elspeth must have been feel out of sorts, because she hadn’t interrupted them; in fact, she hadn’t spoken much tonight at all.

The proposal was a very rough one; she and Jaysen had thrown it together in the two candlemarks before the meeting.

“Lord Kathar,” Jaysen said, and the man stood up. He was portly, balding, and a lot cannier than he looked.

“I would argue we ought to increase the amounts of grain and hay we’re sending them, and decrease the coin,” he said. “They’re near the Border, and they’re not on a trade route. Raw materials will be more useful to them.”

The clerk next to Jaysen’s elbow made a note. Jaysen smiled thinly. “That may be. However, they can still buy hay and grain from the neighbouring holdings, with coin – or they could buy lumber or stone or any number of things. I would argue that they’re going to know better than us what they need most to rebuild.”

Savil blinked, ignoring the urge to rub her eyes, which were itchy and hot with tiredness. It felt like a very long time since she had crawled out of bed that morning, and she could still feel the dull burn of overstrained mage-channels, now compounded with a tension headache.

Jaysen caught her eye. She twitched in her seat. Damn it, he wanted her to say something useful… She tried to think. “Grain and hay are a lot bulkier to transport as well,” she said. “We can get a chest of silver and gold to them much faster, with a single courier and g-guards.” The yawn she’d been fighting had crept out a little at the end; she clamped her jaw down on it.

“Lord Lathan,” Jaysen said, and the man stood – tall, thin, grey hair twisted in a braid down his back. Savil winced. She wasn’t especially fond of the man.

“I have some other questions,” Lord Lathan said. “In particular, why exactly my people will be contributing twice as much in harvest-taxes, just because some Herald,” he spat the word, “torched my neighbours’ land. I don’t think that’s especially fair. Do you?”

Dead silence. It took Savil every ounce of self-control that she had to stay in her seat and keep her face an impassive mask. This was exactly what she had been fearing the whole time. A blaze of light, whiting out the horizon, howling wind and pain– No, she wasn’t going to think about it. Not now.

“A trainee,” Jaysen clarified. “He wasn’t in Whites yet.”

She barely heard the words through the roaring of blood in her ears, and she wasn’t sure exactly what he was trying to accomplish. Distancing Tylendel’s actions from the Heraldic Circle? 

“I stand corrected. Herald Savil’s student, no?”

Every eye in the room was turned on her. Hostile, staring – no, most of the looks were sympathetic if anything, but at least a quarter of the faces showed displeasure, even anger. Savil raised her chin and held her ground, silently; it was all she could do, there was no way she was going to be able to push any words past the aching lump in her throat. Her eyes stung. Damn it, you are NOT going to cry in a full Council meeting! Remember to breathe. Center and ground. :Kellan: she reached out, and he was there, gently supportive; he had been silently riding along in her mind the whole time.

The Queen stood up.

Everyone in the room went perfectly still.

“Lord Lathan,” Elspeth said, her voice cool, “that was out of order.”

He actually flushed – or she thought he did, it was hard to see through the haze of tears that she didn’t dare try to wipe away. “I apologize, your Majesty,” he said stiffly, and sat down.

Elspeth’s dark eyes played across the room. “The rest of you have the next thirty seconds to raise any remaining pressing concerns with the aid proposal, and then we are going to vote, and then I am going to adjourn this meeting because we should all be in our beds. Please feel free to add other concerns to the agenda for the end of the week.” She paused. Utter silence; Savil couldn’t even hear people breathing. “Anyone?” the Queen said. “…All right. Pass your votes in.” She sat, with great dignity.

There was a collective sigh, and then a rustling of paper and scraping of chair-legs on stone, as the various Council members hunted for their vote-cards and pens. Savil closed her eyes for a moment.

:I’m here, love: Kellan sent.

:I know: She focused on her breathing for a moment, until her heart rate had returned to something like normal. A moment later she felt the brush of Jaysen’s mind against her shields.

:I’m sorry: And he really did sound sorry. :I didn’t know he was going to pull that crap:

:Someone was going to sooner or later: She felt a moment of wry amusement. :Probably better it was Lathan. No one likes him:

:Are you all right?:

:Fine. Just…don’t call on me again, please?: She could keep her composure as long as she didn’t have to open her mouth She wasn’t sure she had ever felt this rattled – even with Lancir’s block, she could feel the calming loop he had put in and it was helping, but not enough.

Pull yourself together, Herald. Elspeth needed her functional, not curled up in a ball on the floor, and she wasn’t about to disappoint her.

But, damn it, it was hard.

Chapter Text

“We’ve got a problem,” Savil said, swaying in the door to Lancir’s quarters, fidgeting with the belt of her rain-dampened sleeping-robe. It was well after midnight, closer to the early hours of the morning, and every candle in the room was still lit. She hadn’t even had the energy to put her boots on, not after having been roused from a sound sleep barely a quarter-candlemark ago; she had run all the way here through the mud in her slippers.

He looked up from the armchair where he had been going through a pile of papers. “What?” he said vaguely. “Oh, it’s you. Which problem are we talking about right now?” He looked terrible, she thought. There were deep, bruised-looking shadows under his eyes, and the lines across his brow and around his mouth were deeper than they had been a week ago; the skin of his face looked loose, somehow. None of us are young anymore, she thought, we haven’t got the stamina we used to.

She crossed the room and sat down on the padded chair across from him. “Vanyel’s Gifts.”

“What about them?”

She sighed. “Exactly what I was afraid of. He’s got no control, and it’s only getting worse now that he’s waking up a little. I had to leave him with Mardic and Donni holding shields, just so I could get some sleep – and he had a nightmare or something and wrecked all the furniture in his room, set fire to his own bed, cracked the floor, and came very close to bringing the roof down as well.” She took a shuddering breath. “Gets worse. Mardic tried to wake him and Van mindblasted him, knocked him right out. Then he went into convulsions. Andy thinks he tried to pull the attack back on himself when he realized it was Mardic and not, I don’t know, whatever he thought was after him in his nightmare.”

She’d caught a few fragments of whatever he’d been dreaming, she thought, intruding into her sleep before his screams woke her – he had been projecting right through all the shields they could keep on him, and her own personal shields as well. She remembered bitter cold and blowing snow and facing some nameless danger, alone– Shaking herself, she tried to regain the thread of her thoughts. It was hard to tell if she was even making sense. “Andy got there after a few minutes and threw a bucket of water on him, that brought him out of it, but the whole thing wore him out, and it could happen again any time.” He was still so weak, physically; it wouldn’t take many more fits like this to push him over the edge.

Lancir watched her, waiting to see if she was finished. “Is Mardic all right?” he said finally.

“I think so. He says so, anyway. Made it back to his room on his own feet.”

The Queen’s Own nodded. “All right, so Vanyel’s Mage-Gift is definitely a problem. Any others?”

She shrugged. “I could wish he didn’t have Empathy. He’s projecting his pain and grief so strongly it’s even getting through my personal shields, I can barely stand to be in the same room. Gods, I don’t want to think about how much he’s picking up from us.” It wasn’t like they were going around thinking happy thoughts either.

Lancir was nodding slowly to himself. When she finished, he looked up, one hand slowly rubbing his chin.

“What about your Work Room?”

“What?” It seemed like a complete non-sequitur for a moment, but then she actually thought about it. “Oh. I see. There’s more than enough shielding, he won’t be able to project past it, or shake the rest of the Palace around.” Or pick up their thoughts from outside, which meant she could afford to be a bit less careful with her own shielding. “That’s a good idea, Lance!”

Lancir ran a hand through his hair. “It’s only a temporary solution. We’ll have to find a way to keep it warm. And won’t it block him off from Yfandes? I know she can’t have a very strong bond with him yet, but she’ll be trying all she can to help, and she won’t like that.”

Savil thought for a moment. :Kellan, is that true?:

Kellan had been listening in the back of her head; he was there most of the time these days, adding his strength to hers, the only thing keeping her going. :I’m afraid so, love. I can’t feel you at all when you’re in there:

:Hmm. The door opens from outside of the suite. I don’t figure it’s big enough now, but if we could somehow make it bigger, would she be willing to be inside with him? I know it wouldn’t exactly be comfortable for her, and it’d cut her off from the rest of the Companions…:

A pause. :She would be ecstatic, Chosen. To be in the same room as him? It’s driving her wild not being able to touch him:

Which made sense. Early on, physical touch was incredibly important to the developing bond.

“I have an idea,” she said out loud. “I figure in a few candlemarks, we could enlarge the door on my Work Room without affecting the shields. It sounds like Yfandes would be happy to be in there, if we could make her fit.”

Lancir laughed out loud. “I would not have thought of that! I don’t know why not, though. It’s definitely worth a try.” He looked at the time-candle. “We can’t start now, but I can send in some workers first thing tomorrow, and I’m sure Kilchas would be happy to help you out with magic.”

Savil felt herself smiling, her first real smile in days. “I didn’t expect to walk in here and find a solution!” She sighed. “I’m still worried. I really don’t like the emotions I’m picking up from him.” That he was blasting into her head, rather, it wasn’t like she was trying to read his mind! “He thinks it’s his fault ‘Lendel’s dead. He really doesn’t want to be alive; I’m pretty sure he thinks he deserves to die. And his nightmares – I wouldn’t be in his head for anything, Lance. I... Is this normal?”

He looked flatly at her. “Normal for a broken lifebond? Savil, I don’t think we know what’s normal, because I’ve never met anyone who survived it.” He looked away. “If it weren’t for Yfandes, I would wonder if we did the right thing, pulling him out of the river.”

She flinched away. “I don’t know what to do.”

Lancir sighed. “Don’t leave him alone, ever; make sure there’s always someone there to watch him. Yfandes might be able to help. Other than that, I think we just have to wait and see.”

She tried to meet his eyes again, imploring. “Do you think you could try to help him? I know you’re really stretched…”

“I don’t know if I can do much, at this stage. It’s a lot harder for me to work around physical pain, and I think that’s a lot of his problem right there. Think of the worst reaction-headache you’ve ever had – would you be able to even hold a conversation?”

“Ugh. No.”

“You see what I mean? I need him to be able to hold a thread of thought, or I’m very limited in what I can do. I’ll see if I can free up some time, though.”

“Please. It would mean a lot to me, Lance.”

“I know.” He smiled crookedly. “He’s all you have to remember ‘Lendel by. Isn’t he?”

“I–” She reeled. Was that it? “Maybe you’re right. Gods. I don’t know – I was coming to like him a great deal, on his own merits. He handled the whole mess with Staven better than I would have expected, and the less he hid under those masks of his and the airs he would put on, the more I got to know the real Vanyel...well, he has a good heart, for all that he was terrified to let anyone see it.”

The Queen’s Own smiled gently. “Oh, I believe you. Yfandes did Choose him, after all. Just…I don’t want you to mistake where your feelings are coming from.” His blue eyes seemed to pierce her. “You miss him a lot, don’t you?”

She blinked away fresh tears. “Lancir, please… Don’t be a Mindhealer at me right now.” I don't have time or energy to grieve. She hauled herself to her feet. “Thanks for the advice. I’ll ask Kilchas.”

 


 

Savil leaned against the stone wall of the Work Room, both hands around a cup of tea. It was still raining; she held a mage-barrier over Kilchas’ head, helping him stay dry while he and two Palace stonemasons worked on the door. Kilchas whistled cheerfully. It was grating and she wished he would stop – but it wasn’t like she could ask everyone else to be as miserable as she was.

It was the fourth day since Tylendel’s death, and it had started to really, truly sink in that she was never going to see him again. Damn it but she missed him; it was a constant ache in her chest. Oh, ke’chara, why? A question that had no answer.

Vanyel had survived another night. She knew his condition was still precarious – but if he could have Yfandes with him, if they could give him that one thing, maybe that would be enough to get him through. Herald-Mage Justen was holding shields on him right now; he seemed happy enough to help, unlike Deedre, who had been very sour about it. Savil didn’t think she would be asking any of them again once they had the shielded room ready.

The builders waited as Kilchas raised his hands and carefully knocked out another marked block of stone. He came over to her as they dragged over a ladder to sand the edges smooth.

“Holding up all right?” he said, leaning on the wall beside her.

“Busy. Tired.”

He grimaced. “I’m sorry about what happened.”

She looked away from his concerned gaze; what was she supposed to say?

“Look on the bright side. At least Mardic and Donni are all right. And your nephew ended up Chosen. That’s a bit of a silver lining, at least?”

She stared blankly at him. Damn it, did he not understand at all? She forced herself to bite back her angry retort before it could escape – it wasn’t really Kilchas’ fault, he didn’t know all the details. Didn’t know the boys had been lifebonded, so he couldn’t know what Van was going through right now.

Neither can I, she reminded herself. There was an ache in her throat and her eyes burned.

Kilchas, seeming to realize he had said something wrong, shuffled his feet, then nodded without quite meeting her eyes and went back to help the builders with the next block.

 


 

“Van, we’re almost there,” Mardic said, trying to keep his voice level despite the strain of holding a shield, walking with one hand on Vanyel’s shoulder as he lay in Andrel’s arms, wrapped tightly in blankets against the damp autumn chill. “Andy, can we go faster?”

“Would you rather I dropped him?” Andrel snapped. He was placing his feet carefully; to be fair, the ground was a slippery morass of mud, despite the mage-barrier Savil was holding above their heads, rain falling on sheets on all sides of it.

“Put a little more into your shield, Mardic?” Savil prompted. “I’m picking up leakage.”

“I’m trying.” He blinked back tears of frustration – damn it, Vanyel’s emotions were getting to him as well. “He’s projecting really hard, okay?” He didn’t understand how; Vanyel was barely conscious.

“Donni! Door!”

Donni scrambled ahead of them and pulled the new, enlarged door open.

“All right, let’s do this fast. Don’t let the heat out.”

They negotiated the doorway, and Savil closed it behind them. “Everyone reinforce their personal shields. Mardic, go ahead and drop it.”

He sighed with relief and released the shield – and winced as a diffuse sense of wrongness flooded through him, along with the ghost of a throbbing headache.

Andrel’s boots left muddy footprints across the stone – well, it would be easy enough to clean later. “Help me get him down,” the Healer said, and Mardic squatted next to the fold-out cot they had dragged in, and helped support Vanyel’s head as they lowered him onto the mattress. Lissa, who had been waiting for them next to the cot, grabbed the pile of heated wool blankets they had readied, and shook one out before throwing it over her brother.

Mardic turned and found himself looking into two enormous blue eyes. “There you go, Yfandes,” he said softly.

She whinnied and jerked her head, and he scooted out of the way so that she could move forward and lay her muzzle across Vanyel’s legs. A few seconds later, he couldn’t feel Van’s godawful headache anymore; Yfandes must have put her own shields on him. Maybe he wouldn’t fight her so hard.

Savil let out a sigh. “That’s much better. Good job, people, that went smoothly.” She slumped against the wall, relief in every line of her body.

Mardic shivered. Despite the heating-spells, it really wasn’t that warm in here.

Savil noticed. “Damn it.” She raised her hands, and he felt the currents of her power moving. “That’ll have to do. Keep him bundled up, I guess. Andrel, are you all right to get him settled? Jaysen wants me at a meeting in ten minutes.” 

“That’s fine.” Andrel sat back on his heels. “You know what’d be useful in here? A table.”

“Maybe something to sit on, too,” Lissa chimed in. “While we’re making a list.”

Mardic looked around the room. It did look extremely bare. And poorly lit, with the door closed and no windows, there were only the two candles in sconces on either side of the door. Not exactly a happy atmosphere; it wouldn’t help Vanyel’s emotional state any, he thought. He dug into his reserved energy and sent a mage-light to the ceiling, feeling the strain of it; Savil could manage this a lot more easily, with her stronger mage-gift.

Gods, Van, I hope this helps. It had to help, right? He had his Companion with him, now. That would be enough, wouldn’t it?

The thought wasn’t as reassuring as he might have hoped.

 


 

Savil settled awkwardly into the chair next to the bed. “Heya, Tran.” She’d been meaning to visit him for two days, and been putting it off – she hated the atmosphere in this part of the House of Healing.

His eyes moved to her, slightly unfocused; he licked his lips and started to speak, then gave up. :Heya, Savil: She could feel the overtones of pain and drugs, but his thoughts were clear enough.

:Feeling better?: He had been barely conscious last time she saw him, when they had carried him through Jaysen’s Gate, so this was an improvement. He looked awful, though; the few patches of skin not covered by bandages were blistered, red and shiny. She couldn’t imagine the agony he must be feeling.

:Could be worse. My hands sort of work: He lifted one arm and wiggled his bandaged fingers, then lowered it back to his side. :I’m sorry about Tylendel: There was a waft of complex feelings there, that she couldn’t quite unpack; well, she couldn’t blame him for feeling conflicted. The Healers still weren’t sure if he would fully regain the use of his hands, and she couldn’t deny it was thanks to what Tylendel had done.

:It wasn’t your fault:

She flinched. He meant well, but goddamn it, why was everyone so determined to reassure her of that? :Tran, I don’t want to talk about it:

:Sorry: He did feel genuinely distressed.

:It’s fine: Now she felt guilty. He was a good kid, really, he didn’t mean any harm.

There was an awkward silence.

:I heard your nephew was Chosen?: Tran sent tentatively. :That’s exciting:

She resisted the urge to drop her head into her hands. :Not especially: She knew her mindvoice had come out sharper than intended, but she was tired of people asking and she didn’t want to go into it again.

:Oh: She could tell that he had no idea to respond. :How are Mardic and Donni?:

That was a safe topic. She switched to spoken words, because she didn’t want to leak what she was feeling to him; he didn’t deserve that. “Well enough, thank you. It was hard for them, being separated, they were very happy to see each other again…”

 


 

Midnight. Savil had snatched a few hours of sleep, but she had asked Kellan to wake her; someone had to take over from Lissa, who had been there all evening. Andrel had offered, but he had to be back at the House of Healing at dawn tomorrow and she had told him to get some rest. Her mind felt sticky with exhaustion.

She stood outside the Work Room door, steeling herself. Gods. She really, really didn’t want to go in there. Even semiconscious, Vanyel could project his emotions right through her shields – and, gods, she was hurting enough, she missed ‘Lendel as well, she really didn’t want or need to know how much pain he was in.

:Kellan: she reached out, not with any particular question or request, just wanting to know her Companion was there.

:I know, love: She felt Kellan’s worry. :You’re worn out. You’re down to the dregs of your reserves, it does take energy to shield, and you can’t tap any other sources in there: A pause. :I can spare something:

She took the mental link and the energy that came with it, feeling it fill the emptiness in her – soothing, not scorching like node-energy, and almost as good as sleep. Kellan had only helped her like this once or twice before, usually in dire situations; she thought it might be one of those things Companions weren’t really supposed to do. They were awfully cagey about the limit of their abilities, and she’d given up questioning it.

:Thank you: Deep breath. You can do this, Herald. She reached to open the door.

 

 

The knock startled her out of a doze. She didn’t know what time it was; the early hours of the morning, probably. She had been trying her best to stay awake, occupying herself by reading a book, but she couldn’t concentrate and she kept nodding off. Vanyel was finally quiet. The first candlemark had been awful; in the throes of another nightmare, he had set fire to the sheets and reduced one of the wooden stools to kindling by flinging it into the ceiling. And blasted her when she tried to wake him, her shields had caught it but her ears were still ringing a little.

“Come in,” she said wearily, lifting her chin from her chest. Ow. There was a crick in her neck, and she ached all over.

The door opened. “I’ve been looking for you all over, Savil,” Jaysen said. “What are you doing in here?”

“Keep your voice down. And don’t just stand there, come in and shut the door.” She sat up straighter, groaning at the pins and needles in her bottom.

He obeyed, looking around with a sour expression.

“What do you want?”

He held out a sheaf of papers. “Can you look over the budget with me? Elspeth wants a draft by tomorrow.”

“Dammit, Jay.” Her irritation bubbled over into anger. “Does this really seem like the time?”

“I thought–”

“I don’t care what you thought! I’m tired, and I want to go to bed, and the last thing I want to do is look at the stupid budget for you!”

On the cot behind her, Vanyel stirred and moaned. She swore and pressed the heels of her hands to her face, taking deep breaths and pouring more energy into her shields. Please go back to sleep, I can’t deal with you right now, please… She really hoped that thought hadn’t leaked out.

Jaysen cleared his throat. “I… I’m sorry. Listen, I just– I’m worried about you. Isn’t there someone else who could sit up with him?”

“Not really.”

“What about Kilchas? He was helping out, right?”

She massaged her forehead. “I’m not asking him to stay up all night.” That was the trouble; she didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone else to take that on. Lissa would be willing, but she had already spent the whole evening with Vanyel, and she wasn’t Gifted and couldn’t shield – Savil was leery of leaving her there without backup.

Jaysen hesitated, chewing his lip. “I can do it,” he said finally.

“It’s fine.”

His brow furrowed. Confusion, frustration, offence, she couldn’t tell. “Savil, you’re trying to carry all this on your own. You wouldn’t even let me hold shields on him, before. I don’t understand.”

She sighed. There were things she hated to say out loud, but... She switched to private Mindspeech. :Jay, love, I know you don’t like him that much. Gods! Mindspeech gets messy enough when everyone’s trained in the shielding and protocols and we can all be grownups about it and pretend we didn’t hear those stray thoughts. Van can’t do that. If, if he picks up what I caught you thinking the other day…:

Now Jay definitely looked offended. :Caught me thinking what?:

That it would be easier if Van had died. That he was a sorry replacement for ‘Lendel. That he couldn’t possibly be worth this much disruption to their lives. But she wasn’t going to say any of that, out loud or in Mindspeech. Even if she’d had her own doubts. “Jay, just... I really appreciate the offer, but it’s fine. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

He had the grace to look a little guilty, at least. “That’s all right.” He sat down next to her, rested a hand on her shoulder, and she leaned into his touch. “Savil, I care about you, all right? We’re going to get through this.”

“I know.” She turned to him and managed a weak smile.

 

 

Donni stood outside the Work Room door, arms folded, her small, expressive face tight. There were bags under her eyes and she didn’t look at all happy about being awake. Savil wouldn’t have asked her, it was just past sunrise and she knew the trainee wasn’t a morning person, but Mardic was still recovering from backlash and needed his rest.

“Girl, you’re still leaking,” Savil said irritably. She had been with Vanyel all night, and she was worn out. She badly needed to grab a few hours of real sleep if she wanted to be at all functional today. “What are you so frustrated about, anyway?”

Donni gave her a look. “He threw Mardic into the wall!”

Savil sighed. “He didn’t mean to. Mardic’s fine. You’re taking this way more personally than he is.”

Donni scrubbed a hand over her face. “I know, I just...” She trailed off. There was a haunted look in her eyes.

“Couldn’t sleep, huh?” Savil tried to make her voice gentle. “Nightmares?”

The trainee gave her another look. “What do you think?” For a moment she slumped against the wall. “I’m fine.”

“Dammit, then shield!” Her voice came out sharper than she’d intended. “You know how!”

Donni flinched, stumbling back a half-step.

Savil sighed. “I’m sorry. I know it’s hard, but it is your turn. Start with the basics, okay? Center and ground…”

 


 

“We’re all here,” Lancir said, looking around. “Let’s get started. Kilchas, get the door?”

It was the first formal meeting of the senior Heraldic Circle they had fit in since the incident. Jaysen, Keiran, Deedre, Justen, Kilchas, and Darvi were all there; they were missing a few other members.

Savil had dragged herself out of bed ten minutes ago after Kellan prodded her awake, and still felt like she was half dreaming. She hoped no one would call on her until she’d had a chance to clear her head.

“We have quite a lot on our agenda,” Lancir said. He glanced down at his notes. “I’d like to get through some of the backlog of routine things we’ve been neglecting this week. First, though – I think most of you know, but I should announce formally that we have a new trainee.”

“It would be quite difficult not to know about Trainee Vanyel,” Deedre said waspishly. Savil bit her tongue against snapping back. She got on well enough with Herald-Mage Deedre; the woman was competent, hells, she was one of the Web-Guardians; but she wasn’t always the most compassionate.

Lancir just gave her a level look. “I very much appreciate how many of you have stepped in to help Savil with this. Thank you. In any case. Savil, an update?”

She straightened up in her chair, blinking hard. Her lips felt half numb; it took a lot of effort to speak without slurring. “He’s recovering slowly. We’ve got him in my Work Room, for safety – he’s very powerfully Gifted, and he’s still quite out of it. Yfandes is staying with him now.” She couldn’t think what else to add, and trailed off.

“What’s wrong with him?” Keiran said, leaning forwards. “I think I missed something.”

Easier to list what wasn’t wrong with him, Savil thought bitterly, and how had Keiran managed to miss the events of the last five days? She had to remind herself that there were probably other things going on in Haven.

She shrugged. “Backlash, and he nearly drowned earlier this week. Plus the way his Gifts were awakened. It’s complicated.”

Silence.

“I should give some context,” Lancir said after a moment. “I very much don’t want this spread around, so use your discretion, but it is relevant.” He glanced at Savil. “Vanyel and Trainee Tylendel were lifebonded.”

Kilchas’ jaw dropped open; Darvi gasped; Keiran brought a hand to her mouth, eyes widening. Savil looked down at her lap, damn it, her eyes were stinging again and it felt like there was a lead weight on her chest.

“Hellfires,” Justen said, in the mild voice he only used when something had just gone disastrously wrong. “That can’t be fun. Explains some of what I was picking up when I was shielding him, though.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Anyway.” Lancir folded both hands on the table. “We ought to do the paperwork at some point, and that means assigning him a teacher. I know we don’t normally assign family members, but I’m inclined to give him to Savil. I think she’s the most qualified, and she has his guardianship already.”

She blinked; it hadn’t occurred to her that they wouldn’t assign Vanyel as her student. Then again, she hadn’t exactly thought that far ahead. “I’m happy to take him,” she said, shrugging, “but I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I certainly can’t start teaching him yet.” She wasn’t sure she felt qualified, either.

“Sooner rather than later would be preferable. He’s going to be a danger to himself and others as long as he’s untrained – you know that.”

She winced.

“You tested his Gifts, right?” Lancir went on. “I don’t think I got around to asking you for details. Can I get the complete list now, for our records?”

“The complete list?” Deedre muttered. “How many does he have?”

Savil sighed and went through it again, counting on her fingers to make sure she didn’t miss any. By the time she finished, everyone in the room was staring at her.

Kilchas whistled. “Wow. That’s pretty impressive.” He looked around the room. “And weird.” His fingers tapped against the table. “Savil, how were his Gifts awakened, again? It would be useful if we had a few more like him.”

She covered her face with both hands; not the most graceful response, but it was all she could do not to start sobbing. You don’t understand.

“It’s probably not replicable,” Lancir said mildly. “We’re not even totally sure what happened. And I’m with Savil – I hope I never see another living soul go through that.”

Savil lowered her hands, struggling to regain her composure. Center and ground. She could get through the rest of this meeting, and then go cry somewhere, because no one understood and even thinking about the future hurt and, damn it, she missed Tylendel.

“Anyway. Let’s move on from Trainee Vanyel. Keiran, want to review any changes to our circuit deployments…”

Chapter Text

He stood in a frozen pass, a narrow gap between two mountains, wide enough for two men to pass abreast. It was not natural; he knew that it had been carved out of the bedrock with magic – dark, tainted magic, that came from blood and death. He stood alone, the wind whipping his hair, cutting right through his heavy cloak. He had send Tylendel away to bring help, but he knew that help could not possibly come in time. And he was already exhausted, and hurting.

(But Tylendel was dead?)

He took a step forwards, and then another. He knew that an army waited for him, an army that he had to hold off, here, or else it would be too late. He knew that he was about to die – he had resigned himself to it, if not quite made peace, and he knew the price was worth it.

“Herald-Mage Vanyel.”

(Herald-Mage?)

He looked up and saw a man dressed entirely in black. His face was ruggedly handsome, a little too symmetrical, and his dark hair fell down his back in waves. The man was a mage, powerful, perhaps more so than Vanyel himself, and the taint of blood-magic flowed from him.

Two more mages stepped forwards, and then another two, flanking the man on either side.

“Leareth,” he heard himself say.

(He could hear music. What?)

He knew that he couldn’t survive this fight, not five against one. But he had always known how this was going to end. He took a step forwards, raising his hands–

:Chosen!: It was Yfandes. She was coming back to him! He felt a stirring of hope.

:Chosen, wake up! This is only a dream. It isn’t real. Wake up!:

The icy mountain pass dissolved and he found himself lying in a bed, curled on his side, with tears on his cheeks. A damp nose nudged his cheek, and there was a voice that was definitely in his head and not his ears. :See? It was just a dream:

It had felt real. It was the ice-dream again, only different – more vivid and detailed than ever before. As he struggled to remember where he was, he realized that he could still hear music. Someone was playing a gittern – not especially well, but with a great deal of heart.

The pain was still there too, a background roar, a constant aching, burning pressure behind his eyes.

He tried to sit up, and couldn’t; he was as weak as a day-old kitten. And he wasn’t where he had expected to be. From what he could see from his angle and by turning his head a little, this room was windowless, dimly lit, with walls of bare stone, and almost empty of furniture; there was only the cot he lay on, a simple wooden table, and two stools. Mardic sat on one of them, gittern in his arms, absently plucking and singing under his breath. There were dark bags under his eyes and his clothing was rumpled.

And there was a Companion in the room! Someone had piled straw on the floor and she was curled up on it, right next to the cot, her head resting inches away. Blue eyes bored into him.

:That’s right: the voice said again – it was a woman’s voice, cheerful and slightly concerned. It wavered in and out, and it made his head hurt worse, but he felt a surge of warmth and caring along with it. :I’m here with you, Chosen:

He reached to rub at his eyes; it took a surprising amount of his strength just to move his hand. It was so hard to think over the pain. And there was something else – an emptiness in him, bitterly cold, a place where something should have been and wasn’t anymore…

‘Lendel.

The grief hit him like an avalanche, drowning out all other thought. ‘Lendel was gone. That was all that mattered, all that could ever matter again. He could still see it, like an afterimage burned into his eyes forever – the Gate wavering in front of him, ‘Lendel standing on the other side, arms raised, the moment before everything became light and fire.

:Chosen!: The voice fought through the maelstrom of despair and emptiness, trying to reach him. :Vanyel!: He felt a steady outpouring of love from her, but it was nothing, a tiny trickle in an endless void. He realized he was sobbing, his whole body shaking with it.

“Hey, hey.” There were hands on his shoulders. “Van, hey, it’s okay…”

It wasn’t okay. Mardic had no idea. Suddenly angry, he pictured Donni lying cold on the ground in a pool of blood, and flung the image at the other boy, a mental throwing motion that sent waves of pain crashing through his head.

Mardic reeled away, letting go of him, but he was back a moment later. “Van, that was rude,” he said conversationally. Vanyel reached out somehow, not really knowing what he was doing, and realized that he could feel the other boy’s mind, hear his thoughts. I wish I hadn’t said that, gods, I’m an idiot, of course it would upset him, of course he’s not okay, how could he be – oh, Donni, I can’t, I can’t think about that – but he didn’t mean it, he’s hurting so much, look at him – and it’s my fault anyway, it was my fault, if I did this to him I have to make it up somehow. Vanyel flinched away, like a child pulling burned fingers back from the stove. He gasped; it hurt...

:Steady, Chosen: he heard Yfandes, and then there was blessed silence in his head. :There, I’ve got a shield on you. Try not to break it this time, okay?:

He was so confused. He couldn’t remember what he was doing in this room, why Mardic was here, why wouldn’t his head stop hurting...

Gods. Mardic had only been trying to comfort him, and he’d – he had tried to hurt him. And somehow Mardic was still there, holding him as he trembled.

He tried to get his breathing under control. “I’m sorry,” he tried to say, but it came out as a garbled moan. He swallowed, worked saliva into his mouth, and tried again. “Mardic, I– I’m sorry…” The words were slurred; his tongue wasn’t working right.

“I know,” the other boy said gently, and then– “Van! You’re talking to me!”

Why is that so surprising, he thought dully.

:You’ve been very ill, Chosen: the voice said in his head. :It’s been five days. You were mostly unconscious or delirious:

What?

:You mean you don’t remember? You jumped in the river. I wasn’t pleased about that. It was very cold and I sprained a hock:

The river – oh. He remembered it now, like something out of a dream, stumbling through the storm, hoping that if he ran far enough he would find a way to fall of the world, hoping the river would take him to wherever ‘Lendel was now…

He moaned. They saved me. Why did they bother? I wanted to die. I still want to die. It’s not worth it, nothing’s worth it without him, and it’s my fault he’s dead… More sobs rattled his body as he tried to curl up into a ball, hiding his face from the light.

:Because you’re my Chosen, and I love you: Yfandes said, her voice ringing clearly in his mind. :And I’m not sure where you get the idea it was your fault. It really wasn’t:

It was, though. Lissa had teased him about his bad luck, in the past – well, he’d brought that home to roost, hadn’t he? He’d let himself be kidnapped, and then he had called ‘Lendel through their bond, and that was how ‘Lendel had died. He was a curse on everything he touched.

:That doesn’t even make sense!: A pause, and he had the oddest feeling that she was riffling through his head. :Okay, I sort of see where you got that piece…and that one… Really, though. You know people being cursed isn’t a real thing, right? Not in the way you seem to mean it:

He tried to push her out of his mind, block her out – and went stiff as waves of fire washed through his head, slowly subsiding.

:You need to stop doing that: the voice said wearily. :I can tell you don’t want to talk right now, and I know I’m hurting you. I’ll let you rest:

There was silence in his head. He realized that Mardic was still there, gently rubbing his back, and resolved to ignore the other boy. They don’t understand. ‘Lendel came for me and that’s why he died. I should never have met him. I as good as killed him.

He heard a dubious snort from the direction of the Companion, but she didn’t try to speak into his mind.

And they’re wasting all this effort trying to take care of me. They shouldn’t. I’m not worth saving. I wish they would just leave me alone.

A damp nose smacked him gently in the head.

Oh, go away! Just go away. Please.

He felt a momentary sense of hurt, then immediate forgiveness. Somehow he knew Yfandes hadn’t been trying to communicate those feelings to him; it was just her reaction, and he was connected to her just as she was connected to him.

“Go away,” he croaked out loud.

“Talking again? Good. And no, I won’t.” Mardic’s voice was forcefully cheerful, though there was strain underneath. “You’re awake. That means you need to drink water. Eat something, if you can. And maybe use the chamber pot, if you need to go. You might notice that you’re wearing a giant nappy right now.”

Vanyel hadn’t noticed, and wasn’t especially pleased to discover it.

“Go ahead and throw nasty thoughts at me, if you like,” Mardic went on. “You’ll just hurt yourself, though, and I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been mindblasted and Empathy-blasted and tossed into the wall by you, more times than I can count, and I’m still here, aren’t I?”

Wait – had he done it more than once? Gods! He felt a rush of guilt. All he could do was hurt the people around him… I’m cursed, I must be, I destroy everything that I touch...

The quiet voice in the back of his mind protested – the Companion was right, he could vaguely tell that something was wrong with the logic – but it felt true, it felt like a deep and immutable fact of the world.

“Stop it,” Mardic said firmly. “Thank you. All right, come on, let’s get you sitting up.”

The indignity of it was that he was too weak to resist. He found himself pulled up and propped against a stack of pillows. Mardic brought over a clay jar and opened it; steam wafted out, and a strong scent of herbs.

“This will help a bit with the pain,” he said, dipping a spoon into the liquid, “and then I’ll go out and see if I can get some soup for you or something.”

Vanyel accepted being spoon-fed because he didn’t see another way to get Mardic to go away, and he really did want his head to stop hurting so much. He didn’t think anything would help with the yawning hole in the back of his mind, the icy-cold emptiness ‘Lendel had left behind.

The door opened suddenly. Vanyel yelped, startled, and a pillow went flying. He cried out as a red-hot poker seemed to stab through his forehead.

“Oh, Fetching? I was wondering when I’d see that one,” Mardic said, quickly setting down the jar and grabbing his shoulders as his back arched, every muscle tightening against the pain. Vanyel’s eyes were watering and he felt like he was about to throw up.

Savil caught the pillow just before it hit her face. She looked irritated. “Mardic? Did you throw that at me?”

“No! I’m pretty sure Van Fetched it at you. Gods, why did you have to startle him like that? You could at least have knocked.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Savil quickly crossed the room and knelt on the other side of the cot. Vanyel let his head fall limply back against the pillows as the waves of pain receded, slightly. His eyelids were starting to feel heavy, and his aunt’s face swam in his vision.

“What’s...happening to...me?” he managed to whisper.

Savil was frowning. “Oh, Van… It’s good to see you with your eyes open. You – it’s going to be a little hard to understand, but you remember how I said the first time I met you that you had a lot of potential Gifts? Well, something happened and they’re active now. But the thing that happened also sort of burned the inside of your head. That’s why it hurts so much.”

He stared blankly at her, struggling to follow the words. She sighed and patted his shoulder.

“I know. It’s confusing. But, Van? You’re alive, and we’re incredibly glad of that. Okay?”

He shook his head, tears welling up again. She didn’t understand. None of them understood.

Blurrily, he saw her look away. He could feel his eyes trying to drift shut, and he gave up fighting it.

“Can you manage another three candlemarks?” he heard Savil saying to Mardic. “Jay called an emergency meeting, wants me there.”

“Of course, I don’t…”

The words grew indistinct as he fell towards sleep, eager to escape as far as he could. Maybe this time, somehow, the gods would grant his wish and he wouldn’t wake up.

 


 

Savil had just gotten back to the suite a few minutes ago. Lunch was out on the sideboard, and she was staring blankly at a plate, trying to work up the energy to eat.

The door opened, and she jerked her head up. “Mardic? Thought I said… Who’s with Van now?”

“Lissa.” He made a face. “I know not to leave him unattended, I’m not stupid.”

“Sorry.” She gave in to the urge to rub her eyes. “Get some food and sit. Where’s Donni?”

His face went blank for a second. “She’s at the salle.”

“Well, tell her to come here.” She closed her eyes; it took more effort to Mindspeak when she was this sleep deprived. :Andy?:

She felt his alarm. :Savil? Is something wrong?:

:No. Are you on lunch break? I thought we should have a bit of a meeting and discuss plans: She should have done it days ago, really, but things kept coming up.

:On my way:

She opened her eyes. “We’re having a meeting as soon as everyone’s here. You should eat.”

He looked pointedly at her plate. “You should too. I’ll make us tea.”

She tore off a piece of bread and put it in her mouth. It tasted like ashes. And her stomach was upset; it always was when she was stressed.

“How is he?” she said when she had finished chewing. “He looked better this morning, I thought.” It was the first time she had been sure that her nephew recognized her.

Mardic shrugged. “He’s more lucid. Like you saw, he was actually talking to me.”

She tried to think of a tactful way to ask. “Um. How…upset does he seem?”

Mardic just gave her a look, like it was a stupid question. Which, fine, she probably deserved that.

The door opened again, startling her; gods, she was jumpy. “Heya, Andy,” she said tiredly, and gestured vaguely at the sideboard. “Get some food.”

“Thanks.” He brushed his hand over her shoulder as he walked past.

She turned her eyes back on Mardic. “The time when he Fetched the cushion at me – is that happening a lot?”

“Lost track of how many times. Guess it’s like any new Gift, you don’t mean to use it, it just happens.”

“And every time it does happen, he gives himself a little more backlash and rips his channels up even more,” Andrel added, as he pulled out the chair next to her and sat. “I wish we could just block his Gifts entirely, for now, but I don’t know of a way to do it that isn’t permanent.”

Part of her was tempted to wonder if it was worth it – but no, she couldn’t consider burning out Vanyel’s Gifts just because they were annoying right now. “Aren’t there some drugs…?”

“I’ll ask around. I do really, really think we should treat the pain. It’s wearing him out. He can’t get any really restful sleep, and no wonder he doesn’t want to eat or move.”

Savil forced herself to take another bite, chew, and swallow it, washing it down with wine. “What are the options?”

“Well, I was thinking about giving him argonel–”

“Argonel? Are you insane?”

“Oh, shush. It’s not that dangerous, Savil, not if it’s used properly, and he’s a lot stronger now. I would start with a half-dose, and sit with him while it takes effect to see how his body handles it. But it’s strong enough to block the pain, it’ll help him sleep without nightmares, and it’s a muscle relaxant too – if he does get out of control, he won’t be so likely to go into convulsions. Won’t stop him breaking the furniture, but it’s something. I was going to run it by Gemma today.”

The door opened. Donni walked in, kicking off her soft boots – sending them flying halfway across the room – and throwing her cloak on the ground.

“Pick that up!” Savil barked. Donni opened her mouth as though to snap something back, but closed it and quietly bent to retrieve the cloak.

She closed her eyes and tried to gather her energy, then opened them and pushed her plate back, reaching to grab a piece of paper from the pile she had shoved aside. The back was blank; it would do. “All right, everyone. We need to figure out some kind of schedule, so I can tell Jaysen when I’m available for meetings. All right?” Tired silence. “Anyway. There’s five of us. That’s, what… Divided evenly, that’s five candlemarks each, just about. I absolutely cannot manage another night shift, so I need someone else to volunteer.” She knew that fatigue was impairing her judgement, she had been barely functional today, and that was something she couldn’t afford.

Mardic raised his hand, tentatively. “Maybe we could we leave him with just Yfandes at night? If he’s going to be asleep anyway…”

“Yfandes hasn’t got hands,” Savil muttered, irritably. “Don’t know what you expect her to do if he needs something.”

Andrel rubbed the back of his neck, frowning. “She can probably stop him if he tries to hurt himself. Which is what we’re mainly worried about now, right? And if she calls for one of you through your Companions, you could be there in under a minute, no?”

“She can’t mindcall through the shields,” Savil reminded him.

Donni piped in. “Put a pull-strap on the door, like they have in Companion’s Stable! If she can open and shut it on her own, she could stick her head out and Call for help.”

That was true. “…All right. I’ll have Kellan ask her if she’s comfortable with it. Assuming she is, that makes six of us… Four candlemarks each.” She reached across the table for a pen and sketched a rough calendar on the back of whatever report she had grabbed, dividing it into even sections and marking in noon, sunset, and midnight. “I’ll assume Yfandes will take the shift right before dawn, that’s the one no one else will want. That just means one of us has to be up late, and one of us has to be up early.” She shrugged, and penned in her own name at the top. “I’ll take dawn-to-midmorning starting tomorrow, figure that’ll be easiest to schedule around meetings. Andy, what works best for you?” He was the other person who had official duties to work around; Mardic and Donni just had their classes, which she didn’t think they had been attending anyway. She wasn’t sure what else Lissa was doing with her time.

“I’ll take the late shift, right before Yfandes,” Andrel offered. “If I start four candlemarks after sunset, that won’t conflict with my duties at Healers’. You can call me over whenever you need me, during the day, but try not to unless you really have to, it’ll get Aber off my back about neglecting my duties. I'll come by on my breaks.”

Savil nodded. “That’ll do. All right, so that leaves the two of you and Lissa to sort out the rest of the day between yourselves.

“Evening,” Donni said immediately, which she’d been expecting.

Mardic picked at a fingernail. “I’ll ask Lissa which she prefers, midmorning or afternoon. Guess if I took midmorning, I could go to my Literature class again.”

“I would prefer that.” Savil sighed. “Donni, you too. You can’t keep missing classes forever.” She massaged her temples. “Gods, I need to figure out when we’ll do your lessons. We’ll have to ask to borrow Jaysen’s Work Room…”

Donni spoke. “About that, Savil? We have something to show you.”

She nodded warily. The two of them got up, moved around the table, and stood side by side, not quite touching.

She opened her Mage-sight and gasped. Their auras had merged into a single green-gold sphere, much stronger than either of them alone. It was the most fundamental step of concert magic, the one they had struggled with all the last three years. “When did you learn to do that?”

Mardic managed a small smile. “When we had to help you with that shield, I think. It took everything we had–”

“–And I guess it made us really focus,” Donni jumped in. “Didn’t realize at first–”

“S’not like we’ve had much chance to practice.” Mardic smiled crookedly. “You took us because you’re the only one who can teach concert work. Now that we’ve got that bit down, reckon anyone could teach us.”

“We asked Jaysen and he agreed,” Donni added.

Savil managed to get her jaw to close. “I– Thank you.” She’d known it was a problem she had to face sooner or later, but she hadn’t had the energy to brainstorm solutions. “This is perfect.”

Mardic nodded. “Good, because we already told Jaysen we were moving into his spare room.” He shrugged. “Though maybe we should stay here. If Yfandes needs help in the middle of the night, we’d be a lot closer.”

She started to open her mouth, saying it was fine – but he was right. And, damn it, the two of them had the resilience of youth; losing a little sleep wasn’t affecting them nearly as deeply as it was her. “I’d appreciate that,” she said instead.

“He’s my friend.”

“Dunno why, when he threw you into the wall twice and set your hair on fire,” Donni said, though without much heat. “I don’t understand you.”

He leaned over and kissed the top of her head. Savil turned her head away; the gesture reminded her too much of ‘Lendel and Van. She stared vaguely at the Tayledras masks hanging on the wall.

That was when she heard an all-too-familiar voice shouting in the distance, drawing nearer.

Oh no. “How did he get here so fast?” she muttered, hauling herself to her feet. “He must’ve jumped on a horse the minute he–”

“Who?” Andrel interrupted, standing up as well.

“My damned brother, that’s who.” She made her way towards the door. “Of all the people I don’t want to talk to right now...”

Withen was already banging on the door when she reached it. “Savil! Let me in right now!”

No point trying to delay it. She took a deep breath, let it out, and opened the door. Her brother stood there glaring at her, chest heaving as though he had been running, which he probably had. A harried-looking Palace official was trying to catch up.

He’s aged better than I have, she thought absently; he was less than a decade younger, but looked twenty years her junior and was clearly keeping himself fit. She could see the corded muscles on his arms and shoulders even through his riding leathers, and he had only the barest sign of a paunch. His brown hair and beard showed no grey. Right now, though, his face was red with anger and a vein stood out on his forehead.

“I want an explanation!” he yelled, looming at her. “Is it true?”

“Is what true?” She spoke mildly, keeping her expression polite. His temper hasn’t improved, that’s for sure. But she was no longer the awkward, insecure girl-child he would remember her as, and she wasn’t about to let him intimidate her.

“That– That he’s– You know what I’m talking about! That he was…” He swallowed and forced the words out. “That he was in a, a relationship with that boy! I sent him here so you could turn him into a man, not a bloody pervert!”

“Damn it, Withen, keep your priorities straight!” she yelled back at him, standing her ground. “Is that really what’s most important to you? He nearly died! He might still die!” She took a step forwards, fists clenched. “Don’t you even care? Your own son!”

He blinked and took a half-step back, clearly startled by her outburst. She was a little surprised by it herself. I’d better watch my own temper. “I…” He looked away, flinching under her glare. “So it is true,” he said finally, bitterly. His shoulders rose and fell, and then his eyes returned to her face. “And the rest? Don’t think I’m not here for an explanation, sister. What were you thinking?” His voice was rising again. “Why did you take him anywhere near that damned mess? How could you let them kidnap him? Were you out of your mind?” He was screaming now, spittle flying.

It was her turn to look away. “I…” She felt her hands wringing in front of her. “We all made a lot of mistakes, Withen. I wish I could go back and do it over, truly.” She could still feel his furious eyes on her, and she winced. “I’m sorry, all right?”

There was a long silence. When she finally gathered herself together and looked up, he was standing awkwardly, his face impossible to read.

“Where is he?” he said, his voice hard but somehow brittle. “I want to see him.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea–”

“He’s my son! I have a right to see him!”

She took a deep breath. “He’s not yours anymore, Withen. He was Chosen. You’ve no claim on him anymore.” Thank the gods for that, she thought but didn’t say.

There was a long silence. Withen looked away. “He’s still my son,” he said finally, very softly.

She looked over at Andrel, who had been standing quietly just behind and beside her this whole time. Mardic and and Donni must have discreetly taken themselves elsewhere. “What do you figure?”

The Healer rubbed his neck unhappily. “Should be safe enough if Yfandes has a shield on him and you don’t, um, upset him too much. I have to head back to the House of Healing, okay? I’ll ask Gemma about the argonel while I’m there. Call me if you need me.”

He ducked out the door, past Withen, who watched him with a baffled expression. Savil shook herself and reached for her boots.

“I’ll take you to see him. Stay close to me, don’t make sudden movements, don’t raise your voice, and for the love of the gods don’t say anything that’ll upset him unless you want to be thrown into a wall.”

“What?”

She yanked one boot on, then the other. “Didn’t you listen to anything the messenger said? He’s got a newly-awakened Mage-gift and Thoughtsensing, and a number of others. He doesn’t have any control to speak of, and if you do set him off – well, I might just give you a kick in the head as well.” She stormed out past him and slammed the door behind him. “This way.”

“But where?”

“Just follow me.” She stomped around to the Work Room entrance and stopped in front of the newly enlarged door, wood still rough and unfinished. “You should let me put my shields on you first.”

“What?”

She touched his forehead and pushed through a bit of power. “Just trust me.” She knocked tentatively on the door. “Hello?”

“Come in.” The voice was Lissa’s. Savil took a deep breath. Center and ground. She poured more energy into her own shields until she was sure that her thoughts and emotions were locked up tight. Then she cautiously opened the door.

The room was very dim, lit by a couple of candles kept well away from anything flammable; there was a bucket of sand in the corner, ready to put out any accidental fire. They’d learned that lesson on the first day.

Despite the heating-spell, actually her best attempt at a Tayledras weather-barrier, it was chillier in here than inside the suite. Lissa sat perched on a stool next to the narrow cot, lowering a book onto her lap; Vanyel was dozing, several layers of wool blankets pulled up to his chin. Yfandes sat on the straw provided for her with her muzzle across Vanyel’s lap.

Savil stepped into the room, and beckoned for her brother to follow. She made a mage-light, as bright as she had the strength for, and sent it to the ceiling; that wasn’t a fire hazard, at least.

Withen was looking at the bare, windowless room with consternation. “What’ve you got him in here for?”

“This is where I normally work magic. It’s got permanent shields on it.” Savil went down on one knee next to the bed, wincing at the stiffness in her joints. “How is he, Lissa?”

Her niece shrugged. She was hiding it well, but there was pain and anxiety behind her eyes. Savil opened her Mage-sight; the shield she had put on her a candlemark ago was wearing thin. She sent out a tendril of power to renew it, and some of the tension left the girl’s face.

Then Lissa looked up and saw her father, and her eyes went wide.

He was staring at her, too. “Lissa, what are you doing here? Damn it, girl, all the trouble I went to arranging your training with Lord Corey, and you just ran off?”

She flushed. “I didn’t ‘run off’, Father,” she said icily. “I had Lord Corey’s permission to come to Haven ahead of him.”

Oh, Savil thought. She’d never gotten around to asking Lissa what she was doing here; the girl was so helpful to have around, and she hadn’t questioned it.

Withen just nodded tightly, his eyes fixed on Vanyel now. The flush of anger had left his face, and he was quickly going pale. He looked like a fish out of the water, and Savil actually felt sorry for him.

“He… I knew, but I didn’t… I thought… Savil, I’ve seen men dead a week looked better than he does!”

For a moment, she saw Vanyel as though through her brother’s eyes – the pinched, sunken pallor of his face, skin stretched tight across his cheekbones, bruises turning shades of yellow and green.  “He looks a lot better than he did a few days ago,” she heard herself say.

Lissa put down the book and reached to gently shake Vanyel’s shoulder. “Van, hey, can you wake up a little?”

His eyes flickered open. Withen took a step forwards; Savil held up a hand, stopping him.

Vanyel’s eyes moved around and finally found Withen. “Father,” he said, his voice slurred and empty. “What are you…?” He trailed off.

Withen hesitated for a moment, then squatted, lowering his head to Vanyel’s level without moving any closer. “You look like hell, son,” he said awkwardly. “Congratulations on being Chosen, it’s more than I expected from you. And Gifts, too.”

Savil cringed, fully expecting Vanyel to send Withen flying, but he didn’t – just looked at his father with a bleak, empty expression.

Withen squirmed. “I’m sorry you were hurt.”

Vanyel’s face twisted into a parody of a smile. “No…you’re not.”

Withen’s chest swelled. “Now, son–” Savil started to hold up a warning hand, but Vanyel spoke over her before she had the chance.

“Stop it!” His voice broke on the second syllable. “Don’t...think those...awful thoughts… You’ve no, no right! He didn’t– I loved him! You, you... Go away!” His face scrunched up, and Withen reeled back against the wall, clutching at his head. Vanyel screamed, a shrill, barely human sound, and went rigid as Lissa reached to stop him from falling over. She held him tightly, all the while glaring daggers at her father. Yfandes nosed at Vanyel’s shoulder, whinnying, as his scream trailed off into coughing.

“Out,” Savil barked, scrambling to her feet and grabbing her half-stunned brother by the shoulders. “This is exactly what I was afraid of! Out, now!”

She got him out the door, and as soon as it was closed he sagged to the ground with his back against the wall. She went to remove her shield from him, and found it shattered.

“I did warn you,” she said, a little more gently.

“But why…”

Savil did something she had never done before; she reached out deliberately with her Thoughtsensing and read him. Just the surface thoughts, she didn’t try to break through his natural shields, but it told her enough.

“Because you were thinking some damned horrible things about someone he loved a great deal. Someone he just lost, Withen. Imagine– Imagine if Lady Treesa were killed under some kind of awful circumstances, and your servants were whispering when they thought you weren’t listening that she was a, a manipulative whore, that she’d cursed you, that she deserved to die. How would you feel about that?”

He stared at her, white showing all around his dark eyes. “It’s not–”

“It’s exactly the same! The boy can’t help who he is, and damn it, all you’ve ever done his entire life is try to break him and rebuild him in your image! How he could even recognize love when he saw it, I don’t know. You taught him that he could never be good enough. What happened with ‘Lendel may be on me, but I hold you plenty responsible for how badly Van is coping right now!” She blinked. Where did that come from?

“But I, I didn’t…”

“Didn’t think? Didn’t look outside of your own fantasies for one second? Damned right you didn’t! Well, good job, you’ve gone and raised a son who thinks he’s completely worthless and deserves to die! Thank the gods he’s not yours anymore.”

Withen looked up at her, a young boy’s frightened eyes staring out of his adult face. She suddenly remembered a much younger little brother, gazing imploringly at her and holding up a wooden toy soldier snapped in two. I didn’t mean to break it! I didn’t mean to! Make it work again! Please?

“No, I suppose you didn’t mean to,” she said absently. “You just never looked outside your own head. You should be happy now; little Mekeal is the heir you always wanted, right?”

She stalked away, leaving him crumpled up against the wall, speechless.

Chapter Text

Lissa woke to someone shaking her shoulder. She had always been a deep sleeper, and it took a good ten seconds before she managed to open her eyes. “Hnng?” she said, eloquently.

“Sorry!” Donni said. “Someone’s looking for you!”

It took her another few seconds of staring blankly to remember where she was, and why she had been sleeping on a rug in front of the fireplace. “What time is it?” Her head felt stuffed full of cotton. The light coming in through the window was grey and pearly, no help at all.

“Just past noon.”

“Noon!” She had gone to sleep sometime in the early hours of the morning. Surely people had been in and out of the suite all day – how had she managed to sleep through all of it? At least she hadn’t missed her scheduled time to watch Van; she didn’t have to take over from Mardic for another two candlemarks. “Um.” She scrubbed at her face, still trying to wake up. “Who wanted to see me?”

“Dunno, but he’s at the door.”

She looked down at herself. Her tunic was rumpled, but after a moment she decided she was presentable enough, and dragged herself to her feet, the trainee hovering anxiously at her heels. Donni managed to look perfectly well groomed, she noticed with irritation.

When she saw who was at the door, she straightened her spine, jerking to attention, suddenly a great deal more self-conscious at the state of her clothing. “Sir.” She bowed stiffly. She had managed to entirely forget that Lord Corey was still coming to Haven.

He just stared at her, making no attempt at the formal greeting of master to student. She ran a hand over her hair, self-conscious. Do I have something on my nose?

“Been looking for you,” he said finally, gruffly. “What’s going on here?”

She let herself slump against the doorframe. “Sir, I– I don’t…” She closed her eyes and made herself take a deep breath. Remembered her manners. “Would you like to come in and sit down?”

Lord Corey shook his head. “I’m nearly late for an engagement. Wanted to find you first. I’ve heard some very odd rumours. Your brother was Chosen, no? I should congratulate him.”

Lissa shook her head. Gods, that wouldn’t go over well. “Yes, but he was hurt pretty badly.”

“Sorry to hear that. There was a problem up there, I heard. A fire? I heard some Herald went off the handle and tried to burn the place to the ground, but that doesn’t sound very believable.”

Lissa winced. That was one summary of what had happened, but…well, it was good Vanyel wasn’t overhearing this. “That’s not what happened. It’s complicated.” To her embarrassment, she failed to stifle a yawn. “S-s-sorry, I just woke up.”

He waved her off. “Bad business, sounds like.” His lip curled. “Anyway, you can move your things to our guest quarters, and I’ll see you at the salle tonight for some training. You haven’t been keeping in shape, have you?”

She had gone to spar with Donni once or twice, just to blow off steam, and the girl was fast. But, no, she hadn’t been keeping up with her usual training regimen. “Sorry, sir. It’s been hectic.”

“I can see that.” He frowned. “How’s your aunt Savil? I heard it was one of her students died. That can’t be easy–”

“She’s fine.” As fine as anyone could be in these circumstances; she seemed to be coping well enough. “Sir, I’m happy to resume my training, but I promised my aunt I’d help her with some things in the afternoons. Can I have four candlemarks off every day?”

Lord Corey’s eyebrows rose, and he gave her that look, the one that could always make her feel like a naughty child.

She squirmed. “I promise I’ll make it up – in the evenings, or I’ll get up early. Um, and I can still use that time to study, if you want to assign me some more books.”

He snorted. “If you’re willing to do that, I suppose it must be important. Fine. I’ll send you a list of books on tactics to find in the Palace library. And I expect to see you every day in the salle at dawn.” He knew how much she hated mornings.

She nodded; he was being more understanding than she had expected, really; then hesitated. Tried to decide whether to ask to keep sleeping here. As much as she wanted to, she wasn’t sure there was a reason for it. It had been a full week. Vanyel was a lot stronger, physically; he wasn’t entirely out of danger, but he wasn’t on death’s door either. She wasn’t a Herald, so Yfandes couldn’t wake her in the middle of the night if she needed help. And it would be nice to have a bedroom that didn’t make her think of a dead trainee’s ghost. She had never been especially superstitious, but she hated sleeping there, which was how she ended up falling asleep in random places and waking up sore all over.

“I’ll bring my things over,” she said finally. “Tell me where?”

He passed her a small card from his pocket. “Follow these directions. You’ll be joining us tomorrow to be presented at Court, and I’m afraid we are scheduled in the afternoon.”

“I already met the Queen.” In the middle of the night, with mud in her hair and wearing someone else’s robe. Not exactly the presentation she had daydreamed of as a little girl, but it didn’t feel like it mattered anymore. Still. She could ask to switch with Mardic or Donni, just that one time.

The eyebrows went higher, but Lord Corey said nothing.

Finally he nodded, dismissing her. “I’d best go. Sunset tonight at the salle.”

He left, and she closed the door and slid down against the wall, all the energy draining out of her. She supposed she ought to care more about Lord Corey being here, about her future, but it was so hard even to think about tomorrow.

“He’s your master?” Donni said curiously. “He looks strict.”

“He’s alright. Forgot he was coming. I went on ahead, Van sent me a letter. Thought he might be in trouble.” Though even she hadn’t thought even he would be able to get into this much trouble. “Mardic’s with him now?” she added as she let her head fall back against the wall.

“Yeah.” Donni scratched at her head. “Hope he’s alright. Least Van’s not throwing people into the walls anymore.”

It was true; Vanyel had been calmer ever since they moved him into the shielded room, maybe because he wasn’t constantly listening to the closest dozen people thinking – hellfires, that sounded irritating. The drugs seemed to be helping, too, and maybe whatever was wrong with his head was starting to heal.

He still seemed, well, ‘completely miserable’ was an understatement. During her shift yesterday, he had cried for nearly two straight candlemarks, until she wanted to shake him just to make him stop. He wouldn’t let her offer any comfort; he flinched away and hid under the blankets when she tried to touch him. It hurt to watch, even when Yfandes had shields on him and he wasn’t projecting his grief right into her head.

Her little brother. She had practically raised him; Lady Treesa never had much time for her children between when they left the nursery and when they were old enough to behave themselves in her little Court. It had always been the two of them against the world, until she went away to foster with Lord Corey and left him alone. She hadn’t always been able to protect him, gods, the incident when Jervis broke his arm was proof enough of that – but this was so much worse.

I’m sorry, Van.

 


 

“There, up we go,” Andrel said encouragingly, as Mardic and Lissa hauled Vanyel up between them. “Come on, help us out here. You need to start getting your strength back.”

Mardic grimaced. Vanyel wasn’t even trying to hold his head up. He was awake, but he was deadweight between them.

“Just a few steps to the doorway,” Andrel coaxed. “We’re going outside for a bit. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

Mardic rolled his eyes. Van hates being talked to like a child. He looked up to make eye contact with Lissa, and they half-carried Vanyel to the doorway. Van did lift his head once they were outside, blinking and grimacing at the bright light; it had finally stopped raining, at least for the afternoon, and the sun was out, the sky clear blue.

Andrel had readied a chair, padding it with folded blankets, and they eased Vanyel down into it. Yfandes followed them out of the Work Room and pranced around a little, stretching her legs in the open space, before she settled down like an enormous dog at Vanyel’s feet.

–Mardic looked away, wincing at the memory of another morning, when he and Van had carried ‘Lendel outside and watched the sunrise. It felt like a lifetime ago. A lump rose in his throat; he blinked away tears and reinforced his shields for the hundredth time.

“Good. Let me have a look at you, now.” Andrel leaned against the back of the chair and laid both hands on Vanyel’s forehead, his face slipping into the blankness of trance.

Lissa tapped Mardic’s shoulder, and held out one of the stools from inside. He took it and sat gratefully.

“How’s your training going?” he asked her, wanting something to break the silence.

“Well enough. I think I’m back in Lord Corey’s favour.” She gnawed a fingernail, then caught herself and clasped her hands in her lap. “He’ll want me to leave with them when they travel home, though.”

“When will that be?”

“Don’t know yet. He’s not sure he wants to stay the winter. His daughters want to, though, maybe they’ll convince him.” She sounded doubtful.

“Oh? Is that a thing people do?” Mardic still wasn’t very familiar with the customs of the highborn. “Hasn’t he got, like, land and stuff to look after?”

She laughed. “He’s got a competent seneschal and he left his eldest son in charge, they’ll be fine. Winter’s a good time to arrange marriages, apparently. Midwinter parties and all that.” She groaned theatrically. “I swear, his daughters are trying to map out the genealogy of every noble family in Haven. If I have to listen to one more conversation about which old man a fifth cousin of the Queen and therefore husband material, I may snap.”

Mardic smiled. “I don’t even know who my grandparents were related to.”

She looked curiously at him. “Where are you from?”

He shrugged. “Near Doe Run.” It wasn’t so far from the capital, but it was off any major trade route. “My parents were farmers. Are.”

Lissa nodded. “What did you farm?”

“Potatoes, mostly. Cabbage. My da would try to plant wheat sometimes, but the soil wasn’t right.” He grimaced. “I hate potatoes.” Three meals a day, growing up. “We kept a milch-cow, but she just made enough milk for us.” They had always ended up bartering her calves for other necessities, even though two cows would’ve meant cream and butter to sell at the village market. “Daisy. Probably dead now, she was older than me.”

Lissa looked like she didn’t know how to respond to that.

A moment later, Andrel straightened up. “Well, Van, it’ll please you to know that you’re definitely improving.” His voice was forcibly cheerful. “Your lungs are clearing up and the backlash is resolving. You do need to make more of an effort to eat, though.”

Vanyel looked dully at him through a fringe of matted hair, then closed his eyes and let his head fall back to his chest.

“Heya, Van.” Mardic dragged his stool closer. “Want me to get my gittern and I’ll play a bit?”

Vanyel shook his head without lifting it; the exhausted despair radiating from him battered at Mardic’s shields. He winced. I never seem to say the right thing.

Andrel took a step back. “I’d best go, I’m late. Don’t keep him out here more than a candlemark.”

They sat in awkward silence for a few minutes.

“How’re your lessons going?” Lissa said finally.

“Fine.” Jaysen was a good enough teacher, but he wasn’t Savil. He got frustrated more easily, and Mardic had to admit that he and Donni hadn’t been the most attentive.

More silence.

“Van, how was your lesson with Savil?” he asked cautiously. She had started trying to teach him the day before, first thing in the morning when the drugs from the night before had mostly worn off and before his next dose. Mardic doubted it had been going well; Vanyel still tended to fall asleep mid-sentence, or start crying for no apparent reason. 

Vanyel just shook his head.

 


 

Vanyel lay against the pillows, trying to pretend he was asleep – he wanted to be, but it was a long time since the last dose of the fiery-tasting medicine Andrel had been giving him, and the dull pain in his head was rising again. It burned, but did nothing to drive out the icy emptiness where ‘Lendel had been. He could feel Mardic’s presence a few feet away, even through the barrier Yfandes was holding between him and everything else, but he didn’t want to talk to him. Everyone seemed so determined to be cheerful, even when it was false and he could feel their thoughts full of frustration and tiredness. Everyone tried to talk to him. Like it would help. Like anything would help.

There was a quiet knock on the door. It still startled him, enough that he twitched and flinched back from the sharpened pain in his head as the floor shook a little, but people seemed to have learned not to make sudden movements or loud noises.

“Come in,” Mardic said, also keeping his voice low.

He heard the door open, and felt the gust of cold air on his cheek. And three new minds, Donni and two others he didn’t immediately recognize.

“They came to see him,” he heard Donni say.

Footsteps. He felt Mardic’s hand on his shoulder. “Van, wake up a little? You’ve got visitors.”

He reluctantly opened his eyes.

“Van.” He recognized the voice, and the face, but he couldn’t remember the girl’s name. She was one of his ‘friends’ from Court, he thought. She laid a posey of flowers across the blankets. “We heard you were Chosen.”

“And you’ve got Gifts! That’s so incredible.” Another face peered in, swimming in his vision. “What’s your Companion’s name?”

“Yfandes,” Mardic said. “Please don’t talk so loud.” He could hear Mardic’s thoughts as well now, damn it Donni why did you let them in he probably doesn’t want to see them they don’t know about ‘Lendel they’ll probably say something awful I don’t know how to tell them to leave–

The girl put a hand on his shoulder. He pulled away; whenever people touched him now, he could hear their thoughts much clearer, and he didn’t want to know what she was thinking. Didn’t want to know if she was jealous. He knew Donni was jealous of how many Gifts he had, and how strong they were. She hadn’t said anything, he had felt her stopping herself, but she didn’t have to.

“Ooh, Van? Can we touch her?” The other girl. “She’s so pretty!”

:It will make them happy: Yfandes said in his mind, feeling slightly amused. :I don’t mind:

“Listen,” Mardic started to say, “I think Van’s probably tired–”

“Van, we heard about what happened!” The first girl. Lavi, that was her name. “When Savil’s trainee went nuts and tried to kill everyone. Did you see it? That must’ve been so scary–”

He pulled the blankets over his head, turning away from them, damn it he could feel the curiosity alive in their thoughts and it burned, the aching, empty void that was always there at the back of his mind was filling everything now and it hurt so much and he didn’t want to let them see him cry. ‘Lendel, I’m sorry, they think it was your fault but it’s my fault and I wish I could have died instead. The floor shook a little, and he flinched away from the fresh molten pain behind his eyes.

:Chosen, I’m here. They don’t mean it, they didn’t mean to hurt you, please just try to calm down:

“Why don’t you come back later?” Donni said brightly. “Van’s been having a hard time and he needs to rest.”

The door closed.

“Van, I’m really sorry about that!” Mardic’s thoughts were full of distress, and too loud. “Donni should’ve known better.”

He crawled deeper under the blankets, pulling away; he wished he could tunnel right out of the world. Wished Mardic would go away. Wished they would all go away, let him crawl off to some corner and die. Like he should have in the first place.

 


 

Some time later, there was another knock.

“Herald Jaysen?” Mardic said; Vanyel could feel his confusion. “What are you doing here?”

“Savil asked me to have a go teaching him the basics.” Jaysen’s tone was calm enough, but the irritation was clear in his thoughts. “Says she’s been struggling to make any progress and maybe he needs a different teaching style.” More likely he’s just not trying, the Herald was thinking. It stung even though he didn’t want to care.

Vanyel opened his eyes and struggled to sit up against the pillows; he didn’t think he could get out of this, and better to get it over with and be left alone again. Mardic helped him, taking his shoulders and pulling him up.

“Mardic, you can go,” Jaysen said. “I’ll be with him the next candlemark.”

Mardic shook his head. “I’m fine.”

“Suit yourself. So, Trainee Vanyel.” Jaysen watched him with pale, impassive eyes. “Savil tell me she’s been trying to walk you through the basics to center and ground. This is extremely important. I’m going to try a few exercises with you. Ready?”

His vision was already swimming again, gods he was tired, but he managed to nod.

“Good. To start, focus on your breathing. I want you to pay attention to what it feels like – there should be a place that’s still, even when you’re breathing in and out–”

He tried, he really did. Trying to concentrate on anything made his head hurt worse, even breathing hurt, and he didn’t understand what Jaysen wanted him to be doing.

–Someone shook his shoulder, startling him out of a doze. “Damn it, boy!” Jaysen was glaring at him. “I didn’t say go to sleep!”

“It’s not his fault, Herald Jaysen,” Mardic said anxiously. “We’re giving him argonel, it makes him very foggy.”

“Andy told me it’d been eight candlemarks since his last dose and he ought to be with it. Vanyel, try it again.” Don’t know how Savil expects me to make progress with him, he was thinking.

:You can do this: Yfandes sent, gently. :Just focus:

I can’t. He shut his eyes tightly, tears leaking out under his eyelids, letting his hair fall to hide his face.

“Dammit!” He heard Jaysen’s fist slamming against the stone floor; it startled him again, and the ground shook. Ow. “Vanyel, do you want to kill someone with your Gifts? You need to learn control, because right now you’re dangerous!” I don’t know that I should be teaching him, he was thinking, he’s so powerful, I couldn’t hold him off if he got out of control, I’m not sure even Savil is safe to teach him–

He flinched away from the man’s thoughts and burrowed under the blankets, there was nowhere else to run to.

:That was out of line and I’ve told him off: Yfandes’ voice, very tart. :Chosen, it’s alright, you’re not going to kill anyone! I promise. We’re going to get through this:

He tried to pull away from her, too, but there was nowhere to go, he couldn’t even keep her out of his head.

“…I’m sorry, Vanyel,” Jaysen said, stiffly. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper. Listen, I – Maybe we should try another time.”

 


 

Lancir caught her in the hallway, before she could leave. “Savil? How are things?”

She didn’t want to talk about it; she wanted to go back to the suite and fall on her nose for two candlemarks before she had to meet with Keiran about the Guard recruitment targets. She was getting a bit more sleep, now, but there still wasn’t enough time in a day for everything people wanted from her.

It had been a week since Withen’s arrival; twelve days, now, since ‘Lendel’s death. Vanyel was finally healing from the backlash shock. He was eating a little. He could hold a conversation – for some definition of ‘conversation’, and he tended to fall asleep mid-sentence, but still. She thought they had even made a little progress in his lessons; he wasn’t breaking nearly as much furniture, anyway. Hopefully the training was helping him take his mind off ‘Lendel.

“Fine,” she said.

“I don’t just mean with Vanyel – I mean you. How are you holding up?”

She shook her head. A public hallway in the middle of the Palace wasn’t where she wanted to talk about it. “I’m managing.”

“I’m glad. You can always come talk to me – you know that, right?”

“Thanks.” At some point she ought to take him up on it, maybe. At least to ask his advice on how to talk to Vanyel; she didn’t think he was coping well, and she had no idea what to say to him that might help.

If she could find time. She felt like she was starting to find her balance, maybe, but she was still falling-down tired at the end of every day; it seemed impossible to just ‘fit things in’ anymore.

“You will get through this,” Lancir said. “Just – I know you’re taking on a lot. Please let us know if you need help.”

“I will.” She plastered on a quick smile. “I appreciate all you’ve done to keep my workload down.” There were a number of tasks to do with magic around this time of year, preparing the Palace for winter, but Lance had been thoughtfully handing most of that off to Kilchas and others. Meetings she could handle, as long as she could stay sitting down. “Everyone’s been very kind.” Even if they didn’t always say the right things, people were trying to look out for her. The rumours and whispers were starting to die down a little. It hurt, that something this huge was already starting to slide into the past, but it was a relief too; the looks she got, pitying or resentful or worse, had cut to the bone.

I miss you, ‘Lendel. Like a piece cut out of her chest. Maybe it would get easier, with time – but it was hard to believe that right now.

Chapter Text

:Savil!:

She had been half nodding off with the agenda for tomorrow’s Council meeting in her lap, and Mardic’s frantic mind-voice jerked her upright. Papers went flying.

“Damn,” she said dully, too tired to summon any real reaction. :What?: It had better be important.

:Something’s wrong! I can’t wake Van and Yfandes is panicking. Where’s Andy?:

:What?: She rubbed her eyes, a sliver of fear pushing away some of the fog. :Andy should be at the House of Healing: He had dropped by a candlemark ago to give Vanyel his evening dose, but he had more paperwork to finish before he took over for the late shift. She wondered why Mardic was there; it was supposed to be Donni’s turn, and she was a little annoyed at how much he seemed to have been covering for her.

:I’ll send for him: She stood up, weaving a little. :Kellan, pass that on to whoever’s closest?: She didn’t think she had the energy to get that far.

:Done: She could feel his presence sharpen in the back of her mind, steadying her, helping clear the cobwebs from her brain.

What now, she thought dully. Everything had been going so smoothly. By the time she got her boots and cloak on and crunched the short distance over the frosted ground to the Work Room door, she heard Kellan again. :I’m bringing Andy over, won’t be long:

He must have thought it was urgent; Companions rarely let anyone but their Herald ride them. She sent a wave of gratitude by way of acknowledgement, and slumped against the door, knocking. “Mardic?”

He opened it a moment later and she stumbled and almost fell into his arms. He steadied her and then rushed back to the cot. Vanyel lay on his side, completely limp, and Yfandes was practically sitting on him, nosing his face.

She put a hand on his forehead and tried to read him. His surface mind was like a still pool, empty of thought and feeling; he was deeply unconscious.

“What’s going on?” Andrel stumbled through the door, pushed her to the side and reaching in with both hands. Savil felt a moment of worry for him; he looked very tired.

“I don’t know!” Mardic’s voice cracked. “He was sleeping when I came back in, figured I’d let him, he looked comfortable for once. But ‘Fandes got back and she started trying to wake him, that’s when I realized something was wrong.”

Andrel’s voice had the flat quality of a Healer in trance. “I’m going to need help. Mardic, go to the House of Healing for me and see who’s available. Now, please. Tell them to hurry.”

Mardic gasped and tore out of the room.

Savil put her hand on Andrel’s shoulder, and felt the power draining from him. She threw him a link; he took it easily, like hands clasping.

“What’s wrong?” she said quietly.

He didn’t answer immediately, and she thought he might not have heard her. “I don’t understand,” he said finally. “I gave him the same dose as always. I read him, and he was burning it off at about the same rate he usually does. But now his body’s shutting down on me. I can’t bring him out of it; it’s taking all my strength just to stabilize him a little.”

Savil kept the link to him open, wishing she could tap into the nearest node; her personal reserves were awfully low, after weeks of insufficient sleep, and draining away quickly. But the Work Room shields blocked her. She moved around to the other side of the bed and knelt on the cold stone floor, trying to find a position that would be comfortable to hold.

She felt something under her leg, and reached down to see what it was. It was a cork.

“What–” She looked around, started to push the table over… She heard the sound of glass hitting stone, and craned her neck to see behind the table. A glass bottle lay on its side, empty.

She picked it up. “Andy? Andy, did you leave this here?” He was too deep in trance to hear her; she shook his shoulder. His eyes opened blearily. “Andy, is this yours?”

He looked blankly at it for a moment and then his eyes widened and his face paled. “Oh, gods… That’s where I left it! I thought I must’ve put it down somewhere at Healers…” He reached to take it from her, shook it. “Oh no, no, no… I don’t – I thought Mardic… No, he was in the privy and I called to tell him I was going.”

“You left him alone.” Her voice sounded cold even to her own ears. “Yfandes was out too. And I’m guessing the bottle wasn’t empty when you left it.”

“Can’t have been more than a couple minutes!”

“Seems like it was long enough. How much did he take?”

“I’m trying to remember, gods, I was so distracted. It must’ve been about half full. That’s five times the usual dose for him.”

“Of argonel.” Savil felt numb. “That’s really bad, isn’t it?” She closed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose. “Goddamn it, Andy.” I need this to not be happening right now. But that was stupid; you couldn’t try to tell the world how to be, and it was happening whether or not she could cope with it. Why, Van? The trouble was, she could guess exactly why.

Gritting her teeth, longing for Kellan’s presence as much as she ever had before, she made herself lower her hand. “Well, I guess we deal with it.”

“This is really, really bad!” There were tears in Andy’s green eyes. “I thought he was asleep!”

“Calm down.” He didn’t seem to hear her; he was staring into the middle distance, jaw working, and she couldn’t reach him with a Mindtouch. She smacked his shoulder. “Andy! Pull it together. Help him, damn it.”

“I’m trying!” His voice was raw as he set down the empty bottle, returned both hands to Vanyel’s forehead, and closed his eyes again.

Savil focused on keeping her energy flowing to him, slipping into trance, blocking everything else out.

An infinite time later, someone was shaking her shoulder. “Savil! Hey. You can stop. We’ve got this.”

She opened her eyes. It was Gemma, one of the senior Healers; she could barely make out her face through the spots in front of her eyes. Her head was throbbing dully. She tried to stand, and couldn’t.

The room seemed to be full of green robes. Yfandes was right in the middle of the knot of people, with her head up on the bed, muzzle resting on Vanyel’s legs.

“How is he?” Savil managed.

“Well, we’re going to be here all night, which really isn’t how I hoped to spend it, and I am quite annoyed about it, but he should come through this without any permanent damage.” She looked up sharply. “Ariel, pace yourself! Jonah, go wake some of the trainees. Might as well make this a teaching opportunity and let some of you go to bed.”

Savil massaged her forehead, trying to ease the headache. “I’m sorry.”

Gemma frowned. “Not your fault. Not really Andy’s fault. We make mistakes when we’re tired, and he was about as tired as a person can be and still be on their feet.” She jerked her head at Andrel, who was slumped against the wall with his head hanging loosely, chin sunk onto his chest, his face as white as the sheets on the bed. “He’ll be out for two days and that if he’s lucky. Never seen anyone drain themselves that far.” She looked critically at Savil. “You’re almost as bad. I’d like to order you off to bed right now, but I can’t spare anyone to carry you there anyway. So just stay out of our way, all right?”

She nodded and managed to drag herself across the floor and join Andy against the wall, letting her head fall against his shoulder. She tried to keep her eyes open, but it was so hard...

 

At some point, much later, she realized she was moving. There was snow drifting onto her face. She opened her eyes a crack; she was in Jaysen’s arms, being carried like a child.

“Jay?” she murmured.

He looked down at her, smiled a little. “Shush. Everything’s fine. Just getting you to bed.”

“Is he–”

“He’ll be all right. Go back to sleep, Savil. Let other people carry the weight for a little while.” His surface thoughts were full of only worry and apology.

She closed her eyes.

 


 

Lissa tore through the darkened grounds, outpacing Donni with her shorter legs. Lord Corey was very annoyed; the trainee had awakened all of them from a sound sleep, banging on the door of their guest quarters. She was angry that no one had come to get her sooner – though apparently they hadn’t known where she was staying, and had been all over the Palace asking.

She tripped on an uneven step she hadn’t seen and barely caught herself. Damn it, Van! She could feel her heart hammering, it was hard to breathe and not just from exertion.

There – she had nearly run right past the path turning off to Savil’s quarters in the Heralds’ Wing, and she skidded as she changed direction. A few snowflakes were drifting down; it was freezing, and she hadn’t thought to grab her cloak on the way out the door.

A thin crack of light spilled under the door of the Work Room. She slumped against the wall, hammering on it. “Let me in!”

“Just a minute.” A harried voice. “We’re a little busy.”

She sagged down against the ground, feeling the cold and damp soak through her sleeping-gown. No one sounded very panicked; that had to be a good sign.

Donni caught up a moment later. She bent over her knees, breathing hard, and shot Lissa what she thought was an annoyed look – it was hard to tell in the dark.

The door opened. “Yes?” A woman in Greens peered out.

Lissa scrambled to her feet and tried to shove past her into the room. The woman stopped her, grabbing her shoulders; a moment later Lissa recognized her as Gemma.

“Let me through!”

“Calm down.” Gemma looked tired and very irritated. 

“Is he alright? I want to see him–”

“I said calm down!”

“I just…” She sagged against the doorway, tears sprouting in her eyes. “Just tell me if he’s all right. Please.”

“He’ll be fine.” A sigh. “Why he had to pull this fool stunt in the middle of the night–”

“You’re Lissa, right?” Another voice.

“Shavri?” The trainee Healer looked fully awake, unlike anyone else. “What are you doing here?”

“Helping!”

Lissa scowled at her. “If you say it’s exciting I’ll, I’ll…” She trailed off, biting her lip.

“All right, you’d better come in.” Gemma hustled her through the doorway. “You’ll let the heat out.”

Dizzy with relief, she leaned against the wall. Her hands were shaking; she clamped them together in front of her.

“Shavri, you’re taking over from Ariel next,” Gemma said.

Shavri nodded, bright-eyed. “I’m ready.” She smiled at Lissa, nervously. “It’s not actually exciting. It’s kind of boring. We just need to send energy to him so he keeps breathing enough.”

Lissa glowered at her.

Shavri’s face slipped into the blankness Lissa had come to recognize indicated she was Mindspeaking. “I’m sorry,” she said a moment later. “That was probably rude.”

Lissa nodded shortly and stepped past her, trying to peer past Yfandes’ head. Vanyel looked very pale, but she could see his chest rising and falling.

She turned back to the Healer. “Can I do anything to help?”

“Just stay out of the way, please.”

She nodded and closed her eyes. Gods, what am I going to tell Father?

 


 

Savil woke with a start. There was light against her eyelids, and she could feel a snowpack on her forehead, doing quite a lot to ease her pounding headache. She didn’t feel as awful as she had expected, mainly thirsty. :Kellan?: she called out tentatively. :What time is it?: The mental contact only hurt a little.

Wave of reassurance. :Midmorning. First snowfall last night, we got a few inches. Jaysen’s responsible for the snowpack. Before you have to ask – Vanyel’s stabilized, the Healers think he should be awake by tomorrow:

:At which point I’m going to give him a piece of my mind. I’m damn angry!: She couldn’t quite muster anger towards Andy anymore, not with how he’d looked afterwards. :How’s Yfandes?:

:Fairly hysterical. This hasn’t been easy for her at all, and she’s blaming herself for leaving him alone in there. And it’s difficult for her to be separated from the herd, when she’s behind the shields. Jaysen’s Felar is keeping her company in there right now:

:Must be crowded. Is Andy all right?:

:Still in bed, I think:

Nearby, someone cleared their throat. Savil opened her eyes. “Who? Oh. What are you doing here, Lance?”

The Queen’s Own scooted his chair closer and reached out to put his hand on hers. “I was waiting for you to wake up. We need to talk.” His voice was quiet, but harder than she’d heard in a long time.

She groaned and tried to sit up. The ice pack fell down onto the sheets. “Ow. Yes, we do.”

“Here.” Lancir offered her a steaming mug. She took it with trembling hands and sipped, wincing at the bitterness. “Listen,” he said quietly, “first off, I’m sorry I never made time to talk to Vanyel. Don’t know if it would have made a difference, but it might.”

She just nodded. She wanted to be angry with him for it, but…well, that wasn’t fair to him, it wasn’t any more his fault than it was hers or Andy’s.

“Secondly. I’m a little annoyed that you told me things were fine. ‘Fine’ is not the impression I’m getting from this situation.”

She shook her head, helplessly, wincing as it made her temples throb worse. “I didn’t know he was going to do that!”

“It’s not only that. He’s stronger, physically, but you haven’t been making any progress teaching him, have you?”

“I thought I was, maybe. Hard to tell how much he’s taking in, but he hadn’t thrown anyone into the wall in days.”

Lancir rubbed a hand across his chin. “I think he’s being conditioned not to use his Gifts, because it hurts him. That’s not control. He’s not showing it as much, but he must still be in a lot of pain – I had a look this morning, and I don’t think his channels have healed at all.”

“Damn.” She hadn’t actually looked since that first day. Maybe she should have. She had thought he was getting better.

“So that’s the situation. We’ve got the most powerful mage in Valdemar, completely untrained, untrainable until we can do something about his channels. At this rate I don’t know if they’ll heal on their own at all, and I don’t know what we could do in the meantime. We can’t keep him drugged in your Work Room forever – Gemma’s already worried he’ll get addicted. And the stronger he gets, physically, the more he’s a danger to all of us. We need a better solution, Savil.”

She stared helplessly into his implacable eyes. “I don’t know what to do.” What did he want from her, damn it?

Lancir leaned back in his chair. “I was thinking… The Healers can’t do anything about it because they can’t see what they’re doing well enough. We can, but we can’t Heal. I thought, though, if we had could find a Healer who had Mage-sight, or a Herald-Mage who had a strong Healing gift...maybe?”

Savil blinked. Something was tickling the back of her mind, like a word she nearly remembered.

“You’ve traveled the most out of any of us; you’ve studied other schools of magic. Ever encountered anything like that?”

“Oh!” She had been looking at the embroidered Tayledras robe that still hung on the hook by her door, and it went through her head like a bolt of mage-lightning. “Lance, I have an idea… Well, maybe an idea. I did know someone like that once.” She sighed. “But I’d have to take Van all the way to the Pelagirs.”

Lancir leaned forwards, his eyes bright. “The Tayledras?”

“An old friend of mine. Moondance k’Treva. A Healing-Adept; he has a set of Gifts that seem to be unique to the Tayledras. I think he might be exactly what we need. And Starwind would be able to train him, I’m sure – he’s the best teacher I’ve ever met. But they don’t ever leave their land. And it’s too far.” Nearly a month even by Companion, and Vanyel was in no shape to ride.

He was still looking intently at her. “Could you Gate that far?”

“I…” :Yes: Kellan sent. :It’d be a strain, love, but you could do it:

She nodded, mostly to herself. “Kellan thinks I could do it.”

Lancir nodded. “I thought… It would be hard on Vanyel. Since it was Gate-energy that ripped him open like this, he’s going to be sensitive to it, probably for the rest of his life, but it could really hurt him now.” His eyes went unfocused for a moment. “Taver says Yfandes could cushion him somewhat, and if we drug him for it, it might not send him into convulsions.”

Savil drained the rest of the tea and set her mug down. “It would have to be me, and I would have to go alone. I’m a Wingsister, but the Tayledras are extremely territorial, and I really, really don’t want to provoke a diplomatic incident with them. Risky enough bringing Vanyel with me – if they think he’s a threat…”

“It is a risk,” Lancir agreed. “I don’t know that we have a choice anymore. It’s not his fault, but it’s not safe for him to be in Haven.”

“I know.” It galled her to even admit that, but he was right. One child. Against the beating heart of her Kingdom. Hells, the Queen slept less than a half-mile from here! “Lancir, I, I caught myself thinking, the other day, that – that it’d be simpler if he’d died. I must be an awful person, I can’t believe I actually thought that…”

“Well, it’s true. It would be simpler. And a tragedy. Both of those things can be true. And – Savil, I’d be worried you weren’t human if you hadn’t thought it at least once.”

She nodded. “I know. Just...what if he heard me, you know? I put everything I can into my shields when I go in there, and I try not to go in at all if I think I might be leaking. But. What if he could tell when I was resenting it?”

He laid his hand on her shoulder. “You’re doing your best. And I know you do care about him – you wouldn’t have screamed at his father like you did otherwise.”

“Oh.” She looked away. “That got back to you, did it?”

Lancir laughed. “Don’t look so sheepish, I think it was exactly the right thing to do. I had a bit of a talk with Lord Ashkevron, and – well, I think he needed someone to shake him up.”

“He’s a stiff-necked old goat,” Savil said waspishly. “Just like our father.”

Lancir shrugged. “That may be. I don’t know what will come of it. He’s not a bad man, really – I wish the Kingdom had more like him – but he’s too proud to admit to himself he was in the wrong.” He looked at her, eyes piercing. “Our parents can damage us a great deal, and we carry those scars our whole lives. I only hope he hasn’t treated his other children as badly. Not that it’s my business.” He leaned forwards. “Before I go, I want to talk a bit about how you’re doing. I don’t think you’re as fine as you’ve been pretending to be.”

She shook her head. “Lance, I don’t– It hurts. What else do you expect?”

“You cared about him deeply.” His voice was gentle. “I know it’s a lot to bear, with everything else that’s going on.”

Tears were springing up in her eyes again. She scrubbed at them, helplessly. Why does he always make me cry, like a little girl? “I don’t understand why it’s so hard.” She had lost people before, and it had hurt, but not like this.

“He was your student. You feel like you should have been able to keep him safe, no? You feel like you failed.”

“Of course.”

“And you were close with him. People commented on it.”

She shook her head. “I just– He was special. He cared so much, tried so hard…” He had wanted so badly to be a Herald. To make a difference with his life. “He needed me.”

“I know. Savil, it’s okay to be hurting. To feel guilty, even, to wish you’d been able to do more. There’s a Tylendel-shaped hole in you, isn’t there?”

She nodded, a little shakily. Gods, he was right. She felt it in the suite, the times and the places where he would have gently reminded her to eat, said something to make her laugh, listened while she complained about Court politics – now just moments of pregnant silence. She often found herself on the verge of reaching out to Mindspeak to him, like she always had. It felt like streamers of her mind were trailing off into a void, questing fingers, looking for some precious object that she would never find again.

“It’s a tragedy for all of us that we lost him. Give yourself space to grieve for him, all right? Honour him. Don’t try to block it off.”

The corners of the room had softened. She blinked. “Lance, are you using your Gift?”

“Only a little. I want you to remember this conversation. That’s all my Gift does, really. It makes it easier to break out of patterns, think thoughts that your mind might normally put off-limits, and it helps cement new habits.” He straightened in his chair. “If we plan on you leaving in three days, is that long enough to build up your reserves?”

“Should be.” As long as she could avoid staying up late. There would be a lot to do, trying to hand off all her usual responsibilities. “If I go, Lance, I don’t know how soon I’ll be able to come back. Van might need to stay there awhile, and I may not want to leave him alone with them right away. Can you spare me that long?”

“We’ll manage.” Lancir massaged his forehead. “And – listen, you’re not exactly at top efficiency right now. It’s been a very stressful month for everyone, but you especially, and you were already carrying a heavy workload. And losing Tylendel on top of that. I know you haven’t had much of a chance to process it, with things being so hectic. Honestly, I think having a change of scene will help, for you as well as Vanyel. Take the time you need, all right?”

She nodded. It galled her; it felt like weakness, to need that. But he was probably right. He usually was.

 


 

The pain was the first thing he was aware of. He tried to pull away from it, tried to fall back into the quiet darkness, but the dull fire in his head pulled at him. Slowly he became aware of other things – the weight of blankets over him, candlelight on his eyelids, cool air on his face, a murmuring voice nearby. There was a blazing presence in his mind, almost enough to block out the echoing void behind it...

‘Lendel. Grief washed over him again, but it was no longer the surprise it had been; he expected it, and rode it out, tears leaking from under his eyelids. The bright presence moved back, giving him space, and the voice stopped.

He tried to burrow back under the blankets. I was supposed to die! Why am I still here?

He half-expected a snarky answer of some kind from Yfandes, but there were no words from her, just her light.

There was a hand on his shoulder. “Heya, Van. I know you’re awake.”

He opened his eyes, seeing a blur that slowly came into focus. Lissa was looking down at him, her eyes red and puffy, nose blotchy, tangled hair hanging on either side of her long, angular face. She set down the book she had been reading.

“Welcome back,” she said, and then slapped him across the face. He whimpered, from more than just the blow; he could feel her anger like a glowing coal brushing his skin. “That’s for the scare you gave Aunt Savil.” She slapped him again, harder. “That’s for hurting Yfandes’ feelings.” A third slap; his whole face was stinging now. “And that’s for scaring me! Dammit, Van! I’m really angry with you! What were you thinking?”

He opened his watering eyes a crack. Tears were running down his sister’s face. Her anger was fading now, and he could feel the raw fear under it, guilt, deep sadness, her desperate desire to throw her arms around him and protect him from the world…

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I...thought…”

“You thought we’d be better off without you. Well, you’re wrong! Okay? Do you have any idea how upset everyone was? And do you know what would’ve happened to Yfandes if you’d died?”

He found himself crying again as Lissa’s emotions battered at him. “Thought she’d find...someone better…”

“She would DIE!” Lissa’s voice rose to a scream. “Is that what you wanted?”

“No…” Never! Yfandes was nothing but goodness. He didn’t want to hurt her, didn’t want anyone to hurt her! Had he really–

:I forgive you, Chosen: her voice said quietly in his mind. He felt the warm weight of her head settle onto his lap. :You didn’t know, because no one thought to tell you: Steel came into the mental voice, then, and the light that was her filled him like a miniature sun. :But please don’t do anything like that again. My nerves can’t take it: The glowing strength of her presence moved further away, and even though it was hurting him, he didn’t want it to go. :And my feelings are hurt. You were being very selfish. You’re not the only one who’s grieving right now:

He felt a rush of guilt. “I’m sorry…”

Lissa was scrubbing at her face with her sleeve. “Apology accepted, I guess. I’m going to go whack at some pells for a while and come back when I feel less like biting your head off. There’s someone else who wants to talk to you, though.” She squeezed his shoulder, stood up, and went to the door, opening it and sticking her head out. “Lancir! Coming?”

Vanyel groaned. He did not want to talk to Lancir.

Lissa waited until the Queen’s Own reached the door, then traded places with him. Lancir closed the door behind him and came to sit at the foot of the bed.

“That is one impressive young woman,” he said, looking back at the door. “I imagine she stood up for you a fair bit, when you were growing up.” Vanyel said nothing. “Well, lad. Do you know where you are?”

Vanyel blinked, looked around, and shook his head. He hadn’t actually thought about it very much.

“This is Savil’s Work Room. I know it’s not as comfortable as your own room, but you’ve got very powerful Gifts that you don’t know how to use – it’s not your fault, but we had to put you somewhere shielded.”

“So I don’t...hurt people…”

“Yes. I know you don’t mean to; all newly-awakened Gifts are like this, well, you know what it was like with Tylendel.”

‘Lendel. He blinked back tears, a fresh tide of grief running through him. But he couldn’t seem to look away from Lancir’s blue eyes.

The Herald-Mage nodded. “I know you miss him. I know he ripped a big hole in you when he – when he went. I know I can’t claim to know what it’s like. And I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I don’t think that you’ll ever really stop grieving. You might get used to it, a little, you’ll learn how to live with it, but it’s always going to feel like there’s a part of you missing, because there is.”

He nodded. Somehow it felt better to hear it; Lancir wasn’t trying to lie to him, he saw it and understood.

“I don’t think you’re ready yet, but at some point, Vanyel, you’re going to be angry with him. Because he did wrong by you – no, don’t look at me that way. He could have followed you through the Gate. Could have chosen to try to put his life back together, with you. It would have taken more courage and strength than I think anyone’s ever had – but we always have a choice, and he made his.”

Vanyel was crying again, unable to help himself, his body shaking silently. Lancir didn’t move to touch him or comfort him in any way – and he appreciated that, too. He didn’t want comfort.

“We’re a bit like houses,” Lancir said slowly. “People are, I mean. We have our walls. I think you know plenty about that. We have our windows – we see bits of the world that way, but never everything, we have blind spots. We have our hearthfire, the thing inside each of us that drives us, and our roof keeps the rain off. And we have rooms inside us, and doors, and sometimes we decide let other people in. Some of the rooms are more special and secret than others – some of them, we keep locked up, sometimes even from ourselves.”

It felt like the room was melting around him, every corner going soft.

“We have our walls, our columns and pillars, and some of them are load-bearing. Knock out one, and maybe the house can still stand, but if you break enough your whole house comes down with them. Your ‘Lendel almost came apart after he lost Staven, and he was starting to put his house back together, but losing Gala as well was too much. You see that?

“And you let him into your house, Vanyel. Didn’t you? He was the first person you ever really let in, I figure deeper than you would’ve intended to let anyone, all the way into your most sacred and protected rooms. Because that’s what a lifebond is, for better or worse. And when he died – well, he went up like a bonfire right inside your house, and he brought the whole thing down with him. You don’t have a house anymore, do you? And there’s a cold rain falling into your hearthfire and putting it out. You don’t know who or what you are, or what to do with yourself, or where to go from here.”

He nodded, sniffling. It was a better description of how he felt than he had imagined was possible.

“Well. This is where the hard part comes in.” Lancir looked at him steadily, unsmiling. “Companions never Choose wrong. If Yfandes Chose you, it’s because you’re worth it, and because sometime down the line we’re going to need you.” His mouth twisted. “I imagine that feels pretty unfair. I’m guessing you didn’t especially want to inherit your father’s Holding, either – well, you won’t have to, but only because this world decided it needed you for something more important. And fairness doesn’t have much to do with that either.” He shrugged. “I wanted to be a falconer when I was little. And your sister tells me you dreamed of being a Bard. But eight centuries ago, the first King Valdemar prayed to his gods for a way to keep his people safe – and you’re part of the answer to that prayer.”

Vanyel stared blankly at him, trying to figure out where this was going.

Lancir smiled, bitterly. “So – I’m going to have to ask you to try to be strong. To find a way to build your house again...and if it feels like you’re drowning in quicksand, build a house that floats. Find a way to build around the piece of your soul that he tore out of you. Light your hearthfire again, and tend it. And if it’s too hard – well, maybe it’s too hard. But please don’t decide that until after you’ve tried for a while. And let Yfandes help.”

Lancir held his eyes for a long moment, and then the roomed snapped back to normal. His nose was running. Lancir reached into his pocket and passed him a handkerchief.

“Speaking of practicalities,” the Queen’s Own said briskly, “we have a plan. Savil is going to take you to some old friends of hers, a long way away, and we’re hoping they can Heal the parts of your head where your new Gifts are, so they stop hurting all the time. And that they can teach you to control and use them.” He stood up. “Don’t worry about the details, although you can ask Mardic if you’re curious. I’m afraid it won’t be a fun journey for you, but we’ll get you there.”

Vanyel rubbed his eyes. He was having a hard time following, and already couldn’t remember the start of the plan.

:Don’t worry: Yfandes sent gently. :Sleep now:

 


 

Savil looked up from her cooling mug of tea as the door opened. “Oh. Heya, Lancir. How did it go?”

The Queen’s Own paused in the doorway. “Could’ve been worse. He was fairly lucid and he listened to me. I would have put in a block, but there’s nothing to anchor it on.” He closed his eyes, bringing both hands to his temples. “Gods, I hope I never have to see a broken lifebond again. Don’t even want to think about it. I don’t think he feels like he’s got anything to live for.” He shook his head. “I guilt-tripped him more than anything else. Tried to drive in how much we need him.” He dragged a hand over his chin. “Not a strategy I like using, and I don’t feel good about it, but I can’t think what else I could do. We do need him.”

She looked down into her cup, staring vaguely at her reflection in the surface. “I don’t know, Lance. I just don’t know.” Why did it have to go like this? A stupid, pointless question that had no answer. It was the way things had gone; it was what they had to start from, now.

Somehow.

Chapter Text

Savil blew on her hands and stared unhappily at the open temple door.

“I hate Gating,” she muttered to no one in particular. She had gotten two full nights of good sleep, but only because one of the Healers had given her a sleeping draught; she had spent most of her waking candlemarks worrying. There were so many things that could go wrong.

She would be awfully vulnerable when they reached the other side; she had spent these past two days augmenting her reserves as much as possible, drawing from the nodes nearby, but it was going to take everything she had to reach as far as k’Treva Vale.

She watched as Jaysen and the plump Healer – Gemma, that was her name – lifted Vanyel’s limp form into his Companion’s saddle and belted him firmly in place, then use the stirrup-leathers to fasten his calves to Yfandes’ sides. He wasn’t going to fall off, even if they had to run or fight – which she really, really hoped they wouldn’t.

She was more comfortable having Jaysen around the boy now. Something had changed, she wasn’t sure what.

Vanyel was bundled in the warmest cloak she had been able to borrow. He was also thoroughly sedated, on a massive dose of jervain to dull his Gifts, which Gemma said ought to be safe as long as it was only once, as well as more ordinary painkillers and sedatives. She doubted he would wake up before tomorrow. We’ll be a pretty helpless pair, won’t we? At least their Companions would both be in a position to fight, if they met anything nasty.

She ran through the plan one more time. Open the Gate. Throw firewood through. Cross. Take down the Gate, properly, she would need to reabsorb as much of its energies as she could. Make sure nothing was about to kill them. Get Vanyel down and comfortable in the cave. Light a fire. Use Starwind’s talisman, which she hoped would still work. Wait. If no one had come by the next morning, and Vanyel was in any shape to ride, they would have to start searching.

Oh, there was a lot that could go wrong!

But she felt good, too. Sleep had helped, and for the first time in weeks she felt like the future might, just possibly, turn out okay.

Of course, she might get herself killed too. Which Valdemar couldn’t afford, damn it, but it was always a risk. One she had accepted wholeheartedly, the day that Kellan Chose her. This isn’t a safe job.

Gemma checked Van over one last time, lifting one eyelid, touching his forehead to read him. “Ready,” she said.

Savil took a deep breath. “I’m ready.” She looked around. “Mardic? Donni?” Once she had the Gate up, she didn’t want to have to hold it for long; she was going to get the goodbyes out of the way first.

Her former students ran to her, and she hugged them both. “It was a pleasure training both of you. Maybe by the time I get back you’ll be in Whites, huh? Be nice to Jaysen for me.” She reached out to them with her Mindspeech, trying to convey the things that she couldn’t find words for. She had never been any good at farewells.

When they had stepped back, she went to Lissa. Vanyel’s sister had been such a point of stability through all of this. She had taken on the burden of speaking with Withen, keeping him updated, and she seemed to manage him better than Savil ever had.

“I can’t repay you enough, girl,” she softly to her.

Lissa nodded, tears in her brown eyes. “Just bring my brother home well.”

She said her goodbyes to Jaysen and Andrel last; they stepped in on either side of them, holding her tight, and she dropped her shields and pulled them into a mind-meld far deeper than she ever had before. She had to, because she knew – and they knew, and she knew they knew that she knew – that this might be a final goodbye. If she couldn’t find k’Treva Vale...if they refused to help her...if they couldn’t Heal Vanyel or train him to control his Gifts...well, quite aside from all the dangers of the Pelagirs, he might kill them both. He was that strong.

Jaysen and Andrel both sent a little of their energy into her; she felt like a cup about to overflow. Stepping away, unable to look them in the eye, she pulled herself up onto Kellan’s back.

:Let’s get this over with, love, before I lose my courage:

 


 

Many candlemarks later, she huddled on the dry sand inside the cave where they had arrived, feeding one stick at a time to the tiny fire and desperately trying to stay awake. It was bitterly cold; they were awfully far north, and winter was in full swing here. If she let the fire go out, they might well freeze to death.

The two Companions huddled in front of the cave, still in their tack, blocking the mouth and most of the wind with their bodies. As for Vanyel, she had him wrapped inside her cloak, his head in her lap. Passing through the Gate had been just as hard on him as she’d feared, and it had taken nearly five minutes before he stopped screaming. It was frightening how easy it had been to lift him from Yfandes’ back, even in her exhausted state; he was skin and bone. Now he was shivering hard in her arms, his lips already blue with cold.

Her head was nodding. :Wake up!: Kellan sent, and she jerked, eyes flying open, and placed another stick of firewood on the coals. Darkness was falling now, earlier than it did back in Haven. It was only going to get colder… Vanyel moaned and stirred in her lap, in the grip of some nightmare, and she stroked his hair and tried to soothe him. The wind whistled, sneaking through cracks between the Companions.

The talisman they had given her decades ago lay on the sand beside her, the ruby stone in its heart seeming to glow, although she wasn’t sure if that was her imagination. Blood calls to blood, and heart to heart, she remembered – ancient magic, not much like what she had learned as a trainee at all, or even what the Tayledras had taught her – magic that predated the Mage Wars. She had pricked her finger and let a drop of blood fall, but she was too drained to sense whether anything had happened; maybe it hadn’t been intended to last this many years.

We shouldn’t have come, she thought dully. It was a mistake. He won’t survive a night like this. But her chin was already sinking back towards her chest, and her eyelids were so heavy…

:Savil?:

The mindvoice jerked her up out of a half-doze. It wasn’t Kellan. She recognized it instantly, even as she heard Yfandes squeal in alarm. She felt like she was in a dream, her body slow and heavy, not quite obeying her. :Starwind?:

:You called me, did you not?: And then he was there, appearing between Kellan and Yfandes – a tall figure in white that blended with the snow, slender as a sword, waves of power coming off him like heat-shimmer. He knelt beside her, avoiding the fire. :We felt the Gate, Wingsister. We set out even before the talisman called us, and we came to you as fast as we could:

Cool fingers brushed her brow, and she felt strength flowing to her center. Her vision cleared a little, and she saw a face that was little changed from how she had first seen it, thirty years ago, or last seen it nearly ten years ago – had it really been that long? It’s unfair, she thought vaguely, they never seem to age. Starwind’s fine-boned, triangular face was unlined, ageless, his golden skin glowing warmly in the firelight; white hair fell nearly to his waist, and ice-blue eyes looked steadily into her. He must be nearly fifty now, she thought, not all that much younger than she was, but he was still slender and unbent as a boy.

:You have drained yourself to a wraith, and you are no longer so young as to be reckless. Why are you here?:

Awfully hypocritical of him to call her past self reckless, given the circumstances under which they’d met! She gestured with her chin to the too-light burden in her arms and tried to speak, but her lips were as cold-numbed as the rest of her and her tongue moved clumsily. She fell back on Mindspeech. :I had a great need. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go: A pause. :Oh, but it’s good to see you:

He reached out tentatively to touch Vanyel’s brow – and snatched his hand back. “Goddess of my mothers! Moondance?” he said out loud, in the liquid syllables of the Tayledras language. “Come here, ashke. I think you should see this.”

Yfandes stepped reluctantly aside, and another figure joined them. Savil gasped. Starwind might not have changed, but Moondance certainly had!

She recognized him by his square features; he was of peasant stock, not Tayledras; but his hair and eyes were no longer the ordinary brown she remembered – they were as white and as blue as Starwind’s – and he had grown from gawky adolescence into a slender grace. His cheekbones were a little more prominent, and in his flowing white robe, with feathers braided into his hair, he looked as exotic and strange as Starwind.

“Savil, sister,” he said, kneeling as well. “Something terrible has happened, no?” He spoke Tayledras like a native now, with only a faint accent to show he hadn’t been born here. “Hai'yasha! What have you brought us?”

She tried to speak again, her teeth chattering. “He’s my nephew. Can’t explain now. Need your help…”

“You had every right to come to us, sister,” Starwind said gently, as Moondance reached out and laid his hand on Vanyel’s face, his eyes going unfocused. “You are one of us, after all. And I am pleased to see you again.” He brushed a lock of hair back from her face.

Some of the tension in her chest relaxed. Despite everything, despite all their history, she had been afraid they would turn her away. 

“Aiiii – such pain,” Moondance murmured. “Such grief. I would not have dreamed a single mind could hold so much…” He stared into the distance, seeing something that Savil couldn’t guess at, and his pupils dilated, then shrank to pinpoints. A strange, blank expression came over his face. “Pawn he is and pawn he has been…” His voice had dropped half an octave, and it seemed that whatever force moved his lips, it wasn’t quite the Moondance she knew. She shivered. “Pawn to what he is and will be, what he wills not to see, but it matters not, the path is laid and the game is in play, and–” He broke off, blinking, his pupils returning to normal. “Starwind?”

Starwind laid a hand on his shoulder. “Ashke, you saw something, didn’t you?”

Moondance shook his head. “Almost. Not yet clear.”

Savil looked from one to the other. “What?” A tingle of unease danced up and down her spine.

Starwind ignored her. “Danger?”

“Oh, yes, there is danger here. Such power! And there is much darkness in him… Not evil, no, but he is so lost, bereft of shay'kreth'ashke… And shay’a’chern, I see. We have that and other things in common.”

“Can you help him?” Starwind spoke very softly.

His face scrunched a little, just the way Savil remembered, a familiar expression that was oddly comforting. “If he is willing to be helped. Perhaps.” He took his hand away from Vanyel’s forehead and sat back on his heels. “For now, the helping should start with a warm bed.”

Starwind touched Savil’s shoulder, lightly. “Can you stand?”

“I would rather not but I don’t see a choice.” She felt a little stronger now, enough to be cranky. “We’ll freeze to death if we stay here. The Companions will take us riding double.”

Moondance reached out and took Vanyel from her arms, lifting him as though he weighed nothing. Starwind steadied Savil with another push of energy, then helped her to her feet, pausing to snuff out the fire with a moment’s thought.

 


 

Several candlemarks later, as she sank up to her chin in one of the Vale hot springs, the steaming water driving out the last of the chill from her bones, she finally felt herself relax. A little. Starwind sat opposite her, perched on the stone ledge, slender legs hanging into the water.

“I’ll explain what I can,” she heard herself say. Her Tayledras was rusty; she hadn’t spoken it regularly in ten years. “So much has happened, I’m not sure I kept track of all of it…”

“I can see that, sister.” His voice was calm. “If you need to rest tonight...”

“No. I– So much of what went wrong is because the right people didn’t have the information they needed in time.” She groaned as the bubbling water massaged away the tension in her back. “And if you’re going to be angry with me, I want to get that out of the way.”

“Angry?” Starwind leaned forwards. “I promise you, Wingsister, that whatever has brought you here, I will not be angry. You earned your place among us a long time ago, and this is your home as much as mine.” A small smile played around his lips. “I doubt I will be much pleased by what you are about to tell me, but I am pleased to see you again, truly. It has been far too long.”

“I’ve been busy.” She scrubbed at her eyes. “Um. I suppose I should start at the beginning. About three years ago, I took on a mage-student–”

It took a long time to tell the story, partly because she was so tired that her mind was wandering, and partly because every time she started to talk about ‘Lendel, tears came into her eyes and she had to stop until she got herself back under control. Moondance arrived when she was most of the way through the story, and settled down with his head leaning against Starwind’s shoulder.

“So that’s it,” she said finally. “I didn’t know where else to turn.”

There was a long beat of silence.

Starwind looked over at his partner. “Moondance, how is the boy?”

Moondance played with a lock of hair. “I have done what Healing I could, for tonight. He rests, now. This will be the work of many days.”

You can Heal him, though?” Savil interrupted. She hadn’t been sure.

Moondance smiled – a wide-open smile that, for a moment, made him look like a young peasant boy again. “Of course. Teaching him will be the greater challenge, I am afraid.” He glanced at Starwind. “And shall fall to you, ashke. His Gifts are like yours.”

“Some of them.” Starwind shook his head. “This bloodpath mage. It worries me. That he, or she, had wyrsa under their control…”

“It sounds like he came out of the Pelagirs,” Savil finished. “I know.”

“I am glad we have learned of this now. I cannot say what it means… Except that I fear there is more trouble ahead.” He glanced down at his partner, who lay against his shoulder with his eyes closed. “Moondance is worried. He has had dreams.”

Moondance opened his eyes again. “There is a pattern that I cannot yet see clearly. This boy Vanyel is tied up in it somehow, as are you, but I do not know how.”

Savil blinked. “Dreams. Um. Starwind, the thing Moondance said earlier, about the pawn and the path… What’s going on with that? I didn’t think he had Foresight.”

Starwind’s eyes were troubled. “I am not sure if it is precisely that. Moondance is...very deeply tied into this land. He must be, to Heal it. There may be things our land wishes us to know, or perhaps things the Star-Eyed wishes us to know.”

Savil twitched slightly at the mention of the Tayledras’ Goddess. She had never felt right about the existence of divine beings, and anything related to Fate, even the Gift of Foresight, made her deeply uncomfortable. Companions were the closest thing to the spirit world that she felt comfortable with; at least they were flesh-and-blood horses, and just as fallible as the humans they Chose.

:Thank you, I think?: Kellan’s mindvoice was sarcastic. :But more seriously… The Star-Eyed watches over her children closely, in these lands:

Whatever that was supposed to mean. Savil swiped the back of her hand across her nose. “Let’s focus on the problem in front of us, for now,” she said wearily. “It sounds like you can help the boy.”

Starwind tilted his head to one side, long white hair swaying. “As Moondance said. I can teach him control if he is willing to learn.” His blue eyes seemed to grow colder. “And if not, we can contain him here, and he will destroy no one but himself.”

 


 

Vanyel floated in a warm darkness. There was music in his head, that came and went, and wherever it touched, it brought relief from the pain. He saw it as a green-gold ribbon, flowing through the raw, bleeding places in him, each pass soothing away a little of the damage, like balm spread over burned skin. The music went away and he sank into a deeper darkness, but it always came back.

He dreamed of gentle hands that touched him, that held him and brought cool water to his lips, and helped him to eat. He dreamed of a bed, in a place that was all green, and sunlight, and sometimes his aunt’s face.

He was in a frozen canyon, walls carved from the bedrock with magic–

The music came again, and the pain grew less and less until it was only a memory, but he could still feel the new places in his mind where the pain had been, like extra hands, or eyes in the back of his head.

He had sent Tylendel away to safety, with Yfandes, and now he was alone, the only one who could stop what was coming–

But Tylendel was dead; every time he asked the question, and every time the answer was the same. He felt it like a void carved out inside him, a cold and empty place that still ached, that the music did nothing to touch.

Now he saw the army, ranks on ranks of men in armour and dark, twisted creatures, and leading them, a man with power that flowed from his hands, a man dressed in black from head to toe, with long black hair, black eyes in a handsome face.

“Herald-Mage Vanyel.”

“Leareth.”

He raised his hands, and the lightning was in them, and he turned his face away, unable to look as he struck–

:Chosen, it’s only a dream: The voice was bright and silver in his mind, and he reached out for Yfandes like a child reaching for its mother, sliding away from the frozen battlefield. He knew the dream well by now. It was always the same, or close to it. Why did it feel so real?

The music had come to a stop. He opened his eyes and found himself no longer dreaming at all, but awake, lying between soft pillows on a bed surrounded by green. He seemed to be inside a tree – no, as he blinked and his vision cleared a little, he saw that he was in fact surrounded by greenery, but it wasn’t all from the same plant. Enormous ferns grew from pots on all sides, mostly hiding the walls. Some kind of netting had been strung to make a sort of roof, and woven with vines.

He took inventory of his body. He seemed to be naked under a very soft blanket. Nothing hurt, and his fingers and toes moved easily at his command. Cautiously he tried turning over onto his side, and found that he was still very weak, but he didn’t feel ill or feverish anymore – and his head had stopped hurting! He had almost forgotten what it was like not to hurt.

He heard a noise, and rolled back, lifting his head from the pillows. The strangest person he had ever seen was looking at him. He was tall and very slender, clad in embroidered, jewel-toned robes, with waist-length hair as white as snow – but his face was young, a square, ordinary face with deep-set eyes the blue of river ice. He held what looked like a flute carved from transparent crystal in one hand.

“Vanyel, it is good to see you awake,” he said slowly, in heavily accented Valdamaran. “I am called Moondance. I have Healed you.”

“Oh.” There was something very familiar about the man. But something else was odd – there was presence there, the same way now he could now feel Mardic or Lissa the moment they came into a room with him – but he couldn’t read the man’s thoughts!

The man, Moondance, laughed. “I am shielded. This, you to teach, Starwind is. You are feeling better?” He moved over. “I will help you, yes?”

Vanyel allowed the strange man to help him sit up and scoot until his legs dangled over the edge of the bed; he managed to grab onto the blanket and keep himself partly covered. He looked down at himself; he could see every one of his ribs, skin stretched tight over the bones.

Moondance nodded. “You must needs eat, for strength. You were abed three weeks.”

“Three...weeks?” He was sure he didn’t remember that much time passing! No wonder he felt so weak.

The man smiled gently at his consternation. “You were needing Healing, of a kind your friend Andrel could not do. Feels better, no?”

“It doesn’t hurt anymore, if that’s what you mean.” He felt a little foggy, but it was the fog of waking up from a long sleep, not that of drugs. I feel like someone in one of those tales, who goes to sleep and wakes up a hundred years later! “Where am I? What is this place?” He vaguely remembered someone telling him that he would be going somewhere, but he hadn’t been paying much attention at that point.

Moondance laughed, a sound like tinkling bells. “This is my room. My bed. You like it? We are in k’Treva Vale, in the Pelagirs.”

Oh. “You’re a Hawkbrother!” he burst out. He remembered the feathered masks on Savil’s wall. Somehow, even knowing she had spent time among the Tayledras, he had thought they were only a story.

“Yes,” Moondance said, looking highly amused. “Some stories are true. Not all. We are not stealing littles away.”  He paused. “You are thirsty?”

Vanyel nodded eagerly, realizing that his lips were cracked and dry. Moondance left him sitting there and went to a table that seemed to be made from the stump of a tree; he returned with a wooden cup, which Vanyel managed to hold without dropping. He gulped it, only slowing when Moondance admonished him gently.

“Are you wanting food or to wash, first?” he said when the cup was empty, taking it away.

“To wash, please!” He hadn’t noticed until it was mentioned, but he felt filthy, his skin practically crawling with the need to bathe.

“You are needing to stand, then. Can you? I will help.” Moondance reached out.

Vanyel clutched at the blanket, feeling himself blush. “Can I have something to wear?”

Moondance laughed, seeming very amused by this as well. But he did go and return with a robe, also green, that seemed to be made from some kind of almost-weightless silk. He slipped it over Vanyel’s shoulders, and then reached to support him under his arms and lifted him to his feet. He started to let go, and Vanyel swayed and grabbed at him; he was suddenly very dizzy, and he seemed to have no sense of balance. Moondance caught and steadied him, and he felt strength flowing into him like cool water; the dizziness eased.

“It will be hard at first,” he said reassuringly. “You must needs learn again to walk, yes?”

It did take a great deal of effort, even with Moondance letting him lean on his shoulder. He was sweating and breathing hard within five paces. But he persevered; he vaguely remembered being carried like a helpless child, and he much preferred to be on his own feet.

At some point they crossed the threshold to another room; he was focused on staying upright, and only noticed from the change in the light. A few paces later his strength gave out and he found his knees buckling. Moondance caught him before he could fall, and supported his full weight for a few moments, apparently without effort, while he caught his breath. Then they kept going.

It felt like years later when they finally stopped. “Here,” Moondance said cheerfully. He looked down, blinking until his vision cleared, and saw a large, steaming pool that seemed to be carved out of the rock; slightly milky water spilled over a ledge into a lower pool, and then over another ledge to drain away in a small stream. The Tayledras led him to the second pool and helped him lower himself to sit on the edge.

“This is the pool to wash,” he said, pointing. “Soap there. The pool for rest, there.” He gestured to the higher pool. “I am to be going now. I will bring food.”

He was grateful; the last thing he wanted was someone watching him bathe! When Moondance had vanished into yet another room, he carefully slid the robe from his shoulders and dipped his feet into the water. It was just on the comfortable side of too hot. He managed to lower himself in, and found that there was another ledge placed at the perfect height to sit on.

It felt good to get himself clean, even if he had to keep stopping to rest. ‘Lendel would have loved this place, he thought.

‘Lendel.

The empty spot in his chest ached, and tears came, spilling over. He ducked his head under the water to wash them away, and pushed the memories back, determined to think about something else. He wondered if Yfandes was nearby. Or had he entirely imagined her? It was so hard to keep clear anything that had happened in, apparently, the last three weeks.

He tried thinking at her, reaching out with his new senses. :Yfandes?:

:I am here, Chosen: Her presence surged into his mind, and the voice no longer hurt his head. :Did you know, this is the first time you’ve called for me?: There was joy in that voice, but also sadness. :I love you, you know. I am so glad to have you – but are you glad to have me?:

Flashes of memory came. ‘Lendel standing on the other side of the Gate, hazy, arms raised; a storm, lightning flashing through the sky; glimpses of a river... :I don’t know: he answered honestly. He did love her, strangely – maybe it was impossible not to love anything so pure and beautiful. Or maybe it was just the strange magic of Companions, making him love her. But everything was so complicated... :I’m sorry. It can’t have been nice for you, sharing my head:

Bittersweet laughter like chestnuts popping in a fire. :I wouldn’t take it back for anything, Vanyel. You are my Chosen and you are worth it. Are you ready to believe that now?:

The response was automatic. I’m not worth it, only a burden, all my fault, they shouldn’t have saved me, wasting their effort, I’m a curse on everything I touch, I only hurt the people I care about, they should just let me die, why won’t they... It was an endless litany, a loop of thought that had worn grooves into his mind – but with a great effort he managed to take a mental step back and watch the thoughts happen, with something almost like curiosity. It still felt like it was all his fault…

:But a part of you knows that isn’t true. Right? Oh, you made mistakes – it was careless of you, to go out riding alone – but if we should blame anyway, it’s that damned mage. Gods, I wish I’d been there to trample him flat! I saw in your memories what he did to you: He felt her fierce anger; it reminded him of Lissa. Hadn’t she been angry with him? He remembered her glaring at him, tears shining in her eyes, and he remembered feeling the fear and desperate love under the anger. Why had she been so angry? He ought to remember...

:You really ought to: Yfandes said, acidly. :You don’t remember at all? You overdosed on the drugs Andrel was giving you, when he was distracted enough to leave the bottle in the room. Oh, I was awfully angry with him, too – but he was plenty upset with himself, enough that he tried to give up his place as a Healer!:

He really didn’t remember. Gods! Of course Andrel would have been devastated, of course Lissa would have been furious, probably Savil had been a mess as well, and Yfandes...

She sent a memory that must have been hers, a bare, dimly lit stone room full of green-clad Healers, and Savil slumped against the wall, white-faced and looking every year of her age, as she never had before. He flinched, awash in guilt and something like embarrassment. I caused everyone so much trouble…

:I forgive you, Chosen. You were in a great deal of pain, physically as well as emotionally, you weren’t thinking clearly, and we failed to keep you safe. But you’ve got your wits about you now. Do you still want to die?:

To his surprise, he had to think about it. :I... I still wish I had died: he thought to her, slowly. :I don’t want to live without him: She must know, he thought. She was in his head, surely she could feel the gaping emptiness. :But...I don’t want to hurt you: Or Savil, or Lissa, or Mardic, or poor Andrel. Honestly forced him to admit that they would blame themselves if anything happened to him, even if they were wrong, if it couldn’t possibly be their fault. And worse would happen to Yfandes; it would break her, she would die, and he couldn’t do that to her. :I wish you hadn’t Chosen me. I don’t know why you did. But I – I won’t make this even worse by, by trying to do anything. Not that you’re likely to let me, are you?:

:No. It’s going to be a long time before any of us feel safe leaving you alone, and we’re taking precautions. But I’d rather not feel like I was fighting you: A pause. :I know it feels like you’ll never be happy again, right now, but it will get better. I promise:

How could she possibly know?

“Done yet?” Moondance’s voice was amused. Vanyel looked up, jerked out of his silent conversation, and saw him crouching on the side of the pool, setting down a tray. He tilted his head to one side. “Too long in the heat, I think. Out?”

Vanyel was inclined to agree with him, when Moondance helped him haul himself out; he was dizzy again, and seeing spots.

“Eat,” the Hawkbrother said cheerfully. “With herbs, to make you stronger.” The tray contained a variety of food – fruit, nuts, cheese, bread – thoughtfully cut into bite-sized pieces. There was another brimming cup of water. “I must be going now. There is a problem I must see to. Starwind comes.” He shrugged a soft cloth off his shoulder and passed it to Vanyel. “To dry?”

He took it, though his hands shook a little. “Thank you.” The man smiled briefly, stood up, and was gone from the room in seconds.

He sighed. I’d better put clothes on before this Starwind shows up. He managed to rub himself dry with the towel offered, and got the robe wrapped around his body again. By that time he felt very thirsty, and eagerly gulped half of the water; his stomach cramped, warning him to slow down, and he set the cup aside and started on the food.

All of it tasted wonderful, though chewing took a great deal of effort. He had finished about a third of what was on the tray when he heard footsteps and looked up.

Savil entered the room. She wore embroidered robes in golden-brown, which flattered her much better than her severe Whites. Her cheeks were pink, and she was smiling – but there were loose bags under her eyes, and she looked like she had aged ten years in the past weeks.

“Moondance said you were awake,” she said, still smiling. “You look better.”

He nodded but said nothing. She stepped aside, and he saw another man enter the room behind her, and cross to squat nearby.

“I am Starwind k’Treva,” he said, in much better Valdemaran. “Welcome.”

“This is his Vale, basically,” Savil said from behind. “Starwind is the Speaker for k’Treva.”

“None of us own the land, Wingsister,” the man said, but he was smiling as well. If anything, he was even stranger than Moondance. His skin had a golden tone, startling in contrast to his pure-white hair and icy blue eyes, and his fine, chiselled features had a different cast from any Vanyel had seen. “Vanyel, I am pleased that you begin to recover. I am a mage, as is Moondance; I am to be teaching you. We will begin your lessons once you are stronger, but there is one lesson that I would much like to complete today.”

“Do I–” Do I have to, he wanted to say, but Yfandes interrupted him. :Yes, Chosen. This is a very basic lesson, and he can go into your head and show you what to do – it’ll be a lot easier than when Savil or Jaysen were trying to teach you. He could even have done it when you were in Healing-trance, but he wanted you to have full conscious understanding of the basics. It’s something you badly need to learn before you can be at all safe around others. I’ve been keeping you shielded until now, but it’s very tiring:

He sighed. “All right. Now?”

“If we can. Are you done eating?”

“I think so.”

“Then come.” Starwind held out his hands, and Vanyel took them and let himself be pulled to his feet while Savil gathered the tray. Now that he had a bit of food in him, he felt somewhat stronger – he was able to walk all the way back to the bedroom with only Starwind’s hand under his elbow for support. The Hawkbrother guided him to a chair that looked like it had been grown in place out of branches.

Savil hovered by the door, watching.

“You must clear your mind, first,” Starwind said. “Close your eyes, think only of your breath. Breathe in...out...good. Now I am going to show you how to find your center. This will feel strange.” He began to hum, a gentle little melody.

Just like that, he felt the man’s presence in his head, like a blue-green worm of light, winding around his mind. It did feel very weird, but he tried to keep his mind clear as the blue-green ribbon guided his attention. It spun him around and around a single point – and that point was still, a stability he hadn’t realized he craved.

:Good: The man’s voice was in his mind – sounding almost like his real voice did, only it seemed to come from just above his right ear, and he thought it was conveying more than just the words. He sensed satisfaction. :You feel that? To find your center is the starting point from which we build your control. Now, I let you find it on your own, and I test you. Are you ready?:

Starwind gave him about ten seconds, and then hit him – not physically, but the purely mental blow send him toppling to one side of the chair, clutching at the arms and crying out.

:Not so bad, for a first try, but not good enough. We try again:

The next candlemark was exhausting. Once he could reliably find the still point inside himself, and keep hold of it even when Starwind shoved at his mind, the mage went into his head again, and the blue-green ribbon showed him another motion. :This is how to ground...:

At the end of it, he could put up his own ‘shields’, a sort of barrier around his thoughts – he recognized it now as like the barrier Yfandes had been keeping on him, but it was entirely under his control. He could build it up strong and tight, and block out all his new senses, until he didn’t feel the minds around him at all and barely felt Yfandes – or he could thin it, so that their glowing presences were there but not overwhelming.

“Good,” Starwind said out loud, standing. “This is the simplest lesson, but the most important. You should rest, now.” He gestured with his chin at the bed. “Moondance has been called away to handle a matter outside the Vale. He advises you walk as much as you are able, once you are rested, to build your strength. The pool there is yours to use whenever you would like.” He nodded. “I will see you in some days, when you are ready to begin your training.”

Vanyel looked at the bed. It seemed a very long way away, but it appeared that no one was going to help him. He took a deep breath and used the arms of the chair to lever himself up. One step...another... He sagged down gratefully onto the mattress.

:Yfandes, I don’t know if I can do this! I’m exhausted:

He felt her concern and sympathy, like an embrace. :I know, Chosen, but you have to. Your Gifts are very, very strong, and uncontrolled, they are very dangerous: She sent another image, a memory that must have been hers, a view through the open door from the garden – furniture flying against the walls as the floor shook, flames rising, Mardic slammed into the wall and sliding down to the ground to land in a limp heap. :Would you have this happen again?:

:No!: He wriggled under the blankets and curled up, bringing his knees to his chest. :I don’t want Gifts! Can’t they just turn them off? Make them go away?:

:I’m afraid it’s too late for that. Once you control them, you can choose not to use them, Vanyel – but until then, they use you:

He knew she was right, but he couldn’t face that now; he pulled the blanket over his head, and wove his new shields as thick and tight as he could, pushing her away. Shaking, he cried himself to sleep.

Chapter Text

Vanyel woke from a dream almost worse than the strange, vivid mountainscape. He had been walking through Companion’s Field with ‘Lendel beside him, and when he opened his eyes there were tears on his cheeks and he ached with loneliness and grief. The light was low in the sky. There was a fresh tray of food and a cup of water on the table by the bed, and new garments laid out on the chair.

He felt stronger, and very hungry, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat. Oh, ‘Lendel. I miss you so much, I’m so sorry, and there’s nothing I can do to take it back... He huddled on the side of the bed and wept, hugging himself despite the warm air, and if there had been a river to jump into, or anything sharp at hand, he wasn’t sure what he might have done.

:Which is why there isn’t. You should eat. We’re not going to let you starve yourself either:

He was suddenly angry. :Go away! Stop eavesdropping and get out of my head!:

She retreated from his mind, hurt. Guilt gnawed at him, he knew she was only trying to help, but he was tired and he couldn’t find the will to apologize.

He did slide over to reach the tray, though, and started eating. There was a bowl of soup, somehow kept warm while he slept, with meat and strange vegetables in it. It tasted wonderful, and he finished it and drank all of the water.

He wished he could go back to sleep, wished that Andrel was still there with his drugs to grant him oblivion, even if only temporary. Even when he lay back down and tried to close his eyes, it was clear he couldn’t sleep any more at the moment. He groaned and sat up again, wondering if he could make his way to the pool by himself. It would at least be a distraction.

He found that he could stand on his own, though he didn’t feel especially steady. One hand on the wall for balance, he took a few steps, rested, took a few more. When he finally reached the door to the other room, he saw that the pool was occupied. Savil was sitting in the higher resting-pool, her eyes closed, one foot floating at the surface.

Gods! He quickly looked away. His aunt was not someone he had expected, or wanted, to ever see naked. After all this effort, though, he did want the hot soak as a reward. He reluctantly let go of the wall and took small, tottering steps until he reached the edge. Sitting down, he took a moment to catch his breath before shrugging out of the robe and slipping in with a sigh. He was sweating with the exertion, and actually a little stiff and sore, like he would be the day after a new exercise routine – well, after three weeks, walking probably counted as that!

Savil opened her eyes. “Oh. Heya, Van. I checked in on you, but you were still sleeping.”

He said nothing and only settled into the water.

“You did well with Starwind, earlier. Don’t expect him to praise you much – he’s a hard taskmaster, and not used to younglings anymore. But he is a very, very good teacher. He taught me once upon a time, you know.” She ran her hands over her wet hair, slicking it back, then scooped up a double handful of water and let it spill over her face.

Vanyel hesitated. He wasn’t exactly in the mood for conversation, but he desperately didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts, either. “How long have you known them?”

“Starwind and Moondance?” She laughed. “Oh, I’ve known Starwind nearly thirty years now! That makes me feel so old. As for Moondance, it’s been quite a while, let me think, coming up on ten years since we met. He was about your age at the time.” She kicked both feet up to the surface and gently splashed the water with her toes.

He watched her, trying to frame the question he wanted to ask. “And they’re...together?”

“Ha! Yes, they are.” She smirked. “I can take credit for it, I think. I introduced them.” Her eyes dropped to the surface of the water. “It’s a long story, but it’s not mine to tell.”

Vanyel wanted to ask more, but her closed look dissuaded him. He had guessed that Moondance wasn’t of Tayledras stock, despite his exotic white hair and blue eyes; his features were much closer to those of the peasant smallholders from near his own area. And he had the strangest feeling that he half-knew the man, maybe because Moondance had Healed his mind as much as his body.

The silence stretched out. He wished Savil would come up with another topic of conversation; the silence bothered him. Too easy to lose himself in his thoughts, in the emptiness

She looked so tired. There were new lines around her eyes and mouth. Guilt washed through him again. She had lost one of her students, hells, he had the sense ‘Lendel had been almost like family for her, and she hadn’t had much space to grieve, had she? Not when she had spent the last three weeks trying to keep him alive despite his best efforts...

:Very perceptive: Yfandes said – diffidently, a wisp of thought held out like peace offering. :You can look past your own suffering to see other people, even now:

He shifted his shoulders, uncomfortable. :I think I make Savil uncomfortable: he sent. He vaguely remembered her sitting silently with him in a dim stone room, overhearing her thoughts. How she didn’t know what to say.

:She cares a great deal about you, though: Another glimpse of memory through her eyes – a cave, icy-cold, dimly lit by a small fire, Savil holding him wrapped inside her own cloak. :It hurts her to see you hurting, more than you know. She wants to be there for you, but she doesn’t know what you need:

More guilt. They all wanted to help him, and he didn’t want their help. It was pointless; nothing was going to make him feel better.

:Why are you so sure of that? Anyway, I think it helps just to share our pain, sometimes. You don’t need to feel so alone in it:

He wanted be alone, though. Didn’t he? He did and he didn’t. He craved Yfandes’ bright presence in her mind, and he still tried to push her away. If he didn’t let anyone close, they couldn’t hurt him, and he couldn’t hurt them…

:And you lived that way for a great many years, didn’t you? Chosen, love, I may never forgive your father for that particular damage. But ‘Lendel never hurt you, did he? It was losing him that hurt:

Words he didn’t want to hear. But he couldn’t lie to himself, even now. And Savil did care about him. Even if she shouldn’t. 

:I should apologize to her, shouldn’t I?: He hadn’t exactly made things easy for her.

Hesitation. :It would help. She forgives you already, she knows exactly how you felt and what you were thinking – trust me, she couldn’t not, you were throwing it in our faces. But you weren’t thinking about her at the time, you were only thinking about yourself, and you see that now, don’t you?:

He did, even if part of him wished he didn’t. It felt unfair. He hadn’t asked her to care, any more than he had asked Yfandes to follow him into the river. No one should care, I’m not worth it, I’ll never be worth it, why do they have to keep trying and trying...

Yfandes prodded at him. :I hope you notice that what you’re thinking right now isn’t exactly based on logic:

Well. For better or worse, this was how things were, and Savil was still there – weary and worn, frustrated, maybe bitter, but she wasn’t going to give up on him anytime soon, was she? She was a Herald, and he thought he was starting to see more of what that meant. 

“Savil?” He licked his lips, nervous. “I... I’m sorry.”

Her head lifted, and for a moment her blue-hazel eyes were like open windows. “What for?”

He shrugged. “I... For trying to...” Why did she have to make him say it? She knew what! He gave up and just reached for her mind, the vibrant presence he felt through his thinned shields, and showed her the image that Yfandes had shown him, of the room full of Healers and her slumped against the wall.

Her eyes widened for a moment, but then the shutters came down and she turned away a little, the line of her shoulder tensing. “Let’s just put it behind us, okay?”

It was the response he had half expected, but it still stung. He gathered himself. “I...I know you must miss him too.”

Silence. She wouldn’t look at him, but her eyes were suspiciously bright.

:I’m not very good at this: she said finally – still her voice, but in his head, and this time it came with a waft of sorrow and guilt and worry, a complex tangle drifting under the words themselves like an instrument under a singer’s voice. :I do miss him, Van, but I don’t want to make this about me. I know he meant more to you than I can imagine:

He felt the tears coming again.

:You can bet Kellan coached her on that: Yfandes said. :Don’t tell her I said that, it’ll make her self-conscious:

A jolt of laughter – and then he was sobbing again, hugging his knees to his chest, feeling himself tense and try to shrink away from it all. He wanted the world to go away, wanted to shut out everything and pretend, for just a moment, that there was nothing else there. But he could still feel Savil’s mind, could feel how she wanted to reach for him and stopped herself, acknowledging his desire for space around him.

:It’s all right to cry, ke’chara: her mindvoice came. :I don’t want you to have to pretend it hurts less than it does:

Ke’chara. He didn’t recognize the word, it sounded Tayledras, but he recognized the feeling that came with it – like a bird’s wings wrapped around him, like a mother holding her small child.

He wanted to block her out – and he didn’t. He didn’t know what he wanted. He wanted everything to stop, wanted to go back and do the last month over, and it was too late, he couldn’t take back any of it ever.

 


 

Savil was watching the colourful birds play in the canopy, and enjoying a cool fruit drink and plate of snacks that the hertasi, the odd lizard-like people who lived with the Tayledras and acted as something like servants to them, had brought without her ever seeing them. In any case, it was delicious. The sun was midway up the sky, the highest it would go on a winter day like this. Yet again she had slept until midmorning, spent a candlemark soaking in the pools, and was the most relaxed she had been in, well, probably months. Ten days of enough sleep, rest, good food and gentle exercise, and she was finally starting to feel like herself.

“Bright the day, Wingsister.”

She looked up; Starwind bowed a little to her.

“Wind to thy wings,” she said, smiling. It was good to see him – she hadn’t realized how much she missed this place.

He settled gracefully onto the bench next to her. “You look well. Less like a woman carrying the world on her shoulders alone.”

She laughed. “I feel less that way. Hadn’t realized how much it was taking out of me, trying to keep up with Council business on top of everything else.”

Starwind raised his eyebrows. “Still just as prone to overworking yourself, I see.”

She rolled her eyes; he was one to talk! “It is how it is. There aren’t enough of us.”

He put his hand on her shoulder. “One less, now.” His voice was very gentle.

Why did he have to bring it up? Couldn’t he tell that she wanted to keep everything that had happened into the past, where it belonged? “Two,” she said dully, bitterly. “Herald Raina died. We still don’t know how, which I guess means we never will, although we can guess.” And they had lost Herald-Mage Kairin and Alia not so long ago. It had been a bad autumn.

“Bad all round.” Starwind stared into the distance, and for a moment his age showed.

She leaned into him. “You have no idea how happy I am to see you again.”

He slid his arm around her shoulders. :I think I have some idea, sister of my heart: His mindvoice was light and cool and soothing, like the blue of his eyes. :I could wish you had come here sooner:

She squirmed, and answered out loud, somehow not trusting her Mindspeech and everything that could leak through with it. “I don’t think we could have, even if I’d thought of it right away – which I didn’t, because I was an idiot.” She had castigated herself for it enough – but had been so tired, Lancir had reminded her, she had hardly been in her right mind. “We would’ve had to wait for Van to be stable enough to risk moving him through a Gate.”

:That is not what I meant:

She didn’t know how to respond to that. It was true, she could have brought Tylendel here, to train with the Tayledras as she had trained with them. If she had, things might have been very different – at worst, even if she and ‘Lendel had been back in Haven when his twin died, he would have been that much closer to fully trained, and Moondance might have been able to help him get over the deaths of his parents. Hells, she had even thought about it, as something she might do someday, but it had never seemed urgent, never seemed worth taking the time away from her other duties. Had that been a wrong decision? It was hard to know. It had seemed reasonable at the time – oh, she might wish that she could go back and do it over, but if the last three years were rolled back and she knew only what she had known then, she might well make exactly the same choices a second time. She could see what Lancir meant, now, when he had talked about her decision process being the only thing she could change.

“How is Moondance?” she said out loud.

Starwind knew what she meant. “He is well, all in all, but I worry for him. He is not so afraid now, but I am thinking he hides from his feelings. You know as well as I, there is much to be angry with in this world, yet he will not let himself…” He trailed off. “And he will not speak of the thing that happened, even now. He tries to forget his life before k’Treva.”

She winced. “I can sympathize, I suppose.”

“But it is not healthy. I know.”

They sat in silence, Savil remembering Moondance as he had first met him. He did seem much more comfortable in his own skin. The change was remarkable.

“Moondance has been making inquiries while he is away from the Vale,” Starwind added, casually. “It will take some time to track down the rumours he has found, but it seems possible that this bloodpath mage did come from our general area. Which is not something we should have missed.”

Savil shrugged. “It’s a big forest.”

“And we are spread thin, yes. Nonetheless.” Starwind rubbed his jaw, thoughtful. “People rely on us for protection. To protect them from threats, we must know about those threats!”

She shrugged again. “Moot point now. The mage didn’t survive the...” She trailed off, noticed the urge to flinch away from the memory, tried to sit with it. It wasn’t healthy to hide from her own thoughts; she knew that. It was what Lancir would tell her. Damn it, though, but it was hard.

“Nevertheless, it worries me.” Starwind ran his hands through his unbound hair, then absentmindedly began to braid it. Silence, then: “You know that you would be welcome to stay here, Wingsister. You are one of us.”

Her eyes burned unexpectedly. “I know, but... I can’t. I made an oath to my Queen. To Valdemar. You of all people can understand that, right?”

His fingers moved quickly and nimbly, and he reached the end of one slim braid and tied it off. “Like the compact we have with the Star-Eyed, yes? You are bound to your land just as we are bound to ours.”

“Valdemar is the people, not the land.” She said the words tonelessly, by rote. “And I don’t serve any god or goddess, only a mortal woman, who I happen to have seen crying in her cups. And the abstract idea of a good country, I suppose. But no deities.”

“You might be surprised.” Starwind was smiling. He always seemed to find her discomfort with the divine very amusing. “In any case, perhaps you must not be staying forever, but I have no intention of letting you go from here until you have found your spark once again. You still have the pinched look of a woman who sees a beast attack and thinks only of the mountains of paperwork to follow!” She laughed at the image, and he chuckled as well. 

They sat in companionable silence for a while. 

“You know,” Starwind said finally, “thirty winters ago, I advocated very strongly for you to the clan elders of the Vale. I faced no small opposition, in inviting an outlander to join us. If I had been overruled – or, if I had succeeded and you had gone on to disappoint the elders or cause us harm, I believe I would have lost a great deal of standing.”

Confusion swirled in her belly. “I didn’t know that,” Savil heard herself say. Why was he telling her now?

An artful shrug. Starwind reached to braid another hank on the other side of his head. He switched to more-intimate Mindspeech. :I had a very strong feeling that you would be important: he sent, and the conviction in his thoughts was unmistakeable. :I do not have the true Gift of ForeSight, but we of the Tayledras sometimes see glimpses of what our Goddess wishes us to know. When you brought my shay’kreth’ashke to me, I thought perhaps that was the reason – and yet, perhaps it was not, or not only that. All this year, Moondance has been having dreams. When I saw your face, I had the strangest feeling that something was beginning – something that could shake the whole world:

Savil sat perfectly still, the warm air feeling suddenly chill on her skin.

Starwind was looking into the distance, unsmiling. :The boy... If he can learn to control his Gifts, he will be far stronger than I am. Stronger than both of us put together. I have never seen such a thing:

She felt cold. Starwind was significantly more powerful than her, and she was the strongest mage in Valdemar, by some considerable margin. Tylendel would have been her equal, someday, if he had lived. Apropos of nothing, of course, because he hadn’t, he was never going to grow up and work alongside her and she hadn’t realized how many times she had fondly imagined their future, how much she had been looking forwards to it.

Another uncomfortable thought. Throughout the history of Valdemar, it had been remarked that, somehow, the Companions tended to choose Heralds with Gifts, children who had been born with the potential for those Gifts however many years earlier, who would be needed for a particular future danger. No one really understood it; scholars thought it might have something to do with the Web, the guardian spell that King Valdemar had laid over the Kingdom. It was said that the Web had its own form of intelligence. In any case, miraculous or not, impossible or not, it was a pattern observed often enough that the Heraldic Circle paid attention to it. Even with Tylendel, who had been rare in having three Gifts at equal and remarkable strength – Mage-Gift, Fetching, and Mindspeech – and a significant additional Gift of Empathy, there had been whispers.

Vanyel was something else entirely. She didn’t want to think too hard about that, about the possible implications. If he survived his training, he would be the single most powerful individual in the Kingdom.

Maybe it meant nothing at all; maybe it had all been a stupid, pointless accident. But she had a bad feeling.

“The boy grows stronger,” Starwind said, back to speaking out loud. “I intend to begin teaching him tomorrow. His is by no means back to full health, and I would have preferred Moodance to be back before we begin, but we should not delay overmuch.” He shrugged. “I shall train him in the use of his mage-powers, which are the most dangerous untrained. but he has many Gifts I do not possess. He shall have to learn all of them, in time.”

She nodded, thoughtfully. “At least his mind-gifts are less of a problem now that he can shield. Good luck, I suppose.” Better you than me, she thought but didn’t say aloud.

:My fellow clan elders are not best pleased that the boy is here: Starwind said, switching back to Mindspeech. Savil flinched, and he quickly went on. :You had every right to come to us, sister of my heart, and no one is disagreeing on that point. Vanyel, however, is a stranger to us, and perhaps a danger as well. And not exactly good company at this moment:

She stifled a snort. :Not exactly, no. He is, he was, quite a nice person, when he wasn’t hiding behind arrogance. But now, I don’t know:

Kellan’s thoughts reached out to her again, gently. :He is not quite lost in his own pain. He thought to apologize to you yesterday, for example. Yfandes thinks he is trying very hard to...well, not be difficult. But he is closing himself off as well, withdrawing even from her:

Savil winced. :That can’t be very pleasant for her:

A pause. :Very little of Yfandes’ time these last weeks has been pleasant. I worry for her:

Savil couldn’t think of how to reply, and returned only a wordless acknowledgement. There was a long silence, and then Starwind stood up. He turned back to look at her, smiling. “Walk with me? I would speak with you of happier news. I am sure we both have a great deal of it unshared, in the ten years since we have seen each other. Did you know that Stormwind is pregnant, for example?”

Savil snatched at the lightness in his tone like a lifeline. “No! What?” She took his outstretched hand and stood, groaning as she stretched her back. “I never would have – Is she still going on wild adventures?”

Starwind laughed. “No, she has settled down since she reached Adept status...”

“Oh! I have two sets of congratulations for her, then. What about...”

They walked easily along the winding paths of the Vale, arm in arm, catching up on a decade’s worth of gossip. Savil might have been bored by it, usually; she didn’t exactly try to stay up to date on who was in a relationship with whom, and found it a less than fascinating topic, but she was eager to have something to talk about that didn’t concern recent events. At some point their conversation moved on to topics of magic, and Savil found herself recounting a book she had read, purchases from a merchant who claimed to have travelled through the Eastern Empire. She wasn’t at all sure she believed him, but she had learned several new useful techniques, including a type of shield she had never seen of before, and wherever the book came from, it seemed to hold a completely different philosophy of magic. 

When they decided to pause for a meal, Savil was surprised to find that she had been truly enjoying herself. The tension she had been holding in her neck was gone.

 


 

Vanyel was ready to cry from sheer frustration. He was fighting the tears back because it wouldn’t accomplish anything, and he didn’t want to feel any more humiliated in front of Starwind.

They both sat cross-legged on a stone floor inside a stone room with no visible doors or other exits. It was quite cool, but sweat was trickling down his back and dampening his robe anyway. They had come here by passing some kind of spell-barrier, one that felt a little like a Gate, and he had absolutely no idea how to get out on his own. Which meant he was trapped. With Starwind. Who wasn’t going to let him out until he was satisfied. If that was even possible.

The air felt stale, too still. He was hot. He could feel some kind of throbbing presence, nearby; it felt like something alive. He had been sure he was imagining it, but Starwind had just nodded and told him not to worry, it was supposed to be there. 

Focus. This isn’t productive. He closed his eyes, center and ground, and tried again to do the odd motion in his head that Starwind had gone in and showed him, exactly one time, to bring up a physical barrier between them.

The nebulous energy he had managed to gather in the air between them shattered as Starwind pelted another pebble at him. His eyes flew open as the pebble smacked into his shoulder.

“Ow!” He rubbed the stinging spot. “I wasn’t ready!”

Starwind only looked at him, expressionless. Right, he only answers if I use Mindspeech. Vanyel tried to gather his thoughts and push away the frustration and embarrassment swirling in his chest; he might be able to keep the emotions out of his voice, but he couldn’t hide them in direct mind-contact, and he hated feeling like a whiny child. :I wasn’t ready, teacher:

:An enemy will see no need to give you time to prepare yourself: Starwind’s expression did not change at all, and the only emotional overtones leaking through with his mindtouch were of calm confidence, and a bit of impatience. :You must needs learn to bring up a mage-barrier fast enough to stop an arrow already in flight. I am giving you ten times so long:

“Gah.” Vanyel took a deep breath and blinked hard, willing the tears to stay contained. It was unfair! The more tired and frustrated he got, the harder it was even to center and ground, let alone walk through whatever weird internal motion Starwind wanted him to do this time. He wondered if babies felt this way learning to walk. Maybe that was why they cried all the time.

He took a deep breath and brought up the barrier, this time pushing the energy he could feel inside him. He was exhausted, shaking, and the effort of it was making him nauseated – but this time, when the pebble flew, it bounced off something and landed on the ground.

:Good: Starwind’s voice said calmly in his head. :Now to hold it for a count of one hundred:

He made it to seventy-three, as Starwind tested the barrier with increasingly large and heavy projectiles from the pile laid out behind him. When the Hawkbrother tossed a rock the size of his head at the faltering barrier, though – no, not just tossed, he threw it hard – he felt the weakening threads of force snap. It stung, in the places inside his head.

The rock was coming at him and he cried out and instinctively tried to raise his arms in time.

The rock reversed direction and flung itself back at Starwind, who stopped it with a lazily raised hand and a cushion of magic. Who stared at Vanyel with a look of shock and confusion.

“What did you just do, boy?” He spoke out loud, his voice very controlled.

It had felt like an odd sort of twist-and-grab motion, inside his head. The rock had strained against some part of him and now it ached, like a sprained ankle. “I don’t know,” he confessed after a moment.  “Didn’t you–”

“I do not know, except that it was not magic, at least not of the kind I know.” He rubbed his eyes. “I expect it was one of your odd Valdemaran Mind0Gifts. Savil tells me you are to have all of them. The rock would not have hit you in any case. I was prepared to catch it in a deflection-barrier if you were unable to block it.”

Vanyel’s head was really hurting now, and he felt short of breath, weak and dizzy. “Could I have a rest? I’m, I don’t know if I can...”

Starwind cocked his head to one side and looked at him. “That may be enough for today. You must needs recover your stamina.” He unfolded himself gracefully from the floor. “Perhaps we meet again tonight, once you have rested.”

Vanyel struggled to stand, using the wall for support, and nearly keeled over as his vision went foggy.

Starwind caught him. “You did not tell me you were so tired.” He sounded disapproving.

Vanyel tried to catch his breath. “I’m fine.”

“Perhaps I forget you are still recovering in body. Eat and drink well when you are back to your room, even if you are not hungry. I think we will wait until tomorrow for our next meeting.”

Yes, Ma. Vanyel managed not to say it out loud, and managed not to roll his eyes.

 


 

Starwind, maybe taking his assertion that he was fine at face value, left him just outside the weird Gate-like barrier to make his own way back. He made it only a few yards before giving up and opening his mind to call Yfandes, who he could reach now that he was outside the Work Room shielding. She was there in moments, making him suspect that she might have been waiting nearby the entire time.

:How was your lesson, Chosen?: She felt concerned; he leaned into it like a warm blanket, and sagged against her, too tired to formulate a response. She nuzzled his neck. :That bad?:

“He’s as bad as my father’s armsmaster,” Vanyel said grumpily – out loud, because his head felt tender inside and the mindtouch was uncomfortable. He tried to pull himself onto Yfandes back, failed, and felt a wave of embarrassment as she knelt for him. “At least he hasn’t broken my arm. Yet. He might’ve broken my head.”

They had to take the long way back to his, well, Moondance’s room, because the more direct trails through the verdant foliage were too small to allow Yfandes’ bulk to pass. When he finally reached the strange building, what felt like an eternity later, he slid from Yfandes’ back, stumbled inside, and collapsed eagerly onto the bed.

:You do need to eat: Yfandes prodded gently. :You’ve used up a lot of energy:

There had been a tray left for him, presumably by the helpful but incredibly sneaky hertasi; he had yet to actually see one of them. His stomach churned queasily at the thought, and he groaned and pulled the covers over himself, still in his clothes. :Later:

:But it’s important that–:

His head was throbbing steadily. :Will you PLEASE go AWAY?: he snapped – immediately feeling guilty for taking out his frustration on her, but too tired to figure out an apology. He wove his shields tightly around his thoughts and closed his eyes.

 

Savil was enjoying her second soak of the day, after a good hard ride with Kellan in the snowy wilderness outside the Vale – they might be in the Pelagirs, but she was safe enough close to a Hawkbrother presence. She glanced up when she heard footsteps, and saw Starwind, glowering, shedding and throwing bits of clothing aside.

“What’s the matter?” she said, twisting to look at him as he finished undressing and slid into the water next to her.

He made a visible effort to relax his face, then greeted her with a very forced-looking smile. “Lessons. I am out of practice with teaching younglings, and I long have forgotten what it was like to be fifteen myself. I find him very trying.”

“He’s sixteen,” Savil said absentmindedly. She couldn’t remember the exact date of Vanyel’s name day, but she knew it was in the autumn; it must have gone by unremarked at some point during the ordeal after Staven’s death. “What, is he being uncooperative? I could talk–”

“Not exactly that. I am thinking he is trying very hard. But he is also sulking, and has already formed most unhelpful habits since his Gifts awakened.”

“What do you mean?” He hadn’t received any training until now, except for the abortive attempts at lessons with herself and Jaysen, and she didn’t think he had been absorbing much. “I don’t understand how–”

“A matter of instinctive reactions and conditioning, I think. He has learned to associate the use of his power, even accidental use, with pain, and so he flinches away from using it now.”

Right. Lancir had mentioned something like that.

“And unlike most youngsters, he is not excited or proud to have Gifts. In fact, on some level I think he is not ready to accept that he has them.” Starwind shrugged. “At least he grows comfortable with Mindspeech. I have been pushing him to use it as much as possible, so he is to become familiar.”

“That’s good.” Savil leaned back, scooping water with both hands and pouring it over her hair.

“I have been meaning to ask you, Wingsister. He used a Gift of some kind I am not familiar with, to block an object I was tossing to test his attempt at a mage-barrier. He did so instinctively, but he did not use mage-energy.”

“I... Huh.” Savil massaged water over her face. “Probably Fetching. It’s one of our fairly common Gifts, you can use it to move objects around. I’ve seen him move things like that when he was startled. He’s not nearly as bad as ‘Lendel...” Her throat tightened and closed, and she pushed away the memory of her student’s face.

Silence.

“Moondance and I have spoken on the matter of adopting a child,” Starwind said, lightly. “I think perhaps a considerations against is that they would, at some point, be sixteen. I am not sure I could bear it.”

“Starwind!” Savil found herself laughing. At least she was thoroughly distracted. “You didn’t tell me you were thinking of children!”

He glanced at her. “It is a moot point, since there are none currently to adopt in any case. Snowlight has offered to be a surrogate but, well, neither of us can function with a woman.” He shrugged. “I do not think I would be a good father in any case.”

She was still laughing. “Don’t be so sure. I thought, well, still think I would be a terrible mother, and yet I suppose I end up being a mother of sorts to my students. Especially ‘Lendel, after he lost his parents...” Tears prickled, her giggle breaking into a half-sob, and she blinked hard. Why did she keep thinking of him, why did everything remind her of him, when it hurt so much and she would rather never think about it again?

 

Vanyel woke when the light was slanted and reddish-gold across his face. His head still ached dully, but only a little, and he felt quite hungry and only a little queasy.

He had been dreaming. Not the awful ice-dream, but a simple dream, of a flute playing and a gold-green ribbon... No, not just a dream, he could still hear the flute.

He opening his eyes fully and sat up. “Moondance? You’re back?”

The Hawkbrother nodded to him from the chair beside the bed, and set the crystal flute across his lap. “I am.”

“You were Healing me again?” Vanyel saw a fresh tray on the table beside his bed, and reached for it eagerly.

Moondance lifted his shoulders and let them fall, gracefully. Every move he made was like a dance. “I thought it well to offer, after your first lesson with my shay’kreth’ashke. I know a great deal about what sort of teacher he is, since he is the one who taught me.” He spoke calmly, his face smiling and open, but some kind of tension lurked in him.

Vanyel finishing chewing the piece of fruit he had popped into his mouth. “That word,” he said slowly. His tongue struggled to wrap around the syllables. “Shaya, no, shay’kretha, shay’kreth’ashke? What does it mean? I, I know, at least I think, that ashke means ‘beloved’...”

“Ah.” Moondance’s face grew solemn. “The word you would use is ‘lifebonded’.” He tilted his head a little to one side. “Which I think you know some things of.”

“I...used to.” It was very hard to speak. He felt hot and breathless, the air was pressing in on him – he was jealous, which didn’t make sense, it wasn’t like he wanted Starwind, Moondance didn’t have anything that he, personally, wanted.

Except for not a blackened, howling emptiness where half of his heart had been.

He was, in fact, getting much better at ignoring it, but it never stopped hurting. He wanted to hit that gentle, serious face, wanted to shove Moondance out the door, why was he here, why did he think he had the right to sit here and talk to him, to his face, about lifebonds?

Except Moondance was trying to help, wasn’t he?

Through a veil of tears, he could see that Moondance was smiling, sadly. “You are allowed to have feelings,” he said. “Please do not feel you must hide it from me, of all people.” He paused. “But perhaps you would like to think of other things, right now? You must needs eat, and then I have a thing to show you.”

Vanyel reached for the jug of water, shakily, and gulped from it without bothering to pour water into a glass. Not meeting Moondance’s eyes, he reached for the tray again – another simple meal of bread, nuts, cheese, and fruit. “Did you solve whatever problem you had to leave for?” he said, just to have something break the silence and the weight of the man’s gaze on him.

“Oh yes, it was a simple matter. Though I have learned of some things... But that is nothing you needs worry about now.” 

He didn’t say anything more, and Vanyel ate mechanically until the tray was empty. He finished the jug of water and looked up. “You wanted to show me something?”

“Yes. Stay here a moment.” Moondance rose gracefully from the chair and vanished from the room for a moment. When he returned, he was carrying another flute. This one appeared to be made of wood, or perhaps some kind of giant hollow reed.

“I am hearing you like music,” he said, now smiling broadly. “This is a gift. For you.”

“Oh.” Vanyel felt his eyes prickle again, for no clear reason. “Um. Thank you.” He accepted the instrument from Moondance’s outstretched hand. “This is... I don’t...” He rubbed at his eyes. “I don’t know how to play it.”

“Not hard to learn.” Moondance sounded very cheerful now. “The finger-holes are for different notes. You put your mouth so...”

It took several tries for Vanyel to get a good sound from the instrument. It was reedier and breathier than Moondance’s strange crystal flute, but pretty enough. He let his fingers play over the holes, testing different combinations, marking out the notes in his head. It felt good. It must have been weeks, no, over a month since he had last played anything. Not since leaving Haven for– He broke away from that line of thought.

“You learn quickly.” Moondance was still grinning. “Here, do you know this...” He trailed off and raised his own flute to his lips, the sound achingly clear, like an icy mountain spring...

Vanyel didn’t know the melody, but he memorized the notes as Moondance played them and, once he had stopped, picked the tune out carefully on his own flute, eyes closed, fumbling notes and correcting. He lowered the flute when he had finished.

Moondance’s blue eyes sparkled. “Such an ear! I envy that. But no mind, the rest is like so...”

They played until the light was gone, and it was almost distracting enough to block out the aching empty spot where ‘Lendel had been.

Chapter Text

The days turned to weeks.

Despite everything, despite her worry for Vanyel and the nightmares that still woke her sometimes and the grief that still hit her at unexpected moments, Savil was the happiest that she had been in a long time. No urgent meetings kept her up late, and each morning she stayed in her bed until she was fully rested. The days she spent basking in the pools, taking slow, relaxed walks through the ever-summer jungle of the Vale, or reading the books she had brought with her in bed. She hadn’t realized how much the fog of fatigue had been a part of her life until now, when it was gone. She felt sharper than she had in years.

She spent time with Starwind or Moondance whenever one of them was free, just talking, playing with their bondbirds, taking meals together. They were good friends, for all the distance that usually lay between them, and she was a little surprised by how intensely that mattered to her. Then again, she had lost more people close to her in the last ten years than in the twenty before that. That was as good as reason as any to cling to her remaining friends. Heralds didn’t usually die of old age; at twenty she wouldn’t have expected to be still alive now, just shy of sixty. The Hawkbrothers’ lives also were far from safe, especially for their scouts and mages, who regularly worked outside the Vale in the untamed, magic-twisted Pelagirs.

Every visit could be the last time she saw them. 

She went out riding with Kellan for several candlemarks every day – after a week of nothing but lazing about, she had insisted on making herself useful and taking over a scout-route. It was easy riding, the woods were beautiful in winter, and it gave her precious time with her Companion. As busy as she had been back in Haven, she had been lucky to spend a quarter-candlemark at a time with Kellan, usually squeezed in before or after some other pressing responsibility, Council meetings or lessons with one of the students, reviewing paperwork, making time to write lesson-plans...

I’m too old for the workload I was taking on. I don’t have the stamina I used to. She could admit it to herself, now, though she didn’t exactly feel ‘old’ these days. She had put on weight, padding out her bones. Daily soaks had eased her stiff joints, frequent sparring with Starwind and other friends had her muscles strong and limber, and though she was not usually a vain woman, she was enjoying wearing every colour except white. The hertasi must have remembered her, because new and more elaborate clothing appeared by her bed every morning. None of it was at all practical, though they had reluctantly provided her with a few outdoor outfits for her scout-route, and she didn’t care.

She had even let Stormwind, very pregnant and very bored, braid beads into her hair. And she had been coaxed into attending one of the occasional dances, accepted a feather from Nightsun – which had been very flattering – and spent some mutually enjoyable nights in his company.

She had never been one to look into mirrors much, but these days she liked what she saw.

Sometimes she still dreamed of wyrsa, and a wall of fire like a miniature sun pressing against her shield, and ‘Lendel’s face.

Vanyel was... Well, it could have been worse. He was making steady, if slow, progress in his lessons with Starwind, and he only refused to get out of bed about once a week. Once in a while he could be coaxed to take a meal with the three of them, and when he did she could tell he was trying his best to put on a pleasant mask. She thought he might be opening up a little to a tentative friendship with Moondance.

He was getting better at keeping his thoughts and emotions inside his own head, too, and only needed the occasional reminder to check his shields; she hated it when she had to gently prod him on it, because he would look so guilty and horrified, but he wasn’t yet practiced enough that his shields were instinctive, and he had to learn.

He spent a great deal of time walking around alone in the Vale – it was easy to stay out of sight of other humans, and the hertasi were shy and never showed themselves. Sometimes she would see him walking with Yfandes, which she thought was a good sign.

She ought to start thinking about her own plans, whether it made sense to Gate back to Haven and come to retrieve him later – she could face the thought of Gating, now that she felt so much better, though she wasn’t looking forwards to the rest. But she didn’t quite feel ready to leave him alone here. Not yet.

It was nearly a month since she had arrived at k’Treva, she had slept through until midmorning again, and she was making her leisurely way from her sleeping-room to her favourite set of pools when she heard Moondance’s frantic mindcall.

:What?: She was already running, not sure what towards. 

:Alarm from Starwind’s Work Room. Can you reach Starwind? I’m on my way:

She tried reaching out for him with her mind, and couldn’t, and ran faster.

 


 

As usual, it was only a half-candlemark into their morning lesson and Vanyel was already sweaty and out of breath. Not that he was doing much moving around, but the exertion of using his magic was as bad as a bout with Lord Oden.

Once he got used to it, a little like developing calluses except inside his head, the lessons in shielding and other defenses hadn’t been so bad. But today they were doing something new. As usual, Starwind had gone into his head, but this time he had made Vanyel gather up some of his energy, not too much of it, and form it into lightning. Which was currently cupped in his hand. He would have thought that stationary lightning was a contradiction in terms, but it was definitely lightning and it was definitely in his hands, and Starwind was not going to leave him alone until he threw it. At him. This was his sixth attempt, and yet again he was frozen, unable to make himself complete the last step.

:Stop dawdling, boy: Starwind’s mind-voice was impatient now.

Vanyel swallowed; he felt sick. :I can’t:

:Of course you can. It will not hurt me. I am shielded:

His hands were steady, somehow, but the rest of him was shaking and he could feel his heart hammering in his chest. He couldn’t get the images out of his mind – ‘Lendel, Gala, running through a dark forest, ‘Lendel throwing a mage-bolt at the pursuing nightmare-creatures with their too long, snakelike bodies. 

:I am losing patience:

He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and cupped the swirling energy in his hands. I can do this... But he couldn’t. There was absolutely no way he was aiming lightning at another human being. He felt like throwing up.

“Couldn’t I just–” he started to say, opening his eyes, but before he could finish there was something in the room with him.

Long sinewy bodies, twisting in and out...triangular heads, half-snake, half-greyhound, all wrong...

He screamed – it was impossible, they couldn’t be here, he was supposed to be safe here but they were here, the  meagre power he held in his hands wouldn’t be enough to hurt them. He tried to think, feeling his mind scrabble for possibilities, and on some instinct he reached for the THING, the throbbing presence, that he was always aware within the Vale and especially here. He grabbed for it with mental hands and it was like swallowing a waterfall, raw icy/burning power scorching its way through the places in his head, and he raised his hands and threw a bolt of pure energy at the creatures–

And too late he felt his attack pass through them with no resistance, they weren’t real, just illusions of some kind, and Starwind... Someone else was screaming now, and he tried to divert the rest of the attack, tried to cut off his connection to the THING blazing like a small sun on the edge of his awareness, it was burning him and everything hurt and he was falling...

 


 

“What. The. Hells.” Savil stumbled across the permanent set-spell into the shielded Work Room, one of several in the center of the Vale. It was dark; she sent a small mage-light flying to the ceiling, which revealed a bizarre, baffling scene. Vanyel lay sprawled to one side of the room, facedown and unmoving, the stone floor all around him burned black and his clothing still smouldering slightly. Starwind lay on the other side of the room, also looking scorched, blinking dazedly at the ceiling.

Moondance was there a beat later, took in the scene in seconds, and headed for Vanyel. Savil unfroze herself and knelt beside Starwind, looking into his unfocused eyes. She used her magic to chill a thin layer of air all around his body, hoping to minimize his burns, and quickly checked him over. His pulse and breathing were steady and he seemed otherwise unhurt, so she started trying to rouse him, shaking his shoulder gently and speaking his name, both with her mouth and mind. :Starwind. Wake up. Starwind:

After a few seconds, he blinked and his eyes darted around and found her. The semiconscious haze of his mind firmed as his shields came up, and he immediately tried to sit.

“Hey, hey, stay put.” She held him down easily. “Care to tell me what happened? It looks like a mage-war in here.” His eyes were still wide and panicked. “Moondance is attending to Vanyel,” she added, and Starwind relaxed a little.

With her Mage-sight she saw him reaching out to tap the nearby Heartstone for a little extra energy, as casually as a man might reach for a cup of tea. She still wasn’t used to how easily the Tayledras did that – she herself could use the Heartstone, but it wasn’t anything like comfortable and the damned thing still scared her.

Some colour came back into his face. His chest rose and fell with a few deep breaths. When he tried to sit up again, this time slowly and carefully, she let him.

He glanced over at Moondance, who was still crouched over Vanyel with his back to them. Then he looked at his trembling hand with something like awe. “I...deserved that,” he said after a moment.

“Deserved what? Neither of us has any idea what happened, Starwind. All I know is Moondance said something set off an alarm?”

“Oh. Thought I managed to call for help...” He brought his hand to his forehead. “Ouch. I feel like I have been...kicked across a river.” He sagged a little, and she quickly caught him against her knee.

“You clearly got blasted by something. Was it Van? Did he... Did he get out of control?”

Starwind started to shake his head, then winced and stopped. “No. Yes. I provoked him.”

She stared at him. “What do you mean, you provoked him?”

He looked remorseful now, an expression she wasn’t sure she had ever seen on him before. “I was having him call the lightning...and he had it in his hands, I could see it, but he would not throw it. I lost my temper; I tried to startle him into releasing it. I made an illusion of wyrsa.”

“WHAT?” Savil, now supporting most of Starwind’s weight against her bent knee, nearly dropped him. “Why would you DO that?”

Starwind managed a rueful half-smile, half-grimace. “It was probably not my best idea. In any case, he threw not only his own power, but pulled from the Heartstone as well. You did not tell me he could do that!”

“He can?” Savil’s mind felt slow, stunned. Once upon a time it had taken three months of coaxing for Starwind to persuade her to touch the thing. And Vanyel had done it impulsively with no training?

“I believe he panicked and did not recognize the illusion as not-real until he had thrown his first strike. He tried to pull the attack, which I suspect is why he had the worse of it...but I was not able to shield everything.” He looked down at himself. “As you can see.”

“I don’t know whether to be impressed or terrified.” She didn’t think she had ever gotten through Starwind’s shields, much less knocked him out. “Anyway, didn’t I tell you the part where we all got attacked by wyrsa? That’s how ‘Lendel...” She stopped, swallowed. Don’t block it off, she reminded herself.

He looked uncomfortable. “I wished to frighten him. Though perhaps not as much as I did.”

“I certainly hope not.” It wasn’t the right time for her to lose her temper with him. Gods be damned, though – if he had pulled this on her she would have recognized the illusion right away, but she might have thrown him into a wall anyway. She glanced over at Moondance. “Hey, is he all right?”

Moondance looked over his shoulder. “He is in shock. I can Heal the damage he has caused himself. Whether he will want to resume his lessons on the morrow, I cannot say. But what is done is done. I am best bringing him to his bed, Savil, if you may help my shay’kreth’askhe to his. I will be with you both when I can.”

He scooped Vanyel into his arms and stood up, the boy’s head lolling against his chest. Without looking back, he headed for the wall and appeared to step right through it as he navigated the set-spell.

Savil looked down at Starwind. “Can you stand? Let’s get you back to your ekele. At least the ground level, I don’t see you handling the godawful ladder right this minute...”

She managed to drag him upright and get one of his arms over her shoulder. As soon as they had crossed the set-spell and were no longer behind the Work Room shields, she called out for Kellan. :Love, can you hunt around and find me some help?: She was supporting most of Starwind’s weight, and for all his boyish slenderness, he was a head taller than her and too heavy for her to manage alone.

Starwind and Moondance had several ground-level rooms as well as the true ekele in the tree canopy, which Savil tried to avoid spending much time in; no matter how much she tried to get used to it, the height still made her anxious. Moondance, a non-native, usually preferred at least to sleep on the ground, and rather than evict Vanyel from his bed, he’d had the hertasi build him a new, bigger and better bed in another of the rooms. Actually, knowing hertasi, he probably hadn’t even asked and the bed had just appeared. In any case, it was where she and two other k’Treva scouts brought Starwind.

To her surprise, there were already several people there. She recognized Skyfire and Winterstorm, two of the other clan elders, and her eyes widened. Starwind’s bondbird, an enormous gyrfalcon called Aysheena, was already on her perch, preening and watching her bondmate anxiously.

Starwind sat heavily on the side of the bed and let his head drop into his hands. A moment later he lifted his eyes. “May we speak this way? I am afraid I have a dreadful headache.” Mindspeech was hurting him, she read between the lines. He must have taken a very hard hit.

There was a brief silence.

“What is this thing that has happened?” Winterstorm asked, her voice hard.

Starwind didn’t seem like he was going to answer, so Savil did her best to stumble through the story. Winterstorm’s face grew colder, and she looked away.

“I am beginning to doubt the wisdom of having the boy here,” she said finally. “We had assumed that Starwind could contain him, but if this is not the case...”

Savil felt her chest tighten.

Starwind held up his hand. “I...must protest. I carry the blame for this accident.”

Winterstorm’s eyebrows rose. “I fail to see how–”

“I foolishly frightened him. Until this point, he has been steadily gaining control and there had been no incidents.” He shrugged, unhappily. “This may set back his training, I am afraid, but I do not think we should fear the boy. I provoked him, and I was not careful with my shielding.” He sounded suitably embarrassed. “Besides, I am not badly hurt. And no damage was done. This is why we train in the shielded area, after all.”

There was an awkward silence. Aysheena ruffled her feathers, squawked, and went back to preening.

“We will discuss further on the morrow,” Winterstorm said finally. “I am not happy with things as they stand. However, the boy should be no danger tonight, injured as he is.”

The other elders swept out of the room. Starwind slumped back onto the bed. His eyes moved to Savil’s face, then closed.

“I am sorry,” he said quietly after a moment. “I... I did not wish this to happen.”

She had nothing to say to that. “Here, let me look at your burns. I should put some salve on them.” She clucked her tongue as she helped him pull his arm from the sleeve of his tunic, a little more roughly than strictly required. She was still irritated. “At least it’s not as bad as the first time we met.”

He managed a dry chuckle. “No.”

 


 

Vanyel drifted through darkness. There was a dull, fiery pain, but it was distant. A familiar green-gold ribbon of song had come, twined through his mind, cooling the parts of him that burned, then gone.

...He was in the dark woods again, he and ‘Lendel huddled inside the crumbling stone cottage as Gala’s hooves lanced out, desperately holding back the creatures with their scaly, twining bodies, unnaturally flexible, their vicious teeth – he was screaming, Gala was falling, his vision was tripled and he felt her pain as though it was his own body, as though it was his own blood that drained out into the earth–

:Wake up, Chosen!: He found himself sitting up, gasping for breath, fighting free of the too-hot, constricting blankets over him. He was drenched in sweat and everything hurt. For a moment he had no idea where he was.

Footsteps approached. A moment later there was a small, warm yellow ball of light hovering above his head. He saw Moondance’s concerned face.

Moondance, right, he was at k’Treva Vale, what– Memory hit him like a bucket of water to the face. “Moondance, I’m sorry! Is Starwind–”

“My shay’kreth’ashke is well, young Vanyel, though rather shaken. You need not worry for his sake. Your own hurts were much worse.”

Looking down at his forearms, he saw that they were wrapped in bandages. His head was reeling. “What–?”

Moondance seemed to understand the incoherent question. “You pulled energy from the valley-node, or what we call the Heartstone. It is something that only the strongest mages can do, and usually with a great deal of practice. Starwind was not expecting it – and in any case, you are not ready and should avoid doing it again until your training is more complete. It hurt you, no?”

He nodded shakily. “I’m sorry, I tried to stop, it was too late, I, I’m sorry...”

“Shush.” Moondance patted his shoulder. “You did stop it. It would have been better to aim the rest of the strike at a wall, say. The shields placed on the room would have absorbed it. By pulling it back on yourself, you did considerably more damage to your channels. But not to worry, there is no lasting harm done and Starwind is sorry he tried to frighten you in the way he did – though he may not be ready to tell you so for some time. He is proud, my shay’kreth’ashke.” Moondance tilted his head to one side. “I would be grateful if you could check your shields. I think I know how sorry you are already.”

Vanyel winced and felt his cheeks flush; he hadn’t been thinking about shielding at all. Center, ground... He was struggling to concentrate – in fact, it was an effort to stay sitting up – and it took maybe thirty seconds before he was confident that his mind was fully guarded and no longer leaking his private thoughts and feelings everywhere. Like a toddler pissing on the floor... It was humiliating. Why can’t I do anything right? This is so simple but I still can’t stop making mistakes. And I almost killed Starwind, I don’t care what Moondance said, if I hadn’t pulled it in time, and I almost didn’t… I don’t know why they’re still bothering to try to teach me, I’m a danger to everyone here, I shouldn’t be here... He caught at the thread of thought, trying to fight it, he knew it was illogical but he couldn’t stop it.

“Drink, please.” Moondance was thrusting a cup into his hands. He sipped – it was cool, but tasted of herbs. He found that he was very thirsty, enough to gulp all of it despite the odd taste. Moondance took the empty cup. “You should sleep, now,” he said gently. “A night’s rest will help a great deal. Does your head still hurt? I think perhaps I have the energy for a little more Healing, tonight.”

Vanyel let himself fall back onto the bed, too tired to do anything else. He tried to tell Moondance to leave, surely it wasn’t safe for anyone to be in the same room as him while he slept, but fog was drifting into his mind, and then the flute was playing and the green-gold music danced through him, carrying him towards a deep sleep, the one place he could forget everything that had happened.

 


 

He found himself under a winter sky, standing in the gap between two mountains, an unnatural pathway heavy with traces of magic that felt wrong.

(It was the stupid ice-dream again. He recognized it, vaguely, but could not break out of it.)

“Herald-Mage Vanyel.”

A man dressed in black, dark hair, standing before a dark army. 

He had sent Tylendel away, to safety, to bring help, but it couldn’t arrive in time.

(Why did it never change? ‘Lendel was dead, the dream made no sense...)

He was tired, already, the icy wind sucking away his strength, but he felt very calm, almost peaceful, even knowing that he was about to die. His dream-lips moved. “Leareth.”

He looked across the space between them, tiny hard snowflakes dancing in a bitter wind. He could feel the wind numbing his cheeks, blowing wisps of silver-streaked hair across his face, and the cold of the ground through the soles of his boots.

(It felt so real. Why did it feel so real?)

He raised his hand to strike–

He woke to a room full of sunlight, tears still on his cheeks. His head no longer hurt, but he was ravenous, his skin was sticky and crawling with dried sweat, and he desperately needed to use the privy. For all the reassuring weight and sensations of his body, the world around him felt unreal, as though the frozen mountains were just behind a painted veil. He sat up, blinking, and the strangeness faded, but not entirely. It had seemed so real.

:Yfandes?: he sent, tentatively. :Is Starwind all right?: He vaguely remembered speaking to Moondance, but he thought he might have dreamed it.

:Starwind is quite all right, Chosen, as Moondance told you: He felt Yfandes gently reaching for him, a purely mental embrace, and for a moment he let her, let himself be enveloped in her soothing love, even if he didn’t deserve it.

:Shush, you. I heard that. Isn’t it my decision?: He felt the mental equivalent of a playful poke. :I think we need to ban the word ‘deserve’ from your vocabulary:

It was pointless to argue with her. He withdrew slightly, wrapping his shields tightly around his inner thoughts, leaving only the channels of deliberate communication. She would always love him, he thought dully, no matter what he did, no matter who he hurt – she was trapped, bound to him by whatever strange magic the Companions were made of. He didn’t want to hurt her, and he was doing his best, but... He was a curse on everything he touched, a burden, he should have died when ‘Lendel did, it would have been simpler, he wouldn’t be throwing the lives of so many people into disarray just by existing.

The quiet voice in the back of his mind protested again, he knew he wasn’t thinking clearly, but he was too tired to fight it today.

:Why don’t you get up?: Yfandes sent brightly. :No one is using the pool, you can have it to yourself if you’re quick:

He sighed and sat up. The past few weeks had taught him that she wouldn’t leave him alone, not unless he lost his temper and lashed out at her, and even then she would give him space for a few candlemarks but would be be back soon. She was always there with gentle but relentless encouragement, being abominably cheerful until he relented and got out of bed just to make her stop.

He went through the motions, relieving himself, drinking from the pitcher of water and then carrying the tray of fruit with him to the pool. He was glad that Yfandes had been right, and no one else was around. He didn’t want to see anyone today.

The water stung the healing burns on his arms and torso, but only a little. He wondered how that worked – he had burned the outside of himself a little, but not the insides, well, except for the places where his magic came from, he remembered that pain.

He hoped Starwind wouldn’t expect him for lessons today. Gods, what am I going to do? I don’t trust myself not to hurt him, I could have killed him, he would be a fool to keep trying to teach me. He ducked his head under the water and came up gasping, wringing out his hair.

Yfandes must have guessed the direction of his thoughts. :I think Starwind will not hold your lesson today. But you must go back at some point, Chosen. You were doing very well. I know you can do this. And you’re exaggerating; you barely hurt him:

He shuddered, and slid under the water again as though it could hide him from the world.

 


 

Starwind was very, very drunk.

Savil had forgotten that the Hawkbrothers didn’t partake of alcohol nearly as much as her friends back in Haven. She had packed a flask of fortified wine when she left Haven, mostly out of habit from other trips that had involved more winter camping.

He had spent most of that morning soothing the elders over the matter of Vanyel, then most of the afternoon dealing with some kind of Changecreature outside the Vale, and for all that he tried to appear imperturbable, she knew he was badly rattled. She had judged he could use help relaxing, and matched him cup for cup until the flask was empty, and now her head was buzzing pleasantly, almost enough that she didn’t mind the view from the windows of his ekele or the way it swayed slightly in the breeze. As for Starwind, he had gone from morose to jovial to angry to incoherent, and now he was slumped with his head down on the tiny table, white hair cascading to cover his folded arms.

She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be worried. It wouldn’t be the first time she had accidentally drunk a friend under the table; it seemed most of her family had a rare talent for holding their drink; but she always forgot.

She poked him. “Hey. You should drink some water. And then go to bed.” It wasn’t even very late.

He groaned and lifted his head a little. “I th-th-” He gave up and switched to Mindspeech. :I think there’s...a storm...I feel th’ekele moving: She wasn’t sure she had ever heard someone slur their Mindspeech before. It was impressive.

“There’s no storm. It’s because you’re drunk. Come on.” She reached for the jug of water behind him, poured a cup, and placed it in front of him, then stood, grabbed his shoulders and pulled him upright. “Tomorrow morning’s Starwind will be very grateful that you drank this water, trust me.”

He looked blearily at her. :I should...check wards...felt alarm...:

“Gods! You’re in no state for that. I suppose I should’ve asked before we started drinking if you had any resp-responsibilities.” Her own head had started buzzing harder when she stood up. “Why don’t I ask, hmm, Nightsun?” He ought not to be too upset at being bothered. She didn’t wait for a response, but reached out – Nightsun was a strong Mindspeaker, yet another reason why their nights together were so much fun. :Nightsun, could you check Starwind’s wards? I’m with him and he’s, um, incapacitated, but I think he thinks there might’ve been an alarm:

She felt warm amusement. :Not to worry, sweet. I will check the areas he is personally tied to. I confess I am very curious?:

She tried not to laugh. :We were trying to relax and were a little too enthusiastic with the wine-spirits I brought: Now she was feeling warm and quite tipsy. :If you’re not doing anything later tonight...?:

Laughter in her head, delight. :Meet at my pool when the north star rises? It should not take me longer than that to set Starwind’s work right:

She was smiling broadly as she broke contact. “Okay, I have it covered. Please drink the rest of that water.” He was still sitting up, but stared at the half-empty glass as though he wasn’t sure what it was. “Come on. Water. Drink it. Not that hard.” She was impatient now, thinking of how long it would take her to preen herself for meeting Nightsun. “Come on.”

Chapter Text

Savil woke with a start. Dappled green light played over her face, and for a moment she was completely disoriented. Memory took a few seconds catch up. It was much earlier than she normally woke these days, and the light was wrong because she was with Nightsun, still on the soft mat laid out in in the shelter of trained shrubbery under his ekele. Clearly she had been tipsy enough to fall asleep here – that was a little embarrassing, oops. Nightsun was still sleeping, sprawled on his stomach with his arm over her. Her head ached dully.

:!:

The wordless mental prod came again, and she realized it was what had woken her. Being woken by Mindtouch always left her disoriented. :Moondance?: She knew some of her crankiness was slipping through.

His mindvoice carried overtones of anxiety, and he skipped any kind of greeting or pleasantry. :When did you last see Vanyel?:

:What?: She rubbed her eyes, then carefully disentangled herself from Nightsun without waking him; the movement made her a little dizzy and her stomach protested, but she took a deep breath and ignored it. :I didn’t actually talk to him yesterday, Yfandes told Kellan that he was upset and needed space, but I know he was in his room in the afternoon: Kellan had gotten into the habit of poking Yfandes for updates even without Savil’s prompting.

:Did you check before you went to sleep?:

She tried to think. She couldn’t actually remember falling asleep; she must have been more drunk than she had realized. :I don’t think so, but Kellan would’ve been checking with ‘Fandes anyway. Why? What’s wrong?:

Moondance’s mindvoice grew more strident. :He’s not in his bed, or any of the usual places I’ve looked so far:

Savil started looking around for her clothes. There, a robe, it wasn’t hers but it would do. :Kellan?: she prodded; she could sense that her Companion was still asleep, or at least drowsing. :Kellan, wake up. Can you ask Yfandes where Vanyel is?:

She got a sleepy acknowledgement, waited. :’Fandes says he’s shutting her out. Says he blocks her partially a lot, but this time she can’t reach him at all:

She found herself on her feet, pushing her way through the foliage to the open path. :Moondance, Yfandes doesn’t know where he is. Did you ask Starwind?:

There was a beat of silence in her head, as she broke into a run, her knees twinging unhappily.

:My shay’kreth’ashke is somewhat indisposed this morning:

:I’m really sorry about that!: Savil turned down another path, nearly bowling over two adolescent girls, who shrieked.

:In any case, he checked the wards and it appears someone left the Vale last night, about a candlemark after sunset. He did say he had set an alarm to trigger if young Vanyel passed through the wards. If there was an alarm, it was cleared, but he says he may not remember any alarms that happened after sunset yesterday:

Oh, gods. :He said something about an alarm last night, but he wasn’t very coherent, and I was kind of distracted. I have a very bad feeling about this!: It was about a candlemark after sunrise now. How long had it been? :Thirteen candlemarks or thereabouts: Kellan prompted. :The nights are long this close to Midwinter:

She met Moondance at the base of the ekele. He looked exhausted; he must have traveled back overnight, probably intending to nap this morning. Starwind was just now making his way unsteadily down the ladder.

“Kellan tells me Yfandes fell asleep early, just after sunset,” Savil said, a little out of breath. “It sounds like no one was watching him.”

“Goddess of my mothers!” Moondance was playing with one of his braids, a nervous gesture. “He could have gone a very long way, in this time.” Then the remaining colour drained from his face. “If he’d wanted to hurt himself, wanted to–” He broke off.

“He’s alive,” Savil said. “Yfandes would know otherwise, trust me. And he’s probably unhurt, at the very least he’s not too distracted to shield.” Her mind was spinning, trying to find purchase. :Kellan! Would ‘Fandes be able to tell the difference between him blocking her, and his being out of her range?: Surely the boy couldn’t have gone that far... Damn it, Vanyel, she thought. Why do you have to keep doing this to us? She had been trying to give him some slack, she knew he wasn’t having an easy time, but still. She couldn’t help having, and then wincing away from, the thought that ‘Lendel would have been more considerate, no matter how much he was hurting.

:She thinks so, but is not sure. She does think he is some distance away; she says that even blocked as she is, she would be able to locate him if he were nearby:

“We need to find him.” Moondance let the braid fall. “I... I would like to gather everyone available, start a full search party, but...”

“But it would seriously irritate Winterstorm, if we stopped the Vale in its tracks to find him. She’s already not happy about having him here.” Savil rubbed her forehead, wishing the light would stop hurting her eyes. What a perfect time to be hungover. Why am I such an idiot? “Maybe we should set out, just the two us, well, three if Starwind is up for coming. Five counting Kellan and Yfandes. And if we can’t find his trail, or if Yfandes senses that he’s in distress, we can call for backup.”

“I do not entirely like it.” Moondance was frowning. “But if he is not currently in distress, I agree we should not call a full scale emergency yet.” He reached for Starwind, who had made it down the ladder and joined them. They shared a moment’s silent conversation.

“I will manage,” Starwind said a little stiffly, drawing himself up and straightening his back.

“I really am sorry about last night!” Savil interjected.

He raised his eyebrows. “You are not my keeper. Besides, I seem to recall I was the one refilling our cups.”

That was true. And he had been having a very good time for most of it; they both had. She didn’t think she had been that relaxed in months – it would have been very nice if she could have hung onto some of it, rather than being dragged into another emergency. “I’m amazed you remember anything, honestly.”

Moondance pushed himself between them. “I think we should take a quarter-candlemark to feed and water ourselves and to dress for the weather,” he looked pointedly at Savil’s robe, “but we should make haste.”

 


 

The sun rose as Vanyel stumbled through the snow, aching with exhaustion and cold in every limb.

He hadn’t been thinking much, ever since he passed the point of no return and stepped outside of the Vale’s wards; he had focused on the cadence of his footsteps, the faint patterns of moonlight and shadow, his panting breath, and blocked out everything else. He could have been the only person in the world – in fact, it was easy to forget there was a world at all, after the moon set he could barely see his own hand in front of him. He could have been in a void of only stars. 

It was the right thing, to leave. Better than taking the risk of hurting anyone else, or worse. Besides, aside from Starwind and Moondance, the other Tayledras didn’t want him here – he hadn’t been trying to pick up their thoughts, but it was hard to remember to shield all of the time. Savil would have pushed on his behalf, she was too compassionate not to, she would have ruined her friendship with these people trying to help him, and he would have destroyed one more thing. Better to take the choice out of their hands.

The stars faded as sky turned deep blue, then grey, then pink and gold. The world rushed back in with the sun, shapes and space and distance stretching out on all sides – north and west, a horizon of mountains, to the east a glimpse through trees of flatter meadows. There wasn’t much color in it, white snow, brown-and-black of naked trees, and the sky, a delicate blue, paler than Yfandes’ eyes – why was he thinking of her eyes? Why was he thinking of her at all? He had left her behind, blocked her out so she couldn’t find him.

If he died, she would die. No, he couldn’t be that selfish... But he remembered, vaguely, reading somewhere that a Companion could choose to break the bond with their Herald, if they decided they had Chosen wrong...which meant they could Choose wrong! So, he would live, somehow, but if he could disappear, if he could hide and stay away and never let her find him, then Yfandes wouldn’t have any choice but to repudiate him. Right? And then she could set her mistake right, and it wouldn’t matter if he died, she could live and be happy...

He was vaguely aware that he wasn’t thinking clearly, the quiet voice of reason was gibbering faintly at him, but he no longer had the energy to care. The sun rose higher, sparking gold on every surface, ice and snow like jewels, it was beautiful – the world was so beautiful. And I don’t deserve to be in it, he thought dully, an ugly broken thing, cursed, destroying everything I touch, only a burden, I shouldn’t exist... Yfandes wasn’t there to prod him out of the endless circular stream of thoughts. He missed her, even now; there was a sharp pain in his chest when he thought of her. But she had never really been his, he thought, he had been a mistake from the beginning.

(For a moment he saw a different snowscape, grey and dull, the space between two mountains)

He was a little confused to find himself sprawled on the ground, the chill and damp of the snow under him soaking through his garments. For a moment he thought that he would just stay there, it wasn’t so uncomfortable, he could watch sunlight dance and sparkle on the delicate ice coating the twigs of a bush. But if I stay here, I’ll freeze to death, and he had just enough energy to pull himself upright.

He was too tired to go on, that was evident. If he stopped moving for long, the cold would catch up with him... A fire, he could light a fire. He knew how to do it with magic.

It took a long time, and most of his remaining strength, to scrape a circle of earth bare, and then find branches and twigs suitable to burn. He would never have succeeded at starting a fire with a flint-and-steel, not with wood this wet, but he could cheat, focusing and using his power to break the branches into smaller pieces, heat and dry the wood until it crackled, then set it alight with a burst of magic. Finally he was sitting in front of a small but hot fire, relishing the warmth.

He dug out the food that he had stuffed into the pockets of the silk robe he wore, which was not meant for rough outdoor use and was already much the worse for wear. Well, he would find clothes. Somehow. Maybe he could go east and south, he thought, to the less wild, inhabited lands on the edge of Valdemar. In daytime he could navigate by the sun. He could find a farm, maybe, find work. The thought made him feel so weary; he would have preferred never to get up from where he sat, but he had to find some way of keeping himself alive until Yfandes gave in and broke their bond. After that it wouldn’t matter...

He tried to eat, but the food tasted like ash, and he had no appetite. He put it away; he would be glad of it later, he thought dully, he wasn’t sure if he could hunt successfully here. He had no weapons, only magic. Thank the gods that none of the Pelagirs-creatures had seen fit to bother him last night... The thoughts came without much feeling one way or the other.

It was becoming hard to keep his eyes open. He broke and dried a few more thick branches, fed them to the fire, then gave in to exhaustion and curled up on his side, cloak wrapped around him. It was a very warm cloak; he didn’t recognize it and wasn’t sure if it was actually his, but it had been in his room, and he was grateful. He checked and reinforced his shields, then closed his eyes, and something like sleep came.

 


 

…Vanyel woke with a stifled cry as some massive force pinned him to the ground. Trying to thrash, he found that he couldn’t move at all. He was facedown, and couldn’t see anything.

Still sleep-fuzzed, slow and lethargic with cold and with no feeling in his fingers and toes, he reached out with his other senses. Center-ground-open, a motion that was by now fairly instinctive, unshielding just enough to sense for minds and magic nearby.

Information flooded his Othersenses. Three men, arranged in a semicircle around his prone body. Two were un-Gifted, and he could read their surface thoughts easily; one of the men had a powerful aura of mage-energy around him, energy that had an aura of subtle wrongness, and he was shielded tight, leaking nothing except a feeling of anticipation.

One of the un-Gifted men said something incomprehensible, syllables sliding past his ears without understanding – but each word was echoed in the man’s surface thoughts, and though the words themselves were still in the foreign language, he could get a glimpse of the meaning, like fuzz around the strange syllables. The man had said something like ‘is this the one?’ with the intonation of a question.

The Mage-gifted man answered, his shielded thoughts giving nothing away. Fear was beginning to push through the exhausted listlessness that had wrapped Vanyel’s thoughts. What was happening? He was trapped.

The un-Gifted man spoke again, ‘he looks as described’ or something to that effect. Vanyel’s heart was pounding faster in his chest. What was going on? It almost sounded like they were looking for him, in particular.

He explored the spell preventing him from moving; it was a little like a shield, a shell of invisible force, one that left him approximately paralyzed, though he was still able to take shallow breaths and move his eyes. Not that it did him any good; all he could see was the fold of his cloak pressed against his nose.

He might be able to break out of it with brute force, he thought, but he wasn’t sure how much power he would have left afterwards to actually fight these men. Especially the mage, with his wrong-feeling, slimy aura.

Struggling to focus, he tried to weave a simple deflection shield against mage-attacks under the spell holding him. It seemed like a good idea. Starwind had caught him by surprise often enough for him to always wear that shield as a bottom layer during lessons. It took a lot more effort than usual; he felt the muscles of his hands and arms twitching, trying to gesture and shape the magic and unable to move; but he managed it eventually.

Trying to think fast, he turned his Mage-sight on the man’s shields. Maybe those damned lessons will be good for something. He was familiar with fourteen different varieties of personal shield, now – to reflect or absorb or block magic, objects or physical force, heat, Thoughtsensing, various other things or combinations. The mage’s shields didn’t look like any of the types he had learned, but he could see some of the features – he was well shielded against any magical or physical attack. Damn. Starwind had said that many mages, if they expected to be fighting another mage, didn’t bother to shield against physical blows at all, and his Fetching was reliable enough now to fling rocks at the man’s head. 

But nevermind. The man was shielded against Thoughtsensing as well, but there was a chink, some kind of gap in his armour. He thought that the man wasn’t shielding his emotions nearly as well as he was shielding his thoughts – that was where the leakage was. And there was some other opening, something he didn’t have any name for from his lessons. His Othersight was confusing at the best of times, full of information he had no idea how to interpret – Starwind often got frustrated teaching him, because Vanyel saw things that he didn’t see. Savil thought it was because he had so many Gifts, and didn’t yet know how to identify which Sight was from which Gift, if that was even a distinction that made sense. It wasn’t something that had been studied much, she said, this wasn’t a problem usually encountered.

The other two, un-Gifted men were shielded as well, he realized, after turning his Sight on them. They wore talismans around their necks that glowed with power, blocking mage-attacks and even providing some protection for physical blows, but not blocking any of his Mind-magic.

One of the men was bending, now. “Van-yel?” he said out loud, a heavily accented rendition of his name.

Vanyel would have screamed, if he could have moved. He felt rope against his skin, and still was unable to move, though his heart raced and there was a bitter taste of fear in his mouth. He did not want to be tied up again – he really, truly didn’t.

Do something. Now. He reached out instinctively, lashing at the two men through a channel that wasn’t blocked. It felt like his Mindspeech channel, but he wasn’t sure, since he had never used it in this way.

They both collapsed, their minds going dark and quiet, empty of surface thoughts. He felt sudden pain throbbing in his head, the feeling that came with overreaching one of his Gifts, and a wave of nausea. That had felt...wrong. Too personal, too close, he had felt their minds crumple under the strength of the blow...

No time for that now, the mage was already headed for him, he clumsily threw power into his own shields just before the man flung something at him, something that passed without interference through his paralysis-spell and left his head ringing. Unshielded, he was sure it would have knocked him unconscious.

On some instinct, he reached for the howling, blackened void that was always there in the back of his mind, let it fill him, and flung raw feeling at the man, through the chink where his shields didn’t quite block the Gift of Empathy. Let him take that!

The mage stumbled and went down on his knees, but his spell, if it was indeed his spell and not another talisman, still held Vanyel pinned down, and the man wouldn’t take long to recover. Vanyel struggled to focus, to put the grief away behind the door in his mind, no time for it now.

He reached out frantically with his mind, just trying to do something, and the man’s hair caught fire. Oh, right, Savil said I have a bit of Firestarting. Not very strong, and he had only ever succeeded at using it by accident when startled, so far. The mage screamed, startled, and slapped at his head, but it wasn’t really enough to hurt him. Vanyel managed to set the hem of his robe, on fire, as well, but there was an urgent new pain in his head – he hadn’t actually ever practiced Firestarting, and he had already noticed it was fairly easy for him to overextend his weaker Gifts by accident.

Center and ground. He focused on his core, the mage-energy he carried with him, then tested the paralysis-spell again. Enough? Maybe. Could he just run away from the mage after that? He thought frantically. He had used power that wasn’t his, back in the Vale – it was how he had nearly killed Starwind. Right? He felt sick, remembering it.

But he had to win this fight. If he died here, Yfandes would die too.

He extended his Othersenses, reaching further than the clearing where his body, out and out. There! A line of energy, like a flowing river, and then a turbulent nub of it. He could sense it through the holding-spell, but couldn’t quite focus enough to get his mental hands on it, not through the resistance of the shield on him and without being able to use his actual hands to gesture and shape the internal movement.

Focus. Plan. Break the shield, then reach for that whirling pool of energy and...what? The only offensive magic he knew was lightning. Would enough power get through the other man’s tight shields? Maybe. He wasn’t sure he had any other options.

Focus. Center and ground. The mage was recovering now, starting to stand. He gritted his teeth, gathered all the power he had in him, and strained against the spell binding him.

It shattered, before he would have expected it to, and he rolled over and raised his hands and gathered up the shreds of his energy, pouring it into his inner personal shield even as he struggled to sit up, stand– Too slow, he wasn’t practiced enough to do two things at once, and another attack slammed into him, raw force sending him flying through the air. He slammed into a tree, hard, and fell. He barely felt the pain of it – his body was more than half numb from cold anyway. He landed on his feet, on legs that wouldn’t support him, and found himself on hands and knees.

Focus. He formed a mage-light and threw it at the other man’s face, it wouldn’t hurt him but it would distract him for a moment, and then he flung out his mental ‘hands’, reaching, found the pool of energy he had seen at a distance and plunged into it.

It hurt, though not as much as whatever he’d touched back in the Vale. He felt it filling him to the brim, scouring his mind clean, pure blue-white energy that drove out everything else. 

He shaped it, clumsily, too slow, the other mage was already raising his hands but he managed to raise his first and threw the lightning without hesitation, crude, but everything he had in him, the raw power of the energy source pouring into him and through him, though it felt like his insides were tearing apart.

For a long moment he thought it wouldn’t be enough – then he felt the man’s shields begin to crumble, felt him struggle to repair them, but it was too late, Vanyel couldn’t have stopped the attack even if he had wanted to. He felt the other man’s thoughts for just a moment, unshielded, he couldn’t help reading him...and then the mage’s mind had whited out in a blast of pain, and then there was nothing there anymore. Vanyel felt the power that poured through him trail off, felt his connection to the energy-source breaking as he fell.

He couldn’t really feel his body; everything was molten fire. Snow against his cheek brought him back to himself for a moment.

:Vanyel!: Yfandes’ voice in his head, a long way off, it hurt him but he still clutched at it. :Chosen! I’m coming!:

He tried to reach for her but he was already slipping, his vision fading to a tunnel. He was looking at one of his own footprints, marked in the snow; it was all he could see.

 


 

“Vanyel.”

A man’s voice, deep, but gentle and sweet.

“Vanyel. Take my hand, would you?”

He could see the man’s hand, yes, even as the darkness closed in. Long fingers, slender but strong, a callused palm – it was a musician’s hand, he thought, and he wanted to obey, he struggled to remember how to move, fought to lift his hand from where it lay at his side.

His own fingers reached out, cracked and dry, knuckles scraped bloody from a hundred falls, nailbeds blue with cold, he brushed the stranger’s fingertips...

The snow vanished.

He was standing, in a place that seemed to be made of formless white mist. The air was neither warm nor cold. He could feel his body, could feel his feet pressing against a featureless surface, but there was no pain. When he looked down at his own hands, they were clean and unblemished.

He turned his head. A stranger sat a few yards away, clad in immaculate Herald’s Whites, golden hair falling across a face that was oddly in shadow.

“Hello?” he said uncertainly.

The stranger looked up. Somehow his face was still hidden, but his eyes were like two sapphires, the colour of a Companion’s eyes, the colour of Yfandes’ eyes. A soft light seemed to shine from him.

He wasn’t sure how he knew, but somehow he knew where he was, and who he was with. If ‘where’ and 'who' were the right word. He fell to his knees. “Lord.”

“Oh, please.” It was the same voice. He had the impression that the stranger smiled, though he still couldn’t see his face clearly. “I’ll have none of that. Come, sit with me.”

Vanyel scrambled to his feet. “I, of course, Lo–” He stopped himself, and stood with his hands at his sides. Was he even wearing clothes? He looked down, and found that he was – he seemed to be wearing Whites as well, although they lacked in detail, like an unfinished painting. Uncertain, he carefully sat next to the stranger, still not sure what he was sitting on – it seemed to be made of mist as well. “Um. So, am I dead, then?” He hadn’t thought death was supposed to be this awkward.

The stranger (the god, was he a god, could he be?) seemed to frown. “No. Not exactly, anyway. It is complicated. We need to have a conversation about it.”

Vanyel looked down at his hands again. He felt a little like he was dreaming, his mind felt detached and floating in the way of dreams, but it also felt real. Like the ice-dream.

“Yes.” He wondered if the stranger had read his thoughts. “That is one of the things we must speak of.”

He blinked. Ran a hand through his hair – it was like silk against his fingers, clean and combed. He looked at the stranger again, with his hair falling in waves, the colour of wheat in the fields. The colour of ‘Lendel’s hair. “I remember you,” he head himself saying. “I don’t know where...how...?”

“Indeed.” The stranger tilted his head to one side, and Vanyel had the impression of an infinitely sad smile. “We so nearly met, twice already. The path was already set, and so I did not speak to you.”

(A flash of memory: he lay on his back on a rain-lashed riverbank, Yfandes was there, and people huddled around his body – and the stranger was there too, somehow sitting at his side even though there wasn’t room, carefully not touching him, his jewel-like eyes and shadowed face sorrowful.)

Vanyel shook his head, trying to clear it. Why did he feel so... He wasn’t sure how he felt. Loose, unmoored, but also light. Free. The weight of grief was gone from his thoughts. He wasn’t tired. He wasn’t hurting.

He looked up again. “Do you have a name?” He rubbed his eyes. Focus, damn it. “Of course. You’re the Shadow-Lover, aren’t you? There’s a song about you.”

The man – no, he wasn’t a man – sighed heavily. “That damned song. It gets popular again every fifty years or so.”

Vanyel bit back a laugh. Surely it wasn’t appropriate to... But why not? “Why are you so much like a person?” he heard himself say. “You’re Death, right?”

He caught a hint of a smile, in that unseen face under the curtain of hair. “And why shouldn’t I be whatever I choose to be?” A chuckle. “You would ask that question. It’s part of the pattern of who and what you are. You want to understand things, don’t you?”

(A memory, a little boy asking his sister: why are there Heralds? Why are there Companions? Why do they have horse bodies?)

He blinked. How could he answer, how could he speak to, to a being that was the next thing to a god? He remembered Savil’s voice, dry, sarcastic. I’m not inclined to rely on the goodwill of the gods overmuch, you know? He had been in ‘Lendel’s arms, they had been talking about...he had been trying to wrap his head around Valdemaran law, hadn’t he? “I suppose I do want to understand things.”

Silence.

“You have a choice to make.” The Shadow-Lover sounded so sad. “I cannot tell you to choose one way or another. I can only give you the information you need, to make your choice.”

His head felt clearer than it had in a long time, free of the cobwebs of exhaustion and resigned pain. “I have to decide if I die or if I go back? Is that it?”

“Yes. This choice is not given to many mortals.”

“And the information I need?”

“You know much of it already.” Sapphire eyes met his, he wasn’t sure how it was possible to stare into someone’s eyes without ever seeing their face, but apparently here it was possible. “You know what you mean to the people around you. You know the price to Yfandes, if you choose not to return to her.”

He noticed the moment when, usually, the relentless loop of thought would have slipped in; that he wasn’t worth their time, that he was a curse on everything, it felt so inescapably true even when he could recognize it wasn’t logical. But he felt distant from it, now.

He held up his hand. “And the dream I keep having.” Focus. Think. “It’s a true dream, isn’t it? A Foresight dream. It’s what’s really going to happen.” He didn’t need the confirmation; he knew it with bone-deep certainty. The Shadow-Lover said nothing, only watched him. “He called me a Herald. I was in Whites. My hair was going grey. It won’t happen for a long time, will it?” He closed his eyes, but he could still see those sapphire eyes. “That means...there’s going to be a war? And I think maybe I’m the only one who can stop him, whoever he is, the mage who wears black. Leareth. He’s powerful.” He squeezed his eyelids together. “I don’t want to do this. It’s not fair! I, I never asked for this. I never wanted power. I never wanted to be... I wanted to be a Bard!” Brokenly, pointlessly. Like it had ever made any difference what he wanted.

He opened his eyes. The shapeless white mist still surrounded him, and the strange man in Whites, avatar of a god, maybe, golden hair falling across an unseen face, blue eyes boring into him.

“You are not the only chance,” the Shadow-Lover intoned, and there was something rote to his words. “There are others who could walk other paths, to save your people. However, you are the best chance, at least at this juncture in time. It is a matter of probabilities. You could go back, and Valdemar might still fall – and you could choose not to, and your Kingdom might still endure. But the odds are better if you are there. This is information you must have.”

Silence. He didn’t know how to take that, how to absorb it.

The Shadow-Lover bowed his head. “It will be a heavy burden. This too is information you must have. You could find peace, in death. You could be with your heart-partner, again. You will hurt, if you choose to return to the world. A part of you may always want to die. You will be weary, and perhaps you will want to give up. That is the weight you must bear if you choose to walk this path.”

Words. Truths. All information is worth having, Herald Seldasen had written, hundreds of years ago. And then he had died, hadn’t he? Died on a battlefield somewhere, fighting to save Valdemar. Because that was what Heralds did.

The Shadow-Lover was as good as telling him that he would see ‘Lendel again, in death. How could he turn that down? And yet, ‘Lendel had held the Gate-spell for him, it must have been the hardest thing he had ever done, and made sure he was on the other side before he called his Final Strike.

‘Lendel had wanted him to live.

And he had been a Herald, really and truly, even if he had never received his Whites in life. What was it that he’d said, when Vanyel asked him about Gala?

She told me my powers were Gifts, that I wasn’t cursed, that – that I was special, that I could help people. Protect Valdemar. That, that I could do something with my life. Something that would matter. Make a difference in the world. You know? Pride and joy in his voice, he’d considered it a privilege, to have that power, to exist in a time and place where he could use it.

He bit his lip, hoping to feel some small measure of pain, to ground himself in this formless place. At least he was fully awake, here. He felt like he could hold everything he remembered at once. “Yfandes,” he said. “She chose this path too. Right?” He remembered a glimpse of something, a blue place strung with silver threads, threads that held the past and future, and a dark-haired woman holding him so close that they were almost the same thing. We have to go now, she had said. We have to go back. She had known what she was getting into. Somehow.

“That is true.” The Shadow-Lover bowed his head. “You will have her at your side. And you will have other allies.”

“Savil.” He felt tears in his eyes, painless tears that failed to sting. “She would be there anyway, I think. Whether or not I live. If there’s a war, if Valdemar is threatened... She’ll fight, right to the end. It’s who she is.” Deep breath. All information is worth having. “But if I’m there, it could be easier on her... And she’s not the only one, is she?” He saw a flickering of faces in his mind’s eye. Mardic. Donni. Lissa.

Silence.

“If you go back,” the Shadow-Lover said, slowly, carefully, as though measuring each word, and he had the feeling of something shifting, “if you go back, you will not always be alone.”

Wasn’t that what he had just said? “I know.” But he had the sense that, somehow, the Shadow-Lover meant something different. He swallowed. Tried to focus on the feeling of ground under his feet, though it wasn’t real ground. He felt too full, overflowing with the things he knew and remembered. “I defeated that mage, didn’t I? He wanted me, he was looking for me for some reason, they knew my name, and I, I fought him off, might’ve killed him... I d-did it by myself.” He wiped at his eyes. “I guess I have that power, now.”

“You do.” A bowed head. “You need not be helpless again. You can protect others, not just yourself.”

(A flash of memory: Jervis bearing down on him, sword raised, the moment before he caught the blow on his shield and his arm snapped like dry wood.)

(Another memory: his father, looming over him, shouting, no, just his mind shouting awful words, awful things, and he took all of his pain and despair and threw it at Withen and watched/felt him stumble, stunned, terrified. He could have flung him into the wall with a thought. It should have felt good, he couldn’t be bullied anymore, but he had only felt sick.)

He closed his eyes. Swallowed. Opened them. It ought to hurt, he thought, he ought to be angry, but he couldn’t feel it, not here in the place where there was no pain.

“Why me?” he said after a moment. “I...don’t seem like the right person, for something like this.” It felt like he could see his past laid bare, the pattern of choices that was who he was. “I’m not brave, I’m actually kind of a coward. I’m not much good at fighting. I’m not good with people; they think I’m cold and arrogant... And, I’ve never really tried to make the world better. Or even make things better for myself. I didn’t even want the responsibility of my father’s Holding.” He shrugged, self-conscious. “My sister would be a better choice, although I wouldn’t – I would never want to inflict it on her.”

Silence.

“I believe you can do this,” the Shadow-Lover said finally, “in the future if not now. You may not be our perfect champion, but you are the best Valdemar has. And I know that you are very, very hard on yourself. I am not sure anything I say can change that – it is part of the pattern of who and what you are, also. But... Yfandes Chose you, no? Think on that a moment.”

He thought. There was too much information, he couldn’t track all of it, but somehow it didn’t matter. There was an odd certainty in him. He tried to look at it, holding the feeling in his mind, turning it from side to side.

What would ‘Lendel have done, in his place?

He knew the answer to that question – knew it in an instant, with bone-deep certainty. Damn it all. It wasn’t fair and he hadn’t asked for any of this, he wasn’t the right person for it, but. Nevertheless. The answer wasn’t going to change.

‘Lendel would have accepted any cost to himself, to keep Valdemar safe.

“I’m going back.”

Silence.

He shifted his weight on the strange surface where he sat. “Um. What do I need to do?”

The echo of a smile. “Nothing. You will wake up when you are ready. But you need not go back right away. We are outside of Time, here. You may take a moment here. Rest, a little.”

Silence.

“May I hold you?” the Shadow-Lover said, and he nodded and crumpled into his arms, the arms of a god or part of a god or something like that, arms that were strong and warm, that made him feel safe as only one person’s arms had ever felt before. He felt tears seeping through his closed eyelids.

Something in him slipped and for a moment it felt like he could see everything at once, everything that he was and ever had been/could ever be – caught up a web of silver, past and future, time just another kind of space. It wasn’t fair, but fairness wasn’t even a real thing, there was only the world, a web of cause and effect, he couldn’t see all of it but he could see the shape of it echoed in a thousand fragments. He could see himself as only another pattern sprawled across time and space, dreams, decisions, silver threads... It wasn’t like the wordless, relentless song that had brought him to ‘Lendel (odd, that he could think his name here without pain), it wasn’t really like that at all – it was cold and bitter and implacable.

Not duty, duty was traps, duty was fake; not even really the desire to do the right thing, he wasn’t that selfless, not like ‘Lendel had been.

But he knew what ‘Lendel would have done, if he had been here. Knew what he would have wanted – for Valdemar, for Savil, for Mardic and Donni and all the others. And that was a line that he wouldn’t cross. He could see a million crossroads, and at each one he would make the same choice, a million times over, he might hate it, he might sulk and curse and rail against it, but he wouldn’t walk away. Not now, not ever.

“Steady, now,” and he felt the Shadow-Lover’s arms around his unreal body, pulling him back to a place slightly less outside-of-time. “I am here. I will always be here.”

He stayed there for a long time.

 


 

They rode through the forest, sunlight glancing off the snow into their eyes, Savil on Kellan’s back and Moondance riding double with Starwind on Yfandes, who was being very gracious about the whole thing. They had been riding for candlemarks; there was a trail, but it wasn’t easy to follow.

They all felt it – a wild rush of magic, off in the distance.

:That was Vanyel, I think: Starwind said. He hadn’t needed to say it; Savil recognized the flavour of that burst of power.

:I feel a disturbance in the ley-lines. Someone is tapping a node: Moondance added.

They were already in motion, both Companions galloping towards the source.

Savil clenched her knees around Kellan’s barrel. :His shields are down, Yfandes is trying to reach him: Kellan sent, the mental words blurred with stress. :She says...she made contact for a moment, but she thinks he is losing consciousness: A brush of reassurance. :We are not so far away, we can reach him very soon:

The snowbound forest blurred on either side of her, minutes passing...and then suddenly Kellan planted all four hooves and skidded to a stop. Savil saw a clearing between trees, the smoking coals of a small fire. Four bodies...

Moondance was already flinging himself from Yfandes’ back, landing and rolling and ending up in a crouch next to the smallest figure, the one that lay splayed at the base of a tree

Savil dismounted more carefully, wincing at the ache in her hips, then helped Starwind down – he was holding his head and still looked queasy. There was a roast-pork stink in the air. She went immediately to the second body, the one that smelled of cooking meat, and reluctantly opened her Othersenses fully.

The man was very dead, but he had been a mage; the residue of magic was all around him. A bloodpath mage, she thought, but it was hard to be sure now.

Starwind was crouched over the form of another man. “This one is alive.” His voice sounded oddly dampened, surrounded as they were by snow.

She straightened up, took a few steps back, let her eyes play over the scene. Van had been closest to the clumsy firepit – on that flimsy observation, she inferred this had been his campsite, such as it was. An ambush of some kind, then? One mage, two assistants or guards: fairly standard.

:Moondance?: she sent, defaulting to the less obvious Mindspeech. Not that she really thought anyone else was listening.

:Could use some help:

He had Vanyel’s head in his lap and his eyes were closed, his expression completely blank. She dropped to her knees at his side, touching his shoulder and offering a mental hand. He took it, carefully, and she felt power begin to drain from her. She reached for the nearest node, found it depleted, stretched out further.

:Starwind: she sent, :could you please get us under some kind of wards? In case there are any more of these people?:

Pause. :That is a good idea. However, I feel no one within a league’s distance. I suspect this group came alone:

Pause.

She reached out cautiously. :Moondance, update?:

His mindtouch was flat, uninflected, with grim overtones. Not reassuring. :It would be good if it were warmer:

She thought quickly. :Starwind, can you handle a weather-barrier?: The spell was, roughly, a miniature version of the Vale protections, and could keep the winter chill out of a small area. She knew it, but she didn’t think she could manage it while also feeding energy to Moondance.

:I am working on it:

She closed her eyes, and reached out to merge her awareness more closely with Moondance, offering him all of her strength. She had done this with Starwind before, but not with the Healer-Adept, they had never had need to work magic in concert.

Her vision doubled. It was very weird; his Othersight saw things she couldn’t, he could see the bones of his own hands as though they were transparent, saw right through Vanyel’s body, everything was colours and patterns and she didn’t know what it meant. Except that she didn’t think it was good.

:How badly is he hurt?: she sent, very gently, not wanting to disrupt his Healing-trance, but his thoughts were next to hers and she didn’t have to be loud.

:Badly. Power-drain shock, some internal injuries, and he was already suffering the effects of exposure for many hours. I am doing my best, but I am losing him: There was very little emotion in his thoughts. He shouldn’t have been that calm – but he had to be, she supposed. Had to somehow compartmentalize, to focus on the Healing he could do.

She caught her breath. :Starwind, can you make it a lot warmer, quickly? Please?: Pause. :Kellan, I remember that time, you kept me warm when I couldn’t make a fire... You and ‘Fandes, can you do something?:

The two Companions stepped in on either side, and she felt their bodies begin to radiate heat. It felt good, gods, the winter air had been slowly leaching away her own strength, but she ignored it and kept pouring power through her link to Moondance.

Then the weather-barrier was up, she could feel the air growing warm around them, and she felt Starwind join the meld, slipping in effortlessly with Moondance, the closest rapport she had ever seen. It felt almost too intimate to participate in this with them, but they needed her strength, and she focused completely on that, giving it all of her awareness. There was something incredibly peaceful about it.

A moment or an eternity later, she felt Moondance pull back slightly. Felt Starwind’s thoughts, in their three-way meld.

:We are warded and protected, ashke. How is he?:

Hesitation, but relief. :He grows stronger now. It feels like he is fighting to live: A pause. :I would not like to move him yet, not until he is warmed, and I cannot warm his body too fast. We should stay here until then: His Mindspeech faltered, thoughts growing indistinct. :I am…very…tired…:

Savil started to offer him more energy, but Starwind reached in first. :Rest, ashke. I can hold the energy-link to him, if you pass it over. Savil and I will watch over him for a time:

Savil opened her eyes, staying in contact but breaking the complete immersion of the group healing-trance. She wasn’t sure when this had happened, but she was curled up against Yfandes’ side, Vanyel in between them, wrapped under her cloak. It did seem like a good way to keep him warm.

Oh, Van. We failed you again, didn’t we? Unconscious, at least he couldn’t push her away.

Chapter Text

Vanyel awakened slowly, drifting up through layers of unconsciousness. There were voices. Music. Then silence. He became aware of his body, gradually. He was warm; he could feel the weight of blankets over him.

Memory came next. ‘Lendel. The void at the back of his mind was still there, sucking at him, but he was expecting it and he gently closed a door on it. :Yfandes?:

The light of her presence flowed into him. :Vanyel! Chosen! How do you feel?:

He carefully wiggled his toes, then his fingers, feeling them brush against soft fabric. :Comfortable, right now. Was I badly hurt?: His head was starting to ache in a very familiar way, but nothing else was bothering him.

She was all around him, in his head, giddy relief and delight. :Not so badly, though you’re lucky you didn’t lose any fingers or toes to frostbite. You’ll be fine in a few days:

He had been having the strangest dream... No. It hadn’t been a dream, had it? He felt a sudden chill, even through the warm blankets. He had spoken to the Shadow-Lover, the Avatar of Death. That had really happened – well, in some sense of ‘happened.’ He wasn’t sure why he felt so certain it had been real, only that he did. Was there any way to prove it? Not really.

What? This wasn’t – none of it made any sense. A god had spoken to him. That wasn’t a normal thing to happen.

And the ice-dream. Was it really Foresight? It made sense, a recurring dream that always ended the same way, set in the future. It had felt true, and it still did. But it wasn’t like he could test it now, could he?

He opened his eyes. He was back in the room made of greenery. He hadn’t been here before, had he? He had been... Right. :Um, Yfandes? I’m sorry I ran away:

:Apology accepted, Chosen. You should let your aunt know that you’re awake. She’s very worried: She withdrew from his mind a little, and instinctively he rewove his shields, the ones that kept her out of his inner thoughts while still letting them Mindspeak to each other.

He turned his head to the side and saw Savil sitting in the chair by his bedside, reading a book. She didn’t look as tired as she had been before coming to k’Treva, but she didn’t look as relaxed and happy as she had been a few days ago, either.

Somehow he felt like he was seeing her for the first time.

He wet his lips. “Savil?” His voice came out rough, but she dropped the book into her lap and whirled to look at him.

“Van!” Her face lit up, and she scooted the chair over and reached to take his hand. “How are you feeling?”

He managed not to roll his eyes. “Um, not so bad. Just have a headache.” He licked his lips again. “I’m thirsty.”

She bustled to bring him a cup of water, and he was able to sit up and hold the cup unaided. He remembered not to gulp it too fast.

“Better?”

He nodded, letting her take the empty cup. “How long was I...?”

“Nearly a day.” She glanced up at the ceiling-canopy. “It’s just a bit after sunrise. Moondance was up all night with you, he’s sleeping now or else I’d call him.” She reached over to the table and passed him a silk robe. “Here.”

“Thank you.” He slipped his arms through the sleeves, then started to slide his legs over the side of the bed, and she didn’t stop him. He took a deep breath, steeling himself. “Savil, I– I’m really sorry. It was stupid to run away like that and I wasn’t thinking, and I caused a lot of trouble for you.” Again.

She was looking down at her folded hands. “You don’t need to apologize. We’re just relieved that you’re all right. Really.”

He bent his head away, shamefaced. “What happened? I was being attacked...”

Savil’s lips formed into a little smile. “Well, you certainly killed the mage. He was a mage, right? Given that you drained an entire node to do it, you were pretty inefficient, but I can’t fault the results.”

Vanyel shrugged, self-conscious. “He was shielded, um, I don’t actually know how to break other people’s shields. Not efficiently. So after I got out of his trap-spell I just blasted him with l-lightning until his shields broke.” His stomach turned over, and he swallowed hard. He’d killed someone. Really killed someone. “I... What about the other two?”

Savil shrugged. “One of them is still alive, though we are not sure of his sanity. You mindblasted him hard. He’s under guard. Starwind and the other elders have been attempting to find out from him where they came from and what they were doing. We’re not sure what we’ll do with him, afterwards.”

So he’d killed the other one, then. He hadn’t meant to, but when had that ever mattered? He felt his gorge rise, and swallowed again. “I, they were looking for me. I think. They knew my name. With Thoughtsensing I could sort of understand what they were saying to each other, and they, um, they were talking about whether I was the right one.” It sounded so implausible now.

Savil’s eyebrows rose. “That’s... Well, it would explain some things.”

There was a noise from the doorway, and he looked over and saw Starwind. The Hawbrother’s long hair was loose and he looked like he had just gotten out of bed.

“You are awake,” he said. Stating the obvious. Then he looked at Savil and spoke quickly, in Tayledras. She answered, and they seemed to have a quick conference, of which Vanyel caught only a few words – mage, blood, village. I should learn more of the language, he thought. He really hadn’t been making much of an effort. Which was rude, all considered. Starwind and Moondance spoke Valdemaran, but most of the Hawkbrothers didn’t, and he was their guest.

Savil seemed to notice that they were excluding him, and turned back to face him. “We have news. It sounds like some of the scouts were able to follow the mage’s trail back to a village north of here, just outside k’Treva territory. They had, well, mistreated the villagers.”

“Tortured and killed a number of them, for the blood-power,” Starwind added. Savil shot him a dark look. The ‘you didn’t need to say that’ was implicit. Vanyel half agreed; he didn’t want them to treat him like a child, sugarcoating the truth, but he was already feeling queasy and this didn’t help. 

“I do not recognize the language spoken by our survivor,” Starwind went on, “but it shares certain similarities with languages of the clan-tribes north of the Ice Wall. These men may have traveled a very long way to violate k’Treva territory.” He ran his fingers through his hair, combing out knots. “They were able to reach us undetected, by skirting the edge of Tayledras-held land, so perhaps there was a local guide. I mislike it, in any case.” His pale blue eyes grew sharper, focusing on Vanyel. “You believe that they were looking for you?”

He felt pinned by that gaze. “They knew my name. And I don’t know for sure, but from some of their thoughts...” He tried to relay what he had picked up.

“It would match what I found in the survivor’s thoughts as well,” Starwind said. “I do not understand this!”

Vanyel’s head was spinning. North of the Ice Wall.

(A grey mountainscape, a path carved through stone, a man standing at the head of an army)

He had been so certain that it was a true dream. He wasn’t sure, now, he couldn’t prove it, but somehow it still fit, it felt right. :Yfandes? Can you tell whether the dream I keep having is Foresight? The one with the ice, I mean:

He could feel her curiosity. :What? Let me... Oh. I hadn’t thought to check, when I sensed you thinking about it. I believe it’s not an ordinary dream, at least. It comes from outside of your mind. Foresight is hard to interpret, and the visions are not always literal:

He hesitated. :Should I tell them?: It felt deeply embarrassing. And he definitely wasn’t about to tell them anything about the Shadow-Lover – he doubted they would believe him, and somehow he thought it would be worse if they did. But the dream seemed important.

:Yes, love. I think you should:

He took a deep breath. “There’s something I should tell you. It might be important.” He could feel his cheeks heating; this was even more awkward to say out loud. “I’ve been having this dream. It feels really, really real, and I just realized, I think it could be Foresight. Anyway, it’s always the same. I’m in a mountain pass facing an army–” Fumblingly, he described the dream sequence. His face was burning now. Surely they would laugh at him...

:I’m not laughing: Yfandes sent a wave of cool reassurance.

When he finished, there was a long silence. Starwind was the first to speak.

“Leareth, you say was his name?”

“Um, yes.”

“That is a word in our language.” Absently, Starwind slid a strand of his hair between two fingers. “The most straightforward translation would be ‘darkness’.”

That was ominous.

“Well,” Savil said finally. “I really hope it isn’t, but it could be Foresight. Of course, even if so, it could be the vision itself is metaphorical.” She rubbed her forehead, as though it hurt. “You thought it wasn’t going to happen for quite a long time?”

He shrugged, feeling very awkward with their eyes on him. “My hair was going grey. So it must be when I’m a lot older.”

“Perhaps not.” Starwind’s voice was very controlled. “The use of node-magic bleaches the hair, and you are starting young. I would not be surprised if you have a white hair or two already, after your recent displays.”

“Oh.” That...wasn’t good.

“It will still take some years for you to go silver,” Starwind added, matter-of-factly. “Since you do not plan to stay here in k’Treva. It would be quicker here, surrounded by the magic of our Heartstone, but this is not the case back in your Kingdom. Wingsister, how long did it take for you?”

She looked thoughtful. “Well, I was almost thirty when I learned to use node-magic at all. After that – it took about ten years before it really showed, and twenty before I was mostly silver. At which point I might’ve just been going naturally grey anyway. Then again, my damned brother still doesn’t have a single white hair on his head.”

Starwind nodded. “It is perhaps premature to analyze a vision we are not sure of. It may not be true Foresight. However, I think we must consider the possibility.”

They were both looking at him now, with discomfort and something like pity.

Vanyel shifted his weight, feeling pinned by their eyes. “I, um, it seems like I’m doing something really stupid, in the dream. I mean, going to fight him all alone, I, I’ve sent my friends away–” he hadn’t been able to bring himself to say ‘Lendel’s name or describe that part, which had to be metaphorical anyway, ‘Lendel was dead and nothing was going to change that. “It seems like maybe not the smartest thing to do.” 

Savil scooted the chair closer and reached to take his hand. He let her. “Foresight only shows us the most likely future, ke’chara. We can avert it. Act on what we see, change the course of events. That’s kind of the whole point of Foresight, actually, so far as I can tell.” She squeezed his fingers. “If this is a true vision, I promise we won’t let you face it alone. I won’t let you. Whatever happens, I’ll be there.”

He blinked hard, his eyes stinging with tears. Better than he deserved. He’d been nothing but trouble to them so far, he had only needed to be rescued from messes of his own making, and they were still listening, still believed him. Still cared.

“I am curious,” Starwind said after a long moment. “If you are feeling able to tell the story, I would like to know how you fought your attackers.”

Vanyel shifted his weight again. “Well, they snuck up on me when I was asleep, and, um, by the time I woke up the mage had me in some kind of holding-spell, so I couldn’t move. I think I could’ve just broken out of it, it wasn’t that strong, but I didn’t know if I’d have enough left to fight afterwards. And he had really, really good shields against mage-attacks. The two other men had some kind of talisman that gave them shields as well. I, I wanted to get the other two men, the un-Gifted ones, out of the way – they were coming to tie me up while I was paralyzed. I, I blasted them, with Mindspeech I think? It felt like the same channel. Is that something you can do?”

Starwind nodded, his lips pursed as though he had bitten something sour. “Yes. Not many have the power to use it to kill – and it is acknowledged to be very unpleasant to do so. What did you do then?”

He was trying to push away the memory of his strike at the two men, because his stomach was churning again. “Um. The mage was pretty well shielded, against physical attacks and Thoughtsensing as well, not just magical attacks. Otherwise I’d have used Fetching to throw rocks at him or something. But, um, he wasn’t shielded against Empathy, or not all the way, so I tried to attack him that way, to distract him at least.”

“Empathy.” Starwind’s eyebrows rose. “That is not one of my Gifts, and I am very curious as to how it could be used to attack. Could you demonstrate?”

“If you really want me to.” He closed his eyes, and then cautiously opened the imaginary door in the back of his mind, let the screaming emptiness where ‘Lendel had been fill him. He focused, and threw the feeling at Starwind, at about half the strength he had used with the mage – he didn’t want to actually hurt him.

Starwind reeled back, clutching at his head, and stumbled. Savil managed to leap up from the chair and catch him before he could fall. She guided him over to the abandoned chair and pushed him down into it, then gave Vanyel a piercing look.

Yfandes sent a gentle wash of reassurance, helping him fold away the memories and pain.

Starwind opened his eyes. “I...see. That is very distracting. Ah. A moment, please.” Savil seemed to be stifling a snicker. Vanyel waited.

“So, you distracted the mage,” Starwind said finally. “Then what?”

“I kept trying to attack or distract him however I could, I set his hair on fire, I think with Firestarting. It wasn’t really on purpose; I was just trying things at random. But I couldn’t really hurt him and I knew I couldn’t keep him distracted for long, so I remembered the thing I did with the valley-node by accident, and I tried to feel if there were any of those energy-pool things nearby, um – nodes? I could see one but I couldn’t reach it through whatever spell he had on me, so I think I just sort of broke the spell from the inside? It felt sort of like flexing my muscles to break a rope binding me.” He had read about heroes in tales doing that, although it sounded implausible. “That pretty much exhausted me, but I had planned to right away try to reach the energy-source thing, the node, so I did that and I threw lightning at him. Since that’s the only offensive magic I actually know. A lot of lightning. Eventually his shields broke. Then I passed out, I think.”

Starwind was still rubbing his forehead, but he was smiling, too. “I am quite proud of you, boy. You accounted for yourself well. Though I think we must needs teach you to use node-magic without injuring yourself. There is a technique to it. It would please Moondance if he did not have to heal you every time.”

“I would like that too.” He was surprised how warm the praise made him feel. He hesitated. “Starwind, I – I haven’t been trying as hard as I could be, in lessons. I’m sorry.”

The Hawkbrother only gave him a slow nod. “You have not been so bad as all that.” He started to stand, and Savil offered him her arm. “I think perhaps we should let you rest, now. We have much to discuss.”

They swept towards the doorway. Savil hesitated there, then crossed back to him and held out her arms. He leaned into her, and she pulled him against her chest, holding him close, running her fingers through his hair. He felt her reaching out, a little questing tendril of thought, and he accepted it. :Please, Van, please don’t almost die on me again. You scared me. I’m an old woman, my heart can’t take too many more scares:

Mind to mind, pulled into the closest rapport he had shared with her yet, he could feel the burning sincerity of her words, and a wash of complex emotions, flickering almost too fast to register. Her affection for him, almost maternal; embarrassment, this wasn’t easy or comfortable for her, showing her feelings openly; a hint of chagrin that she had let herself become so attached to him in the first place, it wasn’t something she did and there were reasons for that, it wasn’t safe. He sensed the raw edge of her grief, she missed ‘Lendel and he reminded her of him, constantly, but at the same time there was a joy there, he reminded her of ‘Lendel, it felt like a gift, a way to remember and honour the student she hadn’t realized she had loved until she lost him. And there was guilt, the worry that she was being selfish, asking him to stay alive because it would hurt her to lose him, was that right, or was it an unfair ask?

It was overwhelming, and he found himself crying, he couldn’t help it. She held him and he wanted to feel safe in her arms. It was a false sense, she couldn’t protect him; the world wasn’t safe for her either.

It reminded him of when he had been a small child, running to Lissa for comfort from Father’s punishments, Lissa who wasn’t safe from Father’s anger either, they were two helpless children comforting each other, neither of them in control but it still felt easier to face it together.

:We aren’t exactly helpless: Savil sent, and he knew she had been seeing his thoughts as he saw hers. His power awed her, frightened her a little, but there was pride there.

:No, we aren’t: He let his head rest on her breast for another few seconds, then pulled away, scrubbing at his eyes. She stepped back as well, and without speaking again, she quickly followed Starwind out of the room.

He let his head fall into his hands, elbows resting on his knees. There was a memory sitting in him like a chilled steel weight. The line that he wouldn’t cross, a million crossroads, the same choice a million times over, he might hate it but he wouldn’t walk away.... He didn’t think that humans were supposed to experience what he’d experienced; mortals weren’t built to withstand that timeless place where he had seen the inevitable shape of the future, from a god’s-eye viewpoint where everything had already happened and was still happening.

He’d been able to stare at it without pain, in the white place halfway between life and death – but then again, he had been able to think ‘Lendel’s name without pain. It hurt now, and he felt a simmering resentment, almost anger. It had been a lot easier for that version of himself to choose a lifetime of this, when he wasn’t feeling it yet! That was a mean trick you played on me, Shadow-Lover.

:Chosen: Yfandes had been staying back, but now she reached out with a tendril of thought. :We need to talk:

He raised his head, with effort; his body felt very heavy. :Now?:

:Yes, please. Can you come outside?: Her mindvoice wasn’t cold, exactly, but there was a firmness and tartness that he wasn’t used to hearing from her. He sighed and dragged himself to his feet, wrapping the robe closer around himself and belting it.

The floor was cool under his bare feet, despite the summery warmth. On the path outside, Yfandes was waiting for him, and the rush of joy he felt at seeing her surprised him. He leaned on her, throwing his arms around her neck.

She nuzzled him. :It’s good to see you, too. Come this way: She led him a few yards to a small, mossy hollow and settled herself down, gracefully, like a lady navigating voluminous skirts. :Come here:

He sat and curled himself against her, feeling the softness of her coat on his cheek, the heat of her body against his.

“What do you want?” he said dully, out loud.

:First of all, can you take down your damned shields for a minute?: Definitely tart. :I’m your Companion. We’re supposed to be able to trust each other:

He wanted to say no, wanted to push her away... But he hadn’t been very fair to her, recently. He owed her something, an apology, some kind of peace offering. :All right: He let his mind relax, and felt her presence surround him again, filling him with light. But something was different – this time she was showing him all of herself, too. She was tired, worn down, deeply hurt, and there was a hint of bitterness – Choosing was supposed to be the happiest event of her life, it wasn’t supposed to be like this! And there was a well of grief that she had hidden from him all this time, Gala had been her closest friend, and she missed her, there was a part of her still crying out at the unfairness of it.

:I love you: she said. :You are my Chosen and I will never, ever leave you. No matter what. That part isn’t conditional on anything: Warmth, affection, an inexorable song inside her. :But I would deeply appreciate it if you could stop doing certain things. Like trying to kill yourself:

:I wasn’t–:

She steamrolled over him. :It’s really, really hard for me, okay? I know you didn’t ask for this. I can see this whole mess is incredibly unfair to you, to be honest I think the gods played a damned dirty trick on the both of us, and...and I can’t make it easier for you, I can’t make it stop hurting, I wish I could but I can’t. I see now why hardly anyone survives losing a lifebonded:

He could feel, again, the fiery sincerity of every word, searing at him. Tears leaked through his eyelids. He felt her close her eyes, somehow steeling herself. Whatever she was about to tell him, it was the hardest thing she had ever said. :Vanyel. I would understand, if this is too hard. Truly: The feeling of a deep breath, a leap that couldn’t be unmade. :And if you don’t want to be alive, I’ll respect that. I – I’ll help you. If it’s what you really, truly want, and you can convince me of that, we can die together, painlessly. All right?:

Her words were like an outstretched hand, a gift he hadn’t thought  anyone would ever offer. There were no words. He couldn’t... He didn’t deserve her.

:Can we please stop making this about what you deserve?: She sounded more amused than angry, though. :I don’t give a flying crap. This is my choice; it’s about what I want. And I want to be with you. I won’t repudiate you. You really don’t understand me very well, or Companions at all, if you think I would, if you think I could give up on you that way! All I’m asking is that whatever we do, we do it together:

There was heat in her mindvoice now. :And as for what you did... You weren’t thinking about it, were you? You were doing an awful lot of carefully not-thinking about it. You didn’t want the guilt of actually deciding to kill yourself, knowing the cost to me, but what exactly did you expect to happen if you went off headlong into the Pelagirs in winter without proper clothing and with only a day’s worth of food?:

He couldn’t even wince away from her anger; he was an open book to her, naked, nothing hidden. :I... I was going to look for a farm and find work:

:Which is the stupidest plan I’ve ever heard, and you aren’t stupid: Her thoughts grew gentler, sadder. :You were dying, did you know that? You were slowly freezing to death. Moondance told me you would never have woken up, if the damned mage hadn’t attacked you – which means I almost have to be grateful that he did! I can’t be sure if would have found you in time otherwise:

He knew she wasn’t lying; he didn’t think they could lie to each other, not anymore. :I...didn’t know that: He hadn’t known it, right? He had been making plans even as he fell asleep, hadn’t he?

:And would you have done differently, if you’d known? Can you honestly say that if you had realized that sleep meant death, in that cold, that you would have unshielded and called to me? I’m not sure. I think you had made a choice, whether or not you ever let yourself acknowledge it:

He wanted to argue with her. He had been putting so much effort into surviving, lighting a fire even when he wanted to just lie in the snow forever. Hadn’t he? Did it matter? In the end, he didn’t have any words to offer her. Except for two. :I’m sorry:

She snuffled at his hair. :Apology accepted, Chosen. And I owe an apology of my own. I didn’t do a very good job of keeping you safe; I should never have let you leave the Vale:

The pain in her mindvoice stung him and he wanted to tell her not to feel guilty, she couldn’t be expected to mind him like an unruly toddler, but...of course she wanted to protect him, he couldn’t ask her to stop wanting that.   

He had to tell her... He tried to just offer the memory of the Shadow-Lover, but somehow he couldn’t, it was like a jewel buried in the deepest part of him. He couldn’t show it directly, but he did think he could talk about it. :If it makes any difference, I won’t do it again. I, I already spoke to someone, I had to choose whether to live or die, and I chose to live, it would be stupid to change my mind now:

:Someone?: Confusion, curiosity. :I saw something in your memories. A man in white, but I couldn’t see it clearly:

:Death. The Shadow-Lover. We – we talked about the future. My future: He didn’t think he could ever forget any part of the conversation, even if it was infernally hard to put into words. :I saw...I remembered that you, you knew what you were getting into, when you Chose me: It was his turn to steel himself for something that he wouldn’t be able to take back, once it had been spoken between them. :There’s something we have to do, isn’t there? To protect Valdemar. We’re not the only ones who could do it, but we have the best odds. And maybe we have to die, to do it. But we have to live first:

A long mental silence.

:I... There are things I can’t tell you, Vanyel: He felt something like a sigh from her. Regret. Uncertainty. :Only, I wish you did not have to know this, not now. Seeing one’s future is a heavy burden for mortals to bear. It’s unclear, I can see only fragments, I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen or what we have to do – but there is danger coming for Valdemar. And I believe it is true that perhaps we can stop it:

He leaned into her, physically and mentally. It did feel like a heavy weight on him, the empty years stretching ahead of him. :If the Foresight dream is literal, we have ten or twenty years to prepare: Ten or twenty years he would have to live through, lonely and broken and missing ‘Lendel with every fibre of his soul.

:You know: Yfandes sent gently, :I don’t think it’s right, or fair, or healthy, if this is the ONLY reason you want to stay alive:

That was unexpected. He thought about it. :It’s a reason, but not the only reason. I promised Lancir I would try. I have Savil, and Lissa, and Mardic and Donni. And I have you: Hesitation, another line about to be crossed. :I love you, Yfandes: The first time he’d admitted it to her.

Even if it wasn’t his choice – even if he’d been coerced to it by the result of the first King Valdemar’s prayers, by whatever strange magic or miracle of the gods had intervened all those centuries ago. He had tried to ask ‘Lendel about it, he remembered, and his lover hadn’t understood, the question had made no sense to him. He could see why, now. It made no difference, he couldn’t make himself care whether or not he loved her of his own free will, it didn’t matter any more than it had mattered with ‘Lendel – and it was similar, wasn’t it, a lifebond or a twin-bond or a Companion-bond, none of those things were chosen freely.

Even if he and Yfandes were both pawns in the hands of Fate or Destiny or some distant, alien god, he couldn’t bring himself to regret it. She was a light in the world, and he loved her as inevitably as water flowed downhill.

He felt Yfandes’ quiet acknowledgement of his thoughts, and knew she understood. Then there was nothing more to be said and they just lay together, cuddled together, minds entwined.

 


 

The low, slanting sun filtered through the windows of the ekele and the foliage around it, casting golden patterns across the floor, and across Starwind’s face and hair as he climbed the last few steps of the ladder.

There was a basket of food on their tiny table, with a lid and a fresh jug of water, condensation beading on the outside. As usual, the hertasi had an uncanny ability to predict exactly when he would be home and need something to eat. He picked up the jug and two cups, balanced the basket in the crook of his arm, and pushed through a curtain of beaded strings into the inner room. “Ashke?”

Moondance was exactly where he had left him that morning, spread-eagled on his stomach on the sleeping mat. He had been utterly worn out when he came back to the ekele in the morning after sitting with Vanyel all night, and he had fallen asleep within seconds of lying down. Starwind had put a great deal of effort into preventing Winterstorm from disturbing him today. As the only Healing-Adept in k’Treva, Moondance was always in great demand, and Starwind felt a certain sense of responsibility for making sure he rested once in a while.

Starwind settled cross-legged onto the floor, and watched Moondance with his eyes and his OtherSenses as the light shifted from gold to orange to red. His energies were still low; Starwind could see it with his Mage-Sight, in the dullness of his aura, and he could also feel the slight sucking emptiness of it through their bond. With everything that had happened, Moondance had been awake and on his feet for nearly two days, save for catnaps, and he had used his Gifts to their full extent – before they rode out to search for Vanyel, he had just returned from a town on the western bounds of k’Treva territory, a half-day’s journey away, dealing with an infestation of Changed rosebushes that flung their poisoned thorns at anyone who approached. He could tap nodes, and had, but that could only compensate for drained reserves up to a point.

Starwind had been sharing his own energy, of course, it was harder to stop doing that. Magically speaking, there was no clear boundary between the two of them anymore. They probably could shield against each other, in theory, but he couldn’t think of the last time they had tried.

As always, he felt a wash of joy, pride, and baffled awe when he looked at his shay’kreth’ashke, his soul-partner. Ten years together, and he still wasn’t sure he would ever be used to it, the way everything about the world felt a little more right when Moondance was in the same room. It wasn’t something he had ever expected to have in this life; reasonably, perhaps, he had already been in his thirties when they met. Their kind of bond was very rare, even here.

After a few minutes, Moondance stirred and rolled half onto his side, face still hidden under a tangle of hair. Starwind felt the brush of his mind, halfway still asleep; Moondance was never quick at waking. :Ashke?:

:Here: Starwind reached out and caught the curtain of hair with a finger, lifting it aside and uncovering his face. :Bright the day: The light was red and fading; he made a little mage-light and sent it to hover at the ceiling.

Moondance, eyes half-open, leaned into his touch. :Wind to thy wings: He flopped entirely onto his back, and stretched; as always, he could make the motion look very alluring. “Did I truly sleep all day?” he said out loud.

“You did.” Starwind reached for the basket. “Here. I have brought food for you to eat.”

Moondance yawned. “Gods of my fathers! I feel worse than when I went to sleep.” He rubbed at his eyes.

“I am not surprised. Your reserves were almost nothing, this morning.” He set the basket down and scooted onto the mat. “Come here.” There were some pillows piled up behind him; he took two, padded the wall behind his back, and then reached for Moondance and pulled him into his lap. “There. You needs not tire yourself.” Moondance sighed and leaned into the crook of his arm. Starwind poured water for both of them with his free hand, and started unpacking the food, setting it out on a cloth napkin that had been thoughtfully folded at the top of the basket. There were fresh berries, and morsels of fish with grain and herbs wrapped in leaves, and bite-sized pastries with cheese and meat baked inside. He offered Moondance one of the pastries, and took several of the fish-rolls.

With his mouth full, he switched back to Mindspeech. :There are things we must speak of:

:Vanyel?: Overtones of concern. :How is he?:

Starwind wasn’t sure how to answer that. :He seems well enough in body. In mind and heart, I think you are better placed to judge. But in any case, I have learned of a thing that I find troubling. I wish to know your thoughts:

:Go on:

He quickly related Vanyel’s dream. :I cannot say if it is true Foresight: he finished. :Or what it truly means, if so. But it feels important:

Moondance went rigid in his arms. He seemed to be holding his breath.

“Ashke?” Starwind said softly, and repeated it in Mindspeech. No response. He cupped his cheek. “Moondance! Speak to me.”

Moondance jerked and took a deep, shuddering breath – and coughed, spitting a mouthful of food onto the floor, his mouth had been full at the moment it had happened. “…Starwind?” Looking confused, he lifted his hand to rub at his face. His pupils were dilated, eyes unfocused.

“What did you see?”

Moondance frowned. “What–?” He took another deep breath, let it out. “I saw pawns and players on a board, or a stage… Dark and light. A path – a possibility? The chance is better than it was.” He closed his eyes, pain in every line of his face. “But the price…” He shuddered. Then he shook himself a little, and when he opened his eyes, his pupils had returned to normal. “Ashke, I am sorry, what am I… What is it we were speaking of, before?”

Starwind tightened his arms around him. He had never seen Moondance this disoriented, and it frightened him. “I was telling you about young Vanyel’s dreams,” he made himself say, calmly. “The north, the army…”

“I remember.” Moondance was trembling in his arms, though he tried to hide it. Starwind used a wisp of his power to pull a blanket towards them, and drape it over both of them.

“Starwind, I am– I feel…” He trailed off, closed his eyes.

Moondance rarely had any trouble expressing himself in this way. He brushed a hand across his forehead; it was suddenly clammy. “Ashke, you are frightening me.”

“I am perfectly well.” Moondance looked up at him again, lips twisted into a stubborn little smile. “Though I am not happy about this thing. There is a pattern that fits, and it is one I would prefer not to see.”

“Oh?”

He sighed, and his body seemed to sag in Starwind’s arms. “If it was indeed a true dream? Then there is a threat, and not only to Valdemar. One that he alone can meet. The power he holds… It is not a natural thing, this, nor alone the result of a tragic accident.” He shifted unhappily. “There is a greater force behind all of this, I think. A force that chose Vanyel for this, placed him on this path.”

Starwind waited.

Moondance bit his lip, then seemed to come to a decision. “And if the gods are taking a side here, if they have tampered, as they tampered with our lives, to make this come to pass… I mislike the cost.”

Starwind nodded, thoughtfully. “Yes. Paid by Vanyel, more than any other.” He could see why that would bother Moondance, who felt the pain of others so acutely – who would see in this echoes of his own past.

A long silence.

Moondance clenched his fist, then slowly relaxed it, and Starwind could sense how he held back the anger that he wanted to feel. Anger that he should feel, by rights. It bothered him.

“I am not sure how to feel,” Moondance said slowly, “about any god that would do such a thing.”

Chapter Text

Savil forced herself to meet Vanyel’s eyes steadily, even though the look on his face was like a blade twisting in her chest.

“I need to go,” she said again. “It’s been over a month. You’re doing well in your training. You don’t need me here anymore, and the Queen does need me back home.”

He lowered his eyes to the floor and nodded slowly. She could see the tears that threatened to spill free – and feel as his shields faltered, leaking a much deeper anguish than she had expected.

“Van, I’m sorry,” she said, almost desperately. “But you do understand, right?”

“I understand.” His voice was small and tight. “Can I…be alone for a bit?”

She nodded and stood up, watching him pull himself under the blankets again, turning his face to the wall. Gods – she almost wished he would rage at her. This quiet resignation was worse.

Outside, she sat down, wearily, and dangled her feet in the warm water of the pool. Physically she felt good – her energy was back, and she had been feeling restless. At loose ends. She could make herself useful here, but she wasn’t needed. Not like back home.

Still. Seeing the mute pleading in his eyes, knowing he wouldn’t say a word against it, would just silently accept this latest insult that the world had decided to throw at him…

:I don’t want to leave him: she sent to Kellan. :The way he looked at me…:

:I know: She felt her Companion’s sympathy.

Gods, and she thought he had been starting to trust her. He had come to the door of the room where she slept, two days ago, in the middle of the night. Sobbing, incoherent – whatever it was, he hadn’t wanted to speak of it, but he’d let her hold him.

Like how ‘Lendel used to come to her door after nightmares. She blinked away sudden tears. Damn it, why can’t I stop thinking of him?

“You spoke to the boy, then?” The voice belonged to Starwind. Savil looked up; he and Moondance were emerging from the path.

Savil nodded, not meeting their eyes. She had waited until one of Vanyel’s good days – or, at least, not one of his really bad days – in the hopes that he would take it better. Which seemed pointless now.

Moondance settled down beside her. “He did not take it well?” he said in a low voice.

She shook her head, wondering if Vanyel could hear them from his room. :He looked at me like I’d just killed his favourite puppy! I hate it. I hate doing this to him:

Moondance laid a hand on her shoulder. :Then stay:

:I can’t: Her throat ached. :You know I can’t:

Kellan reached for her mind, tentative. :Chosen, you remember what Lancir said:

To take all the time she needed. But surely a month was enough. Van would need to stay here much longer to complete his training.

:And it would be better if you were here for it: Kellan prodded. :Starwind can teach magic, but he can’t teach what it means to be a Herald:

She had been trying – she had brought some books from Haven, anticipating this, and she had been going through some of the standard Heraldic responsibilities with him. Which was a challenge. He was trying, but his focus wasn’t the best – understandable, maybe, and still frustrating. An ill-spoken word could still send him fleeing to his room for candlemarks. I can’t seem to stop putting my foot in it, she thought irritably.

:They need me in Haven: she sent. Jaysen had to be swamped – she had dumped two more students on him, and now she wasn’t even around to help him prepare his treasury-reports!

:He’ll make do. He is experienced in his position, Savil: A pause. :And you haven’t had enough time. To catch up on sleep, sure, but you’re still grieving. Do you really feel ready to go back, and face everything waiting for you in Haven?:

Well, no. But it wasn’t about that. She was an adult; she could cope just fine.

Starwind and Moondance had been waiting patiently through the silent dialogue.

:My Kellan’s trying to convince me to stay: she sent to both of them, ruefully.

A pause. :I wish that you would: Starwind sent. :He is not exactly stable. You are the one he trusts most:

Like a knife to the gut. I promised him he wouldn’t be alone. That no matter what, I would be there. She had been talking about the Foresight dream, the maybe-battle ten or twenty years from now, not the present – so why did it feel like she was betraying him now?

:Savil: Moondance, a tentative Mindtouch. :I do not have anything so clear as a vision – but I do have a feeling. That it would be better, if you stayed. For you and for the boy:

Were they all hell-bent on making her feel guilty? It was an impossible choice. Stay, and neglect her oath and her duty to Valdemar – or leave, and feel like she was abandoning him? And, no doubt, make him feel abandoned. Just when he had maybe, tentatively, been starting to feel safe.

She let her head fall into her hands. No good answers.

:I’ll stay: she sent. :For now:

She felt Moondance’s arm slip around her shoulders. :Thank you, Wingsister:

:I should tell him: She stood up.

Vanyel was exactly where she had left him – curled up under the blankets, face turned away.

“Van?” she said tentatively. No response. She reached out with Mindspeech. :Ke’chara?: His shields opened for her, reluctantly. :I talked to the others. I’m going to stay:

He sat up in an instant, throwing the blankets aside, hope flashing in his face – then he looked down. “You don’t have to,” he said dully. “Not just for me.”

“No, I do.” She crossed the room, hesitated, sat down on the side of the bed. “I promised, right? That you wouldn’t have to be alone.”

 


 

A day in the Work Room:

:Gently, boy! Stop fighting it, do not try to hold it so tightly...let the power flow through you...good!:

Vanyel smiled, exhilarated, one mental hand on the blazing pool that was the Heartstone, the valley-node that powered the entire Vale. It felt incredible, nearly limitless power at his fingertips...

:All right, good. Now, gentle, very careful, send the lightning here: Starwind had pulled up a target, an illusion in the shape of a man. He had never again asked Vanyel to strike at him, shielded or not.

He raised his hands, shaped the power, released it–

:STOP!:

The wall was smoking and the room smelled of ozone. “Sorry sorry sorry sorry–” he yelped, yanking free of his connection to the valley-node, the inside of his head stinging.

Starwind only sighed. :Please rest a few minutes while I repair the set-spell, then we will try it again. And no showing off this time: A hint of pride. :I did not know it was possible to break the shields on this room. I am not sure whether to be impressed or terrified:

 


 

Another day:

He looked blankly at Starwind. “Sorry, what?”

Starwind held out the length of rope again. “Please hold out your hands.”

He flinched. “I– Why are we doing this?”

Starwind sighed. “Most mages work with the aid of gestures, but this is not fundamental. Control is in your mind, not in your hands. So we practice what to do if you cannot use your hands to shape your thoughts, yes?”

He was propped against a bale of hay, arms tied behind him, legs twisted under him, he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore, he was freezing cold and terrified… Shuddering, Vanyel pulled himself out of the memory.

“Boy, what is wrong?”

“It’s fine.” Shakily, he made himself hold out both wrists.

Starwind gave him a dubious look, but he took Vanyel’s wrists and tied them firmly together – not too tightly, though, and the rope was soft. “See? Not so bad. Now, a barrier-shield, please.”

Vanyel took a deep breath and let it out, trying to convince his heart to stop racing. His hands twitched, but he couldn’t form the gestures he hadn’t even realized he used. He tried to go through the motions in his head anyway; gods, he felt off-balance. Finally, he managed to raise a shield, but it was a clumsy attempt.

“I test it now,” Starwind said, and raised his own hands. Despite himself, Vanyel took a stumbling step backwards; he felt so helpless, and it was hard not to think about a different mage who had stood above him.

…The shield collapsed, stinging a little as the power rebounded on him. He tripped over his own feet, unable to catch himself with his hands bound, and ended up on his rear on the Work Room floor with the breath knocked out of him.

Tears sprouted in his eyes. :Yfandes, I can’t do this…:

:With practice, you will be able. Starwind wishes you to be less helpless. You remember how difficult it was to bring up a shield, when the mage had the holding-spell on you?:

He had mentally gone through that fight with Yfandes many times. :Yes:

:Chosen, maybe you should tell Starwind why you find this so stressful. He doesn’t realize:

When his vision cleared, he saw Starwind standing over him, holding out a hand and looking concerned. He took his hand and let himself be pulled to his feet.

“S-sorry,” he said shakily. “I…don’t like being tied up.” He looked away. “Bad memories.”

“Oh.” He thought Starwind sounded genuinely surprised, though it was always hard to tell from his voice. “I am sorry. Perhaps if we begin with you merely holding your hands behind your back?”

Vanyel nodded; that seemed much better.

 


 

He was playing the flute Moondance had given him, alone in his room, a sad little melody that the Hawkbrother had taught him. It was the middle of the day, but Starwind had been called away from the Vale and so he had no lessons today. Which was a relief. They often did two sessions a day now. And Starwind was making him exercise, running and climbing around the Vale, building up his stamina. Savil had been keeping him busy as well, with books and lectures. It felt like it never stopped.

Savil’s mind brushed against his; she was in the pool in ‘his’ rooms, just on the other side of the wall, but she had been politely leaving him alone. :Shields?: There were no overtones of irritation, just warmth.

He lowered the flute and checked his shields. :They seem fine:

:Oh. I thought you were projecting, but if you were you’ve stopped now:

He shrugged and started to play again.

:Van! You’re definitely projecting!:

He stopped and checked his shields again. They were solid. :I don’t see how I can be: A little annoyed, he went back to playing again.

:Oh!: He felt the overtones of dawning understanding. :Van, the Bardic Gift is quite similar to Projective Empathy. I think that must be what’s going on:

The shock of it was like a bucket of water poured down his neck. :…Oh: He looked at the flute in his hands as though he had never seen it before. :Um. How do I stop?:

:I have absolutely no idea: Savil felt amused, though. :You could play or sing something happy. Then I wouldn’t mind so much:

 


 

He was with Moondance; the Healing-Adept had been visiting him regularly, coaxing him out of his room. The two of them were on the edge of the Vale, in a place he hadn’t seen before. He followed the Hawkbrother, picking his way up the carved handholds in the rock face. Above them, Moondance’s bondbird swept, crying out, and landed on a perch at the top of the artificial cliff.

They reached the top themselves a few seconds later.

Unlike Savil, Vanyel had found that he wasn’t particularly bothered by heights; he had enjoyed several meals with Moondance and Starwind in their ekele. He just stood for a moment, the warm summery wind cooling the sweat on his skin and tugging at his hair like gentle fingers, and looked at the Vale sprawled out before him. Gods, it was beautiful. He could see nearly everything.

:Yfandes!: he reached, opening his mind to her, just wanting to share this moment. :Look! I can see the ekele…and I think that’s the clan keep, where the Work Rooms are: He tilted his head back; this high, he could actually sort of see the Veil-spell that kept out the winter. It shimmered, like an enormous soap bubble, except faintly textured.

:It’s very beautiful. I do wish I could climb like you: He felt a wash of gratitude from her. :Though sharing your eyes is more than enough:

Moondance interrupted their conversation. “Watch this!” He walked to the other side of the small stone platform and leaned over. Vanyel, following him, saw a large pool, quite a long distance below, with a small artificial waterfall tumbling into it.

“It was built very deep, on purpose,” Moondance said, his face alive with pleasure. “So that it would be safe to do this!” He began stripping off his tunic. Seconds later, he bent and launched himself from the ledge, arcing in a perfect swan-dive towards the water far below. He landed with barely a ripple and surfaced a few moments later, laughing and shaking his wet hair out of his face.

Vanyel took a step after him – and froze.

There was nothing in front of him; through the rain, it was like coming to the edge of the world. Which was what he had wanted. The river, swollen with rain, maybe it would put out the fire in his head at last…

He jerked back, nearly falling, but caught himself and took a deep breath. It’s safe, he told himself firmly, the pool is big, I can’t possibly miss it.

But he could feel Yfandes in the back of his mind, curled up and tense.

:Yfandes?: he sent, still trying to force his racing heart to slow.

:I’m fine: She didn’t feel fine. It felt like she was trying to hide a reaction at least as strong as his.

:Are you sure? If you don’t want me to–:

Her response was tart. :No, I don’t especially like the idea of you jumping off tall things. But it’s not a very rational response:

He leaned forwards again, looking down at the pool. Moondance had swum to the side and was playing in the shallower water, splashing around like a child. It made him smile.

He took a deep breath. :It is awfully high up:

Yfandes was silent in his head for a moment. :It’ll probably be fun: she coaxed, finally. :Let me ride along?:

He opened his shields to her fully, then looked down at the sparkling blue water far below, gritted his teeth, and slipped out of his short silk robe, leaving it in a puddle on the top of the platform. He jumped.

…The air rushed by, his stomach seemed to fly into his mouth, and when he did hit the water it felt hard as stone for a moment, until he crashed through the surface. He’d expected the water to be cold but it wasn’t; it wasn’t hot, either, but it was comfortable. Every part of him stinging in a not-exactly-unpleasant way, he kicked his way to the surface and sucked in a breath. There was water in his nose, burning.

:Whew!: Yfandes felt almost giddy.

He started awkwardly dog-paddling towards the edge of the pool, where Moondance was doing a handstand in the water.

:You have no technique: Yfandes complained. :Let me show you?: He felt a sort of wordless reaching from her – and when he accepted, suddenly his limbs no longer belonged to him and he found himself putting his head down in the water and taking smooth, graceful strokes towards the edge, his feet kicking in perfect synchrony.

He stood up in the shallow water, gasping a little. :I didn’t know you could do that!:

:I can, if I must: She felt a little guilty and a little smug. :All that wasteful splashing was embarrassing me:

 


 

Another day. 

He lay curled in fetal position, trying to block the morning light with his hands, tears leaking between clenched eyelids. Even after all this time, sometimes it still caught him by surprise like this. Some stray thought or fragment of a remembered dream would snag on the wall he had tried to build around the memories, around the part of him that never stopped screaming into the desolate void where ‘Lendel should have been, and he would be there for a moment, on the ground on the wrong side of a Gate, watching the boy he loved go up like a bonfire, fire and destruction and death, taking half of Vanyel’s soul with him. It shouldn’t have been possible for there to be so much pain in the world.

:You have lessons, love: Yfandes prodded gently.

:Please don’t, ‘Fandes. I can’t. I just can’t right now. Please:

He felt her silent presence – not trying to comfort him, not trying to surround him in her light, just quietly bearing witness. :All right, I’ll pass on that you’re having a bad day:

He dug his nails as hard as he could into his palms, bit down on his lip until he tasted blood – the physical pain was, not exactly a distraction, but it centered him, it gave him an anchor to cling to.

:Chosen, are you going to try to hurt yourself again?: Quietly disapproving. :Do I need to get Savil to stay with you?:

They had been over this already, he thought dully. :I’m not... It helps, okay? And I can Heal myself: Not that he could damage himself that much in the first place; they still carefully kept him away from anything sharp.

He felt her worry, guilt, frustration that she couldn’t help more. :If what you need is an anchor... May I try something? It will hurt, but it should at least be safer than slamming your head into the wall repeatedly:

He hung onto her mindvoice. :Okay:

A pause.

:EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE:

It was a mind-scream that went on and on and on, louder than he would have imagined possible, it pushed out all thoughts, it drove through the center of the emptiness like a pillar of fire – it was a reference point, a beacon to hold to.    

She could only manage it for about a minute, and his Mindspeech channels felt sore and bruised at the end of it, but it helped. The grief was still there but he could let it wash gently over him, rather than drowning in it. He could remember that there were other things in the world.

He was...mostly functional, these days. The bad days came less often, and often it lasted only a few candlemarks. He was getting better at navigating the treacherous wasteland of his mind, knowing which paths not to follow, which thoughts to close off. He was becoming very, very skilled at distracting himself. Lessons were good for that – there was so much to learn, and he had to learn as fast as he could, he couldn’t afford otherwise. It still felt like a flimsy scaffolding to hang a life from, but he was building his house around it, he thought.

It was what ‘Lendel would have wanted him to do.

 


 

Some number of candlemarks later, he heard footsteps, then the creaking of the chair by his bed. He sensed Moondance’s presence.

“Do you wish to speak of it?” the Hawkbrother said quietly.

He rolled over, turning away from Moondance, he didn’t want to talk to anyone, didn’t want anyone to see him.

:Please talk to him: Yfandes prodded gently, in exactly the mental tone she used when she told him to please eat his vegetables.

:Fine: He had been making a genuine effort to listen to her advice, and he flopped back over. “I... No, but ‘Fandes says I should.” His voice was hoarse and nasal from crying.

A quiet breath. “Vanyel, I would like to tell you... It is all right to feel this way. It does not make you weak. To the contrary, you do credit to yourself, to cope with the world six days out of seven.  Do you believe that, I wonder?”

He rolled all the way over to face Moondance, who sat between him and the window; sunlight made a halo around his snow-white hair, and his face was in shadow.

“I... It’s easier, when I can...distract myself. I wish I could do it all the time.”

A nod. “But sometimes you cannot. Sometimes a world without him in it is too much to bear, yes?”

He swallowed against the aching lump in his throat. “It’s always too much. But what else am I supposed to do?”

Moondance bowed his head. “What you are doing, I suppose. I know this dream, your maybe-future, weighs heavily on you, Vanyel. But that alone is not enough to live for.”

“Yfandes keeps telling me that.” What else did they want him to do, though? Not take it seriously?

There was a long silence. “If you close others out,” Moondance said finally, and he seemed to be choosing his words carefully, “I think that perhaps you may not last the next twenty years.”

Oof. That was... :Not false: Yfandes sent. :I can’t be everything that you need, Chosen. You say that you live for your friends, but how many words have you spoken to Savil this week? And you should have friends your own age, I think:

He scrunched up his face. :That’s unfair. I’m rotten company, you know that. What makes you think anyone even wants to be my friend?:

Moondance was smiling softly. “I think perhaps I can guess what you are thinking? That you have nothing to give others, and no one would wish your presence? Well, I seek your company. Have you noticed?”

He had noticed. “Why?” Moondance seemed to be well liked, in the Vale. No wonder. He was a good listener and a good storyteller. He could have as many friends as he wanted, surely; he didn’t have to settle for someone who was always going to be broken.

Moondance shrugged. “I see myself in you, young Vanyel. And I know that sometimes pain shared is easier to bear. Though I am not always so good at following my own advice.”

Vanyel scrabbled to sit up, curious despite himself. “What do you mean?”

Those eerie blue eyes met his. “There are...things we have in common. Hurts we have both experienced. I, too, grew up in a place where, where my preferences were not welcome – and for a long time I thought I was cursed.” He chuckled, humourlessly. “Even once I knew better. Starwind tries to understand, but I do not know if he can wrap his head around...well, being seen as wrong for existing. It is not like that, here.”

I’m a curse on everything I touch...

Yfandes gave him a hard mental shove, disrupting his thoughts before he could get very far into the endless, practiced litany. :Hey!: he retorted, and she responded with only a sort of smug disapproval.

“We cannot help the way we were born,” Moondance said. “And...and as for those claims that it is unnatural, well... I work closely with the land, and I have spent much time observing the natural world. Of the wild beasts, there are many that form partnerships for life. And among all those species, sometimes, those partnerships are between two of the same sex. Is it common? No. It would not be desirable, for the good of the species, for it to be too common. And yet, we see it. How can our natures be an abomination, when these innocent wild creatures that know nothing of sin can be the same?”

Vanyel shook his head, confused. “I...don’t know.” He wasn’t sure how far he trusted that argument; it wasn’t like wild animals were always nice to each other.

“Well, think on it.”

He looked at Moondance’s face. The Hawkbrother’s voice had been light, casual, but the look in his eyes was anything but. He was hard to read, but there was deeper pain there.

“Something really bad happened to you, didn’t it?” he heard himself say. “Before you came to k’Treva?” Come to think of it, he had no idea how Moondance, clearly born elsewhere, had ended up at k’Treva in the first place. Except that it had something to do with Savil, somehow. She had said it wasn’t her story to tell.

Moondance ducked his head and a strange, dark look flashed across his face. “I...do not often speak of it.”

:That’s an understatement: Yfandes sent. :According to Kellan, he’s never actually told anyone about what happened. Savil knows, because she was there, and Starwind knows through Savil. No one else:

Oh. He took a deep breath. What was Moondance up to? What did he want?

:To be your friend: Yfandes sounded amused. :Friendship goes both ways, though:

He tried to decode that. “Um. Moondance, if – if you want to talk about it...” He trailed off.

Moondance looked up. “You continue to surprise me, youngling. It would… It would do me good, I believe, to speak of this thing.” His shoulders rose and fell as he took a deep breath, and then a strange blankness came into his face. When he spoke again, it was almost without expression. 

“There was a boy called Tallo, once. His parents were farmers. Simple, good people, tied to their land and their way of life. Tallo was not like them, and they did not understand the things he felt inside himself, though they loved their son and they tried very hard. They sent him to the village priest, for learning, and that was when the boy Tallo learned, from books the priest found for him, that he had what was commonly called magic. He began attempting to teach himself, and this made him ever more different from his family and his friends. He began spending much time alone. Tallo’s parents did not understand the changes in him, and there were arguments, and anger on both sides. They wished him to marry, wished for grandchildren, but he felt nothing for any of the girls they suggested – instead, his longing was towards young men.

“Then, one summer, a troupe of gleemen came to the village. Among them was a very handsome young man, and Tallo quickly learned he was not the only young man in the world who felt yearnings towards his own sex. They became lovers. Tallo planned to run away and join the troupe when they left the village – but before this could happen, the two were found together. And as such a thing as shay’a’chern was forbidden even to speak of – his parents, the priest, the entire village came together against the lovers. They beat Tallo and the handsome gleeman, and cast them out.

“It was then that his lover, in his anger and hurt, pushed Tallo away and claimed to want nothing of him, though he did not truly mean it. Tallo, in rage and fear, called the lightning with his half-learned magic. He–” and now Moondance’s flat, toneless voice faltered for the first time, and Vanyel saw wetness glistening on his eyelashes, “he did not mean to do anything more than frighten the young man, but that was not what happened. Called by anger and not skill, the lightning would not obey him, and Tallo struck his lover dead, the boy crying out his name as he died.

“Tallo could not live with what he had done. He took his dead lover’s dagger and slashed his own wrist, believing that only his own death could atone for his actions.”

Moondance bowed his head and his slim shoulders shook. After a moment, he sat up, pushing his long hair out of his face. His sleeve fell back, and Vanyel saw – and really noticed for the first time – the pale scar that ran from his wrist nearly to his elbow.

Every syllable was like a weight dropping from his mouth. “Fortunately, there was a stranger on the road that day, an outlander who had sensed the out-of-control power and came as quickly as she could – too late to save both, but she saved the one she could, and she brought Tallo to an old friend. For Healing, and because she thought that Starwind might understand.”

Silence. Vanyel had no idea what to do or say.

Moondance shrugged, finally, and his voice returned to something more like normal. “If the boy Tallo had not misused his untrained powers in anger, he would not have met Starwind, the one who was to be his shay’kreth’ashke. There would not now be a Healing-Adept in k’Treva. So... Good has come of this thing, but it began with murder. And the boy Tallo, though he found forgiveness in k’Treva, and the teaching he desperately needed, he could not forgive himself. And so Starwind declared the boy Tallo dead by his own hand, and brought into the world a new person, one Moondance k’Treva. One now changed by magic into a man so like the Tayledras that he might have been born one.” He held up both hands, helplessly. “But for all of that, Tallo still grieves.”

Vanyel had no idea how to respond. One the one hand – Moondance had Starwind, he’d said as much himself. His story had a happy ending. He had lost only a casual lover, not, not... He couldn’t finish that thought. On the other hand, he could see how much it had cost Moondance, to tell this story. He was still shaking, his cheeks wet. Vanyel’s own eyes were stinging.

:I don’t know what to say!: he sent to Yfandes, helplessly.

:I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong thing to say, just...it would hurt him, if you pushed him away now:

He could see that, he wasn’t stupid. “I’m sorry,” he said finally, unable to think of anything better.

Moondance lifted his head, and again there was a flash of surprise. He dabbed at his eyes. “Thank you. I do not mean to compare Tallo’s pain to yours, Vanyel. I know you have lost so much more. But – would you share your grief with Tallo? Weeping alone does not bring the same comfort.”

Vanyel realized, after a moment, that he had never told anyone his story either. Oh, Savil knew exactly what had happened, and so presumably did Moondance, but he hadn’t talked about it. Could he? It would be a fair exchange, he thought, an offering of friendship, but... No – he didn’t think he could. Just thinking about it made his whole mind lock up. There was a painful lump in his throat, one he couldn’t speak past. He reached out to Moondance with a mindtouch, instead, and even then it was hard to be coherent. :Can’t talk, but...don’t go?:

He heard chair legs scraping, then felt a feather-light touch on his shoulder. “I came now because I have no further duties for several candlemarks,” Moondance said. “I will stay as long as you wish.”

 


 

Midwinter approached. It was strange, being surrounded by summer heat and verdant foliage, in this place with no seasons.

Savil kept urging him to socialize, and he was trying hard. When he had asked Moondance for help learning the Tayledras language, the Hawkbrother had only smirked and asked if he was willing to do it ‘the fast way’ and put up with a headache for a day or two. It came out that Savil hadn’t needed to learn their language the hard way after all – Starwind and a few others had the skill of imparting knowledge directly into a person’s head, through some strange use of the Mindspeech Gift. It seemed like it would save a lot of time, so he agreed, and Moondance coaxed him into trance so that his lifebonded could do the honours.

After that, he did start spending time with the other Hawkbrothers his age. It wasn’t as awkward as he had expected. They seemed to be making a deliberate effort to be friendly and include him, though they treated him carefully at first, like something that might break, or explode if handled wrong. But less so as time went on.

He knew many of their customs now, as well as the language, so some things were less shocking than they might have been, but still uncomfortable. The other young people here flirted constantly and shamelessly. In fact, so did the adults; he hadn’t noticed before because he hadn’t really spent any time with anyone other than Starwind and Moondance.

It was a little like the courtly games of flirting, though different in all the particulars. The largest difference was that it wasn’t only the girls who flirted with him – and, once he started paying attention, the number of same-sex pairings was obvious and startling. No one acted like Starwind and Moondance’s partnership was a big deal because apparently it wasn’t, here. 

The second-largest difference was the nudity and the mindboggling amount of casual touch. The Vale was full of hot springs, after all, which were a favourite pastime. Many parties would end with half the people piled up like puppies, just cuddling, and the rest going off in pairs to find secluded corners.

The day of Midwinter came and he tried his best to enjoy the festivities, or at least go through the motions. It turned out the Tayledras had a festival for it as well, though it was completely different than any he’d seen before. He spent the morning outside the Vale with some of the scouts close to his own age, building forts out of snow and throwing snowballs at each other, even play-wrestling with a very handsome boy called Daystar who had recently been paying him particular attention. They piled back inside the Vale to thaw out in one of the pools, and then there were games and contests. He ended up in a song-contest with a young woman called Snowlight, and afterwards she taught him a duet in Tayledras and he taught her ‘Sun and Shadow’.

He started to feel overwhelmed, then, and had to go spend a candlemark alone with Yfandes, finding his balance again. 

The evening was different – it was solemn, and included songs that everyone seemed to know except him, though he picked up the tunes quickly and was able to at least hum along.

They blew out all the torches and lanterns, and the Vale was completely dark. He looked up and realized he could see the stars, incredibly bright.

Someone read through a list of the people who had died that year. For a clan-group of just a few hundred people, eight deaths was quite a lot, and only two were of natural causes. He hadn’t realized before this how dangerous their lives were, working in these untamed lands, slowly cleansing the wild magic and making them safe. Like Heralds. He stood with Savil and she reached out to take his hand as Snowlight led approximately the entire population of k’Treva through the saddest song he had ever heard.

Sun / sailing away / I don’t know where / I don’t know why

Sky / darkening grey / Wishing there weren’t / so many goodbyes

Then another elder read a list of that year’s births, nine of them, just enough to outbalance the deaths, and with each name, someone relit one of the torches around her. It must have been with magic, because nothing and no one else moved.

After that they sang a different, happy song, a call-and-response that devolved into a mass of interweaving harmonies. Starwind had a pretty good singing voice, which was surprising; Vanyel had never heard him sing. He and Moondance were nearby, holding hands, their bondbirds on their shoulders – he was always amazed by how big they were. After the song they kissed – a lot of couples were kissing, he noticed suddenly – and he felt a pang of loneliness and looked away.

Then the rest of the torches and lamps were re-lit and there was music, and dancing. He realized he knew the names and some of the steps for the dances, apparently the knowledge had come along with the language-dump. He saw a lizard-like creature, about chest height on a man, offering a tray of drinks, and realized he was seeing one of the elusive hertasi for the first time. He accepted a drink, it was hot and spiced, and then someone was touching his shoulder and he looked and saw that it was Daystar, holding out his hand and a delicate tendril of Mindspeech.

:Dance with me?: He hadn’t realized the scout was Gifted; he wasn’t a mage, his hair was still mostly dark. All Hawkbrothers went white eventually, surrounded as they were by the magic of the Heartstones, but it took much longer for non-mages.

He stood frozen for a moment, watching torchlight reflect in the other boy’s eyes, staring at his outstretched hand. Mindspeech was more intimate than spoken words; it felt a little like Daystar had started taking off his clothes, right there, and that didn’t bother him nearly as much as he thought it should have.

:I think you should dance with him: Yfandes offered. :He’s not expecting anything from you, Van, except perhaps to have fun together, and that would be very good for you:

So he reached out to take Daystar’s hand. :I’m not very good at dancing: he sent back, and got back only laughter as he was pulled into the circle of dancing bodies.

It was a very complicated dance, fast, spinning around, trading partners, but some parts felt familiar and Daystar sent little mental prompts for the rest. When the song finally ended, he was warm and out of breath and a little dizzy, and let the other boy catch his arm and lead him off to the side, snagging a cup of cool water from a hertasi and handing it to him.

:I think you will make a very good dancer with a little practice: Daystar sent, and there were definite overtones there – attraction, even lust, and a lot of curiosity.

He gulped the water. :Perhaps we should practice more, then?:

They danced another four or five dances, by which point they were both flushed and sweating, in need of a longer break. Daystar, who clearly knew every corner of the Vale, led him to one of those benches that seemed to be grown in place out of vines. They sat.

:May I braid your hair?: Daystar said softly, almost shy in his head.

He hadn’t cut his hair since leaving Forst Reach – gods, how many months ago had that been? It fell past his shoulders now, which he liked, though he was less pleased by the white hairs he was already finding. :All right: he answered, suddenly feeling shy as well.

He was feeling sleepy, too – it had been a very long day – and he enjoyed the feeling of the other boy’s fingers in his hair. He closed his eyes, relaxing, his body feeling pleasantly heavy after today’s exertion.

Then Daystar’s hands moved away. He opened his eyes. The Tayledras boy was holding something out. It was a feather.

He knew what that meant, and he froze. :’Fandes, help!: He could sense her presence, she felt very smug, but she didn’t answer. He stared at Daystar’s face as though trying to read a map in the angular lines of his cheekbones and jaw.

Offering someone a feather had a very specific meaning, among the Tayledras.

:Vanyel, I didn’t mean to frighten you: A soft tendril of Mindspeech, held out like an altar offering. :I won’t be hurt, truly, if you don’t want to take my feather. I won’t think any different of you, either way. I like you and today was fun. I’m an Empath, and I know that you’ve...that something terrible happened to you. I don’t want to make any demands on you. Three other people have my feathers already; I’m not exactly lonely. It doesn’t have to mean anything more than what you want it to mean. I just... I like you:

He stared into the other boy’s blue eyes – like open windows, he thought, hiding nothing. In the lamplight, Daystar’s skin could have been painted with gold.

:Three people?: he said finally.

Daystar laughed. :I forget, you come from a place that is very different. Yes. None are serious. If you are curious – Snowtree, Nightfire, and Summerlight:

Vanyel felt his eyes widen. He knew all the people mentioned. The first two were roughly their age, but Summerlight was, to his best knowledge, at least forty, lived with a woman, and had small children. Daystar was older than Vanyel, but surely not by more than a few years.

:You are surprised: Daystar was grinning. :Starwind told me that Savil was quite shocked, too, the first time she came here. I am told she became used to it, though:

Savil did seem much more comfortable with displays of affection here – perhaps because it was treated so much less seriously? She didn’t like commitments, he found himself thinking, didn’t like people making demands on her – maybe because her duty as a Herald had always come first. She would still roll her eyes and make disgusted noises when Starwind and Moondance started getting especially touchy-feely in front of her, but he had seen her giving and accepting shoulder massages in the hot springs, and even exchanging a few kisses with Nightsun in public.

:Um, do most people have feathers from more than one person?: he said, still trying to wrap his head about it.

Daystar laughed. :Not most, but among the young people...Well, we tried to draw it all out once. It was quite a complicated graph. I think Snowlight might still have it:

After a very long moment of thought, he shook his head. “Maybe another time,” he said out loud. “But…thank you.”

 


 

He felt less awkward than he had expected, afterwards, but he still hovered on the edges of the party after Daystar went to dance with someone else.

:Love, his feelings aren’t hurt: Yfandes sent. :You did nothing wrong:

He leaned against a broad tree trunk, resting his head on the warm, rough bark. :I feel like I was leading him on, or something:

:Does it matter? You heard him:

And he knew Daystar had meant it, too. It was nearly impossible to lie with Mindspeech.

:I just: It was so hard to put his confused thoughts into words. :It feels like betraying ‘Lendel, to even to look at him that way:

:I know: Sympathy, understanding. :And you know ‘Lendel wouldn’t want you to feel that way forever. Right?:

His mind knew it. His heart, not so much.

He felt a light touch on his shoulder, and spun around, but it was only Savil. :Ke’chara, are you all right?:

:I’m fine: He leaned into her, though.

:You look like maybe you could use more quiet. Want to come join us in the pools? Starwind and Moondance and Nightsun and I, I mean:

He nodded and followed her through the trees, past dancers and trysting couples. Like at the Midwinter festival celebrated in Valdemar, the Tayledras would keep vigil all night until the sun rose.

Starwind and Moondance were there already, sitting on a soft blanket that the hertasi must have spread out on the side of the pool, a bowl of fruit and a jug of some drink beside them. Or, rather, Moondance was sitting and Starwind was curled with his head in his lap, eyes closed, his long white hair splayed out in damp tendrils. The only light came from a lantern, hung from a branch above their heads.

Vanyel blinked. It was very odd to see his teacher like that.

Savil’s face went blank for a moment, the way it did when she was Mindspeaking. “Nightsun’s coming,” she said out loud. “Said he’d bring some food.”

Vanyel found a corner of the pool and quickly stripped out of his clothes and slipped in; even though it was quite dark and they were well sheltered by dense foliage, he still didn’t feel very comfortable with nudity.

“You know,” Savil said, her voice thoughtful. “This is the first Midwinter I’ve ever spent here.”

“That is true.” Surprise in Moondance’s voice. “You are so important to us, Wingsister, and yet you have not spent so much time here at all.”

Savil slid into the water, sighing, and leaned back, letting one foot drift up to the surface. “I can’t stay, you know that.” She cupped her hands together and poured the warm, mineral-scented water over her face. “I hope they’re doing all right back home.”

There was a rustling from one side of the pools. “Savil?”

She turned, face breaking into a smile. “Nightsun! Come on in.”

They kissed. Vanyel looked away again, feeling out of place.

No one said anything for a long time.

It was Moondance who finally spoke. “Vanyel. There is a thing we wish to say to you, and a thing we wish to ask.”

In his lap, Starwind stirred and opened his eyes. Vanyel nodded cautiously.

Moondance went on. “It has been good to have you here. I know that it has not been easy, but… We are grateful that you came, truly. If you were to leave today, it would have been worthwhile for k’Treva.” He shrugged. “Though we would both ask that you stay some months longer. Your training is not yet complete.

In the pool, Savil grunted. “I’d rather not, but I agree. Besides, Kellan keeps reminding me this may be the only vacation I get for the next ten years. Might as well take advantage of it.” She shrugged. “I was overdue for family leave anyway.”

Vanyel laughed despite himself, and tried to stifle it.

Moondance went on, his voice earnest. “Vanyel, we think of you as one of us – one who unfortunately cannot stay forever, but nonetheless. I would like to offer you this; you will be called our Wingbrother, as your aunt is our Wingsister, and you will always be welcome here.”

Tears sprang into his eyes. “T-thank you,” he managed.

Starwind pushed himself up and sat; he nodded gruffly, and Vanyel felt a fine thread of Mindspeech. :You have earned it, boy:

Moondance only smiled, a little sadly. “You are welcome. And there is another thing, though I am not sure how to ask.” He looked up into Starwind’s eyes. “Ashke?”

To Vanyel’s surprise, Starwind actually blushed – it was barely visible in the lamplight, but nonetheless.

“We have a favour to ask,” he said, very stiffly. “Moondance and I would like to have a child. There are traditions for this, here. We have spoken to Snowlight and she has agreed to bear twins, one of whom will be ours.” He hesitated, and chewed his lip for a second. Vanyel peered at him; he had no idea where this was going.

Starwind looked helplessly at Moondance, who shrugged and went on for him. “Neither of us can do what is required with a woman. We have tried. Yet there are other traditions, where one may ask a close and dear friend…” He averted his eyes, flushing as well. “Vanyel, you are a close and dear friend to us. We think it good to bring outside blood to the Vale, also. We would not ask, but…”

The words finally fell into place. Oh. He had no idea what to say; he felt his own cheeks warming, and his eyes prickled. :Yfandes! Did you know they were going to ask me this?:

:No!: She felt amused, as well as deeply touched. :I think it’s very sweet:

:It’s so awkward: He wasn’t sure how he would ever meet Starwind’s eyes in lessons again – whether he said yes or no!

:Many things in life are: He felt the tickle in his mind that meant she was checking something in his memories; he didn’t mind when she did it, these days, it saved time. :They’re telling the truth – this is a custom here, and not so unusual. And it won’t be the first time you’ve bedded a girl you felt nothing for:

:True: He had met Snowlight at the celebrations, and it sounded like she was one of Starwind and Moondance’s closest friends – someone he could trust, at least in theory. That would help.

“I’m honoured,” he heard himself say. “I– Of course.”

Moondance’s eyes were suspiciously shiny. Starwind slipped an arm around him and squeezed him hard. Vanyel blinked, suddenly imagining Starwind caring for an infant. It wasn’t a picture that came easily to mind. 

“Congratulations,” he heard Savil say, dryly. Gods, he had actually forgotten she was there and listening. His face was flaming now.

Moondance was smiling fit to split his face in two. Starwind watched him indulgently.

Vanyel, you are a close and dear friend to us. He replayed the words in his head, and was surprised how warm it made him feel, and how much it pleased him to see Moondance’s obvious joy.

…And, with a jolt of surprise, he realized he was happy; that he’d been having fun most of the day. His face was sore from the unaccustomed smiling. It felt fragile, uncertain, he wasn’t sure how it was possible…but it was there.