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A Place for Everyone

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:Ow!:

 

The protest was half in mindspeech, half vocal, in the form of a guttural grunt from the Companion. It was aimed primarily at the man who was stooped over the Companion's foot, but the pain and surprise had been enough that the Companion had rather indiscriminately broadcast her mental yelp to every mindspeaker within a hundred yards. Heads popped up all over the Collegium in response.

 

"Sorry, lady." The Healer at her head said, sympathetically, as the blacksmith hastily backed the nail out of her foot. "He quicked you."

 

Then, to an unseen inquiry, the woman added aloud, "She's fine, Sayvil. Just a nick, I think, but it hurt."

 

The Companion arched her neck around so she could see over the blacksmith's shoulder. He had her foot in one hand, pulled between his knees, and was attempting to shoe her. This procedure, simple on a horse, was made more difficult by the fact that Companions had feet nearly as hard as the shoes they were trying to put on her. The nail had bent, and had penetrated the sensitive tissues of her foot.

 

Under normal circumstances, it was completely unnecessary to protect a Companion's feet with shoes. But there was nothing 'normal' about this Companion. Not since she'd been a foal, at any rate.

 

:Ow.: The Companion repeated, for the shoer's mental ears alone.

 

"Sorry, Yarella." The farrier said. He patted her shoulder and let her leg down. Unfortunately, while her left leg was undamaged, the complications from that injury had caused irreparable damage to her hoof. Companions were not designed to stand on three legs for extended periods, and just like a horse, she'd foundered. The hoof on that leg -- the hoof the shoer had accidentally quicked -- was twisted and ridged. The shoe that was now nailed to her foot was oval in shape, and designed to support  the damaged tissues as much as was possible.

 

"You sure you don't want to lie down for this?" The shoer asked, as he moved his tools to her other side.

 

She shook her head, and added with a mental smirk, :View's better when you're standing beside me.:

 

She sent him an image of his own rear end, nicely muscled, in tight trousers, as seen from the view of an equine eyeball. It was a surprisingly good view.

 

The shoer blushed pink. "Lady!"

 

Unseen fingers pinched his rump.

 

"Yarella!" He protested, "Watch the parlor tricks!"

 

:Would you rather I use my teeth?: Her mental voice was merry, pain forgotten. She gnashed them with a playful light twinkled in her eyes.

 

The Healer giggled, having heard that comment as well. "She's right, you know."

 

"I thought you weren't supposed to talk to anyone but your Chosen." The shoer grumbled. "Blasted telekinetic horse."

 

:What, you're saying I should Chose you ? : She teased.

 

His reaction was absolute horror. "Absolutely not! Shoeing is safer! And easier work, I might add, I see what the Heralds look like when they come in from Circuit ..."

 

She snorted something that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. :Or maybe you don't like to talk to me?:

 

She sounded convincingly hurt. She also leaned on him, just like a horse, making him stagger a bit. He responded by letting her lean right into his hoof pick, a trick that worked just as well on Companions as it did on bratty horses.

 

:Ow! Hey! :

 

"Wimp." She'd been poked, not hurt; the hoof pick was dull. "That was for pinching me."

 

She snorted a laugh. Then she sobered, and said , :Truth to tell, I'm bored. And I like you.:

 

"You like everyone." The Healer teased. Then the Healer turned her attention to the Companion's right leg. This was the leg that had been broken. It had healed, but the break had been through coffin joint, and the resulting arthritis had left her in great pain until the healers had fused the joint. The result had been much less pain, all things being relative, but it had given her an odd, uneven stride. "You talk more than my daughters."

 

The Companion stuck her tongue out.

 

Quick as a trap, the Healer flicked the end of it with her fingers. "If you keep that up, your face will freeze that way."

 

The Companion's other shoe had trailers on it, long extensions that gave her leg extra support. They'd tried many different shoes over the last fifteen years; this combination seemed to give her the most relief from pain.

 

It only took a couple of minutes to trim her foot (the farrier grumbled about the hardness of her feet) and to nail the shoe back on. The right shoe was not worn much, and could be reused after a few strategic whacks with a hammer to fit it to her newly trimmed foot. Shoe attached, the farrier ran an expert hand down her tendons, checking for heat or swelling. He frowned at something he found, "Rin, she's got a bit of swelling here."

 

The healer bent over, and felt the leg. The swelling was cool, and spongy, from her fetlocks up to the middle of her cannon bones. She stood back up, "Have you been walking like you're supposed to do?"

 

The Companion avoided the woman's sharp gaze.

 

"You're all stocked up. Unless you want me to come out here with a buggy whip, young lady, and make you exercise, you will walk at least five miles every day. Horse or no, you're going to make yourself sick if all you do is stand around all day. I've never seen a Companion colic and I don't want to start with you."

 

She pinned her ears, but reluctantly nodded. She hated exercise; it hurt to walk any distance, as much as she knew the Healer was right. She might not be a horse, but she had anatomy similar to one, and that meant exercise was vital to her health. Even if every step was painful.

 

"Katara would do it, too. Right in the horse corral. Lunge you like a green filly." The farrier promised. "And I'd help ."

 

She sent both of them an image of her chasing them with teeth bared. The farrier's handsome derriere featured prominently in the image. He turned pink again, as she had intended. But then she sighed, and nodded reluctant agreement.

 

"Good then, it's settled. Go take yourself for a walk." The shoer, finished with both feet, stood up. He rubbed his back. "You might go into the city; there's a street-fair going on and there's a troupe of actors who are halfway decent up by Roselady Square."

 

"Res ..." The Healer started to voice an objection to this idea. Then she stopped. She couldn't find any real reason to protest, except that it wasn't traditional for an unChosen Companion to venture out into the city for any reason other than to go on Search. But ... well, it wasn't likely that Yarella was going to Chose anyone, was it? And  'Ella wasn't exactly the most traditional of Companions.

 

Yarella looked thoughtful for a moment. :I used to love the theatre ...:

 

"Did she say used to?" Rel asked, as the Companion walked off, a thoughtful look still on her expressive face.

 

Katara shrugged at him. "Companions. Even the ones that will talk to you are still mysteries."

 

* * * * *

 

It hurt to walk. It always had, for as long as she could remember. She'd been a tiny foal at the time of the accident. She couldn't remember it, much; she'd been so young, then. But she'd been told her mother had accidentally stepped on her foot. A freak accident that had changed her life forever.

 

Theatre . Actors. Stage. Music. She'd been a Bard, more than once. She'd had the Bardic Gift; had been a brilliant talent. Fat lot of good Bardic Gift does a horse .

 

Rel's suggestion had been welcome. Just walking laps around the Companion's Field, as she'd always done, was boring. She seldom had company -- most of the other  Companions in her age group had Chosen by now, and were wrapped up in relationships with their newly Chosen Heralds. Anyway, her slow pace was as boring for them as it was for her.

 

Why had she never thought of going into the city before? There was certainly nothing to forbid her from doing so except for public opinion, and she frankly didn't give a rat's tail for that. Hadn't as a human, didn't now.

 

Why not? It would be a pleasant diversion, and something to occupy at least this afternoon.

 

Decided, she made her slow, hobbling way up the road to the gate. One of the guards looked at her funny and asked, "Need a saddle, Yarella?"

 

:I'm not on Search.: She informed him, and rather enjoyed his look of shocked surprise. Most Companions didn't talk to people .

 

Well, most Companions aren't bored out of their skulls all of the time, either. I thought when I took this gig that I'd at least get to go galloping around doing heroic things!

 

"She talked to me. She TALKED to me!" She heard the guard gabbling at his partner as she walked on through the gate and out into the city. She'd made him happy; that made her happy.

 

Her appearance didn't cause that much of a stir in the streets; the populace was used to white "horses" passing by without humans in attendance. The fact that she wore no tack, and was visibly lame, was worth a second look by a few people, but she was obviously a Companion. Nobody barred her way, though the crowd did melt before her. They gave her room to pass, and watched her, but there was no alarm raised.

 

The street fair that Rel had mentioned was in an old part of town. Roselady Square ... I remember when they put that stupid fountain in. It's still ugly and it must be two hundred years old.

 

The 'Roselady' was a sculpture of a nymph standing in a man-height rosebud. The nymph looked more like a Changechild than anything else, due to an unfortunate lack of skill on the part of the artist. The thing had breasts twice the size they should have been to be anatomically correct -- veiled, fortunately, by a draping robe. She also had the face of the artist's patron's eldest daughter, and that was accurately rendered. Unfortunately.

 

The ugly sculpture was barely visible for all the people sitting on it, though. The street was filled with performers -- musicians, a swordswallower, a juggler, and the theatre troupe Rel had mentioned. They'd built a stage in the center of the square, however, across from the fountain.

 

Yarella picked her way through the crowd, and then mindful of the audience behind her, she knelt down so that she wouldn't block the view of the play. The stones of the square were uncomfortable to lay on, but she'd endured far worse in her life. Fortunately, the actors were good enough that she soon forgot about her discomfort.

 

The story was a simple tale, as old as time: a love story involving a boy, a girl, and vastly different cultures. The boy was Tayledras, the girl was Holderkin, and the stage was set for a tragedy. It helped the troop that they had a Bard with a medium-range Gift, a brilliant costume designer, and all the actors were amazing. She'd arrived early in the story, and for the next two hours, she was transported away from her hurting body. Away from the boredom that claimed her days . And away from her sense of failure at being a Companion who could never be heroic or valiant.

 

Afterwards, she rose and discovered a hind leg had gone to sleep. While she stood among the dispersing crowd and waited for her leg to stop crawling with pins and needles, she watched members of the audience throw coins up onto the stage. She wished she had money to give the troupe. They earned it. I'll have to mention them to Roland; they may be useful to the Queen.

 

"Lady?" A man said, politely. "My daughter wants to give you a carrot. Is that okay?"

 

Yarella was startled out of her distant thoughts by the nearby voice. She focused on the man, who'd walked right up to her without her noticing. The daughter was perhaps five years old, and adorable in a frilly pink dress. Yarella gravely accepted the carrot, and the child's pats on her nose. "Nice horsey."

 

"That's not a horsey, Susi. That's a Companion. They're special beings sent to protect our Heralds, and give them guidance." Her father said.

 

"Where's his Herald?" The girl asked.

 

"Hers, I think ... yes." The man leaned over to check Yarella's gender, and Yarella stifled an impulse to cross her legs in response.

 

Ah, the indignities of being a horse . I miss trousers.

 

"Where's her Herald?" The girl corrected herself.

 

"I don't know." He said, thoughtfully. He looked at Yarella with a frown. "I've never seen one without a Herald, unless they're on Search."

 

"Can I have one?"

 

The father laughed. "Well, maybe if you're really good, but don't get your hopes up too high."

 

"If I make my bed and put my dolls away and eat my porridge and don't run out in the street can I have a Companion?"

 

Yarella cocked her head, and _looked_ at the child. Yes ... maybe ... probably. She looked at the father, winked. :Yes, if she's a good little girl.:

 

The father was still gaping at her when she turned and hobbled painfully away. Lying down on the cold stones had made her stiffen up. But it had been worth it.

 

Ah, theatre. I must do this more often. Maybe tomorrow; it's not like I have any other pressing engagements. And the kid was cute. I hope I'm right; she's not for me, but she's got a good soul.

Chapter Text

"Hey, there's that Companion horse again." Leselie said, peeking through the stage curtains. They'd been putting on a production of Lost Lovers for the last three days, and the Companion had shown up every single day.

 

"What do you think it wants?" Jethi glanced up from his work on a new bodice for the female lead. The thin, tall tailor had found a beautiful deep red velvet fabric in one of the city's markets and he was incorporating it into several costumes. Currently, he was embroidering it with a floral pattern in gold thread,

 

"Maybe she's going to Chose you and kidnap you away from this horrible life!" Leselie threw his hands into the air in a dramatic gesture. His 'Tayledras' robes fluttered in a colorful display. They were also covered in Jethi's decorative stitchwork and Leselie could have told them from experience that the patterns weren't really traditional Tayledras, but not many Tayledras would have objected to the dramatic designs. His kin were worse than magpies when it came to liking bright and shiny things.

 

Leselie continued teasing the other man, "Next thing you know, you'll be wearing Whites and riding a Demon Horse..."

 

Jethi stuck his tongue out in reaction. "Only if I can add some color. White is so boring."

 

"Maybe she's just enjoying the show." Myra said, joining them. She was the female lead, playing the Holderkin girl Amelia, and her currently drab costume was a counterpoint to Leselie's brilliant peacock display. Even the "tattered" costume bore signs of Jethi's artistry, however. The "mud" on her skirt was carefully applied paint, and he'd artistically stained and faded with bodice with a variety of dyes and dips in assorted bleaching agents. 

 

"Yeah. Well, the Companion is certainly not going to chose me." Leselie said, somewhat wistfully. "I've got all the Talent of a brick."

 

"How do you know?" Myra asked, curiously.

 

"My Da was an Healer and an Adept in the old country. I was a complete disappointment to him, born with nary a trace of any Gift. I'm totally mind-blind." He said, cheerfully. Years of acting practice let him keep his real feelings about this from his expression.

 

"That's a shame." Jethi had known Leselie for several years, but he'd never mentioned that before.

 

He shrugged. "The Star-Eyed had other plans for me, I suppose."

 

"Quarter candlemark to curtain call." Sharina, the troupe's owner, said happily. She'd been in a thrilled mood ever since they'd arrived in Valdemar. The Valdemarans had been friendly, accommodating, and -- better yet -- generous. They'd earned enough money to see the whole troupe through the winter even if they couldn't find a patron to house them until spring.

 

"Hey, a couple more Companions just arrived. And Heralds." Leselie reported. He'd heard the ringing of Companion hooves on the flagstones of the street and peered out through the curtains again.

 

Jethi and Myra joined him, forming a line of eyeballs peeping through curtain. The Heralds were mounted on their Companions, though the lame Companion was by herself again.

 

"Oh, hey, look sharp. That's Princess Elspeth." Jethi grinned broadly, and Sharina's eyes widened. 

 

"Are you sure?" Leselie asked. The woman wore the same whites as any other Herald.

 

"Positive. I saw her in the market when I was buying thread the other day. The merchant pointed her out to me."

 

"Well, I'll be a furry snake. Looks like I get to tell my grandkids I performed before royalty when I'm old and doddering someday!" Leselie sprang away from the curtain and pirouetted across the stage on his toes. In a paroxysm of excitement, he swept Myra up in his arms, spun her about, and soundly kissed her. "Glory be, we're going to have a royal audience!"

 

"Shush, they'll hear you." Sharina said, disapprovingly. But she was grinning.

 


 

 

:Well? Was I right? Aren't they just wonderful? I think it's the fact that they've got people from all over the world in that troupe: If she could have, Yarella would have bounced on her toes. As it was, she broadcast her mindspeech to all three Heralds and their Companions with enthusiasm. The troupe had outdid itself, and everyone had remained, transfixed, for the entire play.

 

Roland pinned his ears at her. :Have you no respect for our traditions?:

 

She sent him a visual image of a pair of impudently grinning teeth floating in midair.

 

He snorted disapprovingly.

 

:What, I'm supposed to look mysterious and dignified? I'm just Yarella, the crippled one, the fat one, who gives pony-rides to the Heralds' children. 'Mysterious and dignified' I can't do.:

 

:You could at least try.:

 

:Bite me.: She tossed her head, and bared her teeth at him in a real grin. She wasn't afraid of him.

 

What's he going to do, kick me? That would go over real well; Roland beats up a cripple. Send me back to the Havens? That would be a blessing; maybe I'd get to try again. But I don't think even he can send me back to the Havens. Short of brute force, anyway. And I'm not going to make him that mad.

 

Talia broke in, "Oh, let her be, Roland. Nobody minds Yarella."

 

Roland sighed both audibly and mentally, at both of them.

 

Elspeth commented, "They are very good. And winter's coming; they'll be looking for a place to stay. Maybe I will have a word with Mother ..." To Yarella, she said, "You were right. Thank you for bringing them to our attention."

 

:Glad to be of service.: Yarella stood up. :And now I think I'm going to go have a word with that handsome young man playing the lead, he's adorable . :

 

:Heretic . : Gwena sniffed. She sounded like she was mostly teasing.

 


 

 

Yarella approached the stage carefully, threading her way through the lingering crowd. The actors were behind the stage, and were happily celebrating the end of the play with a toast of wine as she approached. It was the last day of the play, and judging by the throngs of people, they'd made out well. They had reason to celebrate.

 

The belling of her hooves as she approached made them whirl.

 

:Err, Hi.: She said, and realized just how awkward she felt and sounded as she did so.

 

Oh, you're such a brilliant horse. Four previous lives, and you were a Bard in all of them. And the best you can come up with is a star-struck, 'Hi?'  

 

"Wow!" The short, brown-haired girl who had played Amelia in the play bounced up. "You mindspeak!"

 

The others of the cast and crew added their exclamations of amazement. A few shrank back in fear, but these were well-traveled folk and most had encountered mind-magic before.

 

:When I chose to. I just wanted to tell you how much I've been enjoying watching your performance.:

 

"Are you going to Chose one of us?" The girl asked, boldly. Yarella supposed that was a fair enough question. Most Companions did not speak to common folk, or interact with them in any way, because of unspoken Rules and tradition. It was just how things were done.

 

She had been a Bard four times over, and she was the first to admit she missed it. She'd always loved performing for a crowd, and watching this talented troupe perform had reminded her of how much she'd loved theater. She was not currently in a mood to heed the Rules.

 

Yarella picked the girls's name off the top of her friends' thoughts. :I'm afraid not, Myra.:

 

"What's she saying?" The male lead asked. Yarella attempted to speak to him, and hit a wall.

 

Nothing. The man had all the talent of a turnip, and the sheer lack of any sort of Gift rendered him impossible talk to. She used the abilities all Companions had to double check. Nothing . Well, he does have Herald-gift, he could bond to one of us if he was Chosen. But nothing else. I'm not sure he could hear a Dyheli , as loud as they are, much less me. It's almost as if he has a birth defect ... like being born without the ability to see, or hear, or missing an arm.

 

"She says hi, and she says she's not going to chose one of us." Myra supplied.

 

Yarella stepped a little closer to the man. He was handsome and it was disappointing that she couldn't speak to him. She wanted to tell him how much she'd enjoyed his character, and then to flirt a bit. She tried meeting his eyes ...

 

... and felt herself falling into them.

 

Brown eyes, full of good humor and common sense.

 

Long dark hair, silky, straight, in a braid. He'd had the braid hidden under a curly wig earlier but now it brushed his waist.

 

Those eyes, though. She'd seen those eyes before, but she couldn't figure out where.

 

They were framed by a round face, with olive skin and an easy grin.

 

She felt like she'd seen him before, had known him before .... but where? Where? Surely, she would remember someone with a braid like his, and eyes that seemed to see her very soul.

 

And then she knew . Talent or no, in that instant she saw his full measure and she knew . This was where the pull had been coming from.

 

Silly horse. Stupid horse. He has no Talent! None! You can't even tell him he's Chosen. How is he going to manage as a Herald? How are you going to manage as a Companion with a Herald. You can't even walk without pain. You sure as Havens can't carry a rider!

 

But she knew. There was no doubt in her heart. This was who she was meant to Chose .

 

Ah, Havens. It was probably preordained. But ... the man has no more Talent than a lump of granite, so how the hell am I supposed to talk to him? Scratch letters in the mud with my hoof? Wave signal-flags about with my teeth? Devise a code of ear-flicking and snorting to make myself understood? Fetch children's letter-blocks into the air?

 

Ah, Sketi. At least he's easy on the eyes . I'll figure something out.

 

"Lady? Are you okay?" He asked. His tone was polite, and not the slightest bit condescending. He knew he was speaking to a person, not a horse.

 

She realized she was staring at him intently, with ears pricked so far forward the tips were nearly touching. She must have looked strange. Her nostrils were flared, as if she could somehow communicate with him through scent.

 

She glanced sideways at the girl. Myra. :What's his name? :

 

"Leselie." Myra responded.

 

:Please tell Leselie I was wrong about not being here to Chose. Tell him... tell him I Chose him. If he'll have me.:

 

And how's that for tradition blown all to ashes?

 

The thought that he might say 'no' was terrifying. If he said 'no' he could walk away, and he would never know what he was leaving behind. He would never know that he'd break her heart in that instant.

 

Myra, somewhat baffled, obediently passed the message on.

 

Leselie looked at her as if she'd suddenly grown a second head and two sets of antlers right in front of him. "This is a joke, right?"

 

She shook her head. He's going to say no. That's worse than being crippled. I'll be alone for the rest of my life too.

 

She knew he was to be her Herald, right down to the center of her very being, with absolute and unshakeable certainty. There were no other options. Not for her.

 

He opened his mouth, shut it, then reopened it. He slid a hand into a purse that hung around his waist, and produced a pair of spectacles. He planted the spectacles on his nose, and stared at her through them. Finally, he spoke. "But I'm not Valdemaran. I'm Shin'a'in."

 

Some detached and bemused part of her brain realized that was where he got the olive skin and dark hair from, though she didn't think he was all Shin'a'in.

 

:Tell him he will not be the first Shin'a'in Herald. The Star-Eyed does not seem to mind.:

 

Obediently, Myra passed the message on.

 

Leselie frowned at Yarella. "Lady, I'm not even slightly gifted. Are you mad?"

 

Myra glanced at Yarella, and then grinned at the Companion's immediate response. "She said, 'yes.' She also said she's not a lady. But Leselie, she sounds scared you're going to say no. More scared than anything I've ever heard before."

 

Leselie folded his arms. "So what's the job entail, then?"

 

:Ask him if he'll come with me. He can hear about it from the other Heralds.:

 

"That thing's trying to take Leselie away from us?" Sharina said, after following the conversation in silence until this point.

 

"If he's been Chosen, it would be wrong for him to say no." Jethi spoke up. "You have to go when you're Chosen."

 

"But I'm not even a Valdemaran subject!" Leselie protested.

 

"You don't have to go." Sharina rested a hand on Leselie's arm and voiced her disagreement with Jethi "We need you."

 

Leselie nodded. "She's right. I've got responsibilities, here. I'm needed here. I can't go with you."

 

And Yarella's heart broke.

 

:Tell him ... tell him ... tell him to live a good life, then.: She wanted to say, 'Tell him to find me if he changes his mind' but she couldn't even form those thoughts. He wouldn't, she feared, change his mind. And maybe it's better if he says 'No' ... maybe if the Fates had been different we would have been Herald and Companion, but he'd be stuck at the Collegium forever if he accepts me. And he does not seem the sort to be happy under a roof and four walls.

 

With grief in hear heart, she turned, and hobbled off towards the palace, head and tail hanging and feet dragging even more than usual. Shadow lover, you can take me now. I'm of no use to anyone and even my Chosen doesn't want me.

 


 

 

"What's with Yarella?" Res asked. "She's been moping under that tree for two whole days."

 

Katara leaned on the decorative fence that encircled the Companion's Field and studied the distant shape. Even at two hundred paces, the Companion was obviously Yarella -- she was standing with her foundered foot propped painfully out before her, and her plump lines were easily identifiable.

 

"I don't know," She said, finally, "But I think I'm going to make good on that threat to lunge her if she doesn't stop loafing around like an overstuffed cat."

 

Res sighed. "I'll go talk to her and see what's up. She was moving okay when she walked up for her grain this morning, so she can't claim that foot hurts more than usual."

 

Res ducked under the fence, and approached the young Companion. "Hey, Lady." He said, cheerfully.

 

She simply looked at him, without any comment. Her blue eyes were dull, and her ears drooped limply.

 

"You look like something ate your canary."

 

No comment.

 

"Aw, Yarella, don't go all mysterious on me now. Not allowed. Are you feeling okay?"

 

She sighed. :I'm fine.:

 

"Need a hug?"

 

She didn't indicate yes or no, but he hugged her anyway. She rested her chin on his shoulder for a moment, accepting the comfort he was offering. :Too bad,: she teased, finally, in a voice that held a ghost of humor, : That you're not a stallion.:

 

He blushed and stepped back.

 

:Thank you, Res. But I will be fine. I'm just ... well, life dealt me a blow I should have expected, and I'm feeling very sorry for myself right now.: She glanced away. :I suppose I should do my laps around the field or Katara will threaten me with a buggy whip.:

 

She walked off, head hanging and footfalls even slower than normal. Res watched her go, and sighed heavily.

 


 

 

I have no right to feel so sorry for myself. He's better off without me, anyway.

 

Yarella told herself that fiercely, while she walked her required two laps around the Field. As usual, she was alone.

 

It's just ... it's not fair. God, it's not fair! I know what a bond is like. I chose to be a Companion knowing I would have a Herald. That I would have that bond again ... maybe that's why this happened. I chose to come back as a Companion for selfish reasons. I wanted to replace Medrid, I wanted that sort of bond again. So in order to teach me a lesson, not only is my Herald mindblind as a granite boulder, he doesn't even want me.

 

Except our deity isn't vindictive like that.

 

Ah, Medrid, I could use your wisdom now.

 

Except she had no idea where -- or what -- Medrid was now. Medrid. He was her Companion, in a past lifetime. She had no idea if he'd been reborn as a human, a non-human, if he was lurking around as a ghost, or if he had gone onto another plane of existence. The only thing she was reasonably sure of was that he hadn't been reborn again as another Companion.  Knowing where he was, or what he was, was against the Rules.

 

She'd fantasized often about going on Search for her Herald, and dreamed about finding a young man with her late and much beloved Companion's laugh and his macabre sense of humor, his potent Talents, and his heroic and loving nature. Of course, that would never happen, and the odds of her finding Medrid -- in human form -- to bond with her again were extremely unlikely. Now, she knew without a doubt that she would not ever find her Companion reborn as a human, to become her Herald. She knew now her Herald was an ungrateful part-Shin'a'in-actor who didn't even want her or the job.

 

Someday, perhaps, she and Medrid would walk the green fields of the Havens together. She looked forward to that, with a sort of wistful longing. But she had work to do now in the mortal world, for now. She just didn't know what that work was yet.

 

:Hey, who are the strangers?:

 

The thought came from one of the younger Companions and had been broadcast to everyone within 'hearing' distance. Yarella looked up and squinted across the field at the strangers who had entered the palace grounds. There were ten wagons being pulled by large horses.

 

Oh. Right. Elspeth must have asked the troupe to winter at the palace. They were good, they had a varied repertoire, and they were professional. Of course, the palace did have plenty of Bards and minstrels for entertainment, but the theatre troupe came from out-Country and presumably knew plays and songs that the palace Bards didn't.

 

Which meant that her Chosen would be wintering here.

 

Great. I think I'll hide in the Grove until thaw. I don't think I can face him without breaking down and crying.

 

Yarella heaved a deep sigh, contemplated the long walk to the Grove, and decided to lay down right where she was standing. She didn't have the energy to travel that far and she was tired of walking by herself.

Chapter Text

"Hey, Leselie, there's a Herald." Myra said, in an undertone.

 

They had reached the palace stables -- the horse stables, they'd been led to believe that the Companions stayed elsewhere on the grounds -- and were settling their beasts in. The set for Lost Lovers knocked down and fit on one wagon; the stage itself could be collapsed and loaded onto another. Then they had a wagon for costumes, one for their food and supplies, and one personal wagon for every four people. Besides the acttors, they had jugglers, acrobats, illusionists, a sword-swallower who doubled as the cook, and musicians associated with the troupe. In total, ten wagons. That meant more than twenty horses.

 

The palace stables were large enough to take all those animals without any problem whatsoever. Leselie was impressed. More than once, they'd had to sell most of their horses in the fall due to an inability to find them affordable winter lodging.

 

The Herald wore white clothing; Leselie had been led to believe this was the their regular uniform. She was female, younger, pretty, and was seated -- bareback -- on a Companion. This Companion bore very little resemblance to the lame creature he'd met two days before. This Companion was sleek, lean, and bespoke to speed and grace in its very lines. The other one had been lame, stiff, a little overweight, and tense with pain. And her eyes had been the purest, saddest sapphire he had ever seen. Those eyes haunted his dreams now.

 

Why can't I get her eyes out of my mind? It was like looking into the eyes of an old friend and I think I broke her heart.

 

Foolishness, that was. The troupe needed him. He couldn't go running off from his current responsibilities just because a magical horse wanted him to be her best friend forever. Besides, he had no idea what he'd do at the Collegium. He certainly wasn't going to go on Circuit with a crippled Companion. He knew a bit about healing, could ride anything with four legs, and he could sing, dance, and act, but there were real Healers, better riders, and actual Bards here. He'd be a misfit and a burden to the other Heralds and he quite happy -- and needed -- where he was now.

 

"You broke her heart." Jethi had said, later. Scoldingly. But Sharina had been very glad he'd said no.

 

"Heylo." The Herald said cheerfully, as they approached. "I'm Herald Natassa and welcome to the Palace."

 

Was it his imagination, or was the Companion glaring at him? Her ears were flat to her head and she was looking right at him.

 


 

 

They were given several rooms to share in the palace itself -- something that surprised Leselie. Trusting people, these Valdemarans. For all they knew, he could be a thief. Or an assassin, for that matter .

 

And though they weren't exactly given free run of the grounds, it was made clear to them that they could eat in the common dining room, explore public areas of the palace, including the library, and mingle with the trainees. In fact, Natassa had suggested that the musically inclined members of their troupe were invited, tonight, to a common room next to the library. Apparently some of the younger members of the Bardic College were eager to discuss music with them. Ah, musicians. Students. I'd best go meet them; else, I'll probably be waylaid in some dark passage for my knowledge of lyrics from foreign lands.

 

Leselie was no gifted Bard, of course, but he was a fairly decent minstrel. When he'd shown a little talent (not Talent) his father had encouraged him, and had seen he had a variety of music, acting and dance lessons in hopes this would awaken a latent gift. Da always hoped I'd develop some gift: Bardic, Healing, Mind-Magic, Magic, anything. He spent most of my childhood trying to figure out what my Talent was. Couldn't accept his only son had no magic. Love the man, but he was obsessed about me having magic. And I don't, not a bit.

 

Gloomy thoughts, and in the past. I'm here, now, and I'm going to enjoy this.

 

It would be interesting, he thought, to meet the Bardic trainees. He'd not had much chance to talk to the locals; talking to trained musicians -- or musicians in training -- would be a bonus. Surely, they'd have some songs to share, and he could share his. 

 

Gittern in hand, he followed Myra and Jethi up to the designated common room.  Jethi probably did have a minor Bardic gift, though he'd never had an opportunity or any training to develop it.

 

There were more trainees in the room than he'd expected; at least two dozen people were sitting around tuning instruments and talking loudly. As they entered, silence fell and for a moment, he feared they'd made an error. Maybe they hadn't really been invited? He didn't know much about the culture. Maybe the invitation had merely been polite an they weren't actually expected to attend this little party?

 

Maybe this was a bad idea. I get the distinct impression that Collegium students are a sort of quasi-royalty in their own right in this strange country. All I am is mongrel bastard half-breed from a community most of these people have never even heard of.

 

But then all the trainees -- and a few full Bards, it turned out -- started talking at once. Their greeting was cheerful, a bit raucous, and very informal. He, Jethi and Myra, as guests, were invited to chose a song and play the first round. After a brief conference, they picked a love ballad. He accompanied Myra's strong soprano and Jethi's tenor with his gittern;  there was plenty of loud applause at the end.

 

"Can you run through that last bit again?" One of the young musicians asked. "Didn't quite get the fingering."

 

They went through the song again in bits, and then once again completely. It was, Leselie decided, quite an interesting experience to play before an audience that was taking notes .

 

Then it was the turn of one of the trainees, who chose to play a terribly sad song about a Herald named Vanyel. Leselie was captivated by the song ... the ballad made the Herald seem so heroic, so brave. Jethi made the trainee play the song through twice more, while he scribbled shorthand notes on a scrap of paper. Leselie knew he wouldn't remember the words, much less all the complex chords, but Jethi would. He had a mind like a trap and only needed to hear a song a few times before completely mastering it. Leselie, by contrast, had to practice a song over and over before he remembered all the notes and the nuances.

 

While Jethi discussed some fine point of fingering with another musician, Leselie's mind wandered. He knew he never would have fit in here, and the more he listened to the talented students talk he realized he just didn't have talents -- in any area -- that were close to the level needed to succeed at the Collegium. He was a very ordinary man, all things considered. His greatest gift was his stubborn persistence and his ability to remain level headed no matter the circumstances. Well, he was a good rider also, but that wasn't unusual here. All told, he had no major qualifications, no special gifts, nothing that set him apart. Yet, he'd been asked to be a Herald.

 

The Companion must have been mistaken. I'm not a hero. I'm an actor. A minstrel. Not a hero.

 

Unbidden, the clear memory of those brilliant blue eyes surfaced. Why did those eyes seem so familiar?

 

A woman at the back of the room burst out laughing, unexpected and without any obvious reason. Leselie twisted around to look at her. She wore a grey uniform similar to the Heraldic Whites in cut, and was seated crosslegged on a chair. She caught his gaze and made a vague gesture at her head with one hand. "Sorry. Fyfle said something funny."

 

"Her Companion." One of the Bardic trainees supplied helpfully.

 

Leselie, impulsively, got up and walked over to her. Myra and Jethi were still grilling the bard on the song about Vanyel, practicing certain riffs to get them right, so nobody was playing anything. He asked in a low voice, "What's it like to have a Companion?"

 

She grinned at him, "It's the best feeling in the world. Fyfle is ... is wonderful."

 

He ran a hand over his face. I so wish I had mind-magic. But I don't. "Do all Heralds have mind-magic?"

 

"Every one I've ever met." She said, cheerfully. "You've got to be able to communicate with your Companion somehow. Some Heralds don't have much, but everyone has something."

 

Those damnable blue eyes surfaced in his thoughts again. He'd seen hurt in them when he'd said no. More than mere 'hurt.' "So mind-magic is required?"

 

The Herald tilted her head to one side, and moved her lips in a silent conversation with someone else. Fyfle, Leselie realized. Halfway through the unvoiced exchange, her eyes widened, and she started to stare at him. Then she leaned forward, grabbed his wrist in a grasp like iron and said in a very angry voice, "How dare you say NO to YARELLA!"

 

He gaped at her. "What?"

 

Still holding his wrist in a painful grip, the woman lunged to her feet. She yanked him up, and snapped into his face, "How could you? Are you mad? "

 

Then her eyes went unfocused again. Her lips moved again. Color hit her cheeks like she'd been slapped. "Fyfle says you have no Gift. But how could you be Chosen without a Gift?"

 

He reclaimed his wrist, and rubbed it. "I told her that. I told her I didn't have a Gift. She should Chose someone else. Someone a lot better qualified than I am."

 

The Herald ran a hand over her hair. "I'm Seya. And she won't. She won't Chose anyone else. Though a Herald without mindmagic; that's unprecedented."

 

"I've got responsibilities. I can't be a Herald." He protested. He was aware, now, that everyone in the room was staring at him.

 

In response, she grabbed his wrist again, and hauled him out of the room by brute force. "I want you to see something. According to Fyfle, your Companion Yarella is damn near suicidal over this."

 

"She's not my Companion." He protested. "And she has no right , you people have no right , to tell me I have to, to, to ..."

 

He wasn't sure what they were actually telling him to do, so he changed the direction of his protest. "I have no magic. No Gifts. My father was an Adept; he spent most of my childhood trying to find any trace of a Gift in me. I have none . What good would I be as a Herald?"

 

She ignored him.

 

"How can she be suicidal? I don't even KNOW her!" He protested, as he was propelled into the hall by the woman's hand on his arm and her force of will. Jethi was laughing, laughing , at his unexpected predicament. "How can she be upset that a complete stranger said 'no' he doesn't want to be her special friend? You people are insane, all of you!"

 

Still protesting, he found himself marched down the hall, down three flights of stairs, and out a door into the chilly autumn night air.

 

"Where is she?" The woman asked, not him, but a question directed to thin air.

 

There was no audible answer to her question, but she evidently received a mindspoken response. There was real anger in her voice when she spoke to him now. "Did anyone ever bother to tell you that Companions are sent to us by divine powers? To be Chosen by one is to, in effect, be chosen by ..."

 

"I'm not Valdemaran!" He protested.

 

The look she gave him was purely disgusted. "You don't have to be. It's a divine call to be Chosen by a Companion."

 

"I follow the Star-Eyed." He snapped. "The Companions may be some sort of Guardian spirit -- that's what my father told me -- but they're not my Guardian spirits."

 

"Are you Sworn to the Star-Eyed?" The woman said, after a brief conversation with her Companion.

 

"No, but ..."

 

"Then she won't mind. She probably wouldn't mind sharing you with us even if you were sworn to her. She seems to be a pretty reasonable God all things considered. We've had a couple of other Shin'a'in here, you know. And we believe that there's no One-True-Way so we're not going to try to convert you if you don't want converting." The woman gave him a light push, steering him into the night.

 

"But I have plans for my life!"

 

"Like what?"

 

"Like, like, I don't know ..." He tried to pull free from the woman's grasp. She held his shoulder in an iron grip. She was not a large woman, but the hand that held him was heavily calloused. "How old are you?" She asked.

 

"Nineteen." He said that in a sullen tone of voice.

 

She snorted. "Old, to be Chosen."

 

"I'm NOT one of your 'Chosen.'"

 

"Yes you are. Duck under the fence."

 

He did as he told. The moral outrage in her words had him feeling absurdly guilty. I should just fight free and take off. This is absolutely ridiculous.

 

It was a full moon. There were Companions around them; ghostly shapes in the moonlight. One fell in behind them: a tall creature, with a scar on his face that gleamed a paler shade of white in the pale light. This was Fyfle, Leselie suspected. And I never thought of one with a scar, but that makes sense. They fight enough, and Dad always claimed they were mortal creatures for all that they're sent by divine powers.

 

And what do divine powers want with me? I'm just an actor . No magic, and the sight of blood makes me retch.

 

Even though the only illumination was moonlight, he somehow knew that the silvery shape curled up by a creek was Yarella. He recognized her even before she lifted her head at the approaching footfalls.

 


 

 

Yarella had been asleep when the sound of footsteps woke her. Somewhat confused, she lifted her head and looked for the source.

 

Fyfle, Seya, and ...

 

Yarella scrambled to her feet as she saw the thin young man in Seya's grasp.

 

:What? What's this?: She asked Fyfle.

 

Fyfle said, rather smugly, :We got him for you.:

 

Leselie looked sullen, angry, and unlikely to change his mind. He's stubborn.

 

:I didn't want him 'gotten!' : She protested, to the entire Companion herd.

 

Fyfle passed the comment on to his Chosen. She said, aloud, "But 'Ella ..."

 

:It's not fair to him.: She turned her head away, not looking at him. :None of this is fair to him. He's my Chosen -- I couldn't keep that from the others -- but I'm a cripple, Seya. It's not fair to make him be a Herald when he doesn't want to be one, and I ... well, look at me.:

 

Fyfle snorted, :Yarella, are you daft?:

 

:I want what's best for him. Which, as much as my heart breaks, is for him to go free . Let him be . :

 

Fyfle passed that comment on to Seya, who said sharply, "No! This isn't right!"

 

Yarella's ears pinned flat to her skull and she shot Seya a look that was dangerous. :LET HIM GO.:

 

Seya snapped her hand free of Leselie's shoulders. Yarella had a reputation for speaking to anyone she chose -- mostly when she was bored. But Seya had never heard anyone that angry in her life. The raw fury startled her as much as Yarella's mindspoken words.

 

"What did she say?" Leselie asked, startled by Seya's reaction.

 

Yarella ignored that. She turned on her haunches and left at a limping trot.

 

Seya sighed, and after a brief conversation with Fyfle, passed all of Yarella's comments -- to both of them -- on verbatim.

 

Leselie studied them for a moment, frowning. Fyfle had draped his head over Seya's shoulder. The two were pressed together, as if drawing emotional support from one another. Like lovers, almost.  He hugged himself, and said, "She said let me go?"

 

"She ... she thinks you would be better off without her." Seya said. "She said to let you go, and I wish you could have heard the grief in the lady's words when she said it."

 

He sighed. "What good am I without a Gift?"

 

Fyfle snorted. :Seya, tell him that sometimes having no Gift at all is a Talent in and of itself .:

 

She repeated his words.

 

"I don't understand."

 

"Neither do I. Look ... you can always leave, later. We won't stop you. But why not at least give us a chance?" Seya said. She ran a hand through her hair. "I'm sorry I overreacted a bit, but ..."

 

He blew out a sharp breath. "Divinely called, eh?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"My cousins have a saying: 'Never say no to a God, it's bad luck.' "

 

"Shin'a'in?" Seya said, with a smile.

 

"Yeah. My father's side of the family comes from half a dozen places, but mostly Tayledras. Mother was Shin'a'in." He sighed again. "Okay, I'll ... I'll talk to her. But I'm not promising anything."

 


 

 

Her tracks were easy to follow in the dew-silvered grass. She hadn't gone far; he found her five minutes away, hunched under a tree. Her coat gleamed in the shadows.

 

"Yarella."

 

Her head came up. Then she looked away from him.

 

"I ... I just came to talk to you. But I'm not promising anything. I ... my father traveled here in Valdemar, a couple decades ago. He told me a bit about your kind, so I know you're as smart as any human. He told me you were Guardian spirits, sent to guide and protect Heralds."

 

She studied him. Her eyes were blue even in the dim moonlight. Slowly, she nodded once.

 

He walked closer, until they were standing only a couple feet apart. "I just ... I just don't see how you can guide me if I can't hear what you need to tell me."

 

She sighed, an obvious and very mortal sigh. The lines of her body were infinitely sad. Her head sagged, and she wouldn't meet his gaze.

 

Hesitantly, he reached a hand out and cupped it under her chin. A sparse outcrop of whiskers on her jaw were prickly, but her the skin was as smooth as velvet and warm in the chilly autumn air. He pulled her head up so she was looking him in the eyes. "Why me?" He asked. "What good can I do _you_?"

 

He nearly jumped out of his skin when light flared over their heads.

 

"Are you doing that?" He squinted at the gleaming light.

 

She stepped back, and nodded. The light damped. It was golden, and steady, a gleaming phosphorescent glow that hovered in mid-air. Then, as he watched, it formed a letter, 'P.'

 

He lifted an eyebrow. "You cast glamours?"

 

*a-r-t-y t-r-i-c-k.*  The light spelled out. The words were Valdemaran, but to his surprise, she was using the Rethwellan alphabet. She had apparently picked up on his accent; he'd spent much of his childhood there.

 

He snorted. "If you say so. Can all Companions do that?"

 

*N-o. A-n-d I d-o-n-t k-n-o w w-h-a-t I-m t-o d-o w-i-t-h y-o-u. I-f y-o-u h-a-v-e n-o-t n-o-t-i-c-e-d ...*

 

There was a brief pause, and the light started spelling words out several letters at a time. *I'm crip-pled. What good am I as a Comp-anio-n?*

 

"I'd think your wisdom would be more important than your legs." He stared up at the light, waiting for her response.

 

The light remained frozen on the 'n' of 'Companion' for several moments. When she responded, the light was dimmer. *And I-was sent to guid-e you.*

 

She tilted her head to the side, considering something. *I wond-ered why I-was give-n the Gift of illu-sion-s and Fetching. It is not a typ-ical tale-nt for a Comp-an-ion. May-be some-body knew I would need to talk to you.* Humor lit her eyes, *It's not like I can just pick up a pen.*

 

The last thing he'd been expecting out of a divine talking horse was a clear sense of humor. He stared at her for a moment, then recovered, and said, "I'm not saying yes, lady, but ... well, at least I know I can talk to you."

 

*I'm not a lady!*  She made a rude-sounding noise. Then she sighed, and spelled out, *I think perh-aps you wou-ld be bet-ter off say-ing no. I will NOT stop you from leav-ing.*

 

"Why would I be better off?" He asked.   And not fifteen minutes ago I would have agreed with her. Star-eyed, I'm not seriously considering this idea, am I?

 

*Bec-ause of the ob-vious.*

 

"Your legs?" He glanced down at them. "Or the fact I'm unGifted?"

 

*Me. I nev-er shou-ld have appr-oach-ed you.*

 

Hesitantly, he stepped closer to her. "Your right foot's foundered, correct? I saw it a couple of days ago."

 

*Yes.*

 

"What's wrong with the left?"

 

*Brok-en. Joint fus-ed.*

 

"Mm. My father's a Healing Adept." He grinned suddenly, "Lady, maybe we were meant to find each other. I bet he can fix those legs; I've seen him correct far worse in horses." And I can just see his face now. Hey da, look what followed me home! "In fact, that's one of the ways we made our living: he'd buy broken down beasts, fix their problems, and sell them for a profit. He never accepted money for Healing."

 

Her ears pricked all the way foreward. *Rea-lly?*

 

"Maybe." He temporized. Now he remembered that not all the horses his father had purchased had been cured. Just some.

 

"See? Div-ine guid-ance." Her expression was smug. She reached her nose out and gave him a light push in the middle of his chest. Then she added, "I wou-ld give any-thing to not hurt."

 

Hesitantly, he stroked the nose that was pressed against his chest. "Well, Lady, I don't have a problem with arranging that for you. It's about time I paid Da a visit anyway."

 

"Where does he live?" She looked down at her legs, and took a step back, away from him.

 

"Last time I heard? In a Tayledras Vale. He said something about being interested in gryphons, I dunno."

 

"How long to get there?" She gave her feet another look.

 

He pursed his lips in thought. "Walking the whole way? If you can do ten miles a day, and allowing for bad weather and assorted delays? Four, five weeks."

 

"Snows are com-ing." She sighed aloud.

 

Later, he wouldn't be able to explain why he answered as he did. But impulsively, he said, "Get it approved with your superiors, and we can set out tomorrow."

 

"What about your resp-onsi-bili-ties to your trou-pe?"

 

He realized he was stroking her nose again. It was easy to do, he felt _drawn_ to her. "Sharina's going to write a new play for us to perform for you folks anyway. So she can just write me out of it. Jethi can take my place. He's better than I am, if I'm being honest, and he's been my understudy for far too long." He shrugged. "I've been with the troupe since I was fifteen. Da was going off to help with some war, and didn't want me along, so he handed me off to Sharina. She's a good woman, but it's time ... maybe it's time I struck out on my own."

 

"You're scar-ed of be-ing alone?" The words shimmered in the air.

 

"Yeah." He admitted. Though if anyone but a talking horse had asked him, he probably would have denied it.

 

That soft nose bumped him in the chest again. "I'll be with you."

 

And why does that make my heart sing?

 

Impulsively, he rested his own forehead against hers and wrapped his arms around her neck. She sighed and leaned into his embrace, and he felt like he'd hugged her a thousand times before. Despite his deep misgivings, just for a moment, it felt like he'd come home.

Chapter Text

"You can't LEAVE!" Sharina paced the breadth of the small sitting room the troupe shared. "Leselie, I need you. You're the lead of the play I'm writing!"

 

He sighed, "Sharina, Jethi's been waiting for an opportunity like this. You should give the role to him ."

 

"We're going to be performing before the Queen of Valdemar! Doesn't that mean anything to you? This is the chance we've all been waiting for!"

 

Actually, that did mean a lot to him. But he shrugged again. "My decision's made."

 

"You mean, your decision was made for you!" She grabbed his shoulders and shook him. "You're not Valdemaran. You don't need to go with that damned horse!"

 

"No. I don't. And I think that's why I'm doing this. Yarella has as many misgivings as I do. And decision being made for me?" He glanced skyward. "Maybe."

 

"Oh, no. Don't you go religious on me."

 

He shrugged. "I've got to do this, Sharina. I don't know why, I just do ."

 

"But ..."

 

"I'll be back after thaw." He turned, then looked back at her. "Don't worry about me, I'll be in good company."

 


 

 

"Yarella, are you insane?" Res protested. Word had spread around the Collegium like wildfire -- that Yarella had Chosen and was planning to walk across Valdemar in the winter on what many viewed as a hare-brained attempt to have her feet healed. The farrier had appeared in the stable as she was eating her morning grain.

 

:Of course .: She responded, without lifting her nose from the grain.

 

"You can't possibly be considering walking cross-country in the winter!"

 

:At least you're not telling me I can't even trust Leselie.: She sounded annoyed, not at him, but in general.

 

"Well, you Chose him." Res shrugged.  "But are you sure this man can fix your legs? We have no shortage of Healing knowledge here , either."

 

:Roland knows I'm going . :

 

:Does he approve ?"

 

:He said he wouldn't stop me. He also said he thinks I'm right; that this might be Divine Guidance. Companions are not meant to be crippled, Res. It's not part of our job description.: He'd also suggested she send a messenger to summon Leselie's father to the capital, but she wasn't going to mention that.  The thought of waiting all winter to have her legs healed was agonizing. She wanted to run !

 

"You're mortal. Accidents happen."

 

:I'm also going so you're wasting your breath.:

 

He ran a hand down his face, then asked with a wry smile, "So if you get your legs fixed, will you turn into one of those aloof, mysterious creatures in the Field that won't even talk to us mere humans?"

 

She looked sideways at him. And sent him a vision of his handsome rear end. And then sent him a telekinetic pinch. And sauntered off, tail flagged over her back, eyes twinkling.

 

"Wench!" He called after her, ears burning.

 


 

 

It actually took three days to get on the road. Leselie was astonished when the Heralds cheerfully provided him with a horse, pack horse, tack, and all the gear he could have desired. They'd also given him a grey uniform to wear; he still hadn't donned it.  They'd even offered him a sword and bow; he'd accepted the bow but declined the sword. He was no swordsman and he knew just enough to know he'd be useless in a real fight with one.

 

"You're one of us, now." The Queen's Own, Talia, had explained to him, with a grin. "This is a bit unorthodox -- we'd like you to spend a couple years at the Collegium before you travel on your own. But we discussed it, and the consensus was that if your father can help Yarella, that's more important than anything we can teach you here. When you come back, of course, you're going to need four or five years of schooling."

 

It had helped that Herald Kerowyn had known of his father. And so had a couple of the Tayledras ambassadors. He wasn't surprised that his Da's reputation had preceded him; his father was both flamboyant and very good.

 

Talia had also added, "I wish we could send someone with you, but with the mess that the country's in after the last year, we can't spare anyone. The mage storms left a bloody disaster behind we're still recovering from. There are changebeasts everywhere, and you wouldn't believe the political messes we've got to handle too ..."

 

Talia trailed off, and then added, "Be careful out there, Leselie. The Herald who rides the road you'll follow is two days overdue and nobody's seen him. We think there's a changebeast out there, left over from last winter, but we haven't found it yet. We've got hunters out, but ..." She trailed off again. "Be careful. I'd forbid you from going, but the Companions are all saying to let you two go."

 

Three days of packing, tracking down maps, and getting briefed by every Herald in the place on things-he-should-know and they were finally on the road.

 

On the road like a herd of turtles , he thought, uncharitably impatient. The best speed Yarella could manage without agony was a fast walk. It made his saddlehorse impatient and irritable when he forced it to match her slow speed, and it hurt to watch her struggle.

 

They were leaving the outskirts of Havens behind after traveling all day at a slow, stumbling pace. Had he been able to push the horse to a quick trot, it would taken him only an candlemark cover the same distance. His initial assessment of Yarella's ability to cover ten miles a day seemed overly optimistic, now, though she was gamely limping along without complaint.

 

Farmland stretched out on either side of the road, and the road itself was well maintained. They traveled side-by-side, he on the lean grey Shin'a'in bred saddlehorse (and not a cull, he was happy to find), and Yarella beside him.

 

He glanced at her.He could see the lines of agony in her body. There was a diagonal ridge of muscle across her ribs, standing out in stark relief: she was tensed up against the pain. Her ears were nearly flat to her skull, her tail was clamped to her rump, and she was grinding her teeth with a steady squeak-squeak-squeak. Her eyes were almost closed, and her nostrils were pinched tight. In short, she looked terrible. Yet she had not complained at all.

 

"You want to stop?"

 

*Not evening yet.*

 

"Well, I'm hungry."

 

Eat ride-ing, then.

 

The words formed with tense, quick motions. Cranky words.

 

"Hey, don't snap at me." He knew he was being snapped at, though how, he wasn't sure. "I volunteered for this, remember?"

 

She glanced sideways at him. Then she blew out a sharp sigh and touched his knee with her muzzle. Wordless apology.

 

"If that bone in your hoof rotates any more, according to Res, it could puncture the sole of your foot. Or worse, you could slough off your hoof, if you have another attack."

 

She pinned her ears at him.

 

"Or you could abscess. Do you want to abscess?"

 

He knew from speaking to her farrier that she'd abscessed dozens of times over her lifetime: the damaged structures of her hoof had become infected, and the result had been excruciating pain and a need for the immediate attention of a Healer.

 

"Or that other foot could founder." He continued to tick off possibilities, "Or you could rupture the tendons in that other leg. They're already contracted, I can see it from here. Or ..."

 

She shot him an unmistakably dirty look.

 

"What I'm saying is, I don't want to have to carry you over the mountains. Let's take it easy." He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. He lied, "Anyway, my rump hurts. I haven't ridden a horse all day in a couple of years. What say you we stop at the next inn we pass for a break?"

 


 

 

"Do you want to stop for the night at an inn or camp?" He asked, three days later. Her ability to walk had not improved and she still looked awful. It was early, but he was concerned about her. She'd started sweating from pain.

 

He added, "My vote is for sleeping under the stars. I like the stars, and it looks like it's going to be a clear night."

 

Honestly, he'd prefer a warm bed and a hot meal, and the next inn was two hours ahead at their slow pace.

 

"Camp, then." The words flashed into view very briefly. Tired words, he suspected.

 

Shortly, they found a clearing beside the road. It was close to dusk; the sun was perhaps fifteen minutes from sliding over the horizon. Long shadows slid across the landscape, and golden sunbeams filtered through the trees.  

 

"Pretty place." He commented, as he dismounted.

 

She nodded without comment, which surprised him. Despite the fact that casting illusions of words must have cost her a considerable amount of energy, she seemed to have a comment for everything.

 

Probably why she speaks to everyone we pass. She's just one of those people who can't keep their mouths shut about anything and she loves getting a reaction from people. She always has an opinion, or a smart remark, or 'I remember when ...' story to tell. And she can't stand the self-imposed silence most Companions suffer under. Maybe it's fortunate that we can't talk mind-to-mind. I'd probably kill her.

 

She must be really tired if she doesn't have anything to say, though. Or hurting . Gotta give the lady credit there; she hasn't complained once and -- look at her! -- now that we've stopped she's got her back legs tucked underneath her to take the weight off the front, she hurts so bad. Wish there was some kind of pain killer we can give her, but the Healers said they'd tried everything they knew. Willowbark's not that effective in horses -- and she may not be a horse but she's got the gut of one -- and everything else made her sick. I suspect if she'd let the Healers know how much she really hurts, they'd have used magic to take the worst of the pain away.

 

But she just doesn't complain. Even when she should.

 

"You should lie down." He said, indicating a grassy patch of ground. "I'll find some firewood and then join you. I'm beat."

 

With a brief nod, she eased herself to the ground. Immediately, she looked better. The lines of pain faded from around her muzzle and eyes.  

 

He did as he'd said, and very quickly gathered enough wood to last through the night. He wasn't particularly tired; they'd been traveling slowly and with frequent breaks. I know we're going to get caught by the snows. But founder's nothing to mess with, and Res made it pretty clear to me that a horse as severely foundered as she is would have been put down. We've got to take it slow; if that foot flares up out here, and all I can find to work on her is some back-country iron hanger, we've had it.

 

The thought of losing Yarella in such a horrible way -- to infection, most likely -- was sickening. He swallowed hard, and fumbled with his flint. The tinder wouldn't catch; there was just a bit of a wind. He swore softly, in Karsi.

 

Suddenly, untouched by a spark, a fire flared in the tinder.

 

He glanced back at Yarella. "Handy talent, that."

 

Wonder what else she can do? I got the impression from the Heralds that they are not aware of her extra Gifts and that true magic is rare among Companions. They have mindspeech, and empathy, and a few other things are expected, but not the ability to cast illusions. Or, apparently, start a fire.

 

Her words formed slowly in front of him -- she was behind him -- as if she was doing the impossible and reading his mind. "I'm a Mage."

 

"Mmm. What school?" He asked, absently. His attention was on coaxing the tiny fire to spread to the slightly damp wood he'd collected.

 

She tilted her head, as if considering the answer. "It's not impo-rtant."

 

"Your philosophy towards magic isn't important?" He glanced back at her.

 

She blinked guilelessly at him, and formed the words over her head, since he was looking in her direction. "No."

 

He shrugged. "What can you do?"

 

"A touch of fire start-ing and Fetching. Very good glam-ours, as you've seen. Most Comp-anio-ns can cast glam-ours; we use them some-times to look like ordi-nary horses. I just happ-en to be part-icul-arly good at them."

 

"What else?" He asked.

 

"I'm a Mage." As if that was an answer in and of itself.

 

He sighed. "Okay, I won't pry. You have your secrets, I have mine."

 

"You have secr-ets?" She perked up.

 

The fire was burning decently. He stood up, tousled her forelock with one hand, and said, "Everybody has secrets."

 

"I see."

 

And why does she look so hurt ? Hypocrite. She refuses to tell me what sort of Magics she has, and then she's offended when I claim to have secrets of my own.

 

And I am not spilling my soul to a talking horse.

 

Damnit, she does look miserable, though. She's hurting; that's probably part of the reason why she's so sensitive.

 

Hesitantly, he reached out and stroked her forelock again. "Yarella, I just don't feel like talking about my secrets. Anymore than you want to talk about yours."

 

"Can't. Rules." She blew out a sharp sigh. "Or beli-eve me, I'd tell you. Do you know what it's like to sit on the big-gest sec-ret in the world and not be able to tell anyone?"

 

"I just wanted to know what your school was."

 

"And that would be a Clue and I can't even give Clues." She blew out a sharp breath. "Hon-est-ly? I don't know why they made me a Comp-anion. I don't think I have the right mind-set for the job."

 

"Made you a Companion?" He asked, curiously. "What were you before?"

 

The words formed rapidly, with savage strokes of an unseen brush. "Oh, sketi ."

 

She put her head down on her knees and looked up at him with blue eyes that were absolutely inscrutable. Evidently, she'd said something she wasn't supposed to say.

 

Clues, indeed. So what was she before she was a Companion? Father said Companions are Guardian spirits. Spirits maybe mean ghosts. Ah!

 

He grinned at her, and said teasingly, "Clues, Yarella?"

 

"I'm tired, my legs hurt, and I think I'm going to go to sleep."

 

Chuckling at her obvious evasion, he retrieved dinner for both of them -- grain for her, and cheese and bread for him -- from his saddlebags. She ate the grain with one eye on him, and one ear cocked in his direction.

 

Probably waiting for me to pry. Well, I'm going to let her suffer; serves her right. I think I know the little secret she's trying to keep, and it's really not that earth-shattering of an idea. The Star-Eyed does the same thing; my Shin'a'in cousins are on a first name basis with Her Guardian spirits! Some of whom were the friends and family members of said cousins. Sheesh. Foreigners have the weirdest ideas sometimes.

 

Huh. Well, with that idea in mind ... let's see ... based on her personality, and a few things I've seen her do, hmmm. What school of magic might she be? Or more properly, was ? And I wonder if, when they come 'round again as Companions, they keep the same Gifts as they had before? I wonder if magical Gifts are related to one's soul or one's mortal form?

 

Be hell to be a horse with Bardic Gift, now wouldn't it?

 

He sat cross-legged on a rock and ate his bread and cheese. The cheese was sharp, brightly orange, and crumbly. It went well with the biscuits he'd purchased at an inn, earlier in the day. Yarella watched him covertly, still waiting for him to say something.

 

Ah, I can't resist. Too good of an opportunity. Miss Wiseass is rubbing off on me.

 

"White Winds, right? But not modern ... several decades ago."

 

She gave him a startled look, and choked on her grain.

 

"Don't bother answering." He said, leaning back against the rock, lacing his fingers behind his head, and closing his eyes. "I know I'm right."

 

Nice thing about a visual conversation: It was very easy for him to get in the last word. Even allowing for his complete lack of mindmagic, he could feel her fuming in annoyance a couple feet away.

 


 

 

How the hell did he figure that out?

 

Yarella glowered at Leselie's sleeping form.

 

For someone who has absolutely nil magical ability, he knows a frightening amount. I believe his father was an Adept; he apparently tutored his son very well. I'm not sure if I'm eager to meet the man, or if I should be worried!

 

Her annoyance softened, as she watched the young man sleep. He was rolled up in his bedroll between her and the fire they'd started. Asleep, he looked younger, and somehow vulnerable.

 

Need to ask him how old he is. I don't even know. Funny thing for a Companion not to know. I'd guess eighteen or nineteen; I think he acts older than he is.

 

Awake, he was tough, competent, and reserved. That made him look older than he really was. And quiet . I wish I could mindspeak him, I really do. I'm so bored. Talking with glowing letters is clumsy, and it gives me a headache.

 

He was absolutely nothing like Herald she'd expected to have. She had dreamed of somebody who laughed often, told bawdy jokes, and who was unhesitatingly heroic and wildly Talented. She had not expected to find herself bonded with such a quiet, calm, sensible and patient man. He was kind and gentle, but he was not at all what she'd dreamed of.

 

Who says the Gods don't have a sense of humor?

 

Ah, but I'd give anything for someone to talk to. Our communications are so limited and it wears me out to chat with him for long. I'm ready to start talking to that saddle mare, I'm so bored.

 

She sighed and rolled over onto her side. With practiced effort, she blocked out the steady throbbing of her right food and the pain in her back that was caused by her uneven stride, and drifted off to sleep. It would be another long day tomorrow ...

Chapter Text

The woman was slim, athletic, with blond hair pulled back in a tail and eyes with smile lines in the corners. Not old -- maybe twenty-five or thirty. But the marks of a life in the open were weathered on her narrow face. Herder born, Leselie guessed.

 

Then he wondered how he'd gotten here. He stood in the Grove -- in the same moonlit clearing where he'd first talked to Yarella and where he'd decided to take her to his father for healing.

 

Then he saw her eyes: they were blue, that ethereal blue of Companions and Adepts and all those who touched node magic. A mage, then.

 

A familiar mage. He recognized the eyes, though how he did, he couldn't say. "Yarella?"

 

"Leselie. We're dreaming. It's the Bond." The woman spoke, and her words seemed to resonate through his core.

 

"What Bond?"

 

"Herald-Companion Bond." The woman tossed her head, and grinned. The head-toss was a horsey gesture, odd on a woman. "You do have the potential for the Bond, or I could not have Chosen you."

 

"But how can we be talking ...I do not have mind-magic?"

 

The woman shrugged. She stepped closer to him, and grinned a lopsided grin. "The Bond does not rely on mindspeech or empathy or any of our usual Gifts. It's another Gift entirely. And all Heralds have it."

 

"Will we be able to talk ... when we wake?"

 

She shook her head. "No. I think, perhaps, with training, you could trance and speak to me. They'll teach you how, at the Collegiate. But that will never be easy for you. However, dreaming ... dreaming is different."

 

"Why am I wet?" He asked, suddenly, noticing his clothes were soaked through, although his surrounding were dry.

 

" Sketi. " Yarella said a bad word.

 

Then he woke, and the transition was almost painful as he was soaked through. His blanket was sopping wet, and his clothing underneath was dripping when he stood up.

 

Yarella scrambled to her feet, and shook like a dog. Horse-scented water went everywhere, including on Leselie, who glared at her.

 

"It was bloody clear when we went to bed!" Leselie snarled at no one in particularly. Barefoot, he squealched across the muddy ground to the fire and frowned at it. The ashes had turned to a grey slurry; he certainly wasn't going to have hot tea for breakfast. And he was cold. Goosebumps stood out on his bare arms. It was pouring rain; large drops pelted down from the sky.

 

Yarella shook again, this time far enough from him to avoid showering him with water.

 

Swearing under his breath, with a far larger vocabulary than Yarella had used, he glowered up at  leadbellied clouds that were no higher than the treetops. It was just after dawn, but there wasn't a bird singing. Everything had sought cover.

 

Everything but one stupid actor too naive to pitch a tent on a clear night. I hate Valdemar. One minute it's starry, the next it's pouring, the next the snow's up to my ass. I wonder if I could convince Yarella to run away with me somewhere warm ?

 

And that thought shocked him. Because he'd automatically included her  -- 'run away with.'

 

Because I can't imagine a life without her in it.

 

Damn. I've been bespelled. Maybe Da can lift this enchantment. I can't believe this is natural , I've known her less than a week. Damn.

 

Frowning, and shivering, he hurriedly tacked up the grey saddle mare and the pack horse. The Heralds had included an oilcloth cloak for him, and a blanket of the same material for Yarella. He had been led to understand that they were far more concerned about Yarella's health than they would have been about any other Companion in the field. Yarella was a crippled and beloeved mascot to most of the Collegium. And Star-Eyed help me if I don't bring her back alive and in better condition than when we left. I think they'd string me up and leave me to swing.

 

"You want your blanket?" He asked.

 

She shook her head. She didn't look cold; like horses, her coat was designed to shed water.

 

He pulled his cloak over his wet clothing, and fished a canvas hat out of the packhorse's panniers. Then, with a hunk of cold and rather damp cheese in one hand, he mounted the saddlehorse. "You ready to go?"

 

By way of answer, she headed for the road.

 

It was pouring . The rain roared down through the trees, stripping off the autumn-gold leaves and pounding forcefully into the ground. Rivers of water coursed across the road, and his mount slipped and slid in the mud. The packhorse, burdened by dead weight, went to its knees within fifty feet.

 

Yarella moved cautiously, stiffly, but was a good bit more sure-footed than the horses. She picked her way carefully through the ankle-deep runnels of water and the slippery puddles.

 

They traveled for several hours through pounding rain. For once, Leselie suspected he was more miserable than Yarella. Under the oilcloth cloak, his clothing was steamy damp and chafed at his skin. His spectacles fogged. His fingers turned to prunes and were stained red by a dye used on the mare's reins. His hat directed a steady stream of cold water directly into his crotch, where there happened to be a seam in the fabric of the cloth.

 

Yarella just plodded on.

 

They stopped for lunch at an inn. It was still raining, and the boy who ran out to take their horses looked like a drowned rat. Leselie dismounted into three inches of mud and handed the reins off to the child. "Can you give all three of them a bran mash?"

 

The boy nodded. "How come she's not got a halter on?"

 

"Because she's a Companion." Leselie said, glancing at Yarella. She stood with her eyes closed, and her white coat was covered in sticky mud.

 

The boy's eyes widened. He shot a startled look at Yarella; presumably, she had clarified the point as well. "Oh! You're a Herald! Where's your uniform, then?"

 

"I'm a ..." He still hadn't agreed to even become a Trainee. "I'm Chosen, I suppose, but I'm not a Herald yet."

 

"Great! C'mon, milady, I'll show you to the box stalls we keep for Companions. No doors, you know."

 

The boy ran off, with the horses trotting after him, and Yarella trailing behind.

 

"'Ella."

 

She stopped at his words, and looked over her shoulder.

 

"I'll be out in a bit."

 

She nodded, and went away with the boy.

 

Now why did I say that?

 

Because I'm afraid something will happen to her when she's out of my sight. And I know she'll be lonely by herself. Damn, I'm a besotted fool. 

 

But it was true. He didn't want to let her out of his sight. He was afraid something might happen to her. That he'd lose her. Plus he wanted her to be happy, and he didn't think she would like being alone in the stall. It might have been different if he'd had mind speech and could have kept her "company" from inside the Inn. He decided impulsively to wait out the storm in the stall with her, rather than a room in the Inn. It would be colder but he found he looked forward to her company.

 

I am such a besotted fool. I can't wait until I get to Da and get him to lift this damned enchantment.

Chapter Text

Enchantment or no, bad weather or no, he gobbled down his food in record time, then hurried out to the stables. There, he rummaged through the packhorse's panniers and found a dry change of clothes. It had been raining so hard earlier that he'd thought it pointless to change into something dry.

The rain had finally let up, though dark grey clouds still hung low over the landscape. The air was damp, saturated with moisture, and smelled of wet pine trees and livestock.

He ducked into Yarella's stall. "Watch the door for me, will you?"

The boy hadn't been kidding when he said the box stalls had no doors. They were open to the elements -- not a problem for an equine, but he didn't want anyone walking in on him while he changed into his dry clothes.

Yarella regarded him with her ears far, far too forward when he stripped out of his damp shirt. Her eyes were positively gleaming.

"And turn your back, lady." He threw the shirt at her head. "Drool is unbecoming."

She ducked the thrown shirt -- it hit the far wall with a splat -- and nickered a chuckle at him. Then she turned around so that she was both blocking the door and not looking directly at him.

"Ahem." He didn't think words were necessary. She was hassling him deliberately. His Companion (and when had he started thinking of her as his?) had an obnoxious sense of humor. She seemed to delight in provoking reactions from people, just for chance to laugh at them.

She snickered -- it was definitely a snicker, and not a nicker -- and took a step forward so that the frame of the doorway blocked her view. Horses -- and Companions -- had remarkable peripheral vision.

"You're rude, you know that?" Once dressed again, he patted her shoulder to take the sting from his words as he walked past her. He was rummaging in a pannier for his comb when a sudden movement in his peripheral vision made him whirl.

Yarella. Charging him. Teeth bared. Ears pinned. Eyes narrowed to slits.

He reacted from pure instinct -- he dove out of her way with an oath in Rethwellan. Yarella's hooves hit where he'd been kneeling moments before.

"Yarella! What the ..."

Madly, he tried to make sense of her attack! She was coming again ... mouth open, enormous white teeth exposed. There was no sanity in her eyes.

He scrambled to his feet and bolted. Humans had better acceleration over a short distance than equines; he proved it. There was a woodpile beside the inn. He leaped onto the woodpile and from the woodpile, he scrambled for the roof.

Yarella hit the side of the inn with enough force to crack timbers. The inn shuddered.

"Yarella!" He screamed at her, "Yarella!"

Inside the inn, there was screaming. For half a heartbeat, he thought that the screaming was in response to Yarella's attack. Then a girl, a teenager, one of the tavern's servants, stumbled out into the open courtyard. Blood was streaming down her face. A man pursued her, swinging a frying pan like a club. The girl snatched up a log from the woodpile and fought back, with demented ferocity.

Yarella charged into the fray, grabbed the man by the shoulders and shook him like a rat-dog killing a rabbit. The girl, however, attacked Yarella, hitting the Companion across the haunches with the log. It was a tremendous blow; Yarella went to her knees. Then, no trace of pain in her movements, the Companion whirled and grabbed the girl by the arm and flung her into the side of the inn with bone-breaking force.

"Stop!" Leselie screamed, "STOP IT!"

What was wrong?!!

More people ran into the courtyard. They all leaped into the fray with no goal save brutal death and destruction. It was a wild melee; there was no rhyme nor reason to it. Children, men, women, adults, and one demented Companion fought in a frenzied, terrible brawl. Blood was everywhere. Unmoving forms lay in the mud. People screamed in anger. There was no sign any of them felt pain.

Magic, it had to be.

"YARELLA! SHIELD!" He bellowed from his vantage point on the roof. "SHIELD!"

But she couldn't. Whatever was doing this was immensely powerful. He couldn't feel it, but he had no trace of any gift. Mindmagic, however, was common in Valdemar; many people had at least latent gifts.

Abruptly, it ended. Yarella staggered to her knees, bleeding from a dozen wounds. Injured people moaned and screamed. Someone vomited into the mud.

Yarella looked up at him, eyes rolling white, then scrambled back to her feet. *Follow me.* The words formed in the air behind her as she headed for the inn door.

He dropped off the roof. Yarella, hooves thundering on the wooden floor, trotted -- limping, but frantic -- through the common room of the inn. She stopped short in a hallway, foiled by a narrow and rickety flight of stairs. Had the steps been remotely capable of supporting her weight he knew she would have gone right up them. Hesitantly, she put a front foot on the first step. It creaked alarmingly. *Up there.*

"What's up there?" He stared at the golden words.

*Proj-ect-ive emp-ath.*

"Damned angry one."

*Frightened. Insane. And you will not be affected.* She responded, words flashing up so fast he nearly couldn't read them. She pawed, though, with her foundered foot. Her body language belied her words. She was very concerned. "Get him, bring him down the stairs."

She was right, he realized. Anyone with any trace of a talent had just tried to kill each other even though he had never felt a thing.

"I need a weapon ..." He didn't want to go up there unarmed.

She shook her head, *He pass-ed out.*

"Any idea what set him off?"

She shook her head in a quick negative.

He hesitated, then ducked around her and grabbed a poker from beside the common room fire. Yarella, expression troubled, stepped aside to let him pass. Words formed on the stairs in front of him as he climbed. *Be care-ful.*

"No joke." He muttered, not loud enough for her to hear.

There was a hallway at the top of the stairs, barely narrow enough for one person. There wasn't enough room to swing the poker, so he held it out before him like a sword.

The first two doors were locked. He left them for later, if necessary. The third door was open; there was a dead man inside. Across the room from him, another man stared at the corpse with a horrified look on his face and blood on his hands. "What ... what have I done?"

Leselie swallowed down bile.

*Ashke ...* The man said, dropping to his knees.

Sketi, as Yarelli would say. "Not your fault." Leselie said, "We've got a rogue talent somewhere in this building."

And I don't even want to think about the kind of power that can affect Yarella like that. She killed at least two people that I saw. I don't think it's hit her yet.

With that scant comfort, all he had time to offer, Leselie continued down the hall. What am I doing? I'm a gleeman, not a Herald. I'm no hero. Why am I doing this?

Because I'm probably the only person in this building, maybe the whole town, who will keep a level head if Sir Rogue starts spitting out bad feelings again. Most people have some trace of a talent, however slight. Our rogue talent must have one hell of a Gift to be able to affect even the just-potentially-talented.

He sighed and pushed another door open. A frightened woman yelped.

"Sorry." He shut the door. She wasn't what he was looking for. He wasn't sure what he was looking for, but Yarella had said 'he.' So he was assuming the culprit was male.

The last door opened at his touch, revealing another dead body. Self inflicted, apparently: both of the man's wrists were slashed to the bone, from the wrist to the elbow.

He almost shut the door, but then he saw a patch of fur sticking out from under the bed. He thought, at first, that it was a dog. Warily, he entered the room, poker at the ready. The wood floor was slippery with blood and urine from the corpse. He found a clean patch of floor, dropped to one knee, and peered under the bed.

The thing was unconscious. He could see the whites of rolled-up eyes.

Warily, he reached a hand under the bed, grabbed a handful of the filthy and oversized tunic the creature was wearing, and pulled. Then he jumped back, poker held high for a killing blow.

The creature didn't move. Changebeast. It's a Changebeast.

It was small -- child-sized -- and covered entirely in thick black hair. It wore a stained and smelly tunic many sizes too large, and stank of sweat, blood, vomit, and terror. A mouth filled with entirely too many sharp teeth lolled open.

I should kill it now. Get it over with.

But something stayed his hand. He didn't want to be impulsive, he disliked acting without all the facts, and there was no immediate threat. Hesitantly, he poked the creature with one toe. It weighed very little.

A ringing neigh came from down below. Yarella was worried about him.

"I'm fine!" He shouted back. "I found it!"

The stairs creaked.

That decided him. He wouldn't put it past her to climb the stairs if he took too much time. He grabbed the creature by one leg and one arm and carried it at arm's length out of the room and down the hall. When he got to the stairs, Yarella had both her front feet halfway up them.

"Get off of there before you fall through." He shooed her backwards. The floor was sturdy, but the stairs appeared to be a later addition. They were rather flimsily built.

"Change-child." She stated. The words were large, bright red, alarmed.

Changechild. Not Changebeast.

"You think this thing was human once?" He carried it across the common room and out the front door by one leg and the scruff of its neck. His heart was pounding; he was terrified it was going to wake and attack him. However, if it had been human once, he was glad he hadn't killed it yet. Perhaps someone could help it. Perhaps the slaughter here had not been its fault. He needed more information.

Her words formed in front of him as he walked. "I know it was. That explains the ter-ror."

"So who formed it?"

But she didn't answer. She was rooted to ground, staring at the scene in the courtyard. There was a dead man, his skull smashed, on the ground. He was surrounded by weeping family. Another dead body, obviously trampled, lay beyond it.

"Demon!" Someone shouted, aimed at Yarella. She'd slain two people in the fight, two innocents.

"Nay." Leselie said, as calmly as he could muster. "Here's your demon. Yarella was just caught in his spell." He held the beast up for inspection. And found himself praying it stayed unconscious.

"Changebeast." Someone muttered.

Yarella approached the bodies -- a man, and a child. She stared at them for a long moment. Then she lifted her muzzle to the sky and gave a scream of absolute grief.

He wanted to go to her, but he had his hands full of Changechild. We've got to get him someplace safe. And figure out if he's evil or just scared. Damn, and how are we going to do that safely?

"Yarella!" He said, sharply. "Please don't fall apart on me; do that later. I need you too much right now."

To his surprise, his practical tone worked. She backed away from the corpses and evidently offered a mental apology to the families. They startled as one, and stared at her. A couple of people began crying. She gazed a moment longer at a grey-haired older man.

"Aye." He said, evidently agreeing with something she'd suggested.

Yarella fled, then, across the courtyard.

He followed her, Changechild still held at arm's length. It didn't weigh more than a small child, though it was longer of limb. Once they were clear across the courtyard, he dropped the creature at her feet. In a low voice, he said, "Can you put a shield around this thing before it wakes?"

She glanced at the locals, who were weeping on each other in grief and shock. Her turquoise eyes were filled with tears and there was a wild look to her expression. But she nodded. Small letters formed just above her nose. The equivalent of whispering. "But it might not hold."

"How long until he comes around?"

She stared at the creature. *He's in a deep state of shock. We have a few hours.*

He trusted her assessment, and relaxed a bit.

"Shield him, then. And me, too, with him. I'll carry him before me on my horse."

*Where ...*

He cut her off before she could form any more words. "We've got to get him out of here before it occurs to those folks to burn the 'body'. I think they think he's dead right now, and I'd just as soon let them keep assuming that. If this is a Changechild and not a beast, my father may be able to help him and this might not have been his fault. Let's go."

*The only reason I am not kill-ing him is because you are not affect-ed by his empath-ic project-ion. If he comes around I may not be able to control myself. You will need to kill him. He is no real physical threat to you, how-ever.* Her words were coldly pragmatic. *I would like to help him. I would also like to see that he does not escape and wreak more havoc on innocents with that wild Talent he posses-es.*

Rapidly, and spurred on by her words, he resaddled his riding mare and threw the panniers back up on the pack horse. He hoped Yarella had done as he'd asked because he had no way of sensing the shield. Maybe a shield would give him a few minutes to ... eliminate the threat ... if the creature woke. He dreaded the idea of having to kill the creature, however, even if he understood the pragmatic sense behind her words. He'd do it if he had to, but not happily.

Hurriedly, he threw the limp form across the pommel of his saddle -- his horse tried to sidle away and he impatiently growled at her  -- and scrambled up behind it. As they headed out of the gat e, he asked in a low voice, "Shouldn't we be doing more for the people here? I saw at least four dead bodies, and we don't know the full truth of what happened here."

She looked sideways at him, head bobbing with a limp in time with her trotting stride.  Words formed between them. "I've alre-ady fill-ed Rol-and in. They'll send a Hera-ld out here to help clean thin-gs up."

Startled, he asked, "Roland can hear you?"

She pinned her ears and gave him a disgusted look. "We have-n't trav-ell-ed that far."

True.

"They ex-pect a prop-er Her-ald and Com-pan-ion out here this eve-ning. They-'ll help the peop-le with the mess. In the in-ter-im, I asked the vill-age cons-tab-le to keep the scene un-touch-ed. In case Furry there did that del-ib-erat-ly."

"Can we turn the Changechild over to them? Over to the Herald?" He asked.

"He's a dan-ger to any-one with tal-ent." She gave him another sideways look. "Unt-il we know what we have, I ref-use to all-ow that thing near Hav-ens or any other Comp-an-ions. I don't know if that was a del-iber-ate att-ack or if he was just proj-ect-ing his own fear. Def-end-ing him-self."

It seemed they were of one mind; they needed to determine the creature's nature and intentions before acting further. A tension he didn't know he'd felt eased from his body. Yarella was of like minds with him, and that would make everything he might need to do easier.

She touched his knee with her nose. "Sor-ry I att-ack-ed you."

"Huh? Oh, not your fault." He reached out and tousled her forelock.

"And those peo-ple. I ..."

Suddenly she stopped short. And vomited through her nose, ropes of green, an amazing amount. Vomited horse-style, refluxing the healers would have called it.

He stared at her, horrified.

She wiped her nose on the grassy ground, and then stared at him with eyes that were swimming with emotional pain and grief. He dismounted, left the Changechild sprawled over the saddle, and rummaged in his saddlebags for a rag. He found the damp shirt he'd worn earlier in the day and cleaned her face off with it. He knew they needed to hurry, but he was compelled to comfort her.

"Oh, 'Ella." He hugged her. "I'm sorry."

Words formed where he could see them, a foot from his face. "I ... all I knew was anger. I wanted to kill some-thing, some-one. I've never ... I ..."

The letter 'I' hung in midair for a very long time.

"I would have killed you!!!"

He felt her tense.

"Shh. Shh, sweetie." He stroked her neck. "Shh."

She was shaking. The words formed with angry slashing motions of an invisible pen. "That thing made me kill two people."

He pulled her head down against his chest, and stroked her cheek. "Shhhh."

"May-be we should just kill it." The words formed slowly now.

"No!" He tightened his grip on her head. "You and I both know that's not right."

"What if it's evil? It was so fright-ened I cou-ldn't tell if it was just mad with fear or mad. Insane!"

"If it's evil, or if it cannot be helped, we'll kill it." He promised. "I'll do it. I promise you."

She sniffed. And then, not surprisingly, stepped abruptly away from him and sneezed several times. She snuffled, and the words over her head said, *Let's keep going. I want to be well away from anyone else when that creature wakes up. He's in shock from the strength of the casting right now, but ...*

He glanced back at the inn. He could see the top of the building over the trees. "Agreed. Let's go."

Adding insult to injury, it started raining again.




By nightfall, the Changechild was still unconscious. Spurred by necessity, they'd managed to make a Waystation a fair distance up the road. He put the horses into the stable, but he had absolutely no objections when Yarella followed him into the station.

She lowered herself wearily to the floor. Leselie carried the Changechild to a bed, and wrapped him in a blanket. "Pew." He said. "The thing must be part skunk, he smells bad enough."

Yarella didn't respond, which he found disconcerting. She always had something to say. He poured a measure of grain into a bucket for her, then sat down cross-legged beside her. "I'll stay up watching him for the first half of the night. Wake you at midnight?"

She nodded agreement.

By the expression on her face, though, she wasn't looking forward to sleep. He scooted over so he sat closer to her, and draped an arm over her neck. "There were two dead people upstairs. I think one man killed his lover. I ... I wish I could erase those images from my mind. I think they'll always be with me."

She rested her head against his chest.

"I would see a lot of things like that if became a Herald." A statement, not a question. He swallowed, "I don't know, Yarella. I don't know if I could handle that. I'm not a hero. I'm just an ordinary man. I'm just not that strong."

She still said nothing, but he knew she was listening.

"I ... I don't want to ... to have to see things like that. I don't want to have to fight people. I don't want to ... I'm a coward, Yarella, that too. It's why I joined the acting troup and didn't become a warrior like Da wanted. Da wanted me to go to war with him, when he joined that mercenary company. It was a good fight, he was certain he was on the side of the light. But I was scared. I didn't want to have to hurt people! I wasn't scared for myself, but I didn't think I could harm anyone else. So he sent me off with Sharina, instead. He was so disappointed in me."

He let out a miserable sigh. "And then you come along. You want me to be a hero too. You want me to fight things too. I hate blood. I hate killing things. I couldn't even kill fish when I was growing up; always had to get Da to do that."

He stroked her forelock as he spoke. "I'm no warrior, Yarella. And that's what Heralds are. Why do you want me to be something that I'm not?"

The words formed slowly. *Great good gods, Leselie. Who ever said you had to be a war-rior?*

"But ..." He trailed off, unsure of what, precisely, he was protesting.

She didn't change the "rior" floating in midair for a long moment. When she did continue, her words were formed with sure, even strokes. *Heralds are more than just soldiers, Leselie. Far more.*

He wasn't a Bard, though, nor was he a Gifted Healer. He had no Magecraft. He wasn't particularly intelligent nor was he very good with his hands. He could ride, but no better than most practiced horsemen. He just didn't see what role there would be for him as a Herald.

 




Leselie slept beside her, curled up against her shoulder. He'd volunteered for the first watch, but then, apparently exhausted, he'd been the one to fall asleep first.

Truth to tell, she wasn't looking forward to sleep. The faces of the two people she'd killed were haunting her now. It would be worse when they walked in her dreams. Far worse. Innocents. Gods help me. A father. A young girl.

I'd like to kill this Gods-damned Changechild. She watched the unconscious creature with wary alertness. Leselie, she suspected, could never understand the depth of the rage and anger that had battered her and every other Talent in the Inn. The thing had the power to touch anyone with a gift. And it was absolutely insane. It was a threat and she was second-guessing her decision to assess it when it woke.

I want to kill it. She felt dirty, like her soul had been stained with unspeakable filth.

And she wondered if killing wasn't the proper course of action.

Except it had been human once. And because it was human, and insane, it was her job to protect it. By virtue of its insanity, the Changechild was an innocent. Through four past lifetimes, she'd sacrificed herself to save innocent people. She did not intend to change that pattern now.

But I would have killed Leselie!

That was a sickening thought. Her own Herald. She'd tried; he'd been too quick. For a gleeman, he's got amazing reflexes. If he wanted to be a warrior, he could be amazing. But he doesn't have the soul of a warrior. He's ... I don't know what he is. I don't even know why I Chose him, except that I saw his full measure in that instant and knew he had to be a Herald. And that he had to be my Herald.

Both of us abhor fighting and violence but we will defend ourselves, and others, if we have to. Maybe that's why I Chose him. We're going to suit each other well.

And despite his words, he's no coward. He knows more about magic than I do, even if he can't use it himself. And he still went up those stairs, unknowing of what he might find. We both know that kind of rogue talent is usually accompanied by other Gifts. The thing could be a Firestarter, or have the ability to call up demons. How about one young actor facing down a pack of wyrsa with a poker? He knew that was a risk as well as I did.

Brave man.

Maybe I should just kill it. A snap of my teeth, before it wakes. Best for all concerned.

But she stayed her teeth, out of a sense of duty. I'm a Companion. We don't kill things just because they scare us to the point of puking. Besides, it would upset Leselie.

A slight movement on the bed alerted her to the Changechild's return to consciousness.

She rose to her feet. Well, think of a demon, and what shall appear?

The 'Child moved feebly. It opened a pair of amber eyes, and then slammed them shut again. The creature clapped both long-fingered hands to its misshapen head and emitted a loud groan of agony.

Yarella checked her shield. Holding. He's spitting out quite a bit of emotion, but nothing that I can't deal with. Mostly pain. I can handle pain. Pain is an old friend.

Cautiously, she sent an inquiry. :Can you understand me?:

:TERROR:

It recoiled across the bed.

Yarella rocked back on her haunches and fought down the instinct to flee. Even muted by the shields, the creature had projected enough fear at her to very nearly make her lose control. Not my terror. I must ... keep a grip ... on who I am.

It stared at her.

She stared back. The mind she'd touched was wholly insane. There was nothing human there, just unreasoning fear.

"It's awake."

Leselie sat up, wiping blurry sleep from his eyes. He stood up, and took a step forward.

:Fear fear fear fear!: The creature projected, terror battering at Yarella in waves. Even with the shields, she felt an insane urge to attack something in self-defense.

Leselie, utterly oblivious, crouched beside the bed. "Hi. I'm Leselie. Do you have a name?"

Yarella wasn't expecting a coherent response. But to her amazement, the waves of raw projected emotion lessened a bit. A spark of sanity appeared on the surface of that addled mind. "Lesellllie?" The creature said, words slurred and hesitant and voice hoarse.

It could speak. It was a person, still, then. It was not, as she'd feared, a demonic beast with all trace of humanity ripped away by dark magic.

"Leselie." He said.

"Medrid." The thing hugged itself.

:Medrid?!: Yarella replied, in surprise. Instinctively, she reached out to him in reaction to that name. Surely, it could not be.

It shrank away from her. :Fear, fear, fear, fear!:

"Don't mindspeak to him." Leselie held a hand up to her, correctly guessing what had sent the creature flinching back. "'Ella, I'm willing to bet that the magestorms blew every magical pathway he has wide open."

Which means he's suddenly dealing with an amazing amount of garbage -- people's emotions, unshielded thoughts, he's probably feeling the leys, seeing Potentials ...

She Looked at the creature. Leselie was exactly right.

Times like these, mindspeech with my Chosen would be very nice to have. Leselie's correct. We're looking at an Adept class mage, utterly untrained, and he's also Gifted in every mind-Gift I can think to check for, including Farsight, Foresight, Fetching, and Firestarting. Yikes. Careful, Horse, you're outclassed here by a couple of leagues. Wrong step, and you and Leselie are both going to be crisped.

Though she doubted she could hold them if the creature made any serious attempt to break free, she put a little extra energy into the shields. Now she was feeding them enough power to make her head ache. But Leselie ... I have to protect him. I'll Final Strike if I have to, take this creature out and make sure Leselie survives.

And that name ... surely not. She ached to reach deeper into his consciousness, to examine his soul, to see if he was the being she'd been watching for. He would react badly, however, to any attempt to touch him with her Gifts.

The name was probably a coincidence, anyway. Medrid had been a common enough name for herderkin children a century back, though it was very uncommon and old-fashioned now. He was likely named after some beloved ancestor. She had not even expected to find her Medrid answering to the same name now, nor was he the first Medrid she had met. There was an older man with the name who was janitor at the palace, and one of the young Priests in the city had the same name. T

The creature hugged itself and stared at the two of them with wide brown eyes. The eyes were human, ringed with white, human irises, and a very human expression of stark fear.

Leselie crouched beside the bed. "Hi, Medrid. Bet you're scared."

A nod.

"I'd be scared too. What were you doing in that Inn?"

"Food."

"Looking for food?"

A nod.

"The man, he tried to kill me. With a sword. I was stealin' but he didn't have to kill me! I want to live. He hurt me!"

The waves of terror were lessening markedly. He was also very verbal. That was not the mind of a beast behind those very human eyes.

Leselie glanced up at Yarella, and lifted an eyebrow.

She turned her head so that her muzzle blocked the creature's view and cast a tiny words, *Insane. But human enough.*

She couldn't tell him the rest, despite the fact that she ached to confide in her Herald. She wasn't even supposed to look for her beloved Companion now, and it would violate too many Rules even for her rebellious soul to tell him why Medrid's name gave her such a jolt.

"Well, yeah." He turned his attention back to the creature. "Do you remember what happened to you?"

The wave of abject projected fear nearly shattered Yarella's shields. She frantically reinforced them, her own terror mixing with leaked projections of his until she broke out in a cold sweat. She turned her head towards Leselie again, and threw up a complete sentence with frantic, sloppy letters. Terror strengthened her limited Gift of illusions. *I suggest that you not ask that again, unless you want to fight me hand-to-hoof.*

Leselie swallowed. He said softly, "Don't worry about it. We'll sort it out later."

The creature suddenly tensed, then lunged forward at Leselie. He recoiled, but not fast enough to prevent one long, narrow, talon-tipped hand from grabbing his wrist. The Changechild stared at him with wide brown eyes. "You're real!"

"What ... what do you mean?" Leselie tried to tug free, but the creature held on with a desperate grip.

"You're real! You're real! You're a normal person! Real! Real! Real! REAL!"

Leselie glanced at Yarella. Yarella had her ears flat to her skull.

"Can you explain what you mean by 'real?'" Leselie asked, with considerably more calm than he felt.

"Real! Not a monster! Monsters came, they did! They replaced everyone. Monsters hurt me! I hear their thoughts, they project thoughts at me. Bad feelings at me! They hate me, they're afraid of me, they want to hurt me. Their thoughts hurt me! Monsters, monsters, all of them!"

Yarella blew out a sharp breath. Every channel he has was blown wide open. He doesn't know how to shield, so of course he's picking up thoughts from people. And people are scared of him, hate him, and want to hurt him.

"They turned me into this ... this thing!"

Leselie placed a hand over Medrid's claws. "I'm real, that's right."

"She's not." He pointed a finger at Yarella. "She's a monster. I can feel her, wanting to kill me."

"Oh, no." Leselie said. "She doesn't want to kill you!"

Actually, I'd like to trample that beast into the ground until he's bloody pulp. He made me kill innocents!

"I'm not a BEAST!" The creature howled at her.

Shit. He can hear me. And I'm shielding him, I'm shielding me, and I'm not projecting!

"Because you're a monster! A monster! Monsters beat at me with their terrible thoughts! Hate! Anger! Fear! Afraid of Medrid! Afraid of me! Afraid of what they made me! They did this to me! They did! They did!"

Leselie reached a tentative hand out to the Changechild, resting it on his shoulder.

Vicious cycle. He projects anger and fear. Of course, people respond with murderous anger and fear. Which makes him angrier and more afraid. Good gods. How the hell am I going to fix this? He doesn't deserve to die for this, he's a victim, I don't want to kill him but I might have to ... 

"I don't know what you mean. Monster!"

:I'm NOT A MONSTER ANY MORE THAN YOU ARE! LOOK, YOU LITTLE MURDEROUS BEAST, YOU'RE LUCKY I DIDN'T KILL YOU WHERE YOU SLEPT! I THOUGHT ABOUT IT!:

She screamed at him in mindspeech, wanting to hurt him as much as she hurt. She wanted to kill something, anything ... him, for starters. She lunged for him, teeth bared, eyes wild, ears pinned.

"YARELLA! WOAH! HE'S PROJECTING!" Leselie jumped up, and she collided with him, sending him sprawling on the floor.

Control! Stupid horse, he's a projective empath, remember? I've got to remember that this pain isn't MINE!

Leselie scrambled back to his feet. "Yarella! Shield!"

I'm shielding as much as I can, stupid damned HUMAN!

Ah, Sketi. I've got to get out of here before I ... a wordless image of Leselie pounded beneath her hooves, as the rage filled her, caused her to whirl.

She cast a single word into the air, large and frantic, in blindingly bright red letters, "OUT!"

The door was latched with a bar that she could have lifted if she'd been calmer. Leselie scrambled across the floor, yanked it open for her, and she bolted into the night at a stumbling canter. Away. Before she killed her Chosen.

Leselie shut the door after her, made a point of throwing the bar across it, and wiped a hand across his face. Then he turned to the Changechild, and sighed heavily. "What are we going to do with you?"

The Changechild stood in the middle of the room, arms trailing nearly to the ground. He looked like a bogie out of a child's nightmares. Long arms, bandy legs, a large head on a skinny neck, a mouthful of sharp pointy teeth, scruffy hair all over his body, taloned hands, and madness in his eyes. A bogie, or a demented hybrid of ferret and monkey. Leselie noticed for the first time that his hair, while brown at the tips, was showing large patches of white at the roots. It gave him a mottled, mangy appearance.

Medrid repeated, "You're not a monster."

"No. I'm not." Leselie pulled one of the straight-backed chairs away from the waystation's small table, and straddled it backwards. He regarded the Changechild over the back of the chair. "I'm not a monster."

"I am." A small, miserable voice.

"No you're not." Leselie said, with a reassuring smile. "You're scary looking, true, but you're still human."

"All the people turned into monsters, too, when this happened to me. I look like one, but they think and act like monsters."

"I'm not even sure where to start." Leselie blew out another sigh. "Do you want to stay scared, or do you want to be my friend?"

"I don't want to be scared." Medrid said, slowly.

"Good. Good choice." Leselie gestured at the chairs. "Pull one up, and let's you and me figure out what happened, exactly."




It took a couple hours, but Leselie slowly and patiently patched together what had happened to Medrid.

"... There was a storm, a blizzard, and I went out to bring in my da's horses." Medrid explained.  He sat on the bed, arms around his legs. "Worst storm I'd ever seen ..."

In halting words, Medrid told a tale of being caught in the blizzard. He'd lost his way, and had sought shelter in a copse of trees. His memory of the next few days was jumbled and chaotic. He'd been in pain, feverish, and had been assaulted by the thoughts and fears of every mind around him.

"Everything." He said, long arms wrapped around his barrel chest. "From the mice under the snow to people in the village ... everything ... the magic turned them all into monsters. Angry, scared monsters. I'm the only one who's sane, and look at me: I'm not human anymore! Instead of turning my mind into a monster's mind, it spared my mind and turned my body into that of a beast instead!"

Leselie nodded quietly. They had not been monsters, rather, they had been driven insane by Medrid's projection of his own terror. He didn't think it wise to tell the young man that yet, however. He needed to talk to his Da, and to the healers in the Vale, before proceeding. Someday Medrid would need to know the truth, but not just yet. He said calmly, "I see. What happened next?"

Medrid shuddered. "I tried to go home."

Leselie's stomach twisted into a nauseous  knot. Oh, Star-Eyed. I don't want to hear this. But he asked, very calmly, and conversationally, and drawing on every ounce of experience as an actor that he had ever had, "What happened?"

"They weren't themselves anymore. They were monsters. My Pa... my Pa hurt me with his fear. He kept beating me with it. It hurt, it hurt, it hurt ..." Medrid started rocking back and forth. "Then my Ma came out of the house, she saw me, and her soul screamed. And when I called her name, told her what I was, she beat at me with fear and anger. The thing that was my mother, it accused me of killing Medrid. Killing me!

"I've never been so afraid in my life ... I ran, I hid, and they tried to get me. I hid in the barn. I was so scared." He rocked back and forth rhythmically, eyes wild, voice incredibly calm. "They lit the barn on fire. I was trapped by the flames ... I was going to die. I started screaming for help, and it made them angry that I was screaming in their son's voice ... my Ma, my Pa, my brothers and sisters ..."

He gulped back a sob, "Then they killed each other. My Pa was the last to die, and the monster that he'd become felt guilt for what he'd done, and killed himself."

"I see. They were monsters?" Ah, Star-Eyed give me some guidance here. How do we ever tell this boy what really happened? That his rogue gift destroyed his family? That it's not his fault, but nor were they monsters?

"Then I made the fires stop."

"You made the fires stop?" Leselie stared at him.

"I was going to die. So I made the fires stop."

As Yarella would say, Sketi. The boy's a Firestarter. And my Father's books said that Firestarters gain strength with strong emotions. Tread carefully here, kiddo.

"That's Mindmagic."

A shrug. "I could do it before ... before what happened, too. Da said it runs in the family." He frowned. "Though I'm a lot stronger now."

"How long ago ... how long ago did that happen?"

"Last winter."

"How old are you, Medrid?"

"Seventeen."

"So what did you do, after ...?"

"I hid a lot. I tried to ... tried to get help a lot of times, but the people were always monsters. They were affected by the magic. I even went to a Companion and a Herald once. Actually, that was only a week ago, but I was so hungry."

Gods. Talia said there was a pair missing. "What were their names?"

"They were monsters too."

"But even monsters have names." Leselie said. "Do you know what their names were?"

"Mikael. And Kisa. The Companion was Kisa."

Leselie ran a hand over his face. That's the pair Talia said was missing. I don't even want to know what ...

"They fought each other. The Herald was hurt bad. I ran ... I ran ... Companions aren't supposed to be monsters."

"No, they're not."

"I couldn't bear to watch. What's happened to the world, Leselie?"

"I don't know." Leselie temporized. They're not dead; somebody told me last week that Companions and Heralds know when one of their number dies. "Where did this happen? And when?"

"Six days ago."

Six days. If they're 'hurt bad' we have to find them. But first ...

"Kiddo, I want you to try something for me." Leselie said. I don't know if it will work, but maybe ... "I think you were caught in a change-circle, an eddy of nasty magic from the magestorms last winter. It's what changed you. It also hurt you, up here, where your magic lives." He tapped his own head. "All the magical channels you have, they were ripped wide open."

Medrid stared at him suspiciously.

"I think you can put a shield up to protect yourself."

"How?"

How in Havens should I know? I'm no mage! "What do you think a shield should look like?"

Medrid frowned. "Like a jar, maybe? With a lid?"

"Try it." Leselie suggested. "Imagine a jar around yourself, then put a lid on it. And feed it some energy to seal it."

The Changechild closed his eyes, and held his hands out to either side of his body, as if propping up the opposite sides of a walk. He froze for a moment, then -- cautiously -- appeared to let go of an unknown field. His eyes opened. He breathed, "It's quiet."

"Did it work?"

"It's so silent. I can't hear anything!"

Leselie nodded. "Will you be okay? I need to go talk to my Companion."

"Be careful. She's one of them."

"I will." He assured the mad creature softly, before slipping out the door.

Chapter Text

How he knew where Yarella had run, Leselie wasn't sure. But he did; he unerringly picked his way towards her through a dark and foggy night.  He found her half a mile from the Waystation, nervously grazing.

 

"He's ter-rif-fying." Yarella rested her head against his chest. She was shaking; her bright coat was stained dark in patches from sweat. The words she formed in midair were small, and dim, and tinted with a very upset-looking orange.

 

Leselie stroked her neck, and was silent a moment. "He's dangerous, too."

 

He thought, Star-eyed, I don't even know where to begin. He's got me so frightened I'm ready to bolt for the Dhorisha Plains and never come back. Or forget that, I don't even want to be on the same continent as that thing.

 

"Yarella, he hurt one of your Heralds and a Companion, I think."

 

She went stiff. "How?"

 

Briefly, he told her what Medrid had said. "He said they were monsters."

 

"Mad." One word. She seemed very shaken.

 

"I don't think so ... not in the sort of mad that needs a Healer. Not in village-lunatic insane. I think he's delusional, but it's a defensive delusion so he needn't face the truth."

 

" Don't dest-roy that del-us-ion yet."

 

He snorted. "No joke, 'Ella. I don't want to be around when he figures out the truth about himself. It's going to be messy when he does. He's so unstable that he may just try to suicide, or he may lose any thread of sanity he has left."

 

She nudged him. "Fine sent-im-ent, but you-'re a Her-ald and I'm a Com-pan-ion. Our job to be there, to fix it."

 

"Yarella, I'm not even a Trainee. I'm not sure I'm ever going to be a Herald. I'm just Leselie, the actor. I haven't agreed to the whole idea yet."

 

She went very still in his arms. She even stopped breathing for a handful of heartbeats.

 

He added, "I'm doing this for you , sweetie. You should be able to run and play without pain. But don't expect me to come back to Valdemar; I think I may stay with my father for awhile. I like the Tayledras clans. Interesting people. And ..."

 

She stepped away from him with a sudden jerk. "You would leave me?"

 

"You can come with me." He said, reach a hand out to stroke her nose.

 

She yanked her head back. "You don't under-stand a bit about us, do you?"

 

Her words were a seriously angry red. And her ears were pinned.

 

"You figur-ed out what we were. Guar-dian spir-its. Spir-its. Well, chew on this, Les-elie. You claim you don't want to ans-wer this call-ing bec-ause you are an act-or. I was a Bard , Leselie. Four times, I was a human Bard . And four times, I rose to def-end Vald-emar when I was need-ed, without any mem-or-y of those past lives. And four times I died young and hero-ical-ly. The last time I was tort-ured to death in a stup-id bor-der war bet-ween us and Kar-se and my Comp-anion was burned to death while I watch-ed . And still I come back. Because I'm need-ed. Bec-ause my God asks it of me."

 

"You were a Herald?" He said, dumbly. But that made sense . Why hadn't he guessed before?

 

"You're not sup-pos-ed to know that." She had her ears flat to her skull. She stamped her foot, and was so angry she didn't even flinch. She was also so angry that the words she cast into the air were huge, a foot high, and thrown up two and three words at a time rather than a syllable or so. "I could be in the Havens now. I'm tir-ed , Leselie. I hurt . And then He Who Guides Us gives you to me. And you're so ungrateful you'd just leave me? It's intended that I should devote my life to one person . To be their guardian, to give them guidance and protection and to lay my life down -- again -- if necessary so that they might live. Because, in the judgment of a GOD , that person -- YOU -- is worthy of special Divine attention!"

 

"I didn't ask ..." He started to protest.

 

"No, you were CALLED . And I can't believe you'd just ... " The words froze on 'just' for a moment while she looked for a good phrase, " ... dismiss ... that calling because you 'like Tayledras' and would rather live with them."

 

"Well, I would." He folded his arms.

 

She made a disgusted-sounding noise through her nose. "Go talk to that Change-child and see if you can figure out where we should start looking for Mikael and Kisa."

 

"Us?"

 

"Me alone, if nec-ces-sary!" She stamped her foot again. "You, if you find it in-ter-est-ing enough to stir yourself to help!"

 


 

 

Medrid scowled, "You want me to help you find monsters."

 

"They're good people, Medrid." Leselie said, in a quiet voice. "The magestorms did a lot of damage. I'd like to find them and see if I can get someone to help them. They aren't any more evil than you are."

 

"Do you think someone can help them?" Medrid asked, sounding interested.

 

"Maybe."

 

And I can't believe I managed to make that complete exchange without telling him one untruth. The Magestorms did do a lot of damage. And maybe we can help them!

 

"I ... I think I remember where it was."

 

"Let's go, then."

 

"It's dark out there." Medrid hugged himself.

 

"I'll be with you." Leselie said, reassuringly.

 

"And that Monster-Companion?"

 

"You can shield her out, can't you?"

 

"I think so."

 

"Good. That's all you need to do. She's my Companion and she'll listen to me. She won't hurt you. I'm trying to get her help too, you see, and I love her."

 

All true. Even the 'love her' part, Star-Eyed help him.

 

Without giving the mad creature any more chance to protest, Leselie steered him out the door by one shoulder. He'd already tacked up the grey mare by moonlight.

 

"Hey pretty." Medrid held a clawed hand out to her.

 

The mare snuffled his fingers, then didn't protest when Leselie boosted the Changechild up into the saddle. He swung up behind the Changechild. His flesh wanted to shrink away from the creature.

 

Father raised me on horror stories of what a rogue Gift can do. Medrid doesn't have the slightest inkling of what he's capable of. 

 

Yarella threw a single word up into the air, "Hurry!"

 

Medrid asked, as they trotted towards the main road, "Why doesn't she just mindspeak you?"

 

"She can't. I don't have any Gift."

 

"That's awkward." Medrid said. "But you're lucky. That's probably why the dark magic didn't turn you into a monster. It couldn't touch you if you don't have a gift."

 

"Mmm. Yarella! Slow down! If you aggravate that foot, we'll never find them!"

 

She ignored him. She was trotting at a good pace, albeit an awkward one. It was too dark to make out how badly she was limping, but he could hear her limp. Her strides were uneven, and instead of a solid two-beat gait, her trot was shambling and unsteady. Painful.

 

"Yarella!"

 

Damn. She's pissed off at me, she's not listening to me.

 

It's not fair. Just because I don't want to change the entire course of my life because she says I should, she's mad at me. What gives her the right to tell me how to live my life?

 

I want to see the world. That's why I came to Valdemar in the first place. I wanted to see this legendary country for myself. Da said he was an interesting place, though a bit nosy about watching strange mages, whatever that meant. But I don't want to stay here. I don't want to spend the rest of my life tied to one backwater country, dealing with issues of petty crime and political messes. Possibly interspersed with deadly danger. NOT my idea of what to do with the rest of my life!

 

"Turn off the road up ahead." Medrid said, after they'd travelled fifteen minutes at a trot.

 

They traveled cross country for several hours. The sun rose; dawn came slowly and was filtered by dense fog.

 

"Are you sure we're headed the right way?" He asked the Changechild, after they'd followed a brushy creekbed for an hour.

 

"I was raised in this country." Medrid said.

 

Yarella had slowed to a limping walk after an hour of trotting. She had difficult going downhill. When the creekbed grew narrow, steep, and rocky, she turned around and backed down the worst stretches. Facing downhill put extra weight on her painful feet.

 

"How much farther?"

 

"Not far."

 

* * * * *

 

Yarella's pain was forgotten when she touched the mind of another. :KISA!:

 

:Who's there?: The mental voice was foggy and weak.

 

:Yarella.:

 

:... Yarella?: A suggestion came, more a feeling than actual words, that Kisa thought she was hallucinating. Also that Kisa had not been expecting rescue.

 

:It is me.:

 

:What in Havens are you doing out here?: Kisa projected a fairly unflattering image of a fat lame Companion mare.

 

:Are you complaining about being rescued?:

 

The mental touch vanished for a moment. Yarella recognized someone withdrawing to organize a coherent response. :There will be no rescue for me.:

 

:Nonsense. We're almost there.:

 

More silence.

 

:How's Mikael?:

 

:Bad.:

 

One word, full of flat, naked grief and horrible soul-deep guilt.

 

:What happened was not your fault.: Yarella said fiercely. :I tried to kill Leselie, too.:

 

:You've Chosen!: There was weak surprise and a ghost of happiness for Yarella there.

 

:Ungrateful man that he is ... but I digress. Not your fault.:

 

:Doesn't matter. We'll be judged before the Havens soon enough.:

 

Yarella didn't like the sound of that, not at all. The creek bed was blocked by a waterfall. Yarella picked her way through the shallow water to the lip of the fall. It was a three foot drop. She would have to land on her front feet on the rocks below ... wincing in advance, she rocked her weight onto her hind feet and slowly slid her front legs over the edge of the fall. She felt jagged stone scraping at the back of her legs and then her weight carried her over the edge in a rush.

 

She landed heavily. Familiar pain, almost like an old friend, spiraled up from the contracted tendons of her right foreleg to her chest. Her foundered left foot throbbed in response to the impact. And her back, forever sore, spasmed.

 

Keep going, Horse. It's not going to get any better if you slow down ...

 

The grey saddlemare landed on the rocks behind her with a clatter. Yarella didn't spare a glance in the direction of her Chosen; she was afraid if she turned her head, she would trigger a worse spasm in her back. Instead, she forced herself to walk onwards. Then she rounded a bend in the creek and found them.

 

Mikael was sprawled on a grassy slope. He was not moving, and Yarella wasn't sure he was alive until she saw his chest move. His body was sprawled at an odd angle compared to his head. Neck broken.

 

:Sketi . :

 

Kisa lay beside him. Her white coat was stained with cold sweat, and her nostrils were pinched tight with pain. She looked up at Yarella's horrified mental obscenity. :I did this to him.:

 

:You were under the influence of a rogue Gift.:

 

:Doesn't change what happened.:

 

Leselie arrived, saw the scene, and uttered an oath in a language that Yarella didn't even recognize. He launched himself out of the saddle and ran for the fallen Herald. Yarella followed more slowly. She didn't want to see ...

 

"How long has he been like this?" Leselie demanded. He pressed his fingers to Mikael's wrist. "I can't believe he's still alive. He's badly dehydrated."

 

Kisa told Yarella, :He wanted to die. He will die. He does not want to live a cripple.:

 

Yarella regarded the white-clad form on the grass with a sigh. There was blood on the Herald's whites, and his leg was broken as well. He was, as Leselie had said, dehydrated. His eyes were sunken into his skull, only the whites showing, his skin stretched taught across his face. There was no sign of consciousness at all.

 

"He barely has a pulse." Leselie rocked back on his heels. "If he'd gotten help right away ..." He shot the Companion an accusing look.

 

But Kisa didn't see Leselie's glare. Her attention was entirely on the Changechild on the saddlemare's back. Without a word to Yarella, the Companion lunged to her feet and charged the saddlemare.

 

Medrid had picked up the reins when Leselie had dismounted. Now he wheeled the saddlemare about and kicked her into a run, short legs thumping against the saddle leather. The mare didn't need much urging; a thousand pounds of enraged Companion bearing down on her was sufficient incentive for her to bolt.

 

Then Kisa stumbled and fell. She struggled back to her feet, slower this time, and Leselie belatedly realized that the Companion was badly injured. The blood on the Herald's uniform was not his alone.

 

Yarella blocked Kisa's pursuit by physically getting in her way. Kisa tried to wheel around Yarella but Yarella spun on her haunches and body-checked her a second time. :STOP! KISA! He's not at fault either!:

 

:He killed my Chosen! He did it!: The rage and fury in Kisa's mindvoice rendered her words almost incoherent. Yarella got the general gist, however.

 

:He's insane! I almost killed Leselie but we cannot hold that against him!:

 

Despite her burning rage, Kisa was not able to stay on her feet for long. Denial lit in her blue eyes as her hindquarters sagged and pulled her back to the ground.

 

Leselie had watched the exchange from a crouching position next to the fallen Herald. Now he rose and walked warily to the Companion. He studied her from a distance of several feet away; he'd worked with enough wounded horses under his father's tutelage to have acquired a healthy respect for anything injured with hooves.

 

Yarella blew out a sharp breath, seeing what he saw. Kisa had taken a slashing wound to her flank. The wound was flyblown and infected, and stank. She must be in absolute agony. But her grief over Mikael is worse.

 

Leselie said softly, "If we can get a healer out here, we might be able to save her , Yarella."

 

Yarella turned her head away from the other Companion and cast small letters for Leselie's eyes only. "No. When one goes, the other will go too."

 

"A healer could ..."

 

"No." Yarella repeated.

 

The mare heaved herself back to her feet and staggered back to her Chosen's side, where she crumpled. She stretched her chin out to rest on his chest. :Yarella, kill that thing for me. Please. It's evil. Please.:

 

Yarella looked sharply away. :No.:

 

:Our dying request. Please.:

 

:No.:

 

:More people will die.:

 

:No. It's not our way.:

 

:It's a threat to Valdemar.:

 

:No.: Yarella said.

 

Leselie, oblivious to the exchange, walked back to the fallen Herald. He crouched, and reexamined the man. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps the man's neck wasn't broken ... He gently slipped a hand under the back of the Herald's head and moved the man's head in line with his shoulders. As he did so, the Companion slumped. The life left her muscles; she sagged bonelessly in place. Death.

 

And something reverberated through Leselie's soul ... grief, loss. He knew that the Herald had died first, in that instant, and his Companion had followed him in death. He knew it.

 

He gasped softly, and though he knew it was futile, he shook the man. "Don't die, please don't die ..."

 

It was useless. He knew it. He'd known it from the moment he'd seen the fallen body. He was a Healer's son. He'd seen death before, many times. But somehow, this was worse. This was a Herald who had died.

 

Yarella nudged his shoulder with her nose, as if she sensed his shocked grief. He rose and threw his arms around her neck. He buried his face in her silken mane. "Gods, Yarella. There was nothing I could do ."

 

She pulled him closer with her jaw and wordlessly nuzzled his back, offering what little comfort she could. :Oh, if only I could talk to him.:

 

But she couldn't even tell him that she loved him. He couldn't see her words, for his face was buried in her neck.

 

I wish I could talk to him. I need to tell someone how much this hurts. Kisa was my agemate, born the same year I was. We grew up together. She was one of the few who took time to talk to me ... the others would run and play and revel in being young Companions, play foal-games and run like the wind. She at least would stop and talk to me, when talking and silly little illusions, parlor tricks, was all I could do.

 

And Mikael ... Mikael was such a wonderful young man. He used to bring an extra apple for me, and take the time to talk to me to when he came to the Field to see Kisa. Havens, I'm going to miss them.

 

I should be able to tell my Chosen these things. And I can't. He's not even aware of how deeply I hurt over this.

 

Why do I feel so alone when I've got my Chosen right here next to me, his arms around me? It's just not fair!

 

Anger and grief goaded her to shout furiously to anyone in hearing distance, in Mindspeech, :IT's JUST NOT FAIR! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME? YOU, my GOD! YOU! YOU DID THIS TO ME!:

 

If any deity heard her wail, there was no response.


She screamed into the echoing silence, :IT'S NOT FAIR!:

Chapter Text

"Monsters." Medrid said. He was mounted on the grey saddlemare. His feet were prehensile, and since his legs were too short to reach the stirrups, he was gripping the stirrup leathers with his toes.  He held the reins in a practiced grip; Leselie had no difficulty believing that the Changechild had once been the son of an ostler.

 

The 'monsters' in question were half a dozen Heralds and Companions, sent to retrieve the bodies. Yarella had asked him to keep the Changechild out of sight. They'd climbed up the side of the mountain overlooking the creek; he'd found a decent vantage point and now sat crosslegged on a rock, watching the Valdemarans arrive on the scene. Yarella said that Kisa could have shouted for help, but didn't. Because Mikael didn't want to live as a cripple and Kisa agreed with his decision. I'm not sure a Healer could have fixed the amount of damage there. His neck wasn't just broken; it was damn near wrenched in two.

 

I can't say as I blame him, exactly, but his friends and family will certainly disagree with that choice. I'm sure they would have been happy to have him alive, crippled or not. He'll have much to answer for in the Havens. And so will Kisa, I think, for suiciding with him.

 

My Shin'a'in cousins would disagree, of course. I don't know ... I don't know if their decision was correct, or not.

 

"Companions." Leselie said, absently correcting the Changechild without thinking about it. And, "Keep your shields up. The last thing we need is another tragedy."

 

"What do you mean?" Suspicion, and anger, colored Medrid's voice.

 

"Nothing."

 

"I don't know why I'm staying with you. I should leave." Medrid said, startling Leselie.

 

He frankly hadn't considered that the Changechild might entertain the thought of striking out on his own.  He lifted an eyebrow at the creature, forcing his voice and expression to remain calm. "Us normal folks should stick together, shouldn't we?"

 

"Maybe without her !" Medrid jerked his chin towards the Companions in the canyon below them. He meant Yarella.

 

Star-eyed, no! Not without Yarella. I don't want to be a Herald, I don't want to be tied to such responsibility, but I couldn't bear the thought ... auugh, she's got me under an enchantment, that's for sure. Hopefully, Da can lift it. I hate thinking like this.

 

And wait a second ... weren't you telling Yarella just last night that you wanted to leave Medrid behind, hand him off to someone else as their problem?

 

These Valdemarans are contagious . That's the problem . I never should have come here. After this winter I hoped the troupe could go off to see Karse, see if the rumors are true about the change in leadership there. I should have. Or maybe we could have visited the cousins. Or gone to see Da. Or headed over to Rethwellen. Or anything but getting curious about this blasted land!

 

"Sorry." Leselie said, in a reasonable tone of voice, giving no sign of his jumbled thoughts. "But I promised Yarella I'd take her to see my Da. He's an Adept and a Healer and he might be able to help her feet."

 

"But she's one of them !" Medrid protested.

 

Well, yeah, but that's beside the point, kiddo . "She's not so bad. And a promise is a promise."

 

"I suppose." Medrid scowled. This was an alarming expression on someone who had teeth like a ferret. Then he brightened. "Your Da's a healer? Do y'think he could fix me?"

 

Probably not. The changes wrought on his body are tremendous. I'm not sure if anything short of intervention of a deity could help him. I know what Da can do ... he'll be taxed by Yarella. Fixing the changes wrought on Medrid are almost certainly beyond even his talents. "I don't know. I don't want to get your hopes up too much, but you can certainly come along and see what he says."

 

He did hope that his Father, and the Vale's mindhealers, could leash Medrid's wild Talent and heal his shattered mind. That was the best they could probably do, but he didn't think it prudent to shatter Medrid's hopes just yet. He was willing to entertain any delusion that the kid came up with if it persuaded the boy to travel with him to the Vale. They could deal with the emotional fallout later.

 

Medrid was silent for a long moment. "You want me to come with you, don't you?"

 

Star-Eyed help me, the answer to that question is 'yes.' "Yes."

 

He sounded suspicious when he instantly responded, "Why?"

 

"Because we can help you."

 

"What's in it for you?"

 

Danger, trouble, heartbreak, and a lot of slow travel in the winter on bad roads. "Not much. But I hate to see anyone suffer."

 

Medrid fiddled with the reins in his hands, making the grey mare toss her head. In a very quiet voice he said, "... And you think I'm suffering."

 

Careful, Leselie, he's thinking and now is not a good time for him to think too much. Because there's a half dozen Heralds and Companions and Yarella below you.

 

"Yeah." Leselie said. "But we can help you."

 

"I'm not in any pain. Not like your Companion. She hurts. Her back hurts."

 

"Tighten your shields up if you can feel her." Leselie said, in as sensible a voice as he could muster. "Actually, what I meant was that it's not pleasant to have a Gift without proper training. My Da might be able to provide that. He's been looking for an apprentice for years." Yeah. Ever since it turned out his own son was magically blind.

 

"It's hard to tune everything out. I can tune the quiet stuff out, but she's not quiet." Medrid complained. He added, "You know you're breaking her heart?"

 

"What?"

 

"She was screaming to the four winds yesterday that it wasn't fair that she couldn't talk to you, and that you didn't know how much she loves you."

 

"I haven't even known her a fortnight." Leselie shifted uncomfortably on the rock. "She can't love me that much. She barely knows me."

 

He loved her, though. It scared him, but he did.

 

Medrid sighed, and stared down at his hands. He was silent for a moment, then looked back up. "She does love you. She can't fool me there. Even monsters love sometimes."

 

Leselie took his spectacles off, and ran a hand over his face. "I can't help it that she can't talk to me."

 

"No, you can't." Medrid said, softly. "But she's not happy about it at all."

 

Leselie eyed the creature for a moment. There was an odd, wistful, tone in the Changechild's voice. There was longing there, and he'd sounded almost protective on the second sentence. It was an odd sentiment coming from a creature who a few moments before had declared, "But she's one of them !"

 

He's mad. Insane. A ship without an anchor, adrift in the chaotic seas of his own mind. I can't even imagine what it would be like. One minute he's accusing my Companion of being a monster, and the next he sounds like a Tayledras kestra'chern . Scary boy.

 

Medrid added, "They want to kill me, you know."

 

"What?"

 

"The Companions. They're arguing about it right now."

 

"They'd have to come through me first." Leselie said, standing up. And now I'm reacting like a mother bear with cubs. Oh, isn't this fun. And I will, too. I'll defend him if I have to.

 

Why am I reacting like this?

 

"What are you going to do, fight off seven Companions and six Heralds with sticks and stones?" Medrid asked, with a feral grin on his face. The grin bared a frightening number of teeth; he looked like he was snarling. Maybe he was, Leselie wasn't sure. "Don't worry, I can take care of myself."

 

That's just what I'm afraid of .

 


 

 

:No!: Yarella stamped her foot. :That would be murder !:

 

Mikael's body had been slung over the back of a packhorse. It had stiffened up, and made an unwieldy and awkward bundle. Kisa still lay on the ground, however. Her body had begun to bloat; her legs stuck out obscenely stiff angles. Two Heralds -- Taera and Sefani -- were constructing a sledge to pull the corpse on. They'd already decided that the two largest stallions of the party would pull the sledge as far as the road, where the bodies could be loaded on a wagon for transport back to Havens for the funeral.

 

One of the stallions, Taera's Alachi, stomped his foot back at her, in conscious parody of the childish gesture. :The dead are not even properly mourned yet. He's a monster, and we need to deal with him. He's caused the deaths of at least a dozen people we know of. Including two by your own hooves! And if what he told Leselie is accurate, his own family !:

 

:How? How are we going to kill him?: She demanded.

 

:However it takes!: Alachi snapped back at her.

 

:Believe me, there's nobody in this part who has the power to fight that thing on his terms and win.: Yarella responded, with a mental sigh.

 

:So we fight him on our terms.: This came from Natasa, an older Companion. :I agree with Alachi, Yarella. The creature is evil. I suggest expediency. Alachi, your Herald is a decent archer. Can Taera hit that thing from here?:

 

Alachi sent a quick query to Taera, who looked up in surprise. "The beast that did this is here ?"

 

Yarella pinned her ears at Alachi and said, to Taera as well as the other companions, :He's not a beast. He's a child. A hurt, hurting child. And one I think my Herald can help ...:

 

Alachi turned on her. :He's a gleeman with no Gifts. And mind the Rules, 'Ella:

 

Stung, Yarella snapped, :That was unworthy, Alachi . Unworthy !:

 

:He has no training, 'Ella, and no Gifts, as Alachi says. He doesn't even want to be a Herald. I heard about what he said to Seya about the job.: Natasa said, somewhat more sympathetically.

 

: I didn't Chose WRONG!:

 

:Anyway ,: An unfamiliar voice rang in their heads, :You monsters couldn't kill me anyway. Not before I destroyed you all.:

 

All seven Companions reacted. Seven sets of hooves hit the ground hard in a simultaneous spook; in that instant, all seven Companions resembled startled horses.  All six Heralds also jumped at the unfamiliar voice.

 

:It heard us!: Alachi said.

 

Aloud, Sefani snapped, "I heard that thing." Sefani had barely a trace of mindspeech. Her mouth was hanging open, and her hand dropped reflexively to her sword.

 

Yarella blew out a sharp breath, :And you'll note, won't you, that I am on your side.:

 

:Yarella!: Alachi protested.

 

:Well, if I'm going to be traveling with him, I'd just as soon he realize that.: She sniffed.

 

:You're not going to travel with that thing. Are you insane?: Natasa demanded.

 

:No, I'm not. And yes, I am.: She heard their mental sounds of confusion, and clarified, :I'm not insane. And yes, I'm going to travel with him.:

 

:You can't! Where are you going to take him?:

 

:I'm going to take him with us because he seems to like my Herald. And that's a start to ...: She stifled even the thought , restoring his sanity. :To getting him better trained so he's not a threat. Believe me, Alachi, I will see the faces of those two people who died under my hooves because of Medrid the rest of my life. But he's not evil .:

 

:What do you mean, because of me? You are the ones who are monsters! You are the ones who kill, who are so angry, so fearful ...:

 

Yarella blew out a sharp breath. And rather than mindspeaking, she formed letters in the air for them all to see, but too small for Medrid to read. She was fairly confident, at this distance, that Medrid couldn't hear her thoughts if she didn't want him to. She had decent shields. The others were not Mages. "Do you rea-lly want him this close to Hav-ens? At least I'll be tak-ing him aw-ay. It's some-thing I can do ... I may not be a war-rior but I can han-dle this ." She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again. "If I have to, I will Final Strike. I'm mage en-ough to take him with me if I have to. He may be horrifically Gifted, but I know how magic works ."

Chapter Text

It was raining. Again. Leselie pushed his spectacles up so that they rode atop his head. The rain, fog, and the heat from his face were combining to make them unusable.   I'm not sure which is worse: foggy spectacles or no spectacles.

 

Yarella glanced sideways at him, noting the movement. She cast words into midair, "I can spell those spect-acles for you to-night so they won't fog."

 

"That would be appreciated." He smiled at her, after squinting and puzzling the large letters out.

 

"Can you show me how that works?" Medrid asked, from behind Leselie.

 

They'd been on the road for a week, traveling farther from Havens with each day. The other Companions had been distinctly less than happy about Medrid traveling with him and Yarella, but in the end, there had been nothing they could do about it. Yarella had been adamant, and Medrid had decided he liked the idea, and he was fully capable of taking all of them on simultaneously if they'd decided to press the issue.

 

Yarella hesitated, then nodded at him.

 

Yarella's actually moving fairly well. She was so out-of-shape a week ago. It's amazing what a week of traveling has done for her. She's still lame, but her stride's longer and she's much more relaxed. She's not got her gut sucked up like a colicky horse anymore, in response to the pain in her back and feet.

 

"How's your back?" He asked, nudging the grey mare closer to her.

 

She glanced up at him. "Not too bad tod-ay."

 

"I'm no Healer, but I know a bit -- I picked up a liniment in the last town I passed that that might help loosen those muscles up, if you'd let me try." 

 

"Hea-lers have al-rea-dy tried."

 

And probably failed. Because she was so out-of-shape from standing around doing nothing that anything they accomplished was immediately undone by her own weight and lack of muscle tone. She's not that heavy, but from what Res told me, the Healers nearly had to threaten her with bodily harm to get her to exercise every day. I can't say as I blame her -- that foundered foot hurts -- but she's done herself worse damage protecting it. But without her cooperation -- and she's stubborn as a mule, I've figured that much out -- there wasn't a whole heck of a lot they could have done.

 

"Well, would you humor me?"

 

"Cute young man wants to put hands on me?" She responded, with a wink. "I hum-or him."

 

Medrid snickered.

 

An unseen hand patted his cheek.  "You're even cut-er when you blush."

 

He ducked away. "Hey, I didn't know you had a Fetching gift."

 

"Min-or. Par-ty tri-cks."

 

"I can think of a lot of ways Fetching might be useful to a Companion."

 

*Well, yes.*

 


 

 

Okay, he is good. If I didn't know better, I'd swear he had Healing gift.

 

Yarella leaned into Leselie's fingers as he worked a minty-smelling salve into her back. The salve was green; she'd look like a green pinto horse in the morning. (Though the color would rapidly fade.) But she didn't care . It felt so good .

 

Leselie's fingers worked the knots in her spine with practiced ease. He said conversationally, "My father used to have me do this for his clients, before he healed them. It's easier to heal someone if they're relaxed, you know?"

 

Ah, yes. There. There.

 

"You know you're drooling?" Medrid's voice came from across the campfire.

 

"Shut up, furface." Leselie said, amiably.

 

Yarella flinched. The thought, Havens, if he pisses that thing off ... warred with a certain sense of the familiar. Oh, she recognized that sense of humor, all right, and it made her despair. Perhaps she was seeing things where nothing existed. She didn't want to think too hard about it. 

 

Unoffended by the insult, Medrid merely grinned a very toothy grin and informed Leselie. "Your pet monster's afraid I might get mad. I don't understand it, but all the Companion-monsters are afraid of me."

 

"You need to be shielding, Medrid." Leselie said, mildly. "It's rude to eavesdrop."

 

"She's a monster." He said, dismissively, with a flip of his hand. "She was changed by the magic."

 

"Look at the pot calling the kettle black. And anyway, she's going out of her way to help you . So show her the same courtesy and treat her with some respect even if you do think she's a 'monster.' Don't eavesdrop on her thoughts."

 

Medrid fell silent for a moment. Leselie worked his fingers up Yarella's back to her withers.   Oh, yes. Rub right there, that's a good Herald.

 

"I see your point." Medrid said, with a sigh. "It's not her fault that she was Changed."

 

"It's not anybody's fault." Leselie said, in a low voice. "Shit happens to good people, sometimes. And you just have to go on with your life."

 

Okay, is he talking to me, to Medrid, or about himself? Yarella wondered. Or all three? He's so resistant to the idea of taking on any responsibility, or putting down roots, I suspect he's got some shadows in his own life history.

 

Leselie added, "You can't change the past, Medrid. And sometimes things happen that we regret. I've been there. You just have to go on, though; you can't dwell on the past or on what might have been."

 

And that was for Medrid's benefit. Smart boy. Get him thinking in that direction, before ... Havens, I'd best not even think about Medrid, in case he's still spying on my thoughts. Think about something else, Horse.

 

Like the fact you've got a very attractive young man putting his hands on your back. Mmmm. Yes, that's a great distraction. Leselie's got a better pair of legs than Res does. It's the Shin'a'in in him.

 

"Yarella, your lips are flapping just like a horse's." Medrid pointed out  from across the fire.

 

She shot him a glare.

 

He grinned.

 

Damnit, it wasn't fair. Was she imagining things or not? She didn't dare try to read him again. That grin, though, and that sarcastic sense of humor ... it was almost painful to see, and to not know, and to know that even if she was right, he wasn't hers now.

 


 

 

"We need supplies." Leselie said. "Before we start heading into the wilderness. More cooking oil, and some bacon and flour."

 

Yarella nodded. Unhappily, she spelled out, "Do you want to leave Med-rid with me?"

 

They'd been avoiding towns for the last two weeks as much as possible. Leselie had made quick forays into small country markets for supplies, but otherwise, they'd avoided civilization. Which, Yarella thought, isn't helping the time we're making.

 

"What, afraid I'll hurt you, monster?" Medrid said. He was seated in front of Leselie in the saddle.

 

Yarella was even less happy about the prospect of several hours alone with him, but she said nothing.

 

"Actually, Medrid, why don't you come into town with me?" Leselie suggested.

 

He didn't have to look in Yarella's direction to see that she disapproved of the whole idea. Medrid also tensed. "They'll be afraid of me."

 

"Probably." Leselie agreed. "That's something you've going to have to accept. People are going to be frightened of you. You'll just have to deal with it."

 

"They might attack me." Medrid was as taut as a harpstring.

 

Leselie casually tousled the Changechild's hair. "Nah. Not if we ride in like we've got every right to exist. People are much more likely to attack something skulking in the shadows than someone who rides up on a horse and says, 'Heylo' casual as can be. Think about it ... think how curious you would have been , before you were Changed, if someone like you had shown up at your father's stable."

 

Medrid considered that in silence.

 

"And anyway, you can defend yourself if they do attack." Leselie said.

 

That, Yarella thought, is what I'm afraid of. Chosen, I don't like this idea at all. I see what you're trying to do, but it's a big risk. And it puts innocents in danger. That is something I cannot allow. And I do not share Leselie's faith in humanity. I've been killed four times over the last four lifetimes!

 

Medrid shook his head violently, "Leselie, I've been thinking. I don't think it's right to defend myself with magic against normal folk. I don't want to."

 

"Why not?" Leselie asked.

 

"Because ... because it's just not right . They're only frightened of me because they don't ... they don't understand what happened to me."

 

Okay, maybe this will work out okay. Yarella studied Medrid for a long moment. His expression was thoughtful.

 

"Mmm. You're going to have to learn to deal with people someday. Best to do it here, in Valdemar, where they're tolerant of strangers."

 

Also true. But he's so unstable ... Leselie, if he comes unraveled in a town ...

 

Leselie glanced sideways at her. "You don't like this idea, do you?"

 

She shook her head, vigorously.

 

"I'll be okay." Medrid said, voice very quiet. "I can shield myself so tightly that I won't be able to hear them hate me, and that helps. It helps to block the monsters out."

 

He frowned, looking at her. "You're not a monster anymore, did you know that? You don't hate me anymore. You're afraid of what I might do -- why, I don't know -- but you don't hate me. "

 

No, but the faces of those two people ... they were in my nightmares last night, I'll never be rid of them.

 


 

 

The town was a small one, with just an inn, a scattering of houses, a smithy, tavern, and numerous fields full of sheep. There were a few shepherds in the fields with their flocks, but they had arrived at mid-afternoon and no one else was in evidence.

 

Yarella's stomach churned with uneasy apprehension. Medrid appeared as nervous as she felt; he gripped two handsfuls of the grey mare's mane and his prehensile feet had a white-knuckled grasp on the saddle.

 

Of course, Leselie looks like he's going for a ride in the park. What does it take to upset him -- the end of the world? Besides commitment, of course. He doesn't do commitment.

 

Havens, this is a bad idea. There are innocents here.

 

Leselie rode up to the inn's stable, and dismounted easily. He lifted Medrid down, and shouted, "Hello the inn!"

 

A groom appeared from the back room, and stopped short at the sight of the waist-high creature standing between Medrid and the horses. He stared, eyes growing very wide.

 

Leselie indicated Medrid with a jerk of his chin, "Does this town have a barber? My friend needs a shave."

 

The groom laughed, rather nervously. Yarella tensed. Leselie casually loosened the mare's girth and ran the stirrups up, turning his back on all three of them in the process.

 

Medrid, however, merely grinned. The tension went out of his small frame. "I'm Medrid."

 

The groom stared. "You talk."

 

"That, too." Leselie said, without turning around. He unbuckled the mare's saddlebags and pulled them off. "Medrid's human; he just had the misfortune to be rendered short, toothy, and hairy courtesy of the magestorms last winter."

 

The groom nodded wisely, and tried to look like he wasn't bothered by Medrid's appearance. "I see. Bad luck, that. Will you be needing lodging for the night?"

 

"Nah. We're just stopping for provisions." Leselie slung the saddlebags over his shoulder. "There's three, maybe four, candlemarks of daylight left and we need to keep going."

 

The groom's attention had transferred to Yarella, however. He frowned at her. "What's a Companion doing out here without a Herald?"

 

Yarella held her breath -- and realized it, when Leselie didn't answer for a long moment. He finally allowed, "That might be me."

 

"Might?" The groom lifted an eyebrow. He transferred his attention to Leselie, who was wearing a brown tunic, trousers, and a battered cloak.

 

"She wants me to be one." Leselie hooked a thumb at Yarella. "I haven't decided yet."

 

Yarella let her breath out slowly. Ach, he's going to break my heart yet. I wish I could just talk to him. Letters cast into the air is just not the same as a good mindspoken heart-to-heart conversation.

 

The groom snorted, "Didn't know that was something you had any choice about. When a Companion comes for you, away you go, and that's that."

 

Leselie shrugged. "At any rate, we need some supplies. Can you hold the horses while we go inside?"

 

The groom nodded. "Surely."

 

Be careful, Chosen . Yarella thought at him, even though there was no way for him to hear it.

 

He patted her shoulder as he walked past. "Don't worry, 'Ella. We'll be careful."

 


 

 

Medrid was a quiet shadow at his side as Leselie entered the inn. Too quiet , Leselie thought. He's scared half to death. I wonder how many times people thought he was a monster and tried to kill him, over the last year? He's expecting trouble.

 

But he's also trusting me enough to try this, which is a start. As Da would say, trust is the first step to healing a wounded soul.

 

And why am I worried about healing his heart and soul? I'm no mindhealer! I'm just an actor!

 

"C'mon, kiddo." Leselie said, forcing his voice to remain casual. "Let's get our supplies and go."

 

The common room of the inn had half a dozen people in it. They were all evidently local; they all sat around one table and were loudly recounting a hunt of a buck the day before.

 

"... an' he took three arrows an' he still jumped that old stone wall around Nrika's orchard an' ran all the way t' the creek before he dropped ..." An older man with a white beard and shoulder length hair said in thunderous tone.

 

Medrid flinched at the loud voice.

 

The old man twisted around at the sound of footsteps on the inn's wooden floor, and saw Medrid. He froze for half a second, then his had dropped towards a knife at his belt. Everyone else at the table rose.

 

"Hey folks." Leselie said, cheerfully. "Don't mind the runt -- you know those merchants that wander through now and again with cures for baldness?"

 

And I sure hope Valdemar has quack medicine like the rest of the world. They should; there have been faux hair-growth tonics since time immemorial.

 

The locals stared dumbly at him.

 

Leselie indicated Medrid with a wave of one hand. "Guess what? One actually worked."

 

They continued to goggle at him.

 

"And then he tried to wash it off, 'cept he used hot water, and then he shrank ."

 

Medrid grinned toothily.

 

"C-can we do something for you ... ah ... gentlemen?" The innkeeper asked, rising from a chair in the corner and setting aside a book.

 

Leselie nodded, and rattled off a list of supplies that he needed. "... and ten pounds of flour, some bacon, eggs if you've got them, and some grain for my Companion and my horses."

 

"... Companion? You're a Herald?"

 

I'm getting heartily sick of that question.

 

"So she claims."

 

After a final wary look at the Changechild, the innkeeper vanished into the inn's storeroom. He returned with his supplies, along with a coin stamped with the name of the village. He gave both to Leselie, and waved away Leselie's offer of payment. "You should know we'd rather take the cut on our taxes!"

 

The innkeeper and Leselie carried the supplies out to the pack horse.  Within minutes, they were back on the road, moving steadily onwards.

 

"That wasn't so bad." Leselie said happily.

 

"If I'd tried that by myself, they would have slain me on the spot."

 

"Nah. You just need to learn to use a bit of humor to defuse the situation. I can think of lots of things you could say to deal with problems ..."

 

"Do you think monsters would listen to me?" Medrid said, thoughtfully.

 

"Sure. Let's see ... what other stories can we come up with besides the amazing hair tonic?"

 


 

 

An hour later, Leselie was still coming up with stories, each one more improbable than the last. "... so you just look at them, and lift an eyebrow, and tell them that, 'My grandfather always told me eating onions would put hair on my chest ...'"

 

Medrid chuckled, "You know, he used to say that, too."

 

Yarella, trailing behind them, shook her head. I don't believe it, but Leselie has Medrid laughing. He's making gentle fun of the boy, and Medrid is eating it up.

 

Pride swelled in her chest. He'll make such a good Herald. He's got an easy way with people; he just opens his mouth and wags that silver tongue, and Medrid listens. And he's a good man. He's a born leader, if he'd ever step up and take some responsibility.  

 

Except that I'm not sure he wants to be a Herald, deep down. I wish he'd tell me what happened to make him so blasted wary of any kind of attachment, personal or otherwise. It's one thing for him to joke around with Medrid. It's quite another when he starts thinking about committing to anyone or anything.

 

"I could tell them, umm, 'This is why you don't make a fur coat out of mink from the Pelagirs. You wouldn't believe the number of razors I've gone through since ...'"

 

"Yeah, that should work." Leselie agreed.

 


 

 

It snowed during the night -- they woke to an ankle-deep blanket of wet slush on the ground and dripping from the trees. This Waystation was in a dense forest and all the branches were heavily laden.

 

"Oh, yuck." Leselie opened the door and frowned. "That's going to be fun to travel in."

 

The grey mare, tethered outside, responded to the open door with a ringing neigh. The pack horse pawed restlessly. They wanted their morning grain.

 

"Medrid, want to fix breakfast? I'll go feed the horses." Leselie suggested.  He flipped open one of the packhorse's panniers, which had been left by the Waystation's door, and pulled a heavy cloth bag of mixed grain out, and three nosebags.

 

"You want me to cook?" Medrid said, somewhat surprised.

 

"Sure. You can fry a couple of eggs and some of that bacon, can't you?" Leselie measured three helpings of grain into the nosebags.

 

"Well, yeah ..."

 

"Good." Without giving him any further chance to think about it, Leselie stepped out into the briskly cold morning.

 


 

 

Yarella had slept outside, under what had started out as a starry sky. Leselie chided her as he approached, "You should have come inside when it started snowing."

 

"I was-n't cold." She spelled out, as he buckled the nosebag behind her ears. She added, "These things are un-dig-nif-ied."

 

"Yeah, you look cute with it on. You remind me of a pony I had as a child ..."

 

She pinned her ears at him, and he laughed at her expression. And ruffled her forelock; he knew that would annoy her even more. Unseen fingers suddenly goosed him in the ribs.

 

"Sorry, not ticklish." He said, with a shrug.

 

That made her even more annoyed. A limb laden with snow directly over his head shook. Wet snow plopped on his head.

 

"Hey!" He said, "That was mean!"

 

She gave him an utterly innocent look. He laughed again. "That pony used to have the same look on his face, just before he bit me ..."

 

"Where's the Cha-nge-chi-ld?" Yarella asked, growing serious.

 

"Fixing breakfast."

 

Her look of concern spoke volumes.

 

"What's he going to do, poison me?" Leselie sighed. "I wanted to talk to you, sweetie."

 

She pricked her ears forward at the endearment. Ah, I wish he knew how much it meant to me to hear pretty words from him.

 

He stepped closer to her, and rested a hand casually on her shoulder. "How are you doing? I mean, really? This can't be easy for you; Medrid is still a threat. And what he made you do ... you can't trust him, I know that."

 

She blew out a sharp breath. "Let's go away from the way-sta-tion a bit."

 

I don't trust Medrid to completely shield himself, even if we asked. I'm not sure what kind of range he has, but it can't be that great for reading thoughts that aren't being broadcast. There are limits to what a mindspeaker can do, even a really powerful one, and it must take a hell of a lot of  power to pick my thoughts up through my shields, while he's still shielding as well. And he has to still be shielding or I would know it. Probably after I acted on emotions that are not my own.

 

Scary boy.

 

They walked for five minutes through the snowy forest before either of them spoke again.

 

"I wish ..." Yarella spelled the words out slowly, "I could talk to you, Chosen."

 

"You are."

 

"Not the same." She rested her head against his chest.

 

She felt him stiffen. And step away from her.

 

"What did I say?"

 

His face was dark, closed. "Nothing. It's okay. I can't change the fact I don't have mindmagic, and never will. I accept that."

 

He stepped back next to her, and rested a hand on her neck. "Are you okay?"

 

She snorted. "I'm a Comp-an-ion . I am fine ."

 

"No nightmares?" The hand on her neck began to work knotted muscles.

 

How did he know ? "A few."

 

"Figured. I saw those two people in my nightmares last night, from your point of view."

 

She looked at him, startled. But he doesn't have Gifts!

 

Hoping against hope, she Looked at him again. Nothing. There was no more potential for mindmagic there than had ever been before.

 

"How?" One word, large and pale in color with restrained hope.

 

"My mind telling me that you hurting, I think." He shrugged. "I've learned to listen to dreams like that. It's not a Gift, but they usually tell me things I should know."

 

Oh. Oh, Leselie. You should have been a mindhealer. You should have been born with a full compliment of Gifts, and you should have been born here , where you could have been trained.

 

"Da always hoped I'd develop some empathy, at least." He sighed. "He used to check me, constantly, for the beginnings of gifts."

 

There was just a hair of bitterness in Leselie's voice when he added, "I think I disappointed him when I proved to be nothing but a normal boy."

 

She took note of the bitterness, mostly because it was so unusual coming from Leselie. Instead of saying anything, however, she offered wordless sympathy. She rested her head against his chest.

 

To her gratification, he wrapped his arms around her neck again, and buried his face in her mane. Words muffled by her neck, he said, "Sweetie, whatever happens, know this: I'm not going to leave you. Ever."

 

Oh, great good Gods. He doesn't know how much that means to me.

 

He stepped back, and said softly, "Da has always wandered, for as long as I can remember. I don't think I stayed in one place for more than a month or two as a child. Do you know what it's like to grow up with no friends, ever?"

 

"I can't ima-gine." I always had friends. In this lifetime, I may have been slow and lame, but the others my age were still my friends even if I couldn't play all the games with them. I can remember swimming with Kisa as a foal, though, and there was Darel ... he was such an adorable colt. I miss him ... it's not fair that he should have died his first year on circuit. Not fair to his Herald, either, poor boy.

 

He reached a hand out and stroked her forelock. "It was always a new place. A new country, a new language to learn, a new people to study for him. There was always danger, too -- Da wasn't always welcome. Sometimes we had to assume false identities, in places where mages aren't welcome. We would pose as horsetraders, quite often.

 

"Sometimes he'd join a quest of some kind, or pick a side of a war to fight on, and sometimes I went with him. That's where I learned all the healing crafts I know. I got to tend the injured, those that didn't need his skills, and their beasts." He sighed, and continued to toy with her forelock. "Sometimes he thought it was too dangerous, so he'd send me off to live with my cousins. The Shin'a'in. They're a good people, my mother's clan is, but she was a runaway , Yarella. She never went home, and she died somewhere far away not long after I was born. So the clan would take me in because I was family, but the other kids never let me forget who my mother was."

 

"Why did she run away?"

 

"She was an Adept, too, when my father met her. I think the magic called to her, as a young girl. The Shin'a'in eschew magic. She broke with their traditions, their way of life. And I was her son."

 

He moved his hand up to her poll, and began to massage the muscles here. "They were polite to me, and the adults were family, but I had no friends there, either, among the children."

 

She rested her chin on his shoulder, listening.

 

"But you'll be with me always, won't you?"

 

"Always." She assured him. "I'll alw-ays be here for you."

 


 

 

Yarella felt as if a huge burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She moved easily today, despite the snow. Her tail was flagged over her back, her ears were pricked all the way forward, and her gaits were long and sweeping. She was lame, true, and she still hurt but she wasn't stiff and there was a distinct and obvious difference.

 

Oh, I feel like dancing ! She thought, as she followed the grey saddlemare down a steep hill. Snow flew from under her hooves. I wish I had bells on; I'd love to make them jingle to match my mood. He wants me! He's accepting the bond!

 

And he's worth keeping just for those magic fingers. My back doesn't hurt at all, and I swear he did something to my legs, too. I could run, I could buck ... I think I will!

 

She kicked her heels up for the first time since her injury so long ago, and then summoned a joyous burst of speed and raced past the saddlemare at a canter.

 

"Woah, Yarella!" Leselie said, but he was laughing. "Don't overdo it, now."

 

She spun around, reared, and winked at him. *Hey! I just want those magic fin-gers on my back toni-ght!*

 

The words, tinted a happy blue, appeared a few feet from his nose, even though she was several horselengths ahead.

 

He grinned. "As you command."

 

Soon enough, though, she found herself out of breath. The warning twinges in her back and legs caused her to slow down to a sedate walk. Blowing a bit, she commented, *I feel won-der-ful!*

 

He leaned towards her and ruffled her forelock. "Good. It makes me happy to see you so happy."

 

She nudged his knee with her nose. *If it were-n't for you, I would still be mold-er-ing in the Field, just Yar-ella the crip-pled one."

 

"Well, maybe you'll get to run home!" He grinned.

 

*I can-not wait. I want to be ab-le to run like I was born to!*

Chapter Text

That first snow soon melted, and was replaced by several days of sun. They made good time; Yarella's good mood was infectious and even Medrid had a smile on his face. The Tayledras vale where Leselie believed his father to be was only a day away -- they'd made twice the time that Leselie had predicted -- and they had avoided heavy snows.

 

Cheerfully, Leselie began to sing. Although he was no Bard, he did have a trained singing voice and he knew an amazing repertoire of songs from around the world.

 

*You should tran-slate some of those into Vald-ema-ran.* Yarella suggested. And she added, *You have a gift for lang-uag-es. How long have you been here in Vald-emar?*

 

"I've been here since spring." Leselie said. "Which came late, because of all the snow, so ... maybe four, five months?"

 

*And you speak the lang-uage like you've been here years.*

 

He shrugged. "It's similar to a couple of other languages. Easy enough."

 

He didn't think his gift for languages was anything remarkable. His father had known far more, and had often criticized him for his accent when learning new tongues.

 

*Well, you should translate some of those songs into Valdemaran.*

 

They were traveling through steadily more remote wilderness, and hadn't seen another person in two days. The forest was growing taller, wilder. The road was also getting worse; no one lived out here to maintain it. The horses easily scrambled up and down steep hills covered with loose rock, but Yarella was having trouble again. He would be glad to reach the end of this trip.

 

They all fell silent for a moment to navigate a slippery, ice-covered downhill slope. Leselie smiled, watching Yarella. Though traveling downhill was clearly more painful for her, she kept moving determinedly ahead. When they'd set out, she would have backed down the slope to avoid putting extra weight on her damaged front feet. Now, she went down it headfirst -- in a rush, true, but moving almost normally.

 

This was pretty country; it was mountainous, and they were descending down into a river bottom. Expansive views of evergreen forested slopes rolled away to the right, and jagged cliffs rose to the left.

 

And the more she moves normally the more her body will heal. Getting her to Da is just going to be the icing on the cake. Maybe I'll return to Havens on her back and wouldn't that fun ... ride in real casual like ... see how long it takes them to notice she's going sound.

 

His saddlemare suddenly snorted, dropped her shoulder, spun, and attempted to bolt back up the muddy hill. He checked the horse sharply as Medrid's weight pulled him off balance and the saddle slipped sharply to one side. The river valley below him, which he'd been admiring moments before, spun dizzily beneath him as the horse whirled and he clung sideways to her back.

 

"WOAH!"

 

The mare came to a quivering halt, and swapped ends again, so she was facing an unseen threat. Leselie wrapped one arm around Medrid to support him, and planted his foot down into one stirrup, and hurriedly righted the saddle without dismounting. The saddle gullet popped back over the mare's withers, and he sat deep down into the saddle. Riding double made balance harder by an order of magnitude.

 

Yarella stood frozen in the middle of the trail, one foreleg raised, and ears pricked so far forward they nearly touched. Her nostrils were flared, and her eyes wide.

 

"What is it?" He asked, softly.

 

Slowly, she lowered her foot. An entire sentence appeared over his saddlemare's ears, *Something out there.*

 

"What?"

 

"People." Medrid said. His nostrils were flared.

 

Tayledras, probably. We're getting close.

 

The ambush, when it came, was a surprise. Bandits.

 

And this close to Tayledras land ... not a good thing.

 

Yarella reared, forefeet striking the air, when the men appeared from the trees. She bugled an angry challenge.

 

The saddlemare, seeing that the source of her fright was human , relaxed. Then she jumped in surprise, a heartbeat later, when Leselie yanked her head about with no regard for good riding technique, and booted her into a gallop back up the hill. "Run, Ella!" He shouted.

 

Unfortunately, there were bandits at the top of the hill, blocking the path.

 

Leselie pulled his mare up sharply. The slope was too steep to safely go around; not with his balance thrown off by Medrid.

 

And I won't leave Yarella behind.

 

Even if it means I die defending her.

 

Star-eyed help me, I really am bewitched.

 

The bandits hung back, sizing up the trio. Yarella stomped her foot threateningly. Her ears were pinned flat to her skull, and her teeth were showing.

 

"Monsters." Medrid murmured.

 

Sketi! That's the last thing we need ... "Medrid. Listen to me. Do not drop your shields. Keep them up."

 

"Monsters." Medrid repeated. The Changechild was quivering with fear.

 

Leselie transferred the reins into one hand, and squeezed Medrid's shoulder. In a low voice, he said, "Don't worry. We'll get out of this. But keep those shields as tight as you can make them."

 

Yarella reared, and uttered a piercing scream of threat. Her forefeet struck the air, steel shoes glinting in the bright autumn sunlight.

 

Leselie said, in a loud and amiable tone, "Heyla, gentlemen!"

 

No response.

 

Then one of the bandits nocked an arrow, and aimed it at Leselie and Medrid.

 

"NO!" Leselie stared in horror at the bow. What the hell ...

 

The bow twanged. There was a blur of motion. And then an impact like a thrown rock into the center of his chest. The impact was so powerful he lost his stirrups and reflexively clamped his legs on the mare's barrel. She surged forward. He felt himself falling backwards as the horse's rump slipped between his legs ... Yarella's scream of fury was the last thing he heard, on the way down to the hard ground. There was a flash of white and then deep darkness claimed him.

 


 

 

:LESELIE!: Yarella screamed into the ether, at a man who would never be able to hear her again.

 

Anger overrode everything else. She charged the archer, teeth bared. He will die for that!

 

Fury, anger, rage, grief, Leselie! Leselie! Leselie! Not Leselie! Not the only person not afraid of me! Leselie! No Leselie!

 

Were they her thoughts? Or someone else's? Did it matter? She wanted them to die.

 

Dimly, she was aware of combat around her -- bandit on bandit, blood and screams and the stench of rent flesh and death. And the fury filled her. And the grief filled her. I'll be all alone again! Her heart screamed.

 

The archer went down beneath her teeth and hooves. Kill kill kill! Fear! The monsters! The monsters, the monsters are out there ...

 

Leselie said I shouldn't drop my shields ...

 

There was an instant of crystal-clear clarity. The monsters were not her monsters. The rage was not only hers.

 

The monsters were Medrid's. Medrid. The damned delusional fool dropped his shields. It's that vicious cycle; the more fury I have, the more he picks up, and then he gets more insanely angry ... oh, sketi!

 

There was blood in her mouth.

 

"Demon!" Someone snarled, and she knew they meant Medrid.

 

:I heard you think that. It's not true! It's not true!:

 

Medrid stood in the midst of everything, staring at her with wide eyes and an open mouth.

 

And soul-sick guilt battered at her.

 

Leselie. Leselie never would have gotten hurt if I hadn't Chosen him. I've killed people ... three, now, because of that damned Changechild. A Companion and Herald died, because of him, and what do I do? I defend him ... is it because defending him is the right thing to do, or because he reminds me of my Medrid? I don't even know, and I don't even know if it's true about his past life, but if it is, I'd die for him, but even if he isn't, I should still defend him because he is an innocent in this ....

 

She shook her head, trying to clear her jumbled thoughts. To sort out what was hers, and what terrible thoughts were Medrids. The guilt was his. Not hers. But it was insidious ... it preyed on the dark thoughts of her own soul.

 

He knows. He knows. He saw it in my mind. He saw ...

 

In her anger, she'd clearly and concisely outlined what they'd feared Medrid would learn. She'd only thought it, but Medrid had seen anyway ... He wasn't shielded all the way. And he's so powerful. Oh, sketi ...

 

:RUN!: She blasted the thought at the bandits.

 

No fools, they bolted.

 

:Medrid, listen to me. What happened was not your fault.:

 

She took a step towards him.

 

He took a step backwards. His eyes were huge.

 

He could do anything. The little fool could do anything. He's gifted in every talent I can think of; the magic he was caught in did that to him. Not the first time that's happened, but ... careful, Yarella.

 

:Medrid, see the truth in my soul. I'm afraid of you, my friend, because of what you can do. But you are not a bad person. You have so much potential to do good ...:

 

... you might be mine ...

 

Leselie, crumpled on the ground in a growing pool of heart's blood, was lost. Medrid was all she had left. If he was hers. If. And even if he wasn't, she should be willing to defend him, he'd been through so much and none of it his fault ...

 

:DADDDY!: The mental scream was so loud that it hurt. It was laced with an almost incomprehensible guilt, and horror, and grief.

 

:I AM THE MONSTER!:

 

:No!: She flung back, taking another step in his direction. And another. :You're not!:

 

And suddenly it didn't matter. It did not matter who he might have been in a past life. It mattered who he was now, and he was just a boy, terrified and possessed of a terrible Gift, damaged and deranged, but a boy all the same. He was staring at her with unseeing eyes, tears matting the fur on his face, fists balled at his side, mouth open, and he was screaming a silent mental scream that seemed to go on and on and on.

 

She stepped in a rut in the road, and her foot twisted. :Ow!:

 

Inadvertently, she broadcast the mental yelp. Medrid flinched back from her.

 

Comprehension dawned in his eyes. Her pain was a reminder that he was not alone. "Leselie ..." He whispered, and whirled.

 

She crossed the distance between them in two bounds. For a heartbeat, she believed sanity had returned to the Changechild's soul.

 

He crouched beside Leselie. A feral light lit in his eyes.

 

She was a mage. She felt him reach for the leys.

 

What's he doing ...?

 

:Healing!: A savage voice echoed in her head.

 

Leselie lay motionless, gone pale, eyes open and unseeing. He was close to death; he would cross over in another moment.

 

She felt Medrid reach for the leys. He pulled an enormous amount of power.

 

If he can't channel that, there's going to be a second Dhorisha Plain here. Gods help us ...

 

The power arced between his fingers. He reached for Leselie. There was an electric flash , a crack like thunder at close range, and she knew .

 

The little runt just pulled that off. Untrained, insane, and he managed to heal someone with raw ley magic.

 

He turned to her. His teeth showed, a toothy grin. He held his hands wide.

 

What's he going to do ...

 

Raw magic hit her. She lived in node magic, but this was focused, fierce, as wild as Medrid was insane. Savage pain shot from her hooves to her tail. There was a wrenching, a rearranging, in her feet.

 

And then nothing.

 


 

 

Oh. Head hurts.

 

Leselie lifted his head out of the mud, in response to an insistent nudge in the ribs. He'd lost his spectacles, but he was reasonably sure that the white blur a couple of feet away was Yarella. There were two blurs, actually. But they both smelled like a sweaty white horse.

 

Medrid.

 

The nose bumped him again. Yarella had something in her mouth that poked him. Insistently, she pestered him until he put a hand up and discovered that she'd found his spectacles for him.

 

He put them on. They weren't even broken.

 

He waited, then, until he stopped seeing double.

 

"Where's Medrid?" He stood up.

 

Yarella pointed with her ears and nose, indicating a tumbled form in the middle of the road.

 

"Dead?"

 

She shook her head, a negative.

 

He picked his way over to the form, trying not to step too hard. His head might fall off if he did.

 

Warily, he crouched, and touched Medrid's shoulder.  Medrid was curled on his side in the mud, tears staining his furred cheeks. The Changechild said, softly, to Leselie. "They're not monsters. I am. "

 

"You're not a monster." Leselie touched his shoulder.

 

"Yes I am. I killed my family . I killed a Herald and Companion and dozens of other people. "

 

"Shhh." Leselie said, trying to pull Medrid up out of the mud.

 

Medrid jerked away.  Suddenly, moving with amazing speed, he bolted away from Leselie.

 

"Medrid!"

 

:No! :  Yarella saw his intention long before Leselie guessed it. :Medrid, no!:

 

She would have guessed, had she been asked, that Medrid would use fire. A conflagration, to burn his stained soul clean. But he did something she never would have expected.

 

There was a snap of ley magic. He'd healed with it ... now he scorched with it.

 

The magic ripped through Medrid's mind and soul, raw power only half controlled. It should have immolated him. He should have simply disappeared, in a violent explosion. But he didn't.

 

He'd dropped his shields in that instant ...

 

Shadow lover, I don't want to die for my crimes!

 

The thought was not hers. But it reverberated to her soul as if it had come from her own heart. She felt him change his mind at the last possible instant. He'd intended to die; intended to suicide in a spectacular fashion. He'd wanted to rip himself apart with the magic that had made him a monster in the first place.

 

But he chose, at the last minute, to live .

 

The summoned power grounded back into the earth with a thud that she felt physically as much as sensed. Then Medrid collapsed to the ground, unconscious and insensate. Yarella exhaled a breath she had not, until now, realized she'd been holding for minutes. She took a step forward, then two.

 

Then stopped. And stared dumbly at her feet.

 

When she looked up, she met Leselie's eyes. His blue eyes. Every trace of pigment had been pulled from them by the magic that Medrid had used to heal him.

 

And the little runt healed me , too.

 

"Your feet." Leselie said, rather stupidly.

 

She nodded her chin at Medrid. *I can-not wait to bring him back to the Coll-eg-ium. He has so much good to do in the world, with Gifts like he has.*

 

Leselie regarded her for a moment, with pursed lips. Then he said softly, "Heralds do a lot of good too, don't they?"

 

She nodded.

 

"He'd be dead if not for us."

 

She nodded again.

 

He blew out a sharp breath. "Okay."

 

She knew what he meant. Okay . I'll become a Herald. For you. For me. And to do what good I can, in the world.

 

Then, moving with bone weary exhaustion, he scooped Medrid up off the ground and slung the Changechild over his shoulder. "C'mon, sweetie. We can reach the Vale tonight, I think, if we push on. Medrid's going to need a healer, and I'd kill for a hot bath."

 


 

 

Epilogue

 


 

 

Res frowned.

 

He could have sworn she knew every Companion in the Field by sight. So who was the Companion cantering towards the stables now?

 

She was not a tall mare, but she was built for speed. There was a man on her back, riding in a non-regulation saddle. It was black, not blue. She wore no halter or bridle at all; the rider had a fistful of her mane for balance. Additionally, the rider was out of uniform. And Res' brain insisted the man had a hairy dog of some sort riding pillion behind him.

 

He was a slight man, and at first Res thought he was an old man. His hair was white. Then the pair drew closer, and Res realized that the man's face was unlined by age.  A mage, then, or one who'd been exposed to magic. His clothes were in the gaudy bright colors of a Hawkbrother.

 

What, he thought, did someone Chose a Tayledras?

 

Then a merry voice said in his head, :Hi good looking! It's been awhile!:

 

"YARELLA!" He shouted, recognizing the voice before he fully comprehended that the sleek young Companion before him was, in fact, her.

 

She pulled up before him, and pranced past, displaying a perfectly sound trot. :Look! Look at me!:

 

"I see!" He grinned.

 

The "dog" resolved into something else ... something with long arms, short legs, and a hairy body. A Changechild he realized.



The man dismounted, and lifted the Changechild down. "Hey Res."

 

"Leselie." Res said. "Welcome back."

 

Leselie grinned, and easy grin. "Heyla. The runt here is Medrid."

 

Res took a step back. He recognized the name, and the description, from stories told by the Heralds. He shot Yarella a look of frantic appeal. "Yarella ..."

 

:He's not the monster that he was, Res.: Yarella said, very patiently. :I've already discussed it with the others -- the other Companions. He damaged himself. Tried to suicide, pulled back at the last minute, decided to live. But the potential he had? It's gone. Burnt out. He's no threat now.:

 

"Everything?" Res said. The story of the Changechild who had turned Herald and Companion against each other had been told all around Havens.

 

Yarella dropped her muzzle to the top of Medrid's head and ruffled his hair. :No. Not everything. He's left with an amazing Healing gift. He's not the most powerful Healer I've ever seen, now, but he'll be very good at it. It's what he wants to do with his life. We think he should be trained here.:

 

Leselie flicked Yarella's ear with his fingers. Teasingly, he said, "There you go, talking to other men again. What am I going to do with you?"

 

She playfully nipped at his fingers, then, with a wink at Res, pushed Leselie towards the palace. A complete sentence formed in mid-air before him. *We're home, Chosen. We're home.*