Alberich would not be quick to admit it, but it was impossible to deny that from the beginning, Myste had experienced little difficulty getting him to do exactly as she wished. He’d once attempted to make a fighter of her; well, and she already was that, always, but without any the abilities he’d hoped to hammer into her. She fought on balance sheet and vellum, in numbers and script, and not a little with very, very careful words. And as she fixed him with a steady look across the small space between their chairs in his small sitting room, Alberich has a sudden feeling he was about to cross metaphorical blades – a duel for which he was inadequately prepared, tonight.
“I’ll miss your abominable taste in liquor while I’m gone,” Myste murmured over the top of her cut glass decanter, wrinkling her nose playfully as she took a sip of the harsh apple brandy of which he’d poured them each a generous measure. Alberich frowned, setting down his own glass on the small table set between their chairs and made as if to rise.
“It is not so bad, I thought, but I have wine…” Myste made a tutting noise, pulling a hand free from the blanket she’d wrapped around her shoulders to wave him back to his seat.
“I was teasing,” she said, chuckling. “Keep your wine for another night. It’s fine, it’s fine. And fitting to the season, after all.” Autumn had only recently arrived in Haven, and while the days were still warm enough that his students were sweat-damp hardly before a lesson in the sale had begun, the evenings had begun to yield a chill just cool enough that he’d lit a small fire in his hearth for them to enjoy tonight. Alberich slowly settled back in his chair, a heavy but comfortable thing that had finally replaced the creaky one Dethor had left for him years ago, his brow still furrowed.
“Gone, you said. And just where are you going?”Alberich asked. Myste was still making a study of the heavy amber liquor in her glass.
“Selenay has asked me to accompany Herald-Captain Kerowyn on her next journey to Bolton. The Skybolts have settled in well enough, it seems, but I’m to make a record of the company for the Chronicles. So when Kerowyn leaves in another two days, I’ll be joining her.”
“Surely another Herald could do this thing,” he protested.
“I am the Chronicler, this is what I do, Alberich” she countered.
“Not to every village in Valdemar! And Bolton is right on the border, it is hardly safe.”
“Accompanied by Herald-Captain Kerowyn? And surrounded by a company of skilled mercenaries under service to the Crown? How could I possibly be any safer?” she said lightly. The playfulness in her voice rankled Alberich. Since Ancar’s armies had been defeated the year before, the borders had seen more peace than in years, but bandits still plagued even the border with their Rethwellan allies, and the borders with Hardorn and Karse, while relatively quiet, still presented dangers. It seemed a great risk to send Myste, whose skills were very particular and of most use in Haven, to a far-flung border village, even as one as unique as Bolton.
“And mercenaries, strangers all to whom you will put probing questions, safe with them you will surely feel?” he asked, impatience thickening his accent without conscious thought. Sometimes it was a choice he affected for show, but sometimes, when frustrated, it would creep up on him unbidden. Myste only arched an eyebrow at him.
“I suppose you could come with me, if you’re so concerned for my welfare,” she said slowly.
“But my duties…”
“Are most ably carried out by your second. Did you not say Jeri needs more experience overseeing all of the lessons herself just a few nights ago?” Myste interrupted him. Alberich hesitated. He had said as much, and it was true.
“You have enough leave to spare – you’ve never taken any, really,” Myste continued.
“I have had no need of it,” he countered hastily. Myste shook her head.
“Everyone has need of rest, even the infamous Weaponsmaster. You’ve hardly seen most of Valdemar outside of Haven and too many battlefields, besides. Think of it as a much overdue holiday. And pack lightly, it’ll just be us, no baggage train, so whatever Kantor can manage besides all of you,” Myste added, downing the last of her drink with a sigh. Alberich grunted as Kantor’s indignation flowed through their bond.
:What I can manage? I’ll have her know I’ll carry twice as much as Aleirian on a bad day.: Alberich had not bothered to block out Kantor’s presence yet this evening, and he had apparently been aware of the conversation at some level. He was no longer certain he would need privacy from the bond tonight, not that he’d had expectations, exactly, but…well, and there was no use dwelling on it. Pushing those thoughts from his mind, he attempted to soothe his Companion’s ruffled feathers.
:Peace, brother. I believe that is exactly her point, that you must haul around my sorry hide.:
:I am sure we will have to moderate our pace, if not for her own Companion, than for Sayvil, certainly.: Alberich felt his eyebrows lifting. Companions, unfortunately, could be just as petty as their Heralds when their frustration was aroused.
:I am certain she was only making a joke at my expense. As you do. Frequently.: Silence echoed in the bond between them for a long moment.
:Her point about leave time is well-taken, I must admit. She’s right that you’ve never taken for yourself what every Herald is given,: Kantor said finally.
:No family have I to visit, and no reason to invite gossip from those who expected me to be a traitor. As you know.: Alberich could sense Kantor’s frustration on his behalf rising in the bond again.
:And no one would dare question now.: Kantor must have sensed his doubt, since his mind-voice was not silent for long before rephrasing the assertion.
:No one would dare question and not quite quickly regret it. In any case, I’ll speak to the others to see what we’ll need to prepare.:
Abruptly, the Companion retreated from his mind, and Alberich grimaced. Myste looked at him with entirely innocent eyes.
“I take it Kantor agrees with me? Aleirian seems to be under the impression that he’s quite committed to coming along.”
He was doubly committed to this enterprise, it seemed.
“So, for this trip, where I am to be resting, and serving as your bodyguard, and seeing the sights altogether, I must begin to pack at once, I suppose,” Alberich said reluctantly. Myste set her glass aside and rose from her chair, the blanket falling from her shoulders as she settled herself gingerly on the arm rest of his chair, leaning in to brush her nose just alongside his own.
“Perhaps not quite so soon,” she allowed, a satisfied smile curling her lips just before she kissed him.
The lingering summer warmth that had bathed Haven in the days before they took their leave was a distant and somewhat wistful memory not a week later. The fall storms that often plagued this part of the country had opened up on their small party the day they’d left Haven, and hardly let up for the duration. Even the best oilcloth and the greatest care had not prevented them from spending much of the trip cold and sodden, and though the Companions made incredible time and they spent their nights in cozy inns rather than Waystations, the trip had been a grim one. Herald-Captain Kerowyn was pleasant, and her oft-acerbic wit was a match for Alberich’s own, but she was hardly chatty. And while Myste had filled their first days with thoughtful chatter, filling both out-Kingdom natives in on Valdemaran history and geography, the weather had even begun to wear on her, and by their last day of travel she’d been grimly nursing a cold, bundled as warmly as she could manage on Aleirian’s back and more quiet than not.
When Alberich was finally able to settle himself into a chair by the fire in Bolton’s single homely inn, The Second Strike, some long hours after their sodden and windblown arrival, he allowed himself a small groan of weariness. He’d taken the measure of the small room – two locals dicing and nursing ale against the far wall, a silver-haired woman, likely a Company retiree, lingering over her meal at a small corner table, and a disinterested barmaid halfheartedly mopping up the damp and muck tracked in by even a careful visitor. It was a quiet place, as they’d arrived late, pushing hard the final day to rest at their destination tonight, and though he’d never truly let his guard down in such a place, he could relax a little by the fire’s heat.
:You are well, and the others?: he sent to Kantor, half-slitting his eyes and focusing his attention on the bond. With their Captain now also a Herald, the Skybolts had made impressive efforts on building appropriate housing for Companions. The border town of Bolton had rarely had Herald visitors not on circuit before becoming home to a mercenary company who were in some ways standing army, in others akin to the Guards, and in other ways a uniquely self-governing community within the great mass of Valdemar’s “no one, true way”. But like most corners of the Kingdom, they’d learned to treat Companions with appropriate respect. Though the inn had a single ample box-stall with appropriate Companion features, such as the ability for its occupant to open and close the door, it would hardly suffice for frequent and multiple Herald visitors. Instead the Skybolts had raised a whole barn not just for their Captain’s Companion, but any others that might be stationed nearby or visiting.
:Quite well. The straw is as thick as we might have it in Haven.: On the whole, Kantor’s drowsy approval was clear. :Aleirian says Myste is already sleeping.: Alberich shook his head.
:She was asleep before I’d left her packs in her room.: Though generally Heralds tended their own Companions, between the cold she’d caught and her own usual allergies acting up as the seasons shifted and the storms had the pressure in the air fluctuating madly, Myste had been barely awake by the time they arrived. It took the combined urging of three Companions and two Heralds to send Myste to the inn directly, while Kerowyn and Alberich saw to Aleirian’s comfort for the night as well as their own Companions’.
:You should rest, too. Kerowyn is spending half a candlemark with her second over a bowl of soup before going to bed and putting the rest until tomorrow, Sayvil says.: Alberich grunted a sort of halfhearted agreement.
:Soon.: There was quiet in the bond, overlaid with the sense of drowsiness and contented warmth that Kantor projected, before he made a final command.
:And eat something.:
:Yes, Mother.: A snort of exasperation was all he heard in reply before the connection faded to the back of his mind. Still, a bowl of something warm sounded appealing. Alberich gestured to the barmaid once she’d put up her mop.
“Is there a pot of something warm I might have a bowl of?” he asked. “Nothing special is needed, just hot, and a good quantity. It is late, I know.” Her expression was slightly dubious, but after a moment she ducked her chin in a nod.
“Porridge with some vegetables and a bit of bacon, if that will suit you? It’s what Kem keeps about for the folks with odd hours.” Alberich nodded to himself. Bolton was not large, but there would be those who needed to keep night hours for various reasons, or who preferred it. Many inns would have a soup or porridge – or more often, something between the two – to feed those who might wander in late or particularly early.
“That will do fine, thank you,” he said with a nod, and the girl hurried off, wiping her hands on her apron. She paused by the corner table to take an empty bowl and a coin from the older woman finishing her meal, before the woman rose with her cup of wine and approached the fire. Definitely a former fighter, Alberich confirmed from her careful stride and apparently watchfulness, sparing the woman half a glance as she came closer. He didn’t rouse from his relaxed posture, and didn’t even give the woman his full attention when she paused by the other chair pulled close to the fire.
“Is this seat taken?” her voice was harsh, and accented strangely – but then, that was hardly unusual in Bolton. Few of the Skybolts beyond a few newish recruits were native Valdemarans. And Alberich himself hardly had room to criticize. He glanced up at the woman briefly – she had a long face, golden-dark skin wreathed in fine lines, and silver hair under a gray head-covering. He inclined his head toward the other seat.
“Yours, if you wish it,” he said only, leaning back in his chair and half-closing his eyes, though he remained acutely aware of the woman as she sat. Alberich did not want to seem rude, but he was wary of conversation with a stranger. Though he hardly expected prejudice from another transplant from out-Kingdom, he was still far more practiced conversing with strangers while pretending to be someone other than himself, and he didn’t feel much like putting on a performance for the sake of this retired mercenary tonight.
The woman settled herself in the chair easily, propping her boots on a nearby chair. Despite his best efforts, she didn’t seem to pick up on his reluctant manner, fixing him with blue eyes that were still sharp.
“How is it that you do not wear the white uniform of your brethren?” she asked without preamble. Alberich bit his tongue on his first instinctive reply, which might have been a groan or a curse, he wasn’t entirely sure what had been trying to escape, but he wrestled it back. The woman relaxed easily into the chair, looking entirely comfortable with her pointed question. Alberich took a moment to compose a more guarded reply.
“I am on leave from my duties, and have no obligation to wear the uniform of the Heralds while off-duty.” It was true. Though of course, even when he was not on leave, it wasn’t as if he could be easily made to wear Herald’s whites. Still, he emphasized the last few words. It might be indelicate to lean on his official status to avoid bother, but he would do so nonetheless.
“But the others…?” she trailed off. Though her voice was harsh, there was an almost delicate unasked question implied, and real curiosity in the quirk of her silvery eyebrow.
“Herald-Captain Kerowyn and Herald Myste are on official business of the Crown, and so they wear their uniforms,” Alberich said dutifully. The strange older woman chuckled a little at this and nodded.
“The Herald I once knew never seemed to put them off, so I had wondered,” she said, a slightly distant look in her eyes, and Alberich found himself relenting from his taciturn response, straightening in his chair as the barmaid approached with his meal. He accepted it from her with a nod, taking the opportunity to study the older woman who had become his dining companion in more detail. She was older perhaps than he had first judged her. Though she still moved with relative fluidity, the lines on her face and hands were many – spider-web fine but everywhere. Perhaps she was a parent or even a grandparent of a recruit rather than a retiree. A fighter once for certain, but it had been decades, not years, since this woman would have been employed in such a pursuit.
But one who had once known a Herald...
“Some take to the Whites more easily than others. As an adult was I Chosen. Those Chosen young, more comfortable with the uniform may be,” he allowed, stirring his porridge and taking a careful bite.
“Mmm. He was born to it, so I expect that may well explain his preferences.” At that, Alberich raised an eyebrow. Though he was no native Valdemaran to have been schooled in Companion’s Choice as a child, even he knew that lineage could not prove or predict who would be Chosen. A child of a Herald, or even two Heralds, was not guaranteed that a Companion would come for him or her, though the likelihood was perhaps greater, what with the child there to be seen by any Companion in the Fields. But still, no Herald was born to the life. But he refrained from gainsaying the woman’s suggestion, not wanting to interrupt her or attempt to explain the complicated truth.
“It has been many, many years since I was last in Valdemar,” she said next. “News has been spotty this past year. It seems that your Queen Selenay once again has a Rethwellan prince paying her court, though apparently this one is more welcome than the last?” she asked, her teeth flashing in a sort of sharp amusement.
Alberich barely escaped choking on his dinner. This conversation was changing on him with every question the elderly woman put to him, and this was a turn he’d expected no better than the last. Though none of it was precisely secret, her easy way of speaking about such things was at odds with the coarse way some would gossip about the intimacies of royalty, but shaded toward a particular sort of familiarity that put him off his guard.
But it was also common knowledge, and Heralds ought not hide the truth…
“Prince Darenell…” he hesitated briefly, knowing he had misspoken Prince-Consort Daren’s name, but the Prince insisted on eschewing his full, multi-syllabic Rethwellan royal name in Valdemar, and he’d not heard it spoken in near a year.
“Darenthallis,” the woman corrected helpfully. “Though he always did hate it. You were saying?”
“Prince…the Prince was Chosen,” he said finally. Alberich’s brow furrowed at the older woman’s easy familiarity. Could she be close to the Rethwellan royal family? Though her accent was not markedly of that nation, perhaps she had known Darren as a child in Petras, or been a guard in the service of his late father or brother.
“That would make it easier. And Prince-Consort by your rules up here, hai? Still, I never would have thought he’d have it in him. He was a good lad, but not quite the sort I would think would attract your Companions. Though he’s matured a great deal, I suppose.” The strange woman must have been close to the Rethwellan royals, of a certainty. Or a very unusual spy, he thought suddenly, before discarding the idea as ludicrous. She could have had this information from anyone in the inn, or anyone in the town of Bolton easily enough. None of it was a secret, not even outside Valdemar’s borders. But the woman levered herself to her feet as if all her curiosity was sated, inclining her head in Alberich’s direction.
“My apologies for interrupting your dinner, Herald, but thank you for the information. Have a good evening,” she said, before disappearing out the front door into the steady rain before he could formulate a response.
The morning broke fair, and though there was damp still hanging in the air, and surely covering the ground, Alberich stepped outside the inn into a very pleasant day. The town was awake and active, shops open and plenty of townsfolk in the streets, but he still noticed immediately as the woman from the night before slipped into the intermittent stream of passer-by behind him, shadowing his footsteps. He peered about, and decided not to confront her on the open street. Even if she was harmless, the last thing he wanted was another of their conversations to take place out in the open, with an audience.
As he rounded the corner off the town square to approach the Companions’ lodging on a much less busy side-street, only then did he turn on his heel to confront his shadow – to find exactly no one. He turned about again, steadying his movements so as to appear unbothered, he was surprised not to see any sign of her. He frowned, and casually leaned a shoulder against the building and pretended to adjust his boot, while surreptitiously studying the street. She could not have disappeared so swiftly. He straightened up, shaking his head and patting his pocket as if he’d forgotten something, and headed back the way he came, wondering if she had continued along the main street. Before he’d taken but a few steps, Kantor’s voice slid into his mind with a inflection to it he could not precisely place, though it wasn’t one of great concern or worry.
:Where?: Alberich knew better than to look about wildly, so he slipped a glance over his shoulder, half-expecting to see his Companion coming up the street he’d just started away from.
:No, Chosen. In here. The barn.: Kantor’s mind-voice was deceptively mild. :She’s…something else, all right. You should come.: Appearances be-damned – Alberich sprinted, rounding a corner and shouldering open the barn door to find the older woman sitting regally on a hay bale, addressing the three Companions all facing her. Kantor appeared dubious, Aleirian quite interested, and Sayvil…the Companion mare had fixed the old woman with a very pointed, wide-eyed stare.
“Tell her to hurry, mind. I didn’t come all this way to cool my heels in a barn.” She looked up at Alberich’s stunned expression, and offered him a little wave.
“Herald Alberich, good morning. My apologies for the oblique questions last night, but I needed a few things confirmed. Terribly disappointed I didn’t get an invite to the royal wedding, but I’m not sure my student – either of them – were even aware I was still alive.”
It wasn’t until a few minutes later, when Kerowyn burst into the stables and gawked at the woman still sitting regally on a haybale that Alberich had any idea of what his own expression might have looked like in that moment.
“Tarma?” Kerowyn half-whispered comically, looking shocked.
“Child, close your mouth and come over here so we can properly be introduced. Your Companion, Kerowyn. Introductions!” With a choked sort of laugh, Kerowyn ran across the barn and hugged the older woman fiercely above her half-hearted protests.
“She knew King Roald, Alberich,” Myste said tightly, writing feverishly in her books, her desk in the inn half-covered by candles to brighten the room despite the late hour. He made a non-committal noise, and she fixed him with a glare.
“She was there when Roald and Stefensen made their pact of mutual aid, and the plans were laid to overthrow the then-Rethwellan king, Raschar. An uprising that was likely successful only due to Roald’s financial assistance, a promise that was sealed to the Crown so tightly our whole nation forgot it. She witnessed history which was extremely relevant to Valdemar in the past year, and which we only know about because she told her student, Kerowyn. But she was there. Before this we only had Roald’s own description of things, and the few stories he told from his journey to Kata Shin’a’in with her three years later.”
“So the Herald that she once knew, and speaks of with such familiarity is Selenay’s grandfather?” There was a questioning inflection to his words, but it was more disbelief than confusion. Kerowyn had vouched for the truth of Tarma’s stories, and Myste’s familiarity with the histories of Valdemar had confirmed them, with a few minor, tiny inconsistencies between the stories as Tarma told them and Myste knew them.
(Myste had already made a great sheaf of notes for entering into the Archives as supplementary material, a feverish gleam in her eyes.)
“Yes, exactly,” Myste said vaguely, already focusing her eyes back on the page, scribbling notes as fast as she could.
“You should…rest your eyes, perhaps. You have been writing all day,” Alberich offered. She didn’t even bother to glare at him, this time, but he felt it nonetheless.
“This is what I do.” Alberich sighed.
“Alright. Can I have something sent up for you to eat?” he suggested gently. Myste actually blinked, sitting back from her writing for a moment.
“I…yes. Thank you. Food…would be good,” she finished vaguely, before bending to her task once more. Shaking his head, Alberich slipped from the room and down the stairs. The common room of the inn was a bit more lively tonight than it had been the night before, but Alberich was still entirely unsurprised as a shadow separated itself from the wall and sidled up beside him at the bar while he waited for the barmaid’s attention.
“I would have expected you to still be with Kerowyn,” he offered, sparing the woman – Tarma – a sideways glance. She shrugged a narrow shoulder.
“She has her duties to tend to, she can’t cluck and coo over me all the time,” she rasped with a slight hint of annoyance.
“If Myste knew you were here, I could not vouch for your ability to remain…cluck-free,” he said neutrally. As the woman laughed sharply, a startlingly rough sound, he gestured to the barmaid for two bowls of the warm food on offer, and Tarma’s laugh wound down, edging into a knowing nod.
“She’s writing down everything I said today, isn’t she?” Alberich nodded.
“And your every gesture. And her best guesses as to what you didn’t say,” he added. Tarma only smiled, not at all offended.
“The scholars, that’s their way. My she’enedra was very like that when she’d set her teeth into a thing. And her husband was an archivist, so I know the breed. You might have to physically replace the book with the food, you know.”
“And fill the cup while she’s placed it down. And make sure not to put it too near the inkwell, I know the tricks, now. It has its own pattern dance, like a fight. Just a single fighter, and certain weapons at hand.” Tarma made a small knowing noise.
“A single fighter, but a fight nonetheless, all within. But we know how that goes, you and I. And I will leave you to it. Take care of your scholar, Herald Alberich. I’m sure I’ll see you again,” Tarma said, slipping a few coins from her sleeve as the barmaid approached with his food. Tarma dropped the coins to the bar with a wink.
“For your trouble last night. And being a Herald in truth as well as title, catching me up on all the news I’d missed, and not fingering me for a very terrible spy,” she said over her shoulder, chuckling as she disappeared out the front door of the inn once again, leaving a bemused Alberich clutching a bowl of soup in her wake. Shaking his head, he climbed the inn’s stairs once more, knocking once before he pushed into Myste’s room without waiting for her call – in her current state of intensity, he knew it would never come. He waited patiently for Myste to straighten from the table and press her knuckles into her back before he smoothly stepped close to the desk and pushed the paper firmly back from the edge, placing the bowl down directly before her.
“Eat it while it’s hot,” he said gently when she huffed a protest, plucking the pen from her hand and replacing it with a spoon. She pushed her framed lenses back on her head with a half-smile.
“What did I tell you?” she said gently, dropping the spoon into the soup to use both hands to twine in his collar and pull him down more firmly to press her lips to his.
“Seeing the sights, enjoying some rest…you haven’t even had to do any bodyguarding duties,” she added, her smile stretching into a teasing grin at his sudden slight flush at the very mild innuendo in the way she drawled out the last few words.
“Later,” she whispered, pecking his check, before picking up her spoon and tucking into her soup. He laughed, shaking his head.
“I know, I know. The writing comes first.”
“And last,” she added.
“But you fit pretty well in between.”