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Moments in a Life (Of a Completely Ordinary Herald)

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Neave found Kira hanging from the stable rafters, a week after her father sold her to Garek.

She had been a skinny, sallow thing, with hollow eyes and high cheeks. Her father swore she was sixteen years, although she looked no older than Neave's fourteen.

She'd never spoken to any of them. Not to the other girls of the house, not to the boy who looked after the horses, not to him. Neave had tried. He'd tried to talk her into eating, sneaked her some wine, tried to get her to talk to Mara. She'd swallowed the wine readily enough, but ignored the food. Neave warned her that Cook and Garek wouldn't put up with her shirking work.

Kira had spent the week serving in the taproom, but last night one of the customers had taken a fancy to her. Took her up to his room with him.

Neave had seen her in the early morning, as she passed through the kitchen where Neave slept near the fireplace. He'd assumed she was getting herself some wash water from the well in the yard as she'd taken a bucket. He'd hoped she wouldn't get underfoot in the kitchen and get in Cook's way. The old woman didn't take out her temper on the girls much, but he was fair game

After a very long time Kira had not reappeared. Cook sent Neave to look for her, worried perhaps, that the girl had tried to run away, although she had taken no cloak for the cold. The little yard was empty and Kira's footprints led through the thin snow to the stable door.

The door hadn't been properly latched and swung open at Neave's touch. The winter sunlight shone on the wooden bucket that lay on its side. A few inches above that, the toes of Kira's slippers dangled beneath her ragged skirt hem.

The rest of the morning was a chaos of officials. The law keepers had to come to investigate the death. To that end, everyone in the house was to be interviewed.

Garek was not happy at the prospect of having it pronounced a suicide in his house, but the girl couldn't have been hung by accident. He didn't want to be implicated in a murder charge, so he was quite cooperative with the law keeper's investigations. The priests took Kira's body to give her proper, if perfunctory, rites. The angry shade of a suicide could cause no end of bad luck.

"Neave? She wasn't very bad, was she?" Mara asked him in Valdemaran as they stood waiting for the law keepers to get done investigating the yard. Garek was out there with them. and they'd all been told to stay in the main room.

Trembling with deep cold, and feeling quite sick, he remembered (or almost remembered) a day last autumn, when Kira's cheeks had been apple round and her blue eyes had laughed, rather than just gazed into the distance. His aching ribs burned. He had a sudden flare of temper at the ridiculous question and turned to tell Mara that, yes, she had been bad. And no, he was not all right. Not at all.

Mara put her hands on his shoulders as he faced her, "She wasn't too bad, was she?" she said again. A statement this time. Neave looked into Mara's face, feeling the rage of a second ago leave him. The pain in his ribs ebbed to a vague ache.

Mara had taught Neave her native Valdemaran mostly out of loneliness, he suspected. She looked out of place in the plain woolen day gown she wore. It was the one gown that she had that made her look matronly. She wore it when she went to market to avoid being bothered, she said. Today she wore it to talk to the law keepers.

"No, she'd just gone blue. She hadn't cut her throat or anything." he replied in her language. Really, it hadn't been that bad. He couldn't even picture her face now. His shivering eased and then stopped. "No. It wasn't too bad."

"Ah, it's a hard business when they get into this life unwilling." she sighed, releasing his shoulders. She looked so tired, suddenly.

"There's any other way?" he muttered sourly in Hardornen.

Her face went hard. "For some of us, it's better than what we left." she said, still in Valdemaran. She pushed her black hair over her shoulder, her face softened again, "I was a woman grown when I got into this life, not sold into it by a drunkard who needed to pay his debts." She finished in Hardornen

Mara was better off than most of the girls. She wasn't in debt to Garek for either drugs or drink, so that gave her a certain independence. She also had a string of regular men (and one or two women) who asked for her and no one else. She was skilled at her trade--depending on what her customer wanted, she could jump from giggling, nervous virgin bride to world weary jade in the blink of an eye.

One of the other girls, Jassera, clutched Mara's elbow, "Are the they going to let us open today?" she asked anxiously, "If we don't open, we don't eat!" Jassera didn't mean eat—she was one of the ones who drank up her pay. Neave had found her more than once with her head in the horse trough outside.

Neave shrugged, that was for Garek to figure out. He assumed that if the law keepers found that Kira's suicide was a true one, there would be no reason for them not to open. O

Mara said, "Its pretty clear what happened, I'm sure they won't find fault with us."

Neave had seen Kira's face when the man had led her away last night. He'd also seen that the man had enjoyed Kira's obvious revulsion, else he'd have taken one of the more experienced girls.

Neave himself felt numb. The image of Kira's feet hanging in space was stubbornly imprinted in his mind, but the rest of it went into the same cupboard as the rest of this horrible winter.

The lawkeeper's interviews were short and succinct. They didn't even want to talk to Neave--which was fine by him. The captain spoke to Mara privately right after they finished with Garek. Whatever she said to them must have been the right thing. Afterwards the captain gravely told Garek it would be filed with the city magistrate as a "misadventure". Garek was so relieved that he hugged Mara when the lawkeepers had gone.

They were able to open, although they had fewer customers than normal. Late that night, Neave took two mugs of ale upstairs. Cook was already dozing by the fire. She opened one eye, but probably assumed one of the girls had asked for the two mugs. She merely closed her eye again and turned over on her pallet of rags.

Neave climbed the stairs up to top floor. There was a small attic storage room he could climb up to through a narrow staircase. The chimney went through it, so it was relatively warm. Not as warm as the kitchen, but he was more interested in safe than warm right now. No one other than him came up here and the customers didn't even know it existed

He drank his two ales and wrapped up in the blanket he'd snagged from Kira's things, before the priests had taken them away. She hadn't had many things he could have used, but she did have this blanket which was better than the one he owned.

He stood looking down at the street outside the inn from the tiny round window of the attic. This had been a difficult day.

The moon was half full and shone brilliantly on the snow cover. There was almost no one moving about on the street now, the few torches in their holders were long since burned out.

Neave looked upward at the sharp stars and wondered if Kira could still see the stars from wherever she was.

A movement in the street below caught his eye. In the street below him, walking slowly, was a riderless white horse.

If moonlight could come to life and take form, it would have been this form.

The horse was the same color as the surrounding snow, glittering even as it did. If the horse had been still, Neave would have taken it for a snow sculpture. But she (he wasn't sure how he knew it was a she) did move. She moved like the liquid silver a merchant had once showed him or like the dress Mara owned made of something called silk. Like nothing Neave had ever seen.

She was riderless, but saddled and bridled in rich, expensive tack. Neave wondered whose stable boy was going to be whipped tonight, for letting such a beast wander off. She seemed to be moving with purpose--perhaps she was headed for her home stable over a well known route (although he would have remembered seeing her if she passed by regularly).

He continued to watch her and the horse stopped, uncertainly looking around, right under the small window he was looking out of.

She looked up. Straight at him.

The blue moonlight engulfed him. Something escaped from his heart. Something warm took residence in its place. A warmth that drove out the chill of today's events and even those things that he steadfastly refused to think on.

:Oh, at last. I Choose you:

Neave knew that madness sometimes made people hear voices. He wondered vaguely if today had just been too much. The voice was a young woman's, but at least it wasn't Kira's. He half expected that she would be coming back to haunt him, looking for vengeance.

The Companion (where did that word come from?) still stared up at him. Now her head was tilted quizzically. :Vengeance? What do you mean? What's happened?: It was her voice inside his head. 

Neave's breathing began to speed up, making his ale addled head feel even lighter. The image of Kira's feet as they dangled was forced to the forefront of his mind. There were other things lurking behind that image too.

The pain in his ribs redoubled, making him gasp, "Stop."

:Chosen? What...?: The image of feet dangling faded, :You're hurt?: Kyldathar (Was that her name? It was beautiful) asked, sounding frightened and upset. :Can you get down here?:

Strangely, as if some other steered his thoughts, he thought of and discarded a half dozen ways of leaving the inn and the town.

Leaving during the day was impractical since it would be clear that he and the white horse didn't match. The law keepers would question them at every turn. Kyldathar didn't want to take back ways with Neave in this cold. He thought of just hiding somewhere until dark, but again, the cold and his thin clothing were against them. Then there were his injuries. He was fine as long as he had Mara's medicine, but he was doubtful he'd make half a day on his feet without it.

That thought seemed to decide the Companion. :I'm going to go get some help, Neave.:

He was anguished at the thought that she would go. He felt unaccustomed tears fill his eyes.

:I swear to you, Chosen, I'll be back with help. Look for us tomorrow night. Either me or a white horse that looks like me. That's how you'll know us.:

Neave felt as though his heart was breaking.

:Shhh. It will be all right. Sleep now. I love you: The gentle voice urged him out of his hiding place (where he might be whipped if he was discovered)and back down to the kitchen where he fell into a sleep filled with white horses and hoof beats that sounded like bells.

Chapter Text

Neave asked Mara about his dream as soon as he could get her alone the next morning.

It wasn't difficult, Their morning really didn't begin until the sun was well high. Cook was sleeping off her ale still and many of the girls were still in their beds. Garek rarely made an appearance before noon unless he needed to see the merchants or the money changers. None of there customers had spent the night with any of the girls last night. Concerned, perhaps of the possibility of the house's growing ill luck.

He followed her outside, as she went to empty her chamber pot into the gutter in front of the inn, "What does it mean to dream of a white horse?" Mara was the sort of person one could ask about dreams. Most of the girls thought she was a little bit of a witch. Cook and the two Karsite girls would have no part of her until His Highness and his little gang had come. They were much warmer to Mara now that they had received benefit of her help.

It had been a bad winter, Neave decided.

"It depends," She dumped the contents of the pot into the ditch, "Who was riding it?" She glanced at Neave worriedly, "It wasn't that poor girl was it?"

"No, she was riderless. A saddle, but no rider. She spoke to me." Neave shivered in the cold.

"The horse spoke, you mean? Huh, what did she say?" Mara asked as they went inside.

"She said some things that seemed important, but I can't remember now." It was frustrating the way the dream faded in the morning light. Usually he was good at remembering the things he wanted to-and not remembering those he didn't. "She said something about choosing—something." He shrugged, "I guess it was just moonshine and two mugs of ale."

Mara seemed a little startled and looked at him oddly, "Well, in Valdemar, a white horse is lucky. And if it talks to you, it means great changes are to take place in your life. Only don't tell Cook or Anzia and Cacilie." Those were the two Karsite girls "They'll tell you its demon work. 'Course, they'll tell you tripping on a cracked step is demon work." she shook her head, "Keep it to yourself is best. AND don't let Cook catch you sneaking ale."

Neave grinned at her.

"How are you feeling lad?" Mara asked, changing the subject, "Your side and your back still giving you trouble?"

"S'alright." Neave shrugged, His chest and ribs still ached, but after two weeks they were better than they had been. Mara had said that his ribs weren't broken, just bruised and she had done-something-that seemed to keep him on his feet. She always had willow tea as well. The cuts and the burn they'd left on his back would scar, but at least he hadn't taken wound fever.

The law keepers had turned a blind eye to the high born 'gentleman' and his pack. Garek's people hadn't been the only victims and Neave didn't think anyone in town would forget it for a long time. Come to think of it, didn't Kira's father sell her to Garek because His Lordship's men had ruined her (in the eyes of the 'respectable') for marriage? No wonder she'd hung herself.

Neave spent the day with a sense of expectation, not knowing what he was waiting for. He jumped every time the door opened. He supposed it was reaction to yesterday's events.

Everyone was edgy. He listened to the Karsite girls arguing with each other, then the girl from Ruvan swearing at them. Cook swore at all of them in Karsite and Hardornen. Jessera and Garek argued about what she owed him. The other Hardornen girls sneered at the foreigners and that set the Karsites and the Ruvanen at it again. Mara put on her matron gown and cloak, claiming she needed something or another at the market.

Tarim, the stable boy hid out in the stable, but Neave couldn't bring himself to go out there again. Tarim hadn't found Kira yesterday because he'd still been asleep in the loft. He'd just heard Neave yelling.

By the time they were ready to open, Jassera was covering a black eye with some make up, but otherwise the girls were settled and composed.

Neave went about his work, tired and depressed. Four Karsite Army regulars came in. He brought them some ale and breathed a little sigh of relief. This wasn't the sort of crew who'd be interested in chasing him around. They caught hell from their priests sometimes, just coming in to hire the girls.

A few local customers had shown up to brave the bad luck of the place, and the girls were intently plying their trade. It was full dark when the three Valdemaran Army regulars came in through the stable door.

A hush fell.

They didn't see too many Valdemarans because they were closer to the Karsite border than to the Valdemaran border. On the other hand, it wasn't unheard of either. They just never had the misfortune of having both sets of uniforms in the taproom at the same time.

Neave wondered if he could slip outside to avoid the blood shed. The law keepers were likely to let the Karsites and the Valdemarans fight it out, then lead the survivors to their respective borders.

Of course, that would mark Garek's place as unlucky for sure, coming on top of the rest of it. Neave could see this calculation going through Garek's head from across the room as he nervously stood in the door of the kitchen.

Worse yet, the three Valdemarans were dressed in officer's uniforms. And the highest ranking one was a woman.

The highest ranking Karsite rose from his place at his table beside Anzia. Everyone in the room held their breath. He walked over to the woman. who looked back at him steadily. The two men with her, younger than she, put their hands to their daggers. "I came in to get a drink not to fight." The Karsite said in Hardornen,

"That was our intent." She replied in Hardornen, The woman gestured to the two younger officers to take their hands from their weapons. "Hardorn is neutral." she said.

The man had just enough ale in him to be agreeable and not enough to be belligerent, "If we had a black robe with us, it might be different." He looked at the two men, noting their blue uniforms, "And since I'm not seeing a white coat..." he shrugged "I'm guessing its the same with you. What the eye doesn't see..."

"The heart doesn't grieve for" She smiled slightly, supplying the end of the Hardornen proverb.

Neave understood suddenly that both groups were probably here without their commander's knowledge or permission and eager to avoid trouble with the locals.

"An understanding, then?" The woman said, still smiling that same little smile.

He chuckled, "An understanding. Assuming when you leave, you head west, we should have no reason to cross paths."

The woman inclined her head. The room began breathing again.

Neave hastened to get them all ales. They looked like they all had full purses, "We have wine if Milords prefer." he said to them. The three of them looked at him.

They looked at him and saw him.

In Neave's experience, being seen was never a good thing. The two men were young, perhaps no more than twenty. One of them was very handsome, dark haired and blue eyed, with the unconscious air of entitlement that Neave only ever seen in the high born. It made him shrink into himself a little. The other man was on the homely side with blond hair. Again that air of confidence, that came with always having a full stomach. They were both looking at him speculatively. Neave felt his heart jump.

It had been-bad-the last time high borns had taken notice of him. He swallowed, firmly banishing thoughts of that.

The woman interrupted the moment, "A jug of wine, then." she said peremptorily in Hardornen, She started taking off her gloves and said to the men, very quietly, in Valdemaran, "Will you lads stop staring? Can't you see you're scaring him?" Her body language said that she'd dismissed Neave from her thoughts, but she continued, "I think that our friend gave us the best plan of rescuing the lad, after all."

Garek came up behind Neave "Will you stop gawking and move boy!" he hissed.

By the time Neave came back with plates of the inn's food and the wine, Mara sat next to the woman. Mara didn't mind taking women, much to some of the girl's disgust. She said they paid well and didn't leave her with bruises, as often.

Mara was talking in Hardornen to the three of them. She managed to catch Neave's eye "How is it you speak our language so well?" she was gushing, doing her wide-eyed farm girl bit. The dark haired man smiled in an indulgent way, "Oh you know, lady. It requires years of study." he went on to impress her with his scholarly ways. The woman officer rolled her eyes and looked at the blond man who smirked.

Neave took Mara's meaning, she thought it was wiser that they not let the Valdemarans know they were understood by two here.

"Years of study," muttered Neave to himself in three languages, just to see if he could remember the phrase in all three, as he dumped some plates into the wash bucket. He thought it was funny that they couldn't tell that Mara's accent wasn't native to Hardorn. But then, Mara always said that people only ever saw what they wanted to see.

When Neave went out to refill ale mugs and wine jugs, Jassera had attached herself to the blond man, who seemed a little reluctant, but that may have been because the ranking officer sitting there was a woman, The blond man looked pleasantly at the woman officer and said quietly in his native tongue "This is starting to make my skin crawl."

The woman smiled sweetly "Queen and Country, Dirk. Do you want to ruin the artifice? Look she's going to bed someone here tonight." only the woman didn't say "bed", she used a word Mara would have slapped Neave for using, "It might as well be you. You, at least, won't add to her bruises. And the worst you smell of is horse."

"Thank you, ever so much, Ylsa." He said, keeping his tone light.

"I'll trade you." said the dark haired man, idly playing with his wine cup. His gaze was straying to Neave again. Neave made himself busy with cups and plates.

"No, you won't." said the woman, Ylsa, firmly "You're much better at being the debauched high born than he."

"Lovely," smiled the dark haired man a little bitterly. "So, I have to get the poor scrap alone to explain?"

"You know its rude not to include your lady in the conversation." pouted Jassera at Dirk in Hardornen. She really didn't speak anything but Hardornen and a smattering of Karsite picked up from Cook.

"She's right Dirk," said Ylsa, lazily switching to Hardornen. She made shoo-ing motions with her hands, "Why don't you two go, get to know each other."

Neave was washing a table, he looked at them from under his long red hair. The blond man smiled a smile that didn't reach his eyes and drifted off with Jassera.

"Would you get us more wine, my dear?" Ylsa asked Mara, who obediently stood and took the wine jug. Mara looked at Neave with the strangest expression. He wanted to ask her if he should make himself scarce, but there seemed to be no way without being obvious about it.

The dark man leaned towards Ylsa, he whispered something Neave didn't catch.

She shook her head very slightly, looked towards the Karsites who sat on the other side of the room.

"Well," The dark man said more loudly, in Hardornen when Mara returned, "Dirk's found company, Ylsa's found company, I think I need to find some too. Who's that young man?" He asked Mara, looking towards Neave.

Neave's stomach turned over, "That's Neave," said Mara, "Would you like an introduction?" Neave knew that there wasn't anything Mara could do to protect him really, but it still felt like a betrayal.

"Neave?" called the man, "Come here, lad." his voice didn't sound unkind, but Neave knew that meant nothing.

With dragging feet Neave went closer to the group, "I've a mind to find my bed," said the man cheerfully, "Would you be willing to show me?"

"Garek said to give the gentleman the front room," Mara said, she sat a little back so the man and the woman couldn't see her face. She gave him a tense, encouraging smile. The front room was next to the one she usually used—it meant at least she'd be close.

"Yes, Mara" Neave whispered. He knotted up the towel he was holding so the man wouldn't see his hand shake.

"You don't mind if I take this?" said the man, liberating the wine jug and two wine cups.

The Karsites watched them leaving the room, confirming their worst imaginings of Valdemaran officers. They shrugged it off, since the boy wasn't one of theirs.

Neave led the way up the stairs after he paused to light a candle from one already lit. He felt as though there wasn't enough air. The candle light shivered in his shaking hands. He refused to look behind him at the man, until they reached the room, "Here it is, then," he said flatly, fighting down his rising panic.

The man turned his pretty blue eyes on Neave, "Come in here for a bit, I'd like to talk."

If it turned out as badly as last time, perhaps Neave could find out if Kira had left any rope.

Trying to convince himself that the man only wanted the ordinary stuff, he followed the man into the room. The man put the wine jug and cups on the little table, the only furniture in the room but for the bed. Looked suspiciously into the hallway. Locked the door.

He turned to face Neave looking worried. "Are we likely to be overheard?"

Neave was shaking in earnest now. He hoped the darkness hid at least some of his trembling. "You mean, is anyone likely to take notice of me putting up a fuss?" he said acidly.

The man looked at Neave with an expression he couldn't place, "No, I meant I wanted to talk." the man said quietly, "And I don't want to be overheard."

Neave shrugged, praying that the man was just embarrassed and wanted to keep up the fiction with his compatriots that his tastes really didn't run to boys. "Everyone's busy or drunk."

The man seemed to look around for somewhere to sit. He looked at the bed, then at Neave and got that odd expression on his face again. Something between pity and shame Neave decided. The man finally took the wine jug and the cups and sat on the floor in the corner. "Could you bring that candle over?"

"All right" said Neave suspiciously, wondering what game this was. He sat opposite the man, careful not to lean against the wall and hurt himself.

The man poured wine into both cups, "You better have some of this, you look like hell." he said gently, handing one to Neave. Neave watched the man drink first, wary of sleight of hand with wine and cups. He didn't think the man could have dropped something into just his cup, but he'd had plenty of time coming up from the hallway to dose the jug.

The man didn't notice Neave's hesitation and drained his cup in one go. "Listen," he said, after a minute, "My name's Kris. Do you remember seeing a white horse last night?"

Neave intended to deny it, he opened his mouth to tell the man he hadn't any idea what he was talking about, "Yes" he heard himself say breathlessly. In a rush, the memories of the not-dream he'd had last night came back to him, "She said she was going for help. Are you...help?"

Kris smiled. "Yes, we are. We couldn't come get you openly. Too close to the Karsite border and little issues about kidnapping and treaties. Ylsa's idea is that we should buy you out of here. I'm playing snotty high born who's besotted with you. No one here's actually your mother are they?"

Neave shook his head. "She died a long time ago." he was starting to feel very confused. Why was he telling this man these things?

"Does Garek claim you as his son?"

Neave just snorted.

"Alright, so once we get you over the border, they won't have any recourse to get you back under treaty. Nor is anyone likely to try, anyway."

"How nice for you." Neave said dryly.

"Gods, I didn't mean it like that." said Kris in real distress.

Neave's practical side reasserted itself, "So, how am I supposed to be better off with you lot than here?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm making a muck of this. I told Ylsa I would. Do you know what a Herald is?" asked Kris, using the Valdemaran word. He poured more wine into their cups.

"I've heard it. Couldn't work out what they were." said Neave, cautiously. Actually Mara had said a few other things, but he wasn't going to tip his hand.

"Well, at the moment, all Ylsa said I should tell you is that the Companions Choose us." Kris used the Valdemaran word for Companion, the one that had lodged itself into Neave's mind last night.

"Companions?" Neave asked excitedly, "Like the one I saw last night? Did she...come with you?"

"No, she didn't." Kris said, he smiled gently at Neave's crestfallen look, "But she's waiting for you. Ylsa thought it was too dangerous to bring more than one Companion. Too conspicuous. My Tantris is in the stable, if you want check on my words. Kyldathar said to look for her or a white horse who looked like her, didn't she? We were surprised not to find you hanging about in the stables, truth be told."

Neave was beginning to be dizzy with the whip saw of his emotions. His elation at Kris' knowledge of the Companion's name and words (and what that implied) turned to horror at the mention of the stable.

"I'm not going in there again." he said flatly.

"Why?" Kris asked puzzled.

Neave found himself telling Kris the whole story of Kira's suicide, and drinking far more wine than he normally did. Neave wondered again why he was telling this man, these things, but it seemed to bring him relief. As he spoke, his memory of the events of yesterday (and indeed, the whole dreadful winter,) seemed to soften around the edges.

Kris was very quiet, listening to Neave..

Finally, late into the night, Kris said. "Neave, I have to sleep if I'm to be worth anything in the morning."

Relieved, Neave started to get up, "Yes, sir. I'll leave you alone then." Garek would be annoyed that the man wouldn't be paying for him or one of the girls, but no matter.

The man put out his hand, "Actually, I'd like you to stay."

Neave flinched away from the outstretched hand and then cursed himself. Kris had been very kind so far and Neave didn't get the idea that the man was out to actually hurt him--he was probably one of those men who liked to pretend that he wasn't paying. Oddly, those were the kind that tended to pay more than the asking.

He gathered his courage to say, "Ah...My ribs are pretty sore..." Normally he would never have admitted that to a customer, but the man had listened to his sob story for the last two candlemarks. "See...a few weeks ago..." Neave's courage failed him, he'd gotten beatings before if the men hadn't been pleased with him and it was more than his life was worth to refuse outright. "I mean, it would be more comfortable for me if we did it on the bed...if that's what you want to do."

For a moment it seemed like Kris didn't understand, then his cheeks darkened in the candlight. "Neave...I...listen...I don't..." he sputtered, sounding strangled. He stopped, giving Neave a measuring look. "Do you even like men?" He asked, curiously.

What did that matter? Neave shrugged, "Haven't thought about it much."

Kris stared, "How old are you?" he asked.

"Twelve." Neave lied. Garek always told him to lie when someone asked him that.

The man's cheeks went from dark red to pasty white. He looked like he was ready to throw up. For a moment, he closed his eyes. When he opened them he gave Neave a rueful little smile. "Ylsa is probably going to skin me. Listen. I am not interested in...bedding you...all right? We want to take you to Kyldathar in the morning and I just want to get some sleep."

"Oh."

"Never mind." sighed Kris. He threw the blanket from the bed over to Neave before curling up in his own cloak. "Just...stay here. Please?"

Drunk and confused, Neave curled up in the corner and fell asleep quickly.

Neave woke up on the floor of the empty room, with the blanket of the bed covering him. Mara was shaking him. She was being careful not to jar his ribs or his back for which he was grateful. "Neave?" she said urgently, "Are you all right? Did he hurt you?"

"No, I'm fine" He said, getting up gingerly, "It was...weird." Once he was up, he was all right, it was moving from lying down to upright that bothered him the most. "He just wanted to talk."

"Listen, they're still here. They're paying off Garek for your keep." This was the fiction that allowed the buying and selling of children. Mara looked him in the face "If you want to run away, now's the time." She paused, swallowed. "I-I have a little silver hidden away..."

Neave knew she was saving that silver for passage on a caravan next spring. He couldn't take away her escape, no matter what, "No." he looked back at her, "I think it'll be all right. Can't be worse than this last winter. Can't run anywhere, anyway, the shape I'm in."

She looked as though he'd confirmed something she had been thinking.

Most of the house was still asleep. It was perhaps an hour past sunrise, positively unholy by Neave's thought, but not uncommon for army regulars who might need to get back to duty by noon.

They were down the stairs just as Kris was saying laconically, "Would you have your boy bring the beasts outside?"

Neave realized, if Tarim did that, he wouldn't have to go through the stable. It would save them all a few steps as well, which was, he assumed, the real reason. He was still grateful.

The three Valdemarans looked a little hungover. No more than Neave felt though, so it wasn't bad. Garek came over, smiling his oily, well-pleased smile, "Well, boy! This fine gentleman has offered you a squire's apprenticeship. They've paid for the keep I've provided for you and I've provided your future!" Garek went on for a moment in this vein, until he touched Neave on the shoulder and Neave flinched away with a small cry of pain.

"Trouble, lad?" asked the woman mildly, although her eyes were piercing.

"Oooh, you know boys." said Garek quickly, "Always picking up some injury or another." Then, it seemed he couldn't get them out fast enough. He snapped at Tarim to hurry up and get the beasts and all but pushed them out the door.

Neave saw Kris' smug smile turn to something grimmer the moment his back was turned from Garek. "Ylsa, I swear..." he muttered in Valdemaran to the woman.

"Ever ridden before?" asked the woman, while they waited outside for the horses.

"No, milady." said Neave, shivering in the dooryard. He didn't own a cloak.

She took off her own cloak and wrapped him in it. "I'm Ylsa, this is Dirk and you've met Kris" Tarim appeared with the horses. Two were ordinary enough, a brown and a black, pretty, but fairly ordinary. The third, the white one, looked at Neave with a frightening intelligence. and winked.

The woman stopped and looked haughty until Tarim ambled off. "Alright, You can ride pillion with Kris until we meet up with the others. We should be there before noon. Once we're all together we can move faster. I think once we get out of sight of the town we can put you in some spare clothes and you'll be more..."

"Ylsa, its one of those women." interrupted Kris.

Mara had donned her cloak and come outside. She looked hard at the Companion, then said said in a satisfied voice "I knew it." in Valdemaran "He's been Chosen, hasn't he?"

The Valdemarans stood shocked. Ylsa recovered first "Who...?"

Mara smiled, "I haven't been gone so long, that I can't tell a Companion from a horse." she continued in the same language. She turned to Neave before Ylsa could start asking questions, "Listen, Neave, these people mean you nothing but good. Do you understand? They'll take care of you. And that white horse you saw? She'll take care of you too. All right? Lady-Herald?" She finally addressed Ylsa who just stared at her "Before you take him to Haven, get him to a proper healer. I've done what I can, but otherwise it'll be months before he can make the trip. He's had a bad fortnight." She kissed Neave's head. She didn't hug him because she knew that would hurt him.

Kris said to Neave, "You didn't say you could speak Valdemaran!"

"You didn't ask," Neave said quietly, he was thinking about how he would miss Mara.

Dirk finally spoke up, "Lady? would you like to come with us?"

"And do what, Herald?" asked Mara, "Anyway, my own people drove me out because I was witch born." she shrugged, "I get along fine. Maybe I'll take a caravan to Jakatha next summer. There's evil at work here and all the lucks gone out of the place. I'll likely move on."

 

Chapter Text

Ylsa still looked stunned, "How is it that I sat next to you and I didn't pick up that you spoke Valdemaran? I was in bed with you and I didn't!"

Mara smiled, "You weren't Looking hard. I have just enough ma..mag.." The word seemed to stick in her throat, "Gift. That I can block a casual glance. As for bedding me," Mara smile turned sly, "You were really somewhere else, weren't you?

Ylsa blushed, but kept to business, "What's this about the boy being hurt?" She asked briskly.

Mara looked grim, "They cracked his ribs two weeks ago. You put him on a horse and he'll be in agony in a candle mark."

"You told me they were just bruised."  Neave protested.

"I lied. They made a bigger mess of your back than I told you as well." Mara shrugged, "My sp-sp-" again the words seemed to stick, "- What I did-wouldn't have worked if you had known how badly you were hurt. And Garek wouldn't have given you floor room if you couldn't at least do some work. I made Cook get Tarim to split her wood."

Dirk coughed, looked around "Should we be having this conversation in the open?"

Mara looked at him "It's all right. I've just come from tearing a strip off of Garek for selling the boy off. He knows I'm fond of Neave. No one will think it amiss that I come to say goodbye. Just stand there looking bored."

"All right," said Ylsa wearily, "New plan:" she looked at Kris and Tantris, "Tantris, can you take Neave and I? Dirk and Kris, you can follow on the horses. "

Kris and Tantris exchanged a glance. Tantris nodded. Ylsa went on, "I can't pain block like a healer, but I can help a little. That should see us to the border. We can have Kyldathar meet us at the border. No wonder she's been half out of her mind."

Mara pulled something out of her pocket, "I bought some poppy from Jassera." she had four tiny brown pellets that Neave knew were poppy resin, "I'm going to take the pain block off Neave now. I don't want it to creep up on him as he gets beyond my range. Someone have a water skin?" Kris handed her his.

Ylsa caught Mara's wrist, "That's a lot of poppy."

Mara nodded, "You ever had a broken rib?" Kris shook his head, but Dirk and Ylsa nodded, "This lad has been working through two, for two weeks. And you're putting him on a horse. When I take this pain block off...well, it might be bad." She turned to Neave, "Swallow this down Neave." obediently he took the tiny pellets and chased them down with the water.

"Now, Get him up there. You'll have to ride behind him to keep him on," Mara said to Ylsa, "Once I take the s-s... pain block off, you'll never get him up without the Companion kneeling and that will draw more attention than you want. If you wait till you're out of the gates to take off, people will still see 'horse' if he behaves like one." She gave Ylsa an acute look, "Smart of you to come in Guard blue. Cook would have drawn a blade across the boy's throat, rather than let the Heralds have him. After what's already happened..." she stopped, glanced at Neave as if she felt she was saying too much. "Well, the law keepers would assume he'd thrown himself into the river"

"Kyldathar had that idea." said Ylsa, "Come on Kris, help me."

Ylsa took her cloak back. Neave didn't protest. It had been kind of her to lend it to him, while they stood around. Kris knelt down beside Tantris as Neave had seen Tarim do, forming a step with his hands. With Ylsa's help he made it up into the saddle. Ylsa hopped up behind him with seemingly no effort.

"Here lad, put your feet ahead of the stirrups." she said showing him how to sit. "Now, that poppy's likely to make you dizzy. I'm going to hold you on like this, if you start to fall." She reached around under his arms, careful of his ribs. She was taller than he, so it made sense. "And I'm sorry we didn't think to bring an extra cloak. But there's not much to you yet, so I think mine will do for us both." She pulled the front part around so they were both under it. "All right?" she said to Mara.

Mara put her hand on Neave's knee "Good luck, Neave." She took a deep breath, "This is going to hurt like you've been kicked again. I'm sorry. But the poppy will start working in a minute." She closed her eye's and muttered something.

It was like being kicked again. His vision grayed at the edges and he couldn't breathe. The hands around him tightened. "All right, son. Stay with us." Ylsa said in his ear. He didn't even have the breath to swear. After a moment, it became less sharp, reduced itself to a dull roar.

"Lady?" asked Kris seriously, "If we were who...what we seem...What would you have done?"

Mara met Kris' eyes soberly, "Given him enough poppy that he could find a more permanent solution, if he chose. That's what Jassera thinks I bought the poppy for." Mara pulled a scant handful of the little pellets out of her pocket. "She's pleased this morning. Your friend, there" she nodded at Dirk "Overpaid her, so she's already been to the dealer. It's the only thing she gets up early for."

Dirk blushed, "I felt sorry for her" he shrugged.

"Feeling sorry for pretty faces gets you into trouble, Herald" Mara said.

Neave was beginning to feel a little fuzzy headed. Very gently, Ylsa said, "Neave, I'd like to put you into a trance. It'll help keep you comfortable."

"What's a trance?"

"Well, this would be putting certain parts of your mind to sleep. It doesn't get rid of the pain, but it makes it so it doesn't seem so important."

"Oh, yes, I know what you mean." Neave said a little dreamily "Like going away in your head, when it gets too bad. I've done that lots of times."

He felt Ylsa brush back his hair. He stiffened involuntarily.

She cleared her throat, sighed. "All right," she said, "I'm going touch your face now, will you trust me?"

Reluctantly he nodded, Mara trusted them and he trusted Mara. Ylsa touched his temple. He had the feeling he was not entirely in his body. Like he was watching it from far away. He had done this before.

Ylsa said something to the two other men. He heard Mara speaking to Kris-she sounded like she was weeping. Mara never wept.

He turned around to look at her and she gave him a watery smile and a wave. She had a little blue bag in her hand. Kris must have given it to her, since it matched the blue of their uniforms.

"Lady?" said Kris, looking between she and Neave, "Are you sure you won't come with us?"

Mara drew herself up and shook her head gravely, "I will not." She spoke with both authority and finality.

Something kindled in Kris' eyes, "Do you have family still in Valdemar?" He asked, "I mean, whatever sent you here...perhaps we could help. I mean, this place..."

"Is better than what I left." She replied haughtily.

It occurred to Neave that there was a strong resemblence between Kris and Mara--they could have been taken for kin. Perhaps it was just that they both spoke with the same accents and inflections, quite different from the way the other two spoke. They must have come from the same town.

Kris' eyes narrowed, as thought he were trying to work out a complex riddle. "Lady...? Were you married before you came here?" He asked slowly.

Mara paled, "No." Her voice was so flat that even Neave could see she was lying. "Goodbye, Neave." She said, her voice was choked, "I must go in. Garek's going to be looking for me." She turned and hurried away, back into the house.

Kris took a step, as though to follow her.

"Kris." Ylsa's voice was low, but it had a ring of steel to it, "Leave it."

"But..."

"Leave her be. We have a long way to go and she doesn't want our help. Mount up."

He was aware of everything they did, but it all seemed removed. He couldn't tell how long the ride took as they made their way sedately through town. They topped the little rise in the road, and they were farther than Neave had ever been from the town.

Ylsa had been silent until now, although the two men had been speaking to each other. The trance and the poppy gave Neave the feeling of being wrapped in wool blankets. He began to understand what Mara had meant by agony though. The movement of the Companion beneath him jarred his ribs with every step. He was grateful for the fuzziness standing between it and himself

"Right, this is where I leave you two." Ylsa said suddenly, "Help me get some supports on him." She dismounted, "Neave?"

He looked at her blearily, "Yes?"

She took a deep breath, "I won't be able to hold you on with the speed Tantris is going to go. What I'm going to do is basically tie you to the saddle. We do this for Heralds who are too ill or injured to keep themselves on."

Even through the poppy, he started to tremble as Kris started pulling leather straps out of the saddle bags.

Ylsa caught his hands and looked in his eyes. "If I do this, we can make the border guard post in two candle marks. I swear, no one's going to hurt you. All right?"

It was too late now to back out, anyway. He nodded.

He held himself very still with eyes closed until they were done. They used straps to tie his feet and legs to the saddle and some around his waist. Ylsa rode in front this time. She left her cloak around him and tucked it down "Hold on to my waist if you want to hold on." she said, "Tantris? Just as fast and smooth as you can."

The Companion jumped a little, sending pain up Neave's side, but after that, the pace smoothed out. He leaned into Ylsa's shoulder, and grabbed around her waist. She patted his hand. The speed was terrifying to a boy who'd never been on a horse before. Now he was grateful for the straps holding him onto the saddle.

To his shame, he found himself crying into Ylsa's shoulder. She didn't seem to notice though. with the rush of wind and the sound of the Companion's hooves, perhaps she thought he was just laying his head there.

After a while, the trance Ylsa had put him into seemed to reassert itself. He began to watch the land fly by. Tantris' bell like hoof beats on the road became the focus of his concentration.

After a long time, Ylsa said, "Neave? Are you awake?" He opened his eyes, not realizing he'd slept. Tantris had slowed to a stop and three other Companions stood around them. "We're over the border."

He still felt muzzy, but the pain in his side was growing. He was cold and stiff. One of the Companions stepped forward to touch his leg with her nose.

"Oh, its you." he breathed, reaching to touch her. The growing pain became distant again.

:Neave. I'm so sorry I couldn't come myself. Ylsa wouldn't let me.: Kyldathar mind voice was heartsick, :What's wrong? You're hurt?:

"I'm all right." he lied, not wanting to distress her.

"Kyldathar, get out of the way. Let me get him to the Healers." Ylsa said, "You were right to ask for help, you couldn't have gotten him here yourself."

Kyldathar reluctantly moved out of the way, falling into step with Tantris. One of the other Companions followed them, while the third continued to keep vigil at the road.

Neave opened his eyes again when Ylsa jumped down. Tantris knelt and Ylsa started untying him from the saddle. There was another woman with him dressed in green. "Let's get you off there, now." said the green robed woman. "You gave him poppy? How long ago?"

As soon as Neave was out of the saddle, Tantris turned and walked out the door of the stable they were in. Kyldathar took his place next to Neave, offering her neck to lean on as he shakily stood.

"Hello" he said to her, "You're beautiful." he couldn't think of another thing to say, rather he wanted to just stay here quietly with her. Preferably forever.

"Come on, Neave" Ylsa was saying gently, "Healer Deena wants to look at you. Kyldathar will won't go anywhere without you.'

"Oh but..." He resisted the hands trying to pull him away

:Go on, love. I'll be here.: Kyldathar's voice said in his head.

"Does he speak our language?" the healer was asking Ylsa. He realized he'd been speaking Hardornen.

"I speak it pretty good." said Neave switching to Valdemaran, as he walked between Ylsa and the healer.

The healer smiled, "So you do." she said, "Come in, here." She led him into a large room with four beds and a table and some chairs. Jars and bottles lined tall shelves.

"Sit down now, Neave," said Ylsa, pushing him onto a wooden chair, "I'm going to bring you out of your trance." She looked into his eyes and touched his face again.

Neave gasped as the panic and pain of the last three candle marks (not to mention the past two weeks) hit him with full force. The pain in his side wouldn't let him draw a breath. He kept gasping, convinced he was going to die on the spot.

:Chosen! It's all right! Just breathe.: Kyldathar's voice was warm and calm.

Ylsa and the Healer were giving him the same advice. Unfortunately, he had reached the end of his resources, the healer caught him as he fell sideways into a dead faint.

 

Chapter Text

"It's all right" Deena picked the boy up and set him on one of the beds, "He just fainted. When did he last eat?"

Ylsa blinked, "I'm not sure,"

The healer snorted, "I'll wager it wasn't since yesterday. I'll keep him out while I get a Look at him. Poor little thing. Hand me those shears there, his shirt's a loss." She laid him gently on his uninjured side, "You say that woman said something about making a mess of his back?"

Ylsa nodded as she handed the shears to Deena. Neave was facing her. Ylsa had a headache from trying to keep the boy deeply tranced. She brushed his red hair back from his pale face. In sleep, he looked very young indeed.

Deena gasped out an oath. "Ylsa, look at this." she said darkly. She had cut up the side of Neave's shirt.

Ylsa leaned over the bed to get a better look. There was a mass of purple, yellow and green bruising on his side, She had expected that—what was unexpected was the number of shallow cuts that criss-crossed his back or the burn marks that looked as though they'd been made by heated daggers. She also gasped out an oath.

"Are those-whip cuts?" Ylsa asked, swallowing hard.

"Some of them." Deena sounded shaken and Ylsa was disconcerted to see the veteran healer had paled.

"What?" Ylsa demanded.

"I...I'm not sure..." She trailed off, "Something..." She shook herself and sounded much more normal when she went on, "Some of them were made by a knife—not deep or dangerous. Just painful. Looks like someone cleaned them up though. That's why he's not fevered. Damn. I can close those up, but not until he's had food and rest."

"What about his ribs?"

Deena put her hand over the spot, almost touching. "Yes, they're cracked. They're healing well. It Feels like someone with a little Healing worked on them—but it's...strange." she got that worried look again, before seeming to dismiss it, "Anyway, food then rest. I'll draw him a bath too. If he hasn't been on a horse before, he'll be sore as hell when he wakes up. Or he would be if his ribs weren't so much worse. We'll keep him in the infirmary here, for now."

"Drug addiction?" asked Ylsa bluntly, it was unheard of for a Companion to Choose someone unbalanced enough to become a drunk or an addict. However, 'unheard of' didn't necessarily mean it never happened. She had noticed several of the women had the languid expression and the pinpoint pupils of the poppy addict. Given what the boy had obviously gone through, she wouldn't blame him.

"No, I'd say that this was the first poppy he's ever had, given how much effect its had on him." Deena said, pulling the blanket over him, "Whoever was doing that pain block knew what she was about, He shouldn't have been able to draw a comfortable breath, let alone go about his business."

"How long will he sleep?" Ylsa asked.

"Not long, why?" Deena asked.

"I don't want him waking up alone in a strange place. Do you think I have time to clean up and change?" Ylsa wasn't comfortable in the borrowed uniform and she felt like the grime of the brothel was clinging to her. She'd been in worse places in the course of her duties, but never to retrieve a child

"Yes, you're right. You're going to have your hands full with this one. I'll have someone bring your things down and you stay in here with him. You can use the infirmary's tub if you want a bath. Water's hot, if you want to make a start. I'll have them bring some food down too."

"Bless you, Deena," Ylsa said sincerely. Deena handed her a few towels. There was a bathing room was in the back of the infirmary to make it easier for the healers. By the time Ylsa had run a bath and finally felt anything approaching clean, Deena had thrown Ylsa's bags into the room. When she was dressed again in her own uniform, she smelled food in the main room of the infirmary.

As if the smell of food roused him (which in truth, it may have), Neave stirred. He gasped and tried to sit up but the pain in his side stopped him mid motion. Deena walked around in front of him, "Need help, lad?" she offered. Neave looked at Deena with huge eyes and shook his head. Slowly he levered himself upright, sitting on the side of the bed.

Deena threw him a fresh shirt from the Guard stores, which landed beside him, "Don't get cold." she said, nodding at it. He nodded again and pulled the shirt over his head, moving very slowly.

"Hello," said Ylsa, coming to stand in front of him, "How do you feel?".

"Like hell." He whispered, "Where are we?"

"Border Guard post." Ylsa grabbed a chair to go sit near the boy so she wasn't looming over him.

Deena brought a clever folding table over and set bread and a bowl of broth on it in front of him. "You eat that now. If that stays down, we'll try something more substantial."

Neave looked doubtfully at the bread, Broke off a small piece and studied it for a moment. Ylsa assumed he was looking for bugs. He flicked away a questionable seed.

"In Valdemar?" He asked as he dunked his bread into the broth.

"Yes. Is that all right?" Ylsa said.

Neave looked warily at her, "Lady, I don't have anywhere to go, so it has to be." He hesitantly took more bread. "What do you plan to do to me?" he asked, again inspecting his bread. Ylsa didn't miss the wording. She didn't think it was accidental, although perhaps he didn't notice it. Was the fatalism in his tone exhaustion or something deeper?

"To you? Nothing without your leave." said Ylsa sitting back in her chair, "But, because you have a Companion, it's my intention to take you to Haven and train you as a Herald."

More bread disappeared as he seemed to think about it. "What do I have to do?" he said after while in that almost-whisper.

"Right now?" Ylsa smiled reassuringly, "I want you to eat and rest. We can talk about the specifics when you're stronger, but you'll go to the Collegium to take classes."

"Will...will Kyldathar be there?" he whispered.

He sounded so lonely and fearful that Ylsa's heart contracted. She resisted the impulse to lean forward and hug the boy. She contented herself with patting his hand. "Yes. She won't let anyone take you away from her. Not ever." Most of the bread and broth was gone now, Ylsa was pleased to see.

He nodded, perhaps a little dubiously.

Deena came bustling in from the bathing room, "Are you finished?" she asked, "There's a good lad. Keep that down for half a candle mark and we'll get you more. I've drawn you a bath."

"A bath?" He squeaked, "In this cold?" Ylsa wondered if he'd ever had a bath in anything but a horse trough.

"Those scratches can still get infected, and you could still take fever." said Deena a little primly.

Ylsa might have been happier if he'd argued, Instead he sighed, "All right." in that almost inaudible voice.

"I'll help him, Deena" Ylsa said, gently.

Deena smiled understanding, "I'll just leave you to it, Ylsa." She went into her office to give them some privacy.

"I'll be all right alone." Neave mumbled, turning red.

"I don't think I want to risk you falling and hurting yourself more." Ylsa spoke briskly, knowing that it was better to be matter of fact about these things. "So, come on before it gets cold."

"Before what gets cold?" He asked sounding a little befuddled, confirming Ylsa's thought.

Ylsa stood, offered him her hand, "Come on, lad."

He started to rise without assistance then decided against it and took her hand. "I feel like hell." he said again, "Why do I feel so bad?"

"After effects of a long ride with an injury, mostly. Food and rest will put it right. A hot bath for those stiff muscles. Deena said she'd like to do some healing on those scratches on your back." Ylsa didn't add that the shock and trauma of whatever had happened to him was likely catching up with him.

After he stood, he let go of her hand. He was a head shorter than her, it seemed he hadn't started to get his growth yet. Thin as he was, the new shirt seemed to make him smaller.

Ylsa led him to the bathing room, picking up the towels Deena had left out. He moved very stiffly. Ylsa sympathized. Her first ride had been on her Companion when she had been Chosen.

He didn't seem body shy, as he started stripping off his filthy clothes. Probably he was accustomed to washing in front of the girls of the brothel. Ylsa noted that he had many (some very deep) bruises in different stages of healing. And a peculiarly regular pattern of shallow cuts marked his forearms-again in different stages of healing. All appeared as clean as the marks on his back. She wanted to ask about them, but it was too early yet.

He hesitated climbing into the tub, probably expecting, at best, lukewarm water, at worst, water just above freezing. She stood nearby to help him if he had difficulty.

"Oh, its hot." he muttered in Hardornen, sounding surprised. Gingerly he sat down, hissing as the hot water caused the various cuts and burns to sting.

"Here's some soap." Ylsa handed it to him, tactfully averting her eyes, "I'll be just outside if you need me."

Ylsa picked up his clothing and went to find some clean ones. Deena had left some in the room for them. She tossed the dirty ones in the hamper meant for linens to be burned. She also picked up the foot coverings he'd been using—they were so worn that it was impossible to call them shoes anymore—and threw them in the hamper. The Guard post had soft leather boots that would do for now, until he could get riding boots in Haven.

"Ylsa?" he called softly, after a while, "Um, I think I'm done. I think I need help getting up."

She took some towels in, laid them on a little table just inside. Took the boy by hand and elbow and helped him get to his feet. She handed him a towel and then a shirt and loose breeches.

"Think you can manage some more food?" she asked him when he was dressed.

He nodded, again turning those large, wary eyes on her, "Yes."

Deena had brought out more bread, and some cheese and boiled eggs. Neave made short work of this second meal. Deena came back in with a potion. "Here lad, take this. What you had this morning will be wearing off."

"What is it?" he asked, cautiously eyeing the little cup.

"Valerian, knit bone and poppy. Not so strong as what you had this morning—we're not having you do anything strenuous, so it doesn't need to be." Deena explained patiently

Ylsa almost thought he was going to refuse. He looked at it for a long moment but then he gave a jerky little nod and took the cup from Deena, drank it down. Deena smiled encouragingly, "Good lad. Do you think you could sleep now?"

He nodded. He was looking heavy-eyed already, even before the potion had time to work. Deena got him laying down, "One of us will either be here, or in the next room," she indicated her office. Neave nodded again, sleepily.

Deena beckoned Ylsa into her office with a jerk of her head when the boy closed his eyes. She'd put food for herself and Ylsa on a little table in there. She'd had also set out some headache tea that Ylsa drank gratefully.

They were silent for a moment, while they served themselves. "What do you think?" Asked Ylsa, after gulping down a few bites.

"That I want to get my hands around somebody's neck." said Deena grimly,

Before Ylsa could reply, there was a hesitant knock at the door to the outside corridor, it was Kris.

"Ylsa?" he said, "We're back, we're just going to go clean up."

"Good, Come in when you're done." Ylsa told him.

She turned back to Deena, "Before the lads come in, can you tell me how bad he is?"

Deena sighed, "Physically? He'll be all right. The ribs were cracked, not broken. Mostly it's pretty shallow injuries. What bothers me is not the extent of the injuries, but the intent."

"Meaning?" Ylsa said, steeling herself.

"Except for the ribs, all those injuries were done to inflict the maximum amount of pain, with the minimum amount of actual damage. Perhaps it was done as a punishment, perhaps for someone's entertainment, but that boy was tortured." Deena paused, her face gone hard, "You'll notice they stayed away from the hands, feet and face. As if they wanted to make sure he would still be useful."

"Gods." Ylsa felt her blood run cold, "When can we get him to Haven?"

"I don't want him to travel for at least two more weeks." said Deena firmly,

"All right, I'll contact Kyril tonight. I've delivered the last of my messages, so I can probably escort him myself." said Ylsa. "I think he might be better with me anyway."

Deena nodded, "He's very frightened. But he trusted you enough to let you get him here. Build on that."

They ate quietly for a few minutes, each absorbed in her own thoughts.

Dirk and Kris walked in through the hallway door with trays of food. "Do you mind if we eat in here, while we talk?" asked Dirk. They had both changed back into their Whites.

Deena made room on the table for them and they pulled up the extra chairs that sat in the corner.

"So how is he?" asked Kris.

"He'll be all right," answered Ylsa, "He mostly needs food and rest. But I have a lot of unanswered questions. Do you know how he got his ribs broken in the first place? Whatever happened to him, it seems to have left him in shock."

Kris looked troubled, "He said something about his ribs being sore...I never occurred to me that he was badly hurt. But, did he tell you about the girl who hung herself?"

Ylsa shook her head, feeling very out of her depth, "I kept him entranced until we got here. He hasn't said more than two words at a time to me, and then only when spoken to."

Kris sighed and repeated the story Neave had told him about Kira.

"I wondered what you were about when you asked for the horses to be brought out." said Dirk quietly.

"Did you learn anything?" Ylsa asked Dirk.

He looked grim, "The woman I was with had some pretty vicious bruises. She said she got them from some high born and his entourage two weeks ago. Sounds about the same time Neave got hurt. And did you notice how the law keepers went out of their way to avoid us? Like they just wanted us to be on our way with the boy."

"Fortunately, these particular out-of-control high born children are not our problem." said Ylsa, "I've about had it with high borns and their foals." she finished bitterly.

"Sorry?" said Kris

"Oh, I forgot you wouldn't have heard. About a month ago, a group of high born children tossed Herald-trainee Talia into the river." Ylsa replied

Dirk and Kris looked horrified "You mean that pretty little girl Rolan brought back?" Dirk exclaimed, "Is she all right?"

"Yes, she's fine. She was just out of her bed when I left. Anyway, that's neither here nor there. I'm more interested in the puzzle this boy represents." Ylsa said distracted. No one from out kingdom had been Chosen since Alberich. Well, not anyone who wasn't already across the border. And strange Gifts were beginning to show up at the Collegium. The Foreseers had nothing to go on yet but a vague unease, but when the Companions started coming home with unusual Chosen, it generally meant hard times to come. "What can either of you tell me about the boy or where he came from? Even speculation and guesses will do."

Dirk shrugged, "I'm guessing that several of them were roughed up at the same time. The woman I was with didn't want to talk about the high born. She was in her cups and she was still afraid to speak of it. It seemed to sober her up quick. Fortunately by that time, she thought I was too drunk to be interested anymore."

Kris looked at Dirk, amused, "Oh really?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

"She was under the impression that I'd had a few more than I did...Fetching's useful that way. Don't look at me like that," Dirk blushed at Kris' smug smile, "I'll keep to our sister Heralds, thanks. I was afraid she'd give me the pox or something."

"We haven't done the Guard's reputation much good." said Kris with a half smile, then he sobered, shook his head, "Well, I have little more than what I told you. The boy's been badly used, I'm afraid. He was quite suspicious of me-right down to watching me drink before him to make sure the wine was safe. I'm assuming that he didn't get his ribs broken by being kicked by a mule."

"No" said Ylsa, she didn't bother to enlighten Dirk and Kris about Neave's other injuries. It wasn't something they needed to know. "All right, then. You two can head back to Haven tomorrow, assuming that you don't get waylaid by another hysterical Companion." Among her other messages, Ylsa had brought them their new orders, assigning them to the Court. Kyldathar had appeared shortly after Ylsa had met with them, demanding help for her Chosen.

Deena stood "I'm going to go check on the lad." she said opening the door back into the infirmary, "Ylsa..." Deena said after a moment, "He's gone."

Ylsa began to leap to her feet, then, :He's with us.: Felara, Ylsa's Companion told her.

:Is he all right?: Ylsa asked.

:As all right as he can be, right now.: Felara replied, :You should leave him with Kyldathar for a bit. He needs her.:

"Deena?" called Ylsa, "He's with his Companion. Felara says we should leave him there."

Deena sighed, "All right, but at least make sure he doesn't get cold."


 

Neave struggled out of dreams of smothering and choking. He jerked awake to pain. The light in the room had shifted towards afternoon and he didn't know where he was.

When he remembered, it didn't help. The woman had said she was taking him somewhere, but the word was meaningless. He was certain something horrible was going to happen to him. His heart was pounding and all he could think of was how and where to run. There was no Mara here to provide him even a little protection.

:There's me: That voice was in his head again. His panic didn't exactly subside, but it stopped increasing. :Why don't you come to me? We haven't had any time to get acquainted.:

He was just wondering how he would remember the way to her stable, when it seemed to appear in his head. Without any further thought, he crept out of bed. Whatever the healer had given him, it helped some as he staggered down the hall. Even so, he might have given up if the Companion hadn't been in his head, gently beckoning him.

Kyldathar was there, curled up in a stall on some hay.  There were three other Companions, who looked benignly at him. He gave them a little wave of greeting as he made his way to her. He found himself caught up in her eyes again and settled down next to her.

A thought occurred to him, "Am I going to get a thrashing for sneaking out here?" he asked Kyldathar. Not that he thought he much cared, but it was good to know.

:No: she said, firmly :First, Heralds aren't accustomed to thrashing children. Second, I'd kill anyone who tried.:

Deena's potion caught up with him again, and now that he was with Kyldathar, sleep seemed so much more appealing. He thought that he'd never felt safer in his life. 

A little while later, he roused just enough to feel someone tuck a blanket in around him.

Chapter Text

The first few days they spent at the Guard post, Neave did little more than eat and sleep. Deena was determined that the majority of his wounds should be fully healed before he left her custody.

The wounds on his back were much better. All but the worst of them were Healed to white scars. His ribs were still very tender, but Deena said they continued to heal well. They were also healing at a much faster rate, now that he had adequate food and rest. Ylsa was pleased to notice that in five days time, he'd started to put on weight. Deena was feeding him five or six meals a day, when she could keep him awake to eat them.

Ylsa wasn't concerned for his physical well being, now. She did worry about how he was in his mind. During the day, he was content enough to sleep in the infirmary, but every morning they found him asleep next to Kyldathar. He still only spoke when spoken to and then in that near whisper.

"It's partly exhaustion." said Deena when Ylsa asked her about it, "Give him some time to recover from that. He doesn't trust us, either. And why should he? He's only known us a few days. I think the only one he trusts is his Companion."

"Should we get a Mind Healer to see to him when I get him back to Haven?" asked Ylsa.

Deena grimaced, nodding, "You might want to think about it. He might not be broken, but he's been cracked some. I pick up on it whenever I do some Healing on him. Those...injuries...bring up terrible fear and anger. As bad as I've ever seen in battle injuries. I've tried to do it as painlessly as possible, but just to have me sitting behind him, practically sends him into a panic. The first time I did it, I'm fairly certain Kyldathar helped him through it."

This merely confirmed Ylsa's own observations. She wondered if she should have had Kris stay. It seemed that Neave had opened up to him a little. However, that could have been simply a case of Kris being in the right place at the right time.

After a week had passed, Deena said it was time for Neave to walk outside under the careful watch of Ylsa and the two Companions. "You can't lie abed too long with cracked ribs—if you don't get your lungs cleared, you'll get pneumonia. And we'll want you fit for the journey to Haven" she told him. So Ylsa and Neave wrapped up against the early spring chill and took themselves outside. Ylsa guessed that Deena also felt it was high time for Neave to see people other than themselves, or he might become even more withdrawn than he already was

It was the first time Neave really saw the place, Ylsa knew. The Infirmary was down at the far end—as far as possible from the post's regular bustle. The Companions flanked them as they walked. A Guard passed them going the other way, with a salute for Ylsa and a friendly smile for Neave. Neave drew a little closer to Ylsa. Perhaps this was a sign he was beginning to trust her? He returned the Guard's smile with a tense nod.

They walked on in silence for a few moments. Another pair of Guards passed, saluting Ylsa. Neave looked sidelong at her. Ylsa decided that she would let Neave make the first moves now.

"Herald?" called a woman's voice. They turned around to see a sturdy Guards woman hurrying towards them, "Deena asked me to tell you that they're serving the noon meal in the hall. Perhaps, you're hungry?"

"That sounds fine to me," said Ylsa, thinking that Deena wanted the boy around people, "Neave?"

"Yes, ma'am." His voice just loud enough to be heard over the chill breeze.

The Guards woman led the way, talking cheerfully. "You look better than when Ylsa brought you in. Broken ribs, Deena said?" she said, falling into step on the other side of Kyldathar.

He nodded.

She nodded too. "Those hurt. Broke three of mine a few years back. Fell off a horse." She smiled at Kyldathar, "Your lady there had the whole place up in arms until Herald Ylsa was on her way."

Neave looked a little unsettled at that, glancing at his Companion, "Sorry," he mumbled.

"Don't apologize." the woman laughed, "We'd do a lot more for a presumptive Herald." She patted Kyldathar's nose.

Neave's eyes were big and round, "Why?"

"Because if we didn't have Heralds, our jobs would be a lot more difficult."

Neave looked very thoughtful at that.

In another ten days, Deena pronounced Neave fit to travel. He was still quiet, although perhaps his voice gained some volume. He stayed very close to Deena or Ylsa when he was not with his Companion.

The morning of their departure, Ylsa showed Neave how to put on Kyldathar's tack. He was dressed much more warmly and sturdily for this ride. She'd found some civilian clothes for him so that he wouldn't get mistaken for a member of the Guard, She would have preferred Grays, but never mind.

"We'll not be on the road too long today." she told him, "And if those ribs start to get sore, let me know."

He nodded. She helped him scramble up into the saddle, where he sat looking nervous and ill at ease.

:Will he be all right?: Ylsa asked Felara.

:I think so.: Felara said, :Kyldathar knows what she's doing even if he doesn't.: Felara's mind voice was amused, :I seem to remember a little girl who had an even harder time staying in the saddle:

Ylsa smiled at the memory of herself as a twelve year old girl, astonished, frightened and excited. Felara had to convince her to climb into the saddle in the first place.

As they started down the road, Ylsa realized that Neave was smiling. A little crookedly perhaps, but it was the first actual smile she'd seen from him. Kyldathar must have said something to him, because she heard him chuckle quietly.

"What's the joke, Neave?" she asked gently.

He blushed a little, as if he'd forgotten she was there, "Oh, I was just thinking... Cook used to tell us that, if we didn't behave, the white demons would get us. Kyldathar says 'They did'."

Ylsa smiled, "I suppose so. Have you heard many stories like that?"

"Oh yes." he smiled a little again, "All about ghost horses stealing children and carrying them to dreadful fates." He patted his Companion's neck, "I used to wonder what worse fates they could be talking about." He fell silent again.

It was halfway through the morning when he said, "Herald?"

"Yes, Neave?" Ylsa replied.

"I-I'm getting the idea that Heralds are...well...important. I saw the way everyone treats you. Like an officer or a high born." He paused for a long time as if searching for words. Ylsa waited, she'd been wondering how he was going to interpret his change in status.

"Are the Heralds going to want me?" He said at last, "Are the Heralds going to want a whoreson..." he used the Hardornen word he must have been called many times, his voice fading to that whisper. He paused, swallowed, continued with a little more volume, "...a whoreson outlander?"

Ylsa took a breath, swallowed the lump in her throat, "You won't be the first outlander. Nor yet, the first whoreson" she used the word he'd used so he couldn't misinterpret, "to be Chosen." She stopped to catch his dubious eyes, trying to will him to believe her. "Anyway, the Companions are the final authority on who gets Chosen. No one will care who you were, only who you are."

The weather had turned to true spring. The nights could be cold, but the days were starting to warm. They spent their nights in Heralds way stations. They didn't talk much, partly because Kyldathar was giving Neave riding instruction as they went. As he hardened to riding, they were able to spend more time on the road.

Ylsa also didn't like to intrude on the formation of the boy's Bond with his Companion. One reason the Companions liked to whisk their Chosen away was that uninterrupted time together was the best way to foster the Bond.

They were two days out of Haven, over nighting at a way station, when Ylsa was woken from sleep by Felara.

:Ylsa? Kyldathar says her Chosen needs you.: Ylsa looked around, Neave was not inside. :Outside.: supplied Felara.

Neave was sitting, with his arms wrapped around his knees, staring into the flames of the fire he'd built. Kyldathar stood by him with her nose touching his shoulder. At Ylsa's approach, they both looked up. Neave's face was wet with tears, in the firelight.

"Neave?" She sat down beside him, "What's the matter?"

"Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you." He sniffed and wiped his nose with his sleeve. Kyldathar gave him an encouraging nudge. "It's just that...I should have stopped her." he said hoarsely.

"Who?" Ylsa was pretty sure she knew who he was referring to, but she thought she ought to hear the story first hand.

"Kira...she...she...hung herself. I should have stopped her." More tears began to fall, he bent his head to his knees. "I tried, but..." He took a long shaky breath.

"Can you tell me?" Ylsa kept her voice low and settled down next to the distraught child.

Slowly, speaking into his knees, with many pauses, he told her the same story he'd told Kris.

When he'd finished, Ylsa said very carefully, "Dirk told me that the woman he was with had been beaten up some. And Mara said you'd had a difficult two weeks. Is this related somehow?"

Without raising his head, he nodded. "I think that's why she did it. His Lordship and his men ruined her." he whispered.

"Ruined her? You mean they raped her?" Ylsa saw Neave flinch at the word, but he nodded. "You need to give the act its proper name." she said, "A person's not ruined because they've been a victim of violence."

He didn't lift his head, but he turned it to the side so he could look at Ylsa.

"You were hurt, too." She said it as a statement, "So. Was it the same people?" She was longing to put her arms around the now trembling boy, but she knew it was likely to frighten him rather than comfort. Tentatively, she reached out and touched his hand. Surprising her, he took her hand in his.

He held her hand and tried to say something, but sobbed instead. He closed his eyes and nodded. Kyldathar danced uneasily, finally folding herself up behind him. Neave took a long breath, "Sorry." he said, he let go of Ylsa's hand.

She moved closer, brushed back his hair. Even with Kyldathar solidly behind him, he still shook. But, he didn't flinch away from Ylsa's touch. She leaned forward to look at his face, "Did they..." even as she steeled herself for the answer she already knew, she found the word stuck in her throat, "...do that to you, too?"

He hid his face in his knees again. Nodded.

Now, Ylsa put an arm around him. He stiffened, but didn't pull away, "I begin to see why you were Chosen." she said, softly.

"What do you mean?" He whispered, confused. He raised his head up from his knees. Leaned against her carefully.

"When you, yourself, were so terribly hurt, you had room in your heart to look after someone else." She put her head on top of his, staring into the firelight.

He shrugged, "Sometimes, looking after someone else is the only thing that makes it bearable."

Ylsa's own face was wet with tears now, "That's right." she said.

Chapter Text

Haven was big. Neave had expected that. It was very comforting to be mounted on Kyldathar, rather than having to make his way on foot through the crowds. In Neave's experience, crowds were not particularly safe places.

Ylsa and Felara walked ahead of them through the winding streets. For the better part of a candlemark, they followed a path that seemed to spiral inward from the city gates. Everyone gave way to the Herald and himself, confirming Neave's impression that Heralds were a bit like high borns. When they came to the Palace Gate, Ylsa nodded cheerfully at the Guard in dark blue who waved them in though a gate.

Neave's heart was in his mouth as Ylsa led him on. They came to a courtyard opposite a small bridge over a river. Ylsa hopped down from Felara's saddle. Neave dismounted more carefully.

"Come on, Neave." Ylsa said cheerfully, beckoning him towards the large door of the building..

They left the Companions to be led away by what Neave assumed were stable hands. :It's all right. I'll see you in a bit.: said Kyldathar gently.

A tall, black haired woman in a Herald's uniform came flying down the path. "Ylsa!" she cried, catching the woman in a hug which Ylsa returned with enthusiasm.

"Keren." Ylsa whispered, for a long moment they seemed to forget about him. Neave waited quietly.

Ylsa broke off the embrace first, "Keren, this is Neave." she said half turning to him. Neave nodded.

"Our new student! Welcome!" Keren smiled at him brightly, "I'll be teaching you to ride."

"Yes, ma'am." he said quietly.

"I won't keep you, I know Elcarth's expecting you." said Keren, her manner turning brisk "I'm teaching classes all afternoon. See you at dinner?"

Neave noted that they held hands longer than friends normally would.

"Yes, I'll see you then." said Ylsa, smiling at Keren so that her eyes shone. Keren turned to leave, letting Ylsa's hand go only reluctantly. Ylsa watched Keren go with a smile on her face before turning back to Neave.

"It's good to be home." She sighed. "Come on, I'll take you to meet the Dean. He's waiting for us."

"How does he know to expect us?" Neave asked confused.

"I can talk to him, in my head. Like Kyldathar does with you." She said, "Many Heralds have the Gift of Mindspeech."

"Oh." Neave wasn't sure how he felt about that, but he didn't have any time to think on it. Ylsa was hurrying in through the doors and into a maze of hallways.

Neave hardly had time to take in his surroundings, and he was too nervous to take much notice. Despite Ylsa and Kyldathar's assurances, he was not at all sure the Heralds would want him.

Certainly, he understood Ylsa when she said that Kyldathar's Choice meant they had to take him. That was different from being wanted. He still had no idea why Kyldathar had Chosen him. He'd asked her and she'd said :Because you were the right one:.

Which was no answer at all.

Many of the people they passed greeted Ylsa, as they went by. A group of young people in gray clothes, boisterously talking and laughing together made room for them to pass. This was exactly the sort of group that made Neave's stomach clench. He focused on keeping up with Ylsa.

Finally Ylsa came to a door, knocked on it.

"Come in." a man called.

Ylsa gently put her arm around Neave's shoulder and led him in. She felt his trembling and she gave his shoulder a squeeze. His impression was of a small room just stuffed with books and papers. Neave had never seen more than one or two books in his life. Being in a whole room full of them was a little disorienting.

The man who occupied the room was white haired and birdlike. He smiled at Neave gently.

Ylsa said, "Elcarth, this is Neave. Neave this is Dean Elcarth."

Elcarth stood and found chairs for them both. "I am very glad to meet you, Neave." he said.

"Yessir." said Neave, gingerly seating himself on the dark velvet. He hoped he wouldn't smear too much road dust on it.

"Have you ever had any schooling before?" Elcarth asked as he sat down behind his desk.

Neave shook his head, a little embarrassed, and then he wondered why. No one he knew had any actual schooling--well, except for Mara. Most of the people from his part of the town never learned to read unless one of the priests spotted them as having a vocation.

"Many of our Trainees haven't before they come to us, so don't let it bother you." Elcarth shrugged off the lack,  "Ylsa said you speak Hardornen and Valdemaran?"

Neave nodded.

"Do you read in either tongue?"

Neave shook his head again.

Their interview continued like this for some time. When the Dean started asking about figuring, Neave felt on more stable ground, as Garek had taught him to figure so he wouldn't get cheated at the market. Elcarth presented him with different figuring problems that Neave was able to solve without much trouble.

Neave knew he had a very good memory, as Cook had made him do her marketing for him since he was ten. She would rattle off lists of things that he'd have to remember to buy or be beaten for it when he got back. He hoped it would help him with all this study he was expected to do.

At the end of the interview, Neave was more tired than he'd felt in days.

The office door opened, another man in white opened the door and poked his head in. Elcarth smiled "Teren, I'm just about done with Neave here, if you want to help him get settled. Neave, this is Teren, he's one of our instructors."

Teren looked very like the woman Neave had met downstairs. "Hello," the man smiled cheerfully.

Neave nodded at him, tensely.

"If you come along with me, we'll see about getting you a room and introducing you to Housekeeper." he said kindly.

Neave glanced at Ylsa, who smiled and said, "I'll see you at dinner."

"Yes, ma'am" said Neave, getting up to follow the man.

When Teren had closed the door behind them, Elcarth asked Ylsa, "Has he been like that the whole time?"

Ylsa closed her eyes and leaned her head back on her chair, "He's gotten better, believe it or not."

"Gods preserve us." Elcarth sighed, "Kris and Dirk gave their report of course, but Kyril said there was more to the story?"

Ylsa opened eyes gone hard with anger. She told Elcarth everything she'd heard from the boy himself and everything she'd observed.

When she finished, Elcarth looked rather shaken. He swore softly, using language that would quite shock his young students.

"Do you think we should get a Mind Healer to see him?" asked Ylsa.

"Let me talk to some of the Healers. I think eventually, yes. But, I don't want the poor child to feel like he's under too much scrutiny. Perhaps we should wait until he settles in." Elcarth shook his head, "Now, explain to me about the woman who was taking care of him?"

"That was the damnedest thing. I still can't understand what Gift or combination of them she had. She established some kind of pain block on the boy. She wasn't a Healer though. She said she had just enough Gift to Shield out a casual Look from me. And she seemed to think the pain block would fail if the boy got too far from her." Ylsa rubbed her forehead, "I've been trying to figure it out."

"Oddly enough, I think Dirk came up with the answer." said Elcarth "You remember how his mother's a Healer and his father's a Bard?"

"Yes," said Ylsa slowly.

"He wondered whether the woman had a Bardic Gift. If she had that, but no Talent..."

"She could make Neave believe whatever story she told him!" Ylsa exclaimed, "Yes, that makes sense. She said it wouldn't have worked if Neave knew how badly hurt he was."

Elcarth nodded, "Dirk said his father sometimes helped his mother with patients who had a lot of pain." Elcarth's mouth quirked up at the corner, "He also said that his father used to tell a joke...'What do you call a Bard who can't sing? A prostitute'. As is often the case with what Bards say, there's truth in it. And she had to keep telling the boy the story to reinforce the block. Otherwise it would creep up on him. So she took it off all at once."

Ylsa felt better with that little bothersome mystery solved, "Any more trouble from the blues?" She asked, referring to the unaffiliated students, some of whom had been responsible for assaulting Talia that winter, "I don't want them giving Neave trouble."

"No." said Elcarth, "And I've asked Skif to keep an eye on the boy."

"Is that a good idea? Skif is always so...exuberant. I thought, perhaps- I don't know—maybe one of the older boys..." Ylsa said dubiously.

"I think that Skif's friendship with Talia has steadied him a little. The only trouble he's been in since Sovvan, was doing a favor for Talia. He's also the only one whose background is anywhere near Neave's. He was quite sympathetic actually."

"That's good to hear. I've grown very fond of Neave." Ylsa said.


 

Neave spent that afternoon following Teren around and learning a great many rules. The Housekeeper had asked him about his life prior to arriving and Teren had supplied that he'd served at an inn when Neave had hesitated.

She'd put him down for serving in the kitchens three times a week and cleaning the common room twice. That made him relax a little, those were tasks he understood. He hoped the cook here wouldn't swear at him quite so much as Cook had.

Teren showed him a room with a small fireplace, a desk and a bed that he said was Neave's. Then the shared bathing room down the hall. And then he gave Neave just stacks of gray clothes, enough so that he could wear a clean set every day.

An older boy appeared when Neave was putting the last of the clothes into a drawer.

"Skif!" exclaimed Teren, "Just the person."

Skif smiled broadly at Neave, "Dean Elcarth asked me to show Neave around." he told Teren.

"Good." said Teren, "Can you take Neave to dinner and show him around this evening? I think in the morning you should take him to arms practice to have him talk to Alberich. I won't be holding an orientation class until the other three Companions come back with their Chosen, so perhaps you can take him to Keren after Alberich gets through with him." Teren turned to Neave, "Skif will help you find your way around. I'm going to sit down with the Dean and work out your classes."

"Yes sir." said Neave, he was feeling panicked again. What little experience he had with boys near his own age involved either fighting or fleeing. The other boy was older, taller, and moved like someone who could fight. Neave wasn't at all sure where he could flee to.

Teren gave Neave a smile and walked off down the hall.

Skif didn't miss the younger boy's suspicious look or the way Neave sized him up. He also didn't miss Neave looking nervously down the hallway as if checking for ways to bolt. He recognized it from his former life as a thief. Elcarth told him that the boy had had a rough time.

Fortunately, Skif had an easy distraction at the moment, "If you want to change into your Grays, dinner's about to start." he said easily, with a bright smile "I'm just going to wash—I've been at arms practice."

"Oh." Neave said "Yes. I could do with a wash too." he'd gotten used to abundant hot water at the Guard post and rather missed being clean. He hesitated, then grabbed a clean shirt and breeches from the pile of uniforms, following Skif.

Skif tossed Neave a couple of towels and pulled off his own shirt, standing at one of the three sinks. Neave chose the one nearer to the door, confirming in Skif's mind that Neave had fears of being trapped or cornered.

"Throw your dirty stuff down there," Skif indicated the dirty clothes chute with a jerk of his chin. He finished washing his face, and turned to see that the younger boy was tossing his shirt where he indicated. He also saw an extensive tracery of recently healed scar tissue on the boy's back.

"What the hell happened to you?" he exclaimed. Then he could have cut out his tongue.

Neave started, turned around with a rabbit-surrounded-by-dogs look in his eyes. Grabbed the side of the sink as if for support, "Some high borns got ahold of me." he whispered.

Skif very deliberately took half a step back, giving Neave some more space. "Ah, hell." He crossed his arms across his chest and leaned sideways against his sink in an effort to take the least threatening stance possible, "I'm sorry."

Neave shrugged. He pulled on his clean shirt. "Happens." He whispered.

Skif had the same flair of anger and protectiveness he'd been coming to associate with Talia. Every time she flinched from a raised voice, he felt it. When he found out she'd been the target of bullying and never mentioned it because she assumed she wouldn't be believed, he'd gotten the urge to personally track down and murder every single one of her relatives.

"Not here, it doesn't." Skif told him positively.

"Of course not." muttered Neave, not believing it. He'd seen how much fair words spoken by a high born were worth. Skif seemed friendly enough, but that could change in a heartbeat.

Still, Neave followed Skif willingly enough down to the Herald's common room and the promise of dinner. Skif led them a group of Trainees sitting near Ylsa and Keren. Ylsa gave him a smile and moved over so he could sit next to her.

Skif was intent on flirting with a curly haired girl who sat next to Keren. Neave had no idea what to say to girls who weren't prostitutes, so he kept his mouth shut. The boys at the table appeared friendly enough, smiling when Skif introduced him.

Neave was reluctant to take much food-he wasn't sure how much was allowed. Oddly, both Skif and the girl seemed to understand that he was out of his depth. After Neave had finished what he had served himself, Skiff refilled it absently and put it back down without pausing in his talk with the others. When the servers brought out berry pies to the tables, the curly haired girl cut Neave a large piece and handed it to him before serving herself, as if she understood his hesitation.

Neave was starting to nod off by the end of it. Skif suggested they find their baths before there was too much competition for the bathing room. In a very short time Neave was in his new room asleep.

It was dark when he woke to his heart pounding. He leaped up, stood shivering in the middle of the room.

:Chosen?: Kyldathar spok in his head, she'd been very quiet all day, :It's all right, I'm here.:

Neave pulled on a warmer shirt and his soft boots. He remembered the way to the courtyard and Kyldathar was there, waiting for him. She knelt so he could climb up without benefit of stirrups. She took him across the little bridge to the Companion's barn. In the safety of her stall, he was asleep in a moment.


 

Kyldathar nudged him awake at first light. :Someone's looking for you.: she said.

"Neave?" Skif was calling, "Cymry says you're already down here? You want breakfast?"

"I'm here." he staggered to his feet, brushing straw out of his hair, "Am I late for something?" He hoped he wasn't due a beating for oversleeping, or something.

Skif came around the corner, "Stars! Did you sleep out here?"

Neave nodded, "I have trouble sleeping, sometimes." he said.

To Neave's surprise, Skif nodded too, "Takes some getting used to...sleeping in an actual bed." he smiled, "Before I was Chosen, I lived on the street." he explained, "Thought I was stealing Cymry—turns out she stole me."

"You were a thief?" Neave said cautiously.

"And a pickpocket." said Skif cheerfully.

Neave returned Skif's smile with a tentative one of his own.

After breakfast, Skif took Neave over to arms practice. "Don't let Alberich scare you. He's all right, really." Skif said, "I have a class, but I'll come find you afterwards." he waved at one of the girls dressed in gray who walked over to them.

"This is Jeri." Skif said. "She'll take you over to meet him"

The girl smiled at Neave kindly. Neave gave her another little smile.

When they arrived, Neave understood why Skif had said not to let Alberich scare him. Alberich was an intimidating figure with a face seamed with scars. And he ruled the practice ground with an iron fist. This would evidently be where Skif had learned to move like he did.

What was most startling was the man's accent. For a few minutes Neave couldn't place it, then he realized he'd never heard a Karsite speaking Valdemaran before.

After several of the other students had been put through their paces by the armsmaster, the man's eyes fell on Neave, "New student, you are?"

Neave nodded nervously, he was having difficulty with the man's accent. "What weapons training have you?" Alberich asked him.

"None, sir." said Neave, after a pause as he worked out what the man had said. He took a deep breath and said as respectfully as Cook ever taught him to, "Your pardon Captain, but my Karsite is better than my Valdemaran. Although to be truthful, neither is good." in Karsite.

The man looked astounded, as did the students within earshot. In the long silence, Neave wondered if he'd made a grave mistake. Just before he could work himself up into a real panic, the man said in Karsite, "I thought you were Hardornen?"

"I am sir, but we were on the Karsite border. Lots of people spoke Karsite in town. And-and a couple of girls from the-" he hesitated not being able to remember the polite word for it in Karsite "-my house were from Karse."

"And you call me Captain? Why?" he asked curiously.

Neave turned red, remembering belatedly, why Cook had always advised him to call Karsite Army Regulars "Captain". "It's something we always did at the..." he gave up looking for the polite word under the man's sharp scrutiny, "...whorehouse. B-because if you're a lower rank you can correct me. If you're higher you would have had a girl brought to you."

Unexpectedly the man smiled. "After we're done here, I think we should see the Dean. But for now, I repeat my question. Have you any weapons training?" he continued to speak in Karsite.

Neave shook his head.

A candlemark later, Neave walked beside Alberich on wobbly legs to the Dean's office.

The door was half open, "Yes, Alberich?" said the Dean curiously,

Alberich smiled broadly, "An unexpected talent we have. The boy speaks Karsite. Fluently."

"Karsite?" said the Dean blankly, "Do you happen to speak anything else?"

Neave swallowed, "Some Ruvanen. Enough Trade Tongue to close a bargain. A couple phrases of Shin'a'in that, I think, would question your parentage. And I think I can recognize 'Boy, get me some ale' however its spoken."

Elcarth blinked, bemused, "How did you learn this? You said you've never had any schooling...?"

"Cook's Hardornen was terrible. And I was in trouble if I didn't get her what she needed. The other stuff, I just sort of...picked up." said Neave very quietly

"His accent is what is spoken near the Hardornen border," confirmed Alberich, "Stranger, it is, that he speaks Valdemaran."

Neave nodded, "Mara taught me."

Chapter Text

"I'm not having witchcraft in my house!" Garek was yelling.

"Would you rather have me tell the law keepers you did this? I'm sure they'd love to have someone to blame other than His Highness." Neave had never heard Mara so angry, "If I can't get this to work, he'll be dead by sunup. I don't care what you or those superstitious bitches think. If he dies, I'll swear blind to the magistrate that you murdered him in cold blood."

He was having a hard time breathing. Quite apart from the pain, it seemed as though each breath gave him less air. Nothing was so important as filling his lungs.

His fear spiraled upwards as he realized he was dying. Every movement seemed to push the air from his chest and he was choking on the taste of blood...

:Neave! Wake up.:

Kyldathar's voice broke through the vision. Neave opened his eyes to early morning gray. He knew from experience that it was no good trying to sleep any more tonight.

It had gotten too cold to keep sleeping with Kyldathar. Fortunately, although she said it was hard to Mindcall him during the day when he was busy or distracted, she was able to wake him when his dreams turned ugly. Otherwise, he didn't think he'd ever sleep.

Sometimes the dreams were just formless and frightening. Other times, like this morning, they were things he actually remembered.

He very firmly told those memories to take a walk.

He had more important thing to think about—and he had kitchen duty this morning. He dressed, put his room right and headed down to the kitchen.

Kitchen duty was not at all onerous. Much to his relief, Mero, the cook, never swore him and complained often that he was still too thin. Mero seemed to make it his mission in life to fatten up anyone he considered "too thin".

The only bruises he sported these days came from riding or arms practice. Riding and fighting were coming hard for him. Keren and Jeri (Alberich had turned over his fighting instruction to Jeri) both told him that his problem was that he couldn't relax and trust his body.

His first class of the day was arms practice. He arrived with the small group Jeri taught. Jeri was already there, sparring with Skif. It was lovely to watch, really. Like watching a pair of dancers.

After a few minutes, they were both covered in sweat and Jeri had bound Skif's blade, disarming him with a complicated little twist of her wrist. Laughing, Skif yielded to Jeri's pointed practice blade.

After a moment Jeri called over her next victim. Skif came to stand by Neave, "I see you've been sleeping inside this week." he said quietly, smiling.

"Got cold." said Neave, returning the smile.

A few other students joined them to watch Jeri. Some others came over to talk to Skif. Neave was watching Jeri, trying to figure out how she was able to keep track of everything her opponent was doing,

He felt a slight brush against his hip. For a moment, Neave forgot where he was, reacting as he would have in the market place. His hand shot out, grabbed a pair of fingers, bending them backwards while he turned towards the owner of the hand, "Do that again and I will break those fingers!" He spat in Hardornen.

Skif looked shocked for a second, then grinned. "Damn. You're the first one who's ever caught me!" He laughed, "Ease up, though. I might need that hand." If he'd understood Neave's threat, he gave no sign.

Neave blinked, suddenly aware of being stared at by the group of students.

He released Skif's hand, "Sorry...I...You-startled me." He'd seen Skif do that sort of thing to others before now, and knew he didn't mean anything by it. It was the first time Skif had pulled it on Neave, however.

"Ha! Skif's losing his edge!" called someone.

"Oh, I don't think so." Skif called back, "I think Neave's just faster than you."

Alberich strode over to the group. "There is something?"

"Neave caught Skif picking his pocket!" that was Griffon.

One of Alberich's unexpected smiles appeared. "Someone catches the scoundrel?" Alberich turned to the group in general, "Tell me why."

A silence, then "He's got Foresight?"

"Skif was slow."

Jeri had joined the group, "Skif isn't any slower than usual." she said. "Neave? Do you know?"

"Because...I...always had to be careful." said Neave, trying to figure out what Jeri and Alberich were getting at.

"Being hungry is a great motivator to being careful about what's in your pockets." nodded Skif.

Alberich nodded too, "Hunger is a harder master than I" he agreed, walking back to the students he'd been supervising.

Jeri called Neave over, "You're fast enough when you're not thinking about it. You try too hard. You've also got to show me that hold."

Neave's second class was equitation. He supposed he wasn't any worse than the other inexperienced riders and after spending all summer in saddle, he'd lost most of his fear. He still didn't have that effortless grace he envied in some of the other trainees.

Today, they were running the obstacle course. Kyldathar was perfect as always-the trouble was always with him. He could never seem to get his balance properly and it would throw her off. He'd taken a few spills, but nothing serious. Keren assured him that the falling and the getting back on were typical. "The problem would be if you didn't get back on." she'd say patiently.

Today was no exception. Around the second jump, he felt a hesitation as Kyldathar was somehow wrong-footed. She tried to recover, but he overcompensated.

He felt himself go flying over her head. He tucked his head as best he could and landed shoulder first. He heard a pop and then every bit of air was driven out of him. There was a confused moment as he registered he was on the ground.

He couldn't breathe. With rising terror, he fought to fill his lungs, but he couldn't draw a breath.

Someone was beside him, "Neave? Can you hear me?" Keren was saying urgently, He opened his eyes and clutched at her. He had no air to tell her what happened. Then, it seemed that whatever was preventing from breathing abated. He inhaled loudly.

"All right, lie still. You knocked the wind out of yourself." She said.

:I am so sorry!: Kyldathar was saying in his head at the same time. If she have been human, she would have been in tears.

He hushed her, trying to let her know he was all right. He began to struggle up. A grinding sensation and a sharp pain in the vicinity of his shoulder stopped him.

Kyldathar made a distressed noise.

"Dantris" that was Keren's Companion, "Says you're hurt?" Keren said sharply.

"My shoulder." he said weakly.

Keren helped him sit up. His left shoulder sagged and the pain brought tears to his eyes.

"Broken collar bone, I'd wager." Keren said, "Come on, Kyldathar. Help me take him to the Healer's."

Kyldathar obediently moved around and knelt. Keren got up behind Neave, reminding him of the day Ylsa had rescued him.

"Sorry." he muttered to Keren, realizing he'd managed to disrupt the class.

"Don't worry about it, youngling." She replied cheerfully, "Half of us break something, before we learn to ride really well. Your arm'll be in a sling for a few weeks is all."

It was cold as they made their way to Healers. Neave was shivering by the time they got there. The pain wasn't unbearable, but he found tears continued to leak out of his eyes. He wiped his face impatiently with his uninjured hand. Kyldathar didn't say anything but made her presence felt with wordless comfort and apology.

Keren felt the boy's shivering. She was glad they didn't have far to go, as he was clearly going into shock. She was also a powerful Mindspeaker. His surface thoughts were loud with pain and taking on the characteristic disjointedness of shock.

She Mindspoke to Teren, her twin, to let him know where the boy was. In all likelihood, the healers would want to send Neave to bed for the afternoon.

When they arrived, Keren supported him as they walked. One of the healers ushered them into an exam room, "So, what have you brought me?" she said briskly.

"Fell off his Companion." said Keren, "He says his shoulder hurts. I think its his collarbone"

"Did you hit your head at all?" asked the healer, taking off Neave's coat carefully. A large bloodstain spread across the front of his shirt.

He shook his head.

She had him sit on a high table so she could examine him. She picked up some shears and cut through his shirt to get a good look at his shoulder. The bone was clearly bent and poking forward, jagged edges of bone stuck out from under the skin. She placed a towel under the wound and poured warm water out of a basin from the top. It began to bleed sluggishly again. Neave closed his eyes, feeling a little sick.

"Looks uglier than it is." she looked at Neave, "I'm going to line up the bones. This will hurt, I'm afraid. I can give you something for it after I'm done. You'll have to wear a sling for a couple weeks."

Neave nodded, braced himself.

"Keren will you help me?" asked the healer.

Keren came to Neave's uninjured side, "Give me your hand," she said. He did so. She stood right beside him, grasping his hand, putting her arm under his elbow. "Now, lean on me."

He leaned against her. The healer finished cutting off his shirt and pulled some strips of cloth out of a drawer. She put her hands gently on either side of the break.

It was a good thing he was already leaning against Keren. The bright red flash of pain would have knocked him over, otherwise. He drew a ragged sobbing breath.

"All right, youngster." said the healer, "That's the worst." She efficiently bound up his arm and shoulder. He didn't open his eyes again until she was done. To his surprise, the skin was closed and looking no worse than a bad bruise. The shoulder still ached.

"You'll want something for the pain." the healer said kindly.

Neave shook his head. He'd stopped taking Deena's potions as soon as he could stand it. It was hard for Kyldathar to wake him up when he was taking those. It made him feel trapped.

There were other memories surrounding being drugged that he was not going to examine

"There's no virtue in enduring pain you don't need to." the healer told him gently.

"No. Thank you." he said, firmly.

"Do you have something that won't make him sleepy?" Keren asked the healer.

"Yes, but he should have something to help him sleep tonight." The healer said "Its going to ache like hell when he lies down."

"Why don't you give us both, then." said Keren logically.

The healer got the potions for them and told Neave that he needed to spend the remainder of the day resting.

He nodded.

"Ylsa's coming to take you to bed," said Keren, "I'll go let you're classmates know that I haven't gotten you killed."

:Ylsa?: Keren's mind voice was worried. :Are you busy?:

:No. What's wrong?: Ylsa was done with her class for the day and she didn't have anything else planned. She'd actually had a half formed idea of watching Keren's classes today just so she could spend more time with Keren.

:Neave took a header from Kyldathar. Broke his collarbone. He's mostly all right.:

:But..?:

:I think he needs someone with him.: Keren related the conversation she'd seen Neave have with the healer. :He was very adamant about not wanting to take anything to make him sleep:

:He said this?:

:No, he thought it loud enough to come right through my shields:

:I'll be there, now.: said Ylsa, hurrying.

Ylsa helped Neave into his bed where he sat looking rather pale. "Does it hurt much?" asked Ylsa.

"It's not bad" he replied, although the pallor of his skin and a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead told a different tale.

Ylsa sat down in his desk chair. She decided on the direct approach, since he wasn't likely to volunteer anything.

"Why didn't you want to take anything to make you sleep?" she asked, as nonchalantly as possible.

"It...I get bad dreams." he looked away.

"Well, this will take the edge off." She took the little bottle she'd brought and handed it to him.

He swallowed it with a grimace. "I don't know that I'll ever learn to ride properly." he said gloomily.

"Oh, you're much better than I was, six months after getting here." Ylsa smiled, "Ask Keren. I was terrified. I think thats how Keren got to be such a good teacher. She spent days with Felara and me."

Neave's smile was a little sly, "Were you really that bad, or were you just trying to get Keren to spend time with you?"

Ylsa grinned at him. "I'll never tell."

A knock interrupted them. Skif poked his head around the door. "Hey, I heard you took a tumble." he saw Ylsa, "Hello Ylsa, I thought I'd check if Neave needed anything." he turned back to Neave, "You do realize that I've spent all day reestablishing my reputation? Now they're reckoning I just went easy on you. I know I didn't, but...well..." he smiled "I think I might have to prove it to them. Just don't break my fingers." He winked "Let me know if you need anything." He backed out.

"What did he mean?" asked Ylsa, curiously.

Neave told her about Skif's attempt to pick his pockets. Ylsa laughed, "He will have to try again!"

The door opened again, it was Christa, a girl from Neave's year group with a tray. She turned a little pink as she said "I thought you might like some lunch."

Neave looked surprised, "Oh. Thank you."

She put it on his lap and smiled prettily, "Um, I can bring you some dinner too, if you like...I have to get to class right now..." she gave Ylsa a little nod and then scampered from the room.

"What was that about?" Neave asked, staring at the closed door.

"I think she likes you." said Ylsa shrewdly, "What do you think of her?"

"She's...nice" mumbled Neave, embarrassed. He ate a couple of bites of food. Then, he looked straight at Ylsa "What should I do? I don't know how to talk to a girl like that."

Ylsa raised an eyebrow at him "Like what?"

"You know...not..." he couldn't go on.

"A prostitute?" she supplied

He nodded, took few more bites.

Ylsa smiled "I don't think you need to worry. She clearly thinks you're nice enough. I've never heard you be anything less than respectful to anyone. Just be yourself."

"Mara would have smacked me into next week, if I wasn't respectful." Neave mumbled. He couldn't finish what Christa had brought, so he put the rest on the bedside table. His stomach was little unsettled.

"You miss her." Ylsa said gently

"Yes." Neave replied pensively, "She was...strange. I could never work out where she came from. She told me once, she'd run away from a bad marriage. A lot of the other girls didn't like her. Said she was a witch. They changed their tune after Cacilie got cut up."

"How long did you know her?" asked Ylsa

"About two years. She just appeared from a caravan looking for work. She was older than Garek usually liked. He used to like them younger than twenty. Sixteen when he could get it."

"Was Cacilie cut up by the same ones..?" Ylsa asked cautiously.

"The same group of high born who caused all the trouble?" finished Neave for her, looking a little haunted, "Yes. They cut her up pretty good, but Mara fixed it."

"She fixed it? How?"

"Oh, not like a healer would." Neave replied "Mara did things with herbs and...I'm not sure what. Cacilie looked better after and didn't take fever."

"Why didn't the law keepers intervene?"

"I heard some of them call the leader 'Your Highness'. He was very high born."

Ylsa was cold inside. She felt very grateful she lived in a kingdom where there were limits on the power of high borns. If this had happened in Valdemar, Heralds would have been summoned.

"They left me for dead, you know. After they were done...playing with me...one of them kicked me. I couldn't breath. I guess they knocked the wind out of me. Like today." Neave looked tired, Ylsa guessed that the shock of the broken collarbone had left him feeling rather vulnerable, "They said they figured they'd done me in. They were going to pay Garek off to keep him quiet. I guess they did. They weren't supposed to make me unfit for work." Neave spoke in a flat, remote voice.

"Mara came in and made Garek let her take care of me. Said if he didn't let her, she'd tell the law keepers he did it. Said they'd rather blame Garek than the Prince. Garek didn't want to keep me. Said I was no use to him. Said I was too old, anyway. Most of the men who like boys want younger ones."

Ylsa closed her eyes against the horror. Opened them, to see Neave's frightened eyes. He seemed to realize what he was saying.

She Felt the brush of his thoughts up against her shields. Chief amongst them, was the fear that Ylsa would somehow blame Neave.

Ylsa moved to sit next to Neave on his bed, "I am very grateful to Mara." she said softly, taking his uninjured hand in hers. He started to cry into her shoulder. After a long time, he cried himself to sleep.

Chapter Text

Ylsa tucked Neave into his bed after his long bout of tears as she would have a much younger child. He opened his eyes in sleepy acknowledgement when she said she was leaving.

He hadn't told her anything she didn't know, but it was an important step that he'd told her himself. The whole conversation left Ylsa lonely and sick. It was one thing to guess, another to have the boy tell her outright.

She'd dealt with this sort of thing before and it was never easy. What she really wanted to do was find Keren and retire to their rooms for the evening. Instead she'd need to talk this over with the Dean. Perhaps some of the other instructors. She tentatively reached for Elcarth, touching his thoughts. He replied that he was in his office and quite free to talk.

As she made her way to Elcarth's office, she was very glad that , unlike when she used to ride circuit, there were others who could help too.

"Ylsa? Is that you?" Elcarth called before she could knock.

"Its me." She came straight in. Elcarth was looking strained and Kyril was with him, apparently on his way out. "Everything all right?" she asked. Kyril was looking more serious than usual.

"There's no real emergency. At least, I hope not." said Kyril, "We were just trying to decide what to do with Dirk. He's depressed enough that we're worried."

"You mean over that Court bitch?" said Ylsa acidly, she'd heard some pretty nasty tales about this. Dirk had become involved with one of the Court beauties who was known for tearing up young men's hearts. There had been some kind of argument and Dirk had been left devastated by all accounts.

"I'm thinking we should give him some leave to see his family. I've also asked Selenay to see if she can get the girl's father to find the girl a husband before she has some lads at drawn daggers...again." said Kyril.

"Times like this, I miss Talamir most." sighed Elcarth, "He was good with the Court nonsense." he shook his head, "But that's not what you came to talk about."

"And I should go talk to Dirk." Kyril gave Ylsa a grave nod as he left.

Ylsa threw herself down in the chair Kyril had abandoned.

"Difficult afternoon, I take it?" asked Elcarth.

"I've had better." Ylsa replied, "Keren told you..?"

"About Neave's fall? Yes. She also said she thought he was fairly distressed about something else. Did you find out what?"

"Nothing new. Only that the poor thing is just as bad off as we feared. And that if I could track the right people down, I would become very unHeraldlike in my behavior." Ylsa's stomach was knotted with tension and her jaw hurt from where she had been clenching her teeth. "Bastards."

"Well, I did speak to the Healers about him-the biggest difficulty is that they're short again. You know how rare Mindhealing is. They had two go back to their home provinces in the past six months. They have two they're saving for the really dangerously unbalanced and one new trainee who is no more than eleven if she's a day." Elcarth sighed, "Unless the boy is on the verge of a breakdown, we have to help him ourselves." Elcarth looked at her worriedly, "He's not, is he?"

"No, I don't think so," she said after a pause, "And, Keren says his Bond with his Companion is quite solid. So we have that to work with."

"Good," Elcarth said, "I was a little afraid that, with his reticence, he might have trouble Bonding."

"I think we're seeing some cracks in that reticence. By the way," Ylsa smiled slightly, "I completely take back my reservations about Skif. He's been quite helpful in drawing him out. He was even trying to pick his pocket today. Oddly enough, Neave caught him."

"Alberich and Jeri have been trying to do something about Neave's hyper-vigilance. He's just too jumpy, according to Alberich. Jeri was the one who actually suggested that getting repeatedly sneaked up on might get him over it. And, of course, Skif's games are perfect for that." Elcarth said smiling in turn, "He seems to have an instinctive understanding of how to deal with our wounded birds."

Neave woke up that afternoon when Christa brought him in a tray of food. "Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to wake you up." She said, a little nervously.

"It's all right. Its really nice of you." he wasn't sure what to say, again. "Thanks."

"Do you want some company?" she asked, "While you eat?"

"Umm, actually, I might need some help." he realized that with one hand still bound up in a sling, he was going to have a hard time eating, "Can you..?" he indicated the knife she'd brought on the tray.

She giggled, "I didn't think of that. Of course." she cut up his food neatly.

Christa left the door open when she came in, the signal to other trainees that one wouldn't mind visitors. Neave never did that himself, it just hadn't occurred to him. Of course, he had spent all summer sleeping with the Companions.

Over the course of the evening, just about every trainee came by to see how he was. They didn't stay long, understanding that he was sore and probably tired (more than a few of them made comments about their own broken bones). It was something of a revelation to Neave that they all wanted to check on him. Christa stayed long enough to make sure he ate every bite she brought him.

"Are you going to class tomorrow?" she asked before she left, "You might need help with your books."

"I think I have to see the Healers before I'm allowed to get up." he mumbled.

She gave him a sunny smile, "All right then, I'll check on you tomorrow."

Griffon offered to help him rebind his arm so he could bathe and put on a shirt. The warm water was very soothing on Neave's aching shoulder.

"Christa's got her eye on you." smirked Griffon, "Maybe I should break something if it impresses the girls."

"No, its the strong silent thing that Christa likes," said Skif as he dried his hair, "She's been eyeing him for weeks. He's a captive audience now."

Neave just smiled sheepishly.

Ylsa came back to check on him before he went to bed. He was embarrassed after his performance this afternoon. He hoped that Ylsa would put down the tears to pain and shock. She seemed to-at least there wasn't any perceptible change in her manner towards him.

"How's it feeling?" she asked indicating the injured arm.

"Its not bad," he was telling the truth this time.

"You should take the stronger potion to help you sleep, though." she said, "If you don't sleep, it won't heal right. Maybe you could try half of it?"

He nodded agreement, it had been more painful when he lay down. Perhaps if he only took half, he wouldn't feel so drugged.

"The Healers said you should take tomorrow off too. Mending that kind of injury takes it out of you." Ylsa hesitated, then very gently hugged him, careful of his arm and shoulder, "No more broken bones for awhile, all right?"

"Yes, Herald." he said smiling a little.

He walked through the darkened yard with a sense of foreboding. He knew that he must not draw attention to himself. Aware of every noise and movement, he crept into the dark building. He could hear them looking for him-if he was found he was dead. Worse than dead.

Skif woke up suddenly. It took him a moment to register his room. He was terrified to move and terrified to stay where he was. A paralysis seemed to have a hold of him and he couldn't even consider getting up to light a candle from his fire.

He reached out for Cymry, who was still sound asleep. :Cymry!: he thought at her as loudly as he could.

:Skif? Are you all right?: she asked him, starting awake.

:I'm not sure, I just had a terrible dream. And...I need you: he felt a little foolish waking her up for a nightmare, but the fear still gripped him.

:Its all right...what were you dreaming?: She asked him

:I'm not even sure now.: The dream and the fear was fading. :Sorry, that was just scary:

:That's three nights now-I think you should mention it to someone. It doesn't seem right. You've never had nightmares like that.: Cymry said worriedly.

Skif agreed. This was not something he was usually prey to. He had the odd nightmare now and again, but this felt different.

He had a class in using his Mindspeaking Gift with Ylsa the next morning. Cymry thought the nightmares could have something to do with his Gift. It had only started to wake up in the past year. He was still learning the trick of keeping his thoughts in his head and other people's out

When the class was done, Skif loitered behind when the other two students left. He worried that Ylsa wouldn't take it seriously. In daylight, he had a hard time taking it seriously. It was only that Cymry was insistent that he talk to someone that made him bring it up.

"Yes, Skif?" she asked.

"I was wondering, can learning to use a Gift cause nightmares?" he wasn't sure how he could describe them to her.

"Not normally," Ylsa said slowly, "Why?"

"I have been having the most horrible dreams. Three nights running now. Cymry seems to think its got something to do with my Gift." Skif shrugged, "She reckoned I should ask you."

"Can you tell me about them?" Ylsa pulled her chair up to the table again and indicated he should as well, "If Cymry thinks it has to do with your Gift, it probably does."

Skif rubbed the back of his neck, "I can't really explain them. They seem to disappear when I wake up, but last night I was hiding from something or someone. And they're always really scary."

"Could it be something from your past? As a thief you hid from people a lot."

Skif shook his head, "Not like this. I wake up in a cold sweat and I'm shaking all over. It's as if I'm going to die or the world's going to end, or both. And then I wish it would, just so I can stop being so afraid. And then it just...evaporates"

"Has anyone else had nightmares?" asked Ylsa.

"I don't know." answered Skif confused.

"I want you to work on your shielding tonight before you sleep. It may be that you're picking up from someone else. It can be a little strange until we get our Gifts completely under control." Ylsa told him confidently, "If it happens again let me know and we can try something else."

Ylsa made some inquiries of the other instructors. It seemed that they had noticed an unusual amount of tiredness from some of the trainees. When the trainees were asked, most of them confessed to disturbed sleep from nightmares. And all of them were either untrained or half trained Thoughtsensers of one variety or another.

"Someone's got a Gift waking up?" asked Keren as they sat together that night.

"That's the only thing it could be," replied Ylsa.

"Who do you think it is?"

"I've got a few candidates in mind-Talia, Christa, Neave and Sherril."

"Why those four?" Keren asked curiously,

"Talia because I've only taught her to keep people out, so far. It could be that she's starting to project. Christa because she has some Gift, but it hasn't become strong enough to identify yet. Sherril, because she's so blocked that it could be leaking out when she's asleep. And Neave because of what I picked up from him the other day." Ylsa sighed, "Of the four, Talia and Neave are the only ones who are likely to be projecting that much pure fear. A couple of people complained about feelings of smothering or choking, but if it were Talia, I'd expect them to talk about drowning. Talia is close to you-has she complained about nightmares?"

Keren shook her head, then she said thoughtfully, "You know, the day Neave broke his collarbone-he was so loud in his thoughts. I put it down at the time to just general distress but..."

"I was thinking that too." said Ylsa, "I'm going to sit up tonight and see if I can't find out."

"Want help?"

Ylsa smiled and took her hand.

Later, Ylsa was glad she had Keren anchoring her. They had sat together with Ylsa unshielded, waiting to see if the dreamer would project again. About midnight, Ylsa began to pick up rather frantic strains of fear. She had just enough Empathy to be caught by it. It was formless and suffocating and accompanied by sounds of people arguing. Ylsa's heart raced and the overwhelming feeling was that she was dying.

:Ylsa!: called Keren, snapping her out of it. Ylsa more carefully probed, blocking out the emotions to hear the words and track the thoughts to their source. Abruptly, the sending stopped.

Ylsa took a long breath, dropping out of trance, :Felara? Ask Kyldathar if she's been waking Neave out of nightmares.:

:She says, yes. Most nights.: Felara replied.

"Well, that answers that." said Ylsa aloud, "I wonder that half our trainees aren't hysterical with it."

"If Kyldathar's been waking Neave up, it seems that the dream doesn't have any time to evolve into something more intense." said Keren. Dantris had passed on Felara's conversation with Ylsa as he usually did.

"That was intense enough." sighed Ylsa.

"Come on love, let's go to bed." Keren stood, still holding her lifebonded's hand, "We can't do much about it right now. One more night won't hurt anyone."

Neave's mornings were free at the moment. Until the Healers said his collarbone was completely healed he was excused from both Keren's classes and arms practice. He spent that time with his Companion. This morning he asked one of the stablehands to help him saddle her. The Healers had cleared him for riding again.

:How's the shoulder?: asked Kyldathar.

"It's a lot better." said Neave. They wandered through the Field, just being together. Neave didn't really think about anything. It was cold and bright. An unaccustomed peace settled around his heart.

:Ylsa and Felara are looking for us.: Kyldathar said suddenly. :They're coming out here.:

"Am I in trouble or something?" Neave asked nervously. He was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, even after all these months.

Kydathar's mind voice was gentle, :No Chosen, she's concerned for you.:

Ylsa and Felara caught up with them after a few minutes, "Hello." said Ylsa. Felara paced beside Kyldathar. "How are you feeling?"

"Sore. Not bad." he said. They walked on in silence until Neave was feeling a little unnerved

"Have you been sleeping?" she said abruptly.

He wondered why she asked "As much as I ever do. I've always had nightmares. Why?"

"What do you know about Herald's magic?" She asked him in what seemed an odd change of topic.

"Next to nothing...I know they...we...do magic, but I've never been able to work out what it is. I know you did something to me when you rescued me, but I don't quite understand what. It was really different from what Mara did though. But what's that got to do with me sleeping?"

"I think you've got a Gift beginning to manifest itself. And I think you've been sharing your nightmares with your other trainees."

He looked at her equal parts astonished and horrified, "Me? Sharing my...? How is that possible?" His distress brushed against her shields, confirming the type of Gift Ylsa suspected.

"I'm not sure why it should wake up now, sometimes it just happens a little early. We generally wouldn't start training you now, but I think we should at least teach you to keep your thoughts in your own head." Ylsa smiled. "I think you're a projector. Its not unlike the Bardic Gift-I expect you'll learn to Mindspeak as well. Some of the Bards have a little Mindspeaking as a matter of fact."

Neave was deeply disturbed, "So, people have been hearing my dreams? " he said quietly.

Ylsa nodded, "They're pretty bad, from what I understand. I think, maybe we can do something about those, too. Elcarth is very good at teaching shielding. He's also very good at listening if you want to talk."

"What's to talk about?" Neave suddenly had returned to speaking in that near-whisper he had used in the first few days after being Chosen, "Talking doesn't change the past. It doesn't change what's happened..." he stopped. Ylsa noticed he had wound his hands in Kyldathar's mane.

"Yes, but it can change how you feel about it. And if you'll trust us, I think we can help you with those nightmares."

Chapter Text

That very afternoon, Dean Elcarth spent a considerable amount of time with him, teaching him how to keep his thoughts inside his head, even when he slept. The Dean also gave Neave some books to read on the subject of Gifts and their uses among Heralds. It would keep him busy while his shoulder healed.

He wasn't sure he was happy with all this talk of Gifts. Kyldathar, Ylsa and the Dean reassured him that it was neither his fault nor unnatural, but Neave couldn't shake his uneasiness about it. He remembered too well the tales he'd heard of demons and evil spirits. Mara had always told him that the stories were nothing but nonsense, and somehow her powers (or Gifts, he supposed he should call them) never seemed that unsettling. To think of himself having one of these Gifts, that was different.

That night he went through the calming exercises Elcarth had given him. It must have helped because it wasn't until the gray predawn that Kildathar woke him. His shoulder ached and his cheeks were wet. His dream had been full of memories of Garek's. Ordinary enough scenes of earning his keep with the customers who wanted something other than a grown woman.

Mara had always been so angry about it. As if his lot was worse than hers. She'd actually wanted to find him an apprenticeship, but no one in town wanted a whore's son for apprentice. He had some vague memory that they'd talked of getting passage somewhere on a caravan, but they probably had been drunk at the time.

It was strange, but it never used to bother him that much. Now though, his stomach roiled like he was going to throw up and there was a lump in his throat that felt like he wanted to cry.

: I'm not letting the healers give me anymore of that pain potion: He thought sourly at his Companion. : It makes me into a puling baby.: The boys in his village would never have left him in peace if they'd ever once seen him crying.

: Yes, Chosen. : Kyldathar replied, mildly, her mind voice layered with concern.

For some reason, Neave thought of Kira. He'd forgotten that before she'd come to Garek's they'd spoken from time to time. How could he have forgotten that?

A tapping at the door had him jumping from bed. "What?" He whispered at the locked door, hastily wiping his tear stained face.

"Neave? It's me. Skif." A little hesitation, then, "Are you all right? You...Well...I guess you've been projecting in your sleep. That last dream that woke me up...I never have dreams like that. Anyway...I just caught the edge of it and," Neave heard wasn't sure what to make of the somber note in Skif's voice.  "Cymry said it was one of yours."

Neave swallowed hard, realizing he must have done that projecting thing and woken the older boy. He opened the door. Skif stood there barefoot in the corridor with his arms crossed and a frown on his normally affable face. "Gods, Skif. I'm sorry." Blurted Neave feeling a little panicky. He'd have to move out to the Companion's Stable permanently after this. "It won't happen again. I'll go sleep out with Kyldathar." He wondered if he could beg a spare bedroll from Housekeeper. That would probably keep him warm enough.

"What?" Skif looked baffled for a second, then, "Don't worry about that." He shrugged, "I need to be up soon anyway. No...I...Listen..." He seemed at a loss. "Um... I just thought..." He looked up and down the corridor, as if checking for people who might overhear. "It was pretty bad. Did you want to talk?"

That was perhaps the last thing Neave had expected Skif to say. "Talk?" he repeated, confused. "About what?"

Comprehension lit Skif's eyes, "You're not quite awake yet." He said, "Why don't you put on your uniform and we'll go get some early breakfast?"

Neave never, ever said no to a meal. "Yes. All right. I'll be right there." He left the door ajar, feeling it was rude to shut it while the other boy was waiting for him. He was just glad his arm wasn't completely useless now. It had been damned embarrassing to ask the other boys to help him dress.

By the time he was done, Skif was standing in the corridor with his own uniform on and his cloak in his hands. Neave took his own so he could go out to see Kyldathar when they were done. They walked down towards the stairs without speaking, Skif looked so unwontedly serious that Neave said again, "I'm sorry for waking you up with my stupid dreams."

The older boy shrugged, "Don't worry about it." The tense set of his shoulders said something different, though.

They didn't speak again until they got to the common room. Neave walked miserably beside Skif, thinking that it was a damned shame that, now that his fellow Trainees understood what he was, this stony silence was likely the best he could hope for. He realized now that the Heralds were so important to the Crown that the others bullying him wouldn't be tolerated (anyway, the Companions wouldn't allow it), but that wouldn't mean they'd want to be seen with him.

A few candles were lit on the common room tables. Four adult Heralds were clustered at one table. Alberich, Elcarth and two unfamiliar women Heralds who were in their formal Court uniforms, clearly getting an early start. A cold breakfast of meat, yesterday's bread and cheese was set out on the one long table. The one who sat with Alberich was short and bespectacled, the other was a tall, blonde woman that Neave was convinced he'd seen before.

"Good morning, gentlemen." Said the younger woman in a melodious voice, noticing them come in the door.

Skif stopped a few feet from the table and gave her a formal bow. "Good morning, Highness." He said, graciously. He inclined his head at the others, "Good morning, Heralds."

Belatedly, Neave realized where he'd seen her before. It had been in the Throne Room when he was observing public audiences for one of his classes.

"H-highness." He stuttered, feeling his face go tight and his stomach flip. Clumsily he copied Skif's bow and then jerkily nodded at the others.

"Come sit down." Queen Selenay made room on her bench with a smile. Neave wasn't sure he wanted to sit next to the Queen, but there was no way he could refuse. He'd gotten used to the idea that there were highborns among the trainees, but he'd never spent any time with any of the highborn adult Heralds. Gingerly, he took the offered seat.

Skif slid in next to Alberich and the adults resumed their conversation. Neave helped himself to the food as it was passed to him, but he didn't taste anything as it went down. He was just grateful that Skif didn't seem inclined to talk about the dream with all the adults around.

The four adults were mostly discussing schedules and dates and things that Neave couldn't follow, so he ate his breakfast and tried to pretend that Skif's evaluating looks didn't bother him.

"Tell me, cadet," Alberich began in Karsite, when he his plate was empty and there was a lull in the conversation. , "How is it you got this lazy one out of bed this morning? " He indicated Skif with a twitch of his head, "He usually skates in to these early mornings at the last possible moment."

Neave wasn't sure how to answer that, "I had a bad dream that woke him, Captain." He replied quietly in Karsite. He always called Alberich "Captain" because the word for Herald in Karsite was either "White Demon" or things less polite. "The witchery I have," He used the Karsite word for Herald Gifts that Cook used to use, "Made him hear my dream."


The women both looked at him sharply. Neave hoped it was because they didn't realize he could speak Karsite. After a second, Selenay gave Neave a gentle smile, "This is the trainee with the gift for languages, then?"

"Yes, that's Neave." Nodded Elcarth. Neave wasn't sure what to make of the pleased note in Elcarth's voice.

Alberich scrutinized Neave, then said in Karsite, "This one will be assisting me this morning." He again jerked his head at Skif, "You will come with us. You may not yet fight, but you can watch."

 Neave nodded, "Yes, Captain." Nervously, he stood to clear his plate. Unthinkingly, he stacked all the other's empty plates, but then he realized he couldn't very well carry them with one hand.

Skif solved the dilemma by shaking his head and picking the stack up himself and taking them to be washed.

"Thank you, Neave, Skif. It was good to see both of you." Selenay said, as she, Elcarth and the other woman made to leave.

"Yes, ma'am." Neave whispered, his voice refusing to rise in volume at all. He stood, as the others did, while she left the room and then sat back down. He was shaking and felt quite sick, although he wasn't entirely sure why.

 "Cadet?" Alberich said softly, using the Karsite word for Trainee.

He turned and found that both Skif and Alberich were looking at him with almost identical expressions of concern. "Yes, Captain?" He gulped, giving his voice a little more volume.

Alberich glanced at Skif, switched to Valdemaran, "Go." He told him,  "See that everything is ready for this mornings classes. We will be along."

Skif nodded, his ready smile reappearing and seeming more like himself. Neave could only assume he was grateful for the escape, as he trotted down the stairs.

"This dream." Alberich asked when they were alone, now he switched back to Karsite, "You have it often?"

Neave shrugged, "Not that particular one. But, I have bad dreams all the time. Kyldathar wakes me from them. The Dean told me how to not project, but I guess I didn't do it right."

"Do not worry. It takes practice." Alberich nodded, "It is hard to realize that our Gifts" Here he used the Valdemaran word, "Are not marks of demonic influence."

Neave rubbed at the arm that was bound in the sling. For some reason the scars on both his arms were sore and prickly. "I..." He dared a look into the Armaster's face, "It's not even that, Captain." He blurted out, suddenly, "Its...Well...last night I dreamed of..." He found he couldn't say it outright, so he hoped the man understood him, "What I used to do to earn my keep...with...the men who paid Garek. Everyone who heard my dream...they'll all know what I was."

Alberich regarded him soberly. He looked off to the side in that "listening" expression that Herald's had when they spoke to their Companions, then looked back, "I do not think you woke anyone save Skif this night." He said.

"That's bad enough." Neave hunched in on himself, cradling his bad arm with the other.

"I do not believe you need worry that Skif will hold that against you." Continued the man, "Skif understands survival. As do I."

"Yes, Captain." Neave said, not because he agreed, but because he would never in his wildest dreams contradict Alberich.

 "You do not believe. That is fair. That is another thing that takes time. Come," Alberich stood, "The scoundrel will have too much time to dream up mischief if we are too long."

 That morning Neave spent watching the fighting practice and avoiding Skif's eyes. He tried not to notice that Alberich was also watching him.

When they were sent to find their midday meal, Neave felt a brush of air ruffle the hair on the back of his neck. In the past, that sort of thing presaged being yanked into an alleyway and set upon by village toughs. Tightly wound as he was, he whirled to confront the culprit, swinging his unbound elbow high enough to connect with an assailant's chin, in a move he'd been taught by Jeri.

Skif dodged quick as a squirrel, but he was so close that the blow still found a mark. It glanced off of his shoulder, rather than his chin. He grinned. "Almost." he said, "You would have gotten me if it weren't for your shoulder." The other trainees laughed, a few even applauded and congratulated Neave on his ability to catch Skif. Neave smiled nervously at the praise and kept his mouth shut.

"You didn't hurt yourself did you?" Christa came over to ask, solicitously. She put her hand on his good arm and squeezed, "You shouldn't play around like that until you're healed up."

Completely tongue-tied, Neave shook his head.

"Well, good." She gave his arm another squeeze and seemed to wait for him to say something. When he didn't she looked a little disappointed. Before he could think of anything to say, one of her friends called to her. "Oh, I promised to go up with them." Christa said, "Would you like to come?"

He knew he'd be dreadful company, but unexpectedly, Skif came to his rescue, "Neave? You all right?" He asked, "I don't want you to hurt your shoulder again. Ylsa will have my head. Maybe we better have the healers look at it."

"You did hurt yourself." Christa accused.

Neave nodded, just to get away from the awkwardness. 

"I'll walk you up." Skif offered. 

Christa gave Skif a disapproving look, and said, "You should leave him alone."

"It wasn't anything." Neave said sharply, not wanting Christa to blame Skif. Nor did he want everyone to think he needed someone to defend him like that.

She looked dubious and then said, "See you later?" Waiting for his nod before she hurried off to find her friends.

"Are you really hurt?" Asked Skif.

"Don't be daft." Growled Neave, "I'm fine." Then he looked around to see that no one was nearby. Because he couldn't stand worrying about it another moment he asked, "Why are you still talking to me? Don't you know what I am?" His courage failed him and he stopped speaking. He wasn't ready to hear Skif say he didn't want to be his friend.

The older boy sighed, "Cymry talked to the other Companions. She says that you didn't project farther than me and I only heard you because I'm still learning mindspeech, so my shields are wobbly. She reckons it won't happen again." He lowered his voice, "Y'know, I really didn't get much more than feelings out of the other dreams, but last night...Well...Remember, I told you I lived on the street? I was always lucky that way. I never had to..." He paused delicately, "But, I knew plenty who did. It's better here in Haven because the Heralds will hear if someone's been selling children." 

Unaccountably angry, Neave snapped, "So what if they fucking do? The lawkeepers all knew. It didn't matter to them. Officially, " He sneered the word, "Garek was my master and my guardian. He fed me and I was bound to him 'till I was 21. Kira..." He stopped. A deep pit of acid roiled in his stomach. He wanted to hit Skif, or scream or sit down and bawl like a babe, like he had the other day with Ylsa.

Some strange horrible pressure built up in his head and chest. He was so angry that he couldn't see straight, everything around him seemed to glow with blue light.

He flashed on a strange image; a door made of wood and brass. It was half open and he just wanted it to shut. He imagined it slamming with an almighty crash. For good measure, he imagined a million vines growing up around it, holding it closed.

Skif still stood before him, his arms folded over his chest. He looked troubled and hurt.

"Never mind." Neave sighed, "Doesn't matter." He just couldn't sustain the anger. He was too tired and his head hurt badly. He wondered if it were possible to beg off his afternoon classes. Without another word he changed direction, heading out to Companion's Field.

It was there Ylsa found him, a candlemark later, bareback on his Companion because he was too wound up to ask the stable hands to help him saddle her. His head hurt so much that it hurt to mindspeak to her, so they were just doing what was fast becoming his favorite thing, wandering aimlessly together.

Felara fell into step with Kyldathar, like he had the other morning. Like the other morning, Ylsa said nothing for a few minutes, then, "Skif told me you were fairly upset."

 "It's fine." He muttered.

Felara stopped, as did Kyldathar. Ylsa reached over to put her hand on his, "It's not."

Neave wondered how all these respectable people could stand to touch him. He'd seen how respectable people reacted when they realized who his mother had been and that he had no father to claim him.

She looked closely at him, "Does your head hurt?"

He nodded.

"When you were speaking with Skif...he said you were really angry and then it just went away. What happened?" Ylsa asked.

Neave thought about it. He was going to tell her about the door in his head, but that just seemed rather silly. He opted for something that didn't sound so ridiculous, "I just...I don't know...all of a sudden, the light just seemed to get too bright. And I wasn't angry anymore. I just had a headache. I'm sorry if I missed class."

''Don't be concerned. Skif told Teren you weren't feeling well." Her mouth quirked up at the corner, "Christa apparently gave him a scolding for that." She became serious again. "I think you must have some Farsight waking up too, from what you're describing. Our Gifts often show up when we're angry."

Another Gift? That made his stomach even more uneasy. That wasn't what bothered him most though, "I shouldn't be here." His voice was barely more than a whisper. He'd expressed this to Kyldathar before, and she always replied in a curiously single minded way, that he was her Chosen, so therefore he belonged with her.

Ylsa moved her hand from his arm to his chin, tilting his head up so he looked at her "Listen to me, Neave. You remember how I said you weren't the first Herald whose mother was a prostitute? Nor are you the first child to come to us after being badly used."

 

He turned his head away. "What would you know about it?" He said resentfully.

"More than you know." Her tone was tired-for a moment she sounded about a hundred years old. "I don't think its the reason I don't care for men, but..." she shrugged, "I was twelve when I was Chosen, thank the gods. When I arrived here, I was convinced that if someone found out they'd make me leave. But, eventually I did speak of it. To my surprise I found it did help."

Neave turned to stare at her."I'm sorry." He said.

She smiled wanly, "It's all right, it was a long time ago." She paused, thinking through her words, "You know how when you break bones, they'll heal on their own even without a healer, as long as you look after them, but if you don't, they heal wrong or you'll take fever?"

Mara had told him umpteen times that his bruised ribs wouldn't heal right if he didn't take care. Of course, now he knew that she had meant they were broken. Neave nodded, not understanding where Ylsa was going with it.

"It's like that, only this is in your head. Even without a mind healer, people heal." She leaned towards him, this time grasping his hand, "I promise. And, no one is going to shun you for what you couldn't help. In fact, I don't think they'd care regardless."

Neave squeezed her hand back.

"I'm in Haven until this class I'm teaching ends." She said, "Do you have an hour in the afternoons? I think we could make some headway with this."

"I...don't know." He said, feeling overwhelmed and at a loss.

Ylsa smiled, seeming to understand, "I'll tell Teren to juggle your schedule because you need some extra tutoring. At the very least, you need some help with that Farsight or you'll go blind every time you look at a Companion."

Grateful, Neave nodded, but his headache was getting worse. Ylsa apparently sensed that too. "Come on, Trainee." She said, "I know there's a stash of headache tea at the Companions Stable."

Chapter Text

Something relaxed inside Neave after that day. Not all at once, but little by little, he stopped wondering when people were going to throw him out. For the next few weeks, while Ylsa was in residence, they met in the field, rain or shine. If he was out of sorts, Ylsa never cared and she showed no discomfort when he spoke of his life before Kyldathar Chose him.

He also discovered that there was always a cold meal left in the common room. If he was troubled by dreams, he would go down for an early breakfast. Most of the time Alberich was there, as was Herald Myst, the woman with the spectacles he'd met that first morning. It turned out she was the Herald Chronicler--she'd been a clerk before she was a Herald and she spoke Karsite with a passable accent. Most mornings would find the three of them talking in Karsite over breakfast.

Skif had taken it as a challenge to sneak up on Neave, finding him was very difficult to catch out. A lifetime of ducking blows and making himself scarce when necessary had given him an awareness of his environment that some of his fellow trainees attributed to a Heraldic Gift. It wasn't, Neave knew--in fact, Skif had taken to picking Neave's brain about how Neave caught him every time.

"Not a chance, Skif." Neave said, sensing someone coming up behind him. He turned and grinned at the older boy. "You were backlit by the candle in the hallway-I saw your shadow."

Skif sighed exaggeratedly, "You are not doing my reputation any good." He threw himself into the other chair.

"But I keep you in better practice than anyone else."

Skif returned the grin, "Too true. Most of the trainees are like sheep waiting to be sheared. Once Alberich gets done with them they're harder-but not much. If we were still on the street I wouldn't consider trying to pick on someone like you "

"Only because you'd know I had nothing to steal." Neave replied dryly.

"There is that." Skif said.

"I-uh- noticed you didn't come back until late last night.' Neave said with studious nonchalance "So...?"

"So...a gentleman doesn't kiss and tell." Skif said loftily,

"Yes, but I was talking about you, you nit."

Skif smiled slyly, before admitting, "I was with Talia."

Neave's eyebrows went up, "And...?"

"We didn't get too far. She's a little shy, and well..." Skif held his hands open in front of him, "...You know. I don't want to rush her."

Neave nodded understandingly, "Probably best. Especially if she's never..?" He made a question of the unfinished statement.

"Yes, exactly." Skif's smile was wry, before he asked, "So...how about you? Have you and Christa..?"

"About the same...Mostly for the same reason" Neave didn't enlighten Skif that it was he rather than Christa who was shy.

Skif smiled, "Well, since neither of our ladies are available tonight, can you help me with my Hardornen?"


 

Neave was surprised by an invitation from Drake and Edric, two boys-twins- from the years group ahead of his to spend Midwinter with them. Their parents were both Heralds, but they spent their Midwinter at Drake and Edric's grandfather's who was a retired Guardsman. Neave nervously accepted, after Skif dropped that he was headed there this year too. Even better, it turned out that Drake and Edric's grandparents had a horde of relatives visiting, so they were very grateful when the four Trainees volunteered to sleep out with the Companions so that the adults might have more beds to go around. Of course, that meant that every child on the holding between the ages of three and fourteen decided that they had to do so too, so the adults had much more room than they would have otherwise.

Neave was happy to have the time to spend with Kyldathar, even if it meant he ended up telling bedtime stories to Drake and Edric's cousins. The four of them spent their days throwing snowballs, riding their Companions, and laughing. By the time they returned to the Collegium, he felt as close to Drake and Edric as he did to Skif.


 

As the winter wore on, the dreams ceased to trouble him every night. One notable exception was late in winter. He dreamed of walking along the road to Garek's with a full basket for Cook. Someone walked beside him, and at first he thought it was Mara. Then, he realized it was Kira. The reality of the dream flowed around him and he realized it was her basket he carried. He felt a warm, sweet flutter in his chest.

"Do you ever see things?" She was asking, "Like things that glow?"

Neave nodded, "You should ask Mara. She knows about things like that." He glanced at her. She was taller than he, with her dark auburn hair bound in a plait down her back. She was thin, (her mam supported the family when her da went on a tear and the lawkeepers locked him up to dry out. She often gave her own food to her younger sisters) but there was a promising softness to her. She had rosy cheeks, a sweet smile and blue eyes that lit up when she laughed. He wanted to reach over and just feel the skin of her cheek. The warm sweetness uncoiled through him, into his gut and worked its way lower.

"Are you going to leave with her? You're lucky. I know she's not your mam, but she's better than my folks." Kira's voice was wistful, "My da...he beats me when I talk strange. And, me mam says I ought to get me a husband afore I get ruined. But then I'll end up just like her."

For a bare second he wondered if perhaps Mara would take the both of them. Perhaps he could ask for her hand?--she was only a year or two older than he, after all. Last summer she had been one of the village brats who had joyed in dumping the whoreson in the stable muck or the river. This summer, something had changed for both of them.

But, he was still a whoreson and even the town drunk wouldn't give his daughter to such a one. "I'm sorry." Neave said quietly, "I wish things were different." He stopped, turning to her, wanting to give her a hug or perhaps even a kiss, for comfort or for luck.

With a turn of his head, Neave felt all that sweetness give way to a rising tide of pure horror. Kira's face was dusky, mottled with purple and blue. Where she had been thin, she was now skeletal, her hair unbound and matted. It stood up as though she had been trying to pull it out and she had one stark white streak that spoke of the terrible thing they had both endured. Her grey hands reached for him. "Let me come with you." He could see the rope around her neck and her toes didn't touch the floor. "Goodbye, Neave." She whispered.

He closed his eyes so he wouldn't see her, but that didn't block out her voice and any moment her dead hands were going to reach for him. They were going to reach for him and then she was going to pull the vines from that door of brass and wood. She was going to yank that door open and those terrible things would get out. After that he may as well join her. He would follow her to whatever hell she chose. It was only his due after all.

::CHOSEN!:: Kydathar was mentally shouting as if she had called him several times.

Neave rolled out of bed and bolted to the privy to throw up until his stomach was completely emptied. Shaking with cold and weeping he headed back to his room, glad that no one else was awake to see his tears. He curled back up in his blankets. Kyldathar said nothing, but sent a wordless pulse of love through their bond. He was too frightened and sick to find his way down to the courtyard. And he was ashamed to admit it, even to himself, but he feared to walk the dark corridors in case he should be confronted by Kira's vengeful shade.

The sun was warming the horizon when he finally got his childish hysterics under control. He washed his face and walked down to the common room where the usual early risers were there.

Alberich gave him one of those sharp looks, "Dreams again, Cadet?" He said before Neave had even greeted them.

Neave nodded, hoping he wouldn't start crying here.

Dean Elcarth was there this morning, although Selenay was not. He glanced at Alberich, passed Neave some bread and asked softly, "Do you want to talk about it?"

He shook his head, suppressing the urge to snap. Why did all these people think talking would help? However, he didn't have it in him to be disrespectful to an adult Herald, let alone the Dean. After a second, he was able to say, "I don't really remember it." It was true, he realized as he began to eat. The whole thing was fading, although it had been terrifying just a moment ago.


 

 

Before he'd been at the Collegium a year, he would surprise himself if he saw himself in a looking glass. A young, serious looking man would gaze back. Months of good food had added inches of height. Months of arms practice had taught him to walk confidently. Like someone who was important. He would see this and shake his head, still baffled by Kyldathar's Choice.

 


 

 "Why don't you ever stay?" asked Christa as Neave was putting his breeches on. She lay in bed with the covers pulled up over her breasts. She reached out her hand to him.

He smiled, took her hand, kissed it. "You wouldn't want me to. I kick. Steal blankets. Snore. You wouldn't get any sleep."

"Who told you that?" she asked teasingly.

"Kyldathar did. She's told me any number of times." Much as he liked Christa, sleeping in the same bed with her was not something he thought he could do. After two years at the Collegium, his nightmares had decreased in number and intensity, but he didn't want to have one with someone else nearby. Truthfully, he doubted he'd be able to sleep at all with someone else.

He sat on the edge of the bed, pulling on socks and boots. Christa reached up and rubbed his back under his shirt, "Please, don't do that." he said quietly.

She stopped, "Does it hurt? I'm sorry."

"It doesn't hurt. It just feels damned uncomfortable. I don't have feeling in some spots and its...just uncomfortable." he finished.

"How did it happen?" she asked.

He looked back at her face, wondering how she would react to the whole story. They regularly partnered each other in bed and they were good friends. Neave valued their friendship. "I don't like to talk about it." He didn't want to have to look into her eyes and see either horror or pity.

Very deliberately, he leaned over and gave her a chaste kiss goodnight, "And anyway, we need to get some sleep. I've got that class with Ylsa, starting tomorrow. To be truthful, I'm more than a little nervous about it."


 

Ylsa was in one of her contemplative moods when Keren got back from teaching her last class. She was standing with a glass of wine and staring out the window.

"What are you thinking of?" asked Keren recognizing the look.

"I don't like the number of wild Gifts that are showing up here." said Ylsa thoughtfully, "Nor do I like the number of Companions who are leaving to Choose."

Keren nodded. The Companions liked to wait until the summer to Choose, unless their potential Chosen was somehow in danger. It was early Spring and already five had gone out. "What wild Gifts are there?"

"Well there's Neave. I think the last Herald we had who was anything like him was Jadus. And Jadus started out as a Bard. Neave's MindSpeaking will never be strong, but this projection is more Bardic in nature. I've actually arranged for him to take classes over at Bardic. When he exerts himself to convince people they are convinced. Then there's Talia. We've been going after the wrong Gift for months." she stopped for a moment, thinking.

"Wrong Gift?" prompted Keren.

"Sorry, woolgathering. She's an Empath primarily. I'm wondering if I should send her over to Healer's like I sent Neave over to Bardic. And Christa-she's a wicked strong Fetcher. Dirk and she have been spending hours on end at it. And there's Griffon's Firestarting." Ylsa turned from the window to look at Keren "I don't like it."

Keren nodded in agreement. Gifts tended to show themselves at the Collegium just before they were needed. Some people theorized that the Baron Valdemar had laid spells into the foundation of the land that caused that effect. Whatever caused it, Keren was beginning to share Ylsa's unease. "We haven't had this amount of odd Chosen since the Tedrel War." she said, worriedly.

Ylsa nodded. "I'll speak to the healers about Talia. They'll know best how to teach her. I'm afraid my style of shielding won't suit her for long."


 

"How long do you think you'll be gone?" asked Keren watching Ylsa pack, two days after they'd spoken of the odd gifted they'd been getting.

"Not long. Its just some messages Selenay needs delivered quickly and then I'm back." Ylsa replied, smiling at her lifebonded. She kissed Keren lovingly. "See you soon."


 

"Herald, I'm a dead man, already." the man looked bleak and fey as he said this, "The Lord will know I've stolen these letters by now. There's not any other it could be." he pressed five black ringed arrows into Ylsa's hand. "I've got a fast horse and I don't think they've followed me. But unless the Queen moves on this, they'll find me soon enough. Chances are they'll find me anyway."

Felara and Ylsa made the kind of speed only a Companion could make.


 

Neave awoke to the sound of the Death Bell. He'd heard it before, felt it before. This time was so much worse. It was as though a piece of his heart had been ripped out. He was out of bed and dressed in three breaths. A few other Trainees stood uneasily in the hallway. "Does anyone know who it is?" someone asked softly.

Neave was completely numb. He heard his own voice say "It's Ylsa." Then he stumbled down the hallway, not looking at anyone who passed him. He realized that he not only knew who it was, but a little of how.

He knew she lay dead on the Northern Road. He even knew how this time.

His only thought was to reach his Companion. He reached the courtyard where Kyldathar waited, as always. He walked with her into the Field. The other Companions looked as grief stricken as the Heralds. They all gathered in little groups apparently comforting each other.

Neave stood with Kyldathar, not knowing how long. The light turned grey and then gold. He put his head to her neck. After a very long time, in the silence, he heard soft steps in the grass.

"Neave?" It was Dean Elcarth, "I was worried. No one knew where you'd gone."

"Sorry." whispered Neave into Kyldathar's neck, he cleared his throat, "How's Keren?" he didn't look up.

"Teren's with her and Sherril. I think...I think she'll be all right." Elcarth replied. "But, what about you?"

"Me? I'm-I don't know."

Elcarth walked forward, put a hand on Neave's shoulder, "She was very fond of you, you know."

Neave nodded, still pressing his forehead to Kyldathar's neck. The Companion turned a worried glance at Elcarth. Elcarth didn't like the way Neave was retreating into himself. He cast his mind about for a way to bring the grief to the surface where it could be eased rather than buried. Neave had lost far too much already. He feared the boy would retreat so far into himself that even his Companion wouldn't be able to draw him out.

"It seems that those who ordered her death have been found." said Elcarth quietly, "They're to be executed."

Neave finally turned around, his eyes were tearless and red. Elcarth had never seen the quiet boy angry before, "Good." he hissed. "I hope they choose a slow method."

Elcarth nodded, "I hope so too." he said in a hard voice, eliciting a look of surprise from Neave, "Bastards."

The numbness of shock was beginning to wear off, and Neave realized that he'd been standing out in the Field for candlemarks. He was cold.

:Go inside, Chosen: said Kyldathar gently. :Get warm. Eat something.:

"Will you come in?" said the Dean gently, echoing Kyldalthar. He hadn't taken his hand from Neave's shoulder, "It helps to be with others who knew her well."

Neave nodded, let himself be drawn by Elcarth's arm around his shoulder.

Chapter Text

The weather had turned chill as Neave made his way from the Bardic Collegium. It wasn't late, but the nights were drawing in. By the smell of the air, they might have snow by the morning.

He reached out to Kyldathar to see that she was comfortable.

::I'm fine, love.:: She replied sleepily.

He took the short cut through the atrium of the Great Hall. Dinner at Court was served somewhat later than at any of the Collegia and there were still quite a few young courtiers hanging around. Neave nodded and smiled politely to those who greeted him.

He turned to the hallway that led to the Herald's wing and to the Trainee's dormitory. It was not much used this time of day and only every other candle was lit. As Neave passed one of the cross corridors that led to one of the store rooms he heard a male voice speaking softly. He didn't think much of it-many young lovers sought out the privacy of these niches for their trysts.

The female voice that replied was shrill. That brought him up short-something about her voice gave him a bad feeling. He retraced his steps and turned down the corridor. The door at the end was shut.

He leaned his ear close to the door. The man's words were indistinct, but the tone was wheedling, cajoling. The woman's voice, however, was rising in volume and pitch, "Milord, please. I don't want to do this. Just leave me be. Please." She sounded on the verge of tears.

That was enough for Neave. If he was wrong, he could always claim he was looking for something in the storeroom. He opened the door slowly. The man faced away from him and had the woman pinned against the wall. By her clothes, she was one of the servants and she looked to be about twelve or thirteen. The man held her skirts. She had one hand on his wrist, one hand on his chest and appeared to be pushing him away.

"Is everything all right?" he asked mildly.

The man turned halfway around, not letting go of the girl, "Everything's fine" he said haughtily, "Now, go."

He was about the same age as Neave and quite drunk, judging by the slurring of his words and the odor of wine Neave could smell from five feet away.

"I was asking the lady." Neave used the same mild voice. He took two deep calming breaths as he had been taught. The girl was looking at him with a pleading expression and he could see her tremble. "I distinctly heard her ask to be left alone." He let go of the door, giving it a little push as he did so that it swung completely open.

The other man let go of the girl, turned to face Neave completely, "This is none of your affair." he snarled.

Over the man's shoulder, he saw the girl pulling her disheveled clothes together, her face was colorless in the candle light, "Please," she said, her voice was frightened, "His Lordship's had too much wine. And..."

The young courtier turned and backhanded the girl, "Quiet, whore." he said.

"That's enough." Although Neave's voice was cold, a white hot anger blazed through him. He moved two steps closer before the drunken man had time to turn back around. He seemed to take ages to register that Neave was so close. Plenty of time to grab the offending hand and twist it up around the man's back. He used his left leg to sweep the man's feet out from under him, and slammed him to the ground, landing on top with his knee in his back. Neave bent the arm until he could feel the sinews stretch. The lordling cried out in pain. Neave didn't ease up as he would have in sparring. He wanted the man to hurt. He kept twisting just to hear the man's cry turn to a full-on shriek.

The girl was sobbing in the background. Neave was going to make sure this man was not able to prey upon anyone again. One less highborn swine to terrorize the helpless. Half remembered mocking voices were goading him on.

Time to earn your keep, Whoreson. All you're good for. All you'll ever be good for. If you're lucky, you'll die young. Pray your gods give you a swift death. This one's done, Milord"

::Chosen! Enough!:: Kyldathar's clear voice cut through the red haze and the voices before he could deal out real harm. Breathing hard, Neave let go of the other man's arm and stood up. He grabbed the bastard's collar, hauled him up and set him on his feet.

"I suggest you go find another way to spend your evening." He snarled in that same cold voice, holding the man so that their faces were about two inches apart

"My father will find out who you are! He'll have you up on charges when he does!" The lordling babbled, holding his shoulder.

"I'll save him the trouble. I'm Herald Trainee Neave. I'm sure Dean Elcarth and Herald Kyril will be at his disposal to discuss this incident."

When Neave let the man go, he staggered backwards a few steps, then turned and fled. Possibly to go find his father. Neave turned to the girl; she was leaning against the wall where she'd stumbled when she'd been hit, "Are you all right?"

She shook her head, still sobbing. "He...he..." was all she was able to manage before the words were lost.

"Come on, miss. I think Housekeeper will still be up." A bruise began to bloom on her cheek. He hoped what he'd interrupted hadn't gone too far.

The girl's eyes widened. "Oh please, milord Herald..." She managed to gulp out, "Don't tell Housekeeper. I didn't...didn't mean to...please, I can't..."

"Shhh." At a loss, Neave put his arm around her. "You're not in any trouble. I'll tell Housekeeper what happened." Neave thought quickly. The young "gentleman" might have half the Court here in a minute. He was sure the poor girl could do without that.

He took her through the doors to the Herald's wing. Fortunately, most of the Courtiers were too intimidated to wander the Herald's wing with impunity. Neave wished a Herald would appear, but none did. The poor girl was still hysterical, but seemed to be making an effort not to make too much noise. She had the back of her hand pressed to her mouth and her other hand clung to his jacket as if for her very life. Neave wished he had a handkerchief. The girl's crying was making his stomach hurt.

They finally reached Housekeepers door. At his second knock, Gaytha opened the door.  She was dressed in a night gown with a robe hastily thrown over the top, her long gray hair unbound and a hairbrush in her hand. "Neave? What...?" She stared at the weeping, bruised and disheveled girl who was clinging to Neave.

"I'm sorry, Housekeeper. I'm afraid the young lady's in a bad way. I'm not sure what to do. She's hurt...I don't know if she needs a healer...Could you...see to her?"

"Of course, dear." Housekeeper said, "But, what happened?"

"I'm not sure. There was- a problem- with one of the younger Courtiers...I came in at the end. He hit her, but I don't know what else happened. I'm sure she could tell you." The servant girl let go of Neave, pressed her hands over her face and rocked back and forth, no longer sobbing, but making high pitched keening sounds.

Gaytha put her arms around the girl, drawing her in through the door. "Come along with me." Her voice was gentle. "We'll sort you out."

Neave thought that the girl might be more likely to explain to Housekeeper what happened if she didn't have an audience, "I have to go see the Dean." It would probably be better if he informed the Dean about this before all hell broke loose in the form of enraged courtiers.

He took a moment to reach out to Kyldathar who sent back her strength, as always.

When the elderly Herald opened the door, Neave was relieved to see that he was still dressed for the day. "I'm sorry to disturb you," Neave said in a rush, "I think I may be in some trouble."

"Oh? What sort of trouble?" Elcarth's eyebrows arched high with surprise. "You'd better come in and explain."

He turned and Neave followed. He moved a stack of papers off the couch where he'd been reading them back to the desk, indicated Neave should sit down and pulled one of the other chairs closer.

Neave explained the whole incident to the Dean, "He said he was going to have his father bring me up on charges." He finished.

The Dean looked very grave, "Where is the young woman?"

"I left her with Housekeeper."

"Why didn't you bring her with you?" Elcarth asked curiously.

"She seemed so upset...I thought that she needed to be somewhere safe. I wasn't sure if maybe she needed a healer. He hit her pretty hard. And I really don't know what happened before I came in. I thought that Housekeeper would be in." Neave shook his head, "I didn't want to scare her more than she already was."

Elcarth got that "listening" look he had when another Herald was Mindspeaking to him,

"Well, it seems the young man's father has found Herald Kyril already. I've told him you're here. They'll be here in a moment."

Neave took a long breath.

Elcarth stood and brushed off his tunic, poured himself a glass of wine from the sideboard, "He hit the girl before you took him down? Are you absolutely sure?"

"Yes, sir."

Elcarth nodded to himself. Someone rapped on the door. "Come" called Elcarth.

Neave stood as Herald Kyril and a Lord he didn't know swept into the room. Apparently the son was not to be part of this interview. He planted his feet solidly and clasped his hands behind his back.

"Is this the boy, Kyril?" The Lord glared daggers at Neave but did not address him.

"This is Herald-trainee Neave." Elcarth told the Lord calmly."Can you explain what the trouble is?"

"This menace attacked my son because the girl he'd arranged to meet spurned him. Damned near broke his arm. I want to bring charges."

Kyril looked at Elcarth and Neave was fairly certain that Elcarth was filling him in.

"Well, boy? What do you have to say for yourself?" Roared the Lord, addressing Neave at last..

"I found him forcing his affections on one of the servant girls. I asked her if she was all right. She said that he'd had to much wine. He struck her."

"Ha! So you say. Where is the girl, then?" The Lord sneered, waving his hand and looked around as if to illustrate that Neave had no corroborating witnesses..

"She was hurt and upset. I took her somewhere safe." Neave hadn't moved so much as a hair. He was so tense he wasn't sure he could. He wasn't going to give the Lord the opportunity to go charging off to frighten the girl to death.

"Now, even if what your son said is true," Kyril's grave voice cut in. "It seems just a scrap between the lads, not something you want to press charges on."

"And I'm telling you, this boy damned near broke my son's arm!"

"I beg your pardon my lord," Neave said, respectfully, "I've been training with Alberich for over two years now. If I had meant to break his arm, it would be broken." He wasn't going to inform them of how close he came, if possible. Neave thought that the corner of Elcarth's mouth had quirked up for a second. "If I am to be charged, my lord, I request to be Truth Spelled."

That brought the Lord and Kyril up short. Only Elcarth looked unsurprised.

The Lord hesitated, glancing at Neave for a moment, but then carried on with his bluster. "Aye, go on then, Kyril"

Kyril exchanged another glance with Elcarth, turned his attention to Neave, invoking the Spell, "Neave, would tell us exactly what happened with this young man tonight?"

The story Neave told was almost word for word what he'd told Elcarth.

The Lord was looking most uncomfortable, "What were you doing there in the first place?" he demanded, looking for a way to blame Neave for something.

"I was coming back from Bardic where I'd been visiting a friend." Neave replied.

"Ha! Bardic! You were drinking, then?" Before Neave could answer, there was another knock at the door.

Kyril dispelled the Truth Spell as Elcarth called "Come in"

Housekeeper Gaytha stood there looking angry enough to spit nails, "Good, Kyril, you're here. Neave said he was going to speak with the Dean. You need to speak to Selenay about the liberties some of those young courtiers are taking with the servant girls. I've just come back from putting that poor child to bed. She is beside herself. I want that young bastard gone from the Palace or I swear I will bring charges on her behalf."

The Lord opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again.

Gaytha seemed to take in that he was there. She curtsied, stiffly. "My Lord." Her formal tone dripped with venom. "Your son has been named in this affair. I think the lad was lucky that the Herald Trainee interrupted them. Clearly drinking had addled your heir's reason." She stressed the words "your heir" slightly. Convictions and sometimes merely charges of serious crimes could cause an heir to be considered unfit to inherit.  "The girl he was interfering with is fourteen." She let that sink in. "I suspect her father will demand satisfaction for her, as it is."

The Kyril and Elcarth winced. That meant the girl was hurt enough that her family could demand reparations.

Kyril turned to the Lord, whose face had gone a deep shade of red. "It appears sir, that we need not trouble the Dean any further. Perhaps we should move this discussion to my office?" He turned to Housekeeper, "Will you come with us?"

The three of them swept out.

Neave sagged where he stood, his knees were shaking now that he was no longer under Kyril and the Lord's eye, "I'll leave you to your rest, Dean." He took a step towards the door, before he felt his shoulder gripped by the senior Herald's firm hand. He flinched as though expecting a swat to the head, then he cursed himself for being a jumpy little fool.

Elcarth didn't let go or seem put off by it. He squeezed his shoulder reassuringly and shook his head with a half smile, "No, you don't. Sit."

He sat.

Elcarth poured a second glass of wine and handed it to him. He took it with a shaking hand, leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes.

"You all right?"

Smiling weakly, he opened his eyes and nodded, "I think I'll live. I'm sorry I had to disturb you."

"Occupational hazard, I'm afraid." Elcarth seated himself comfortably, "You may have made an enemy, you know."

Neave sighed, "I can't say I particularly care. And I don't think I had a choice."

"No, there really was no choice." Elcarth agreed, "I'm just glad that you didn't actually injure the young 'gentleman'"

"I nearly did. I-I wanted to. Kyldathar stopped me." The horrible pleasure of hearing another man's cries of pain wasn't something Neave normally experienced. 

Elcarth smiled, "I don't think you would have listened to her if you really had been intent on doing him injury. I must say, you handled that well. Volunteering to be Truth Spelled right off saved us several tiresome hours."

"That's what I hoped." Neave found that even with the wine, he was still vibrating with tension, "I had planned on a quiet evening."


 "Neave! What have they done?" Mara was saying.

He couldn't breathe. When he tried, he tasted blood in the back of his throat.

He heard Mara arguing with Garek again, "If he dies, the law keepers would much rather blame you than Prince Ancar."

Voices in the background kept telling him he'd be better dead. The wind outside sounded like Kira howling in pain.

Just as he was ready to let go, cease his struggle and join Kira where he belonged, Mara came back. She placed her hands on his side and muttered something.

His body felt heavy, anchoring him to the world. The old door stayed safely shut, the vines almost hiding it completely. The blood taste subsided. He drew a careful breath.

"I wasn't sure I had that in me." said Mara wearily.

:Neave. Wake up: Called Kyldathar.

Neave was shaking and tears were running down his face. He hadn't had that particular dream in a very long time. It seemed that his encounter tonight had upset him more than he thought.

Cursing, he pulled his bed roll out from under his bed. Cold or not, he knew he wasn't likely to sleep at all if he stayed here.


 

Neave looked at himself in the glass with a certain level of astonishment. Somehow, he hadn't been sure he'd ever earn his Whites.

"Hey there, handsome." Christa stood in the open doorway in her own new Whites."You all packed?"

Neave turned to her with a smile. "I think so. You?"

She nodded. "Leaving first light tomorrow, Destria says." She came in, gave him a hug, "I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you, too." He returned the hug awkwardly. He'd like to ask Christa to stay a while, but perhaps she had other plans. She was very popular and could spend her last evening at the Palace with anyone she wanted. The invitation got stuck in his throat.

With an impish smile that showed off her dimpled cheeks, she shut the door behind her and threw the lock. "Well, since we're both packed, I guess we have time for a proper goodbye?"

He felt a giddy grin bloom on his face. "I guess we do."

Chapter Text

Heat and bright flame surrounded him. He could feel the soles of his boots burning and smell the leather. The sound from the flames almost drowned out the cries of the children. 

Almost.

They were there, hiding like frightened kittens. "I'm going to get you out."  They trusted his white coat. The Herald come to save them. He picked up the first child in his hands, just a tiny thing, no older than three or four. He reached. The child disappeared to reappear out in the yard. He was going to pay for this in backlash shock tomorrow, but for now the only thing that was important was getting the little ones out. More reaching with his mind. Pain building each time. Gods, he was going to die of the pain in his head. The last child. The floor and ceiling creaking, giving way, sheets of fire and burning debris, falling pinning him down, his Companion and Destria both screaming. His Companion trying to take his collar in her teeth. Roars as the fire engulfed the remaining fuel. Destria screaming. His own screaming. Oh, Gods...

A bell was tolling, a slow knell that hung in the air, sounding like the iron itself was keening its grief.

Neave sat bolt upright, sweat pouring off of him in cold rivulets. It took a moment to orient himself. That wasn't one of his dreams. Those were always cold.

His counselor, Coroc tossed restlessly on his own bunk, then sat up. In the dim light of the banked fire he could see Coroc shaking. "Did you hear it?" He whispered,

"Yes." Coroc's voice was thick with sleep, but he sounded very certain.

Somewhere far away, a Herald had died.

Neave took a long breath before asking Kyldathar, ::It was Christa, wasn't it?::

::Yes, Chosen.::

::Destria?::

::Lives. For now.::

"Neave?" Coroc said in a low voice, "She was in your year group, wasn't she?"

Numbly he nodded. "We were good friends." He heard a strange rattling sound. For a minute he couldn't understand what it was, then he realized he was shaking so hard he was shaking the wooden bedstead he had been sleeping on.

Coroc stood, poked up the fire and then peered at Neave. "You all right?"

Neave's breath hitched in his chest, "There was a fire. The building collapsed. She-she..." He couldn't go on.

"Here, lad. Have some of this" Coroc pulled a bottle of wine spirits from his pack. He didn't bother to find a cup, just handed the whole thing to Neave. "You're going to need some tea for the head your going to have in a minute."

"Huh?" He took a long swallow of the liquor, savoring the burn as it went down. He realized what had happened; his weak and unreliable Farsight had picked up what happened to Christa at the moment of her death.

He drank two cups of the tea Coroc made. Neither spoke. Neave was grateful Coroc didn't say anything about the silent tears that coursed down his face.


Spring was cold and rainy. It added to Neave's depression and the sense of unease that had dogged him since Christa's death. His internship had been relatively uneventful other than a series of raids near the southern border. The weather had started to turn though, when he and his counselor finally returned home to Haven.

The word was, when Neave and Coroc had met their replacement circuit Herald, the whole Palace was in upheaval. Apparently some foreign prince had made overtures towards a state marriage with Elspeth, the Heir. Since when she had started her training as a Herald when he had been in his last year, Neave had spoken with Elspeth very seldom. He had never had much interest in the Court politics, so he hadn't really paid a lot of attention to that news.

He had been much more interested in the account of what had happened to Christa. The Herald had filled in the missing pieces to what Neave had sensed the night it happened. The fire was set by raiders. She had been trying to rescue a group of children trapped in the blaze. The children had been saved, but Christa had been caught in the building's collapse, as had her Companion and Christa's counselor, Destria. Destria was recovering at the Healer's Collegium, but she was terribly injured. Neave promised himself he'd go and see her as soon as the Healers would allow her visitors.

The afternoon they checked in was fine and sunny for once. But Neave still felt he had his own personal black cloud. He wondered if it was missing Christa or missing the road. One of the things that he had discovered on his internship was how very happy he was on the road. His counselor, Coroc had commented, more than once, that Neave should put in to be a courier. Kyldathar was fast and they were never more content than when they were in motion.

He had an appointment to meet with Elcarth and Kyril the next morning, but he didn't expect any surprises. Coroc had been straightforward in his evaluations and Neave was given to understand that he had passed his internship by a fair margin. For now though, Neave and Kyldathar were assigned to the Collegium. Partly so they could rest and recover from their twelve month circuit and partly so that Elcarth and Kyril could review where best to assign him next. Earlier in the spring, Elcarth had written to ask him if he would be willing to help teach language classes while he was at Haven. It was fairly traditional that each Herald take a turn at teaching to find out which of them were talented at it.

Neave's first night back was spent in the company of his recently-returned year mate Davan, Skif and some very good wine.

They were had finished their third bottle and were opening the fourth when their talk turned from stories of Neave and Davan's internships to catch up with what was happening around the Collegium. Skif's Companion had recently dropped a foal, so he had been Haven bound for some time. Because of this, Skif was an excellent source for recent gossip.

This spring had been hard on everyone's tempers, it seemed. The raiders who had killed Christa were not the only source of trouble on the borders. Council and Court were more than ordinarily quarrelsome, and even the Heraldic Circle was suffering from the tension. Most unusually, Kris and Dirk had had a rather public argument involving Talia somehow. Skif's telling was a little muddled with the wine.

Neave hadn't spoken to either Dirk or Kris since he'd been Chosen. He had nodded to one or the other of them in passing, but he never had classes with them so he didn't tend to see them.

"You know, Christa worshiped Dirk," Neave surprised himself by revealing,

"I didn't know that." Davan said, peering at Neave with wine-sodden eyes.

"Mm, yes." Neave took another long drink, "Kept after him to teach her how to Fetch bigger things. Living things, even. She was always disappointed that he only ever saw her as a student." He smiled lopsidedly, remembering some conversations he and Christa had had, "I think she was hoping to change that when she got back."

"Dirk is more than usually dense about women." Skif put his goblet down with a thump and spoke as though he was delivering a judgement for the courts. "He's been acting like a complete fool since..." He stopped and blushed as if he realized he was saying too much.

Davan shook his head, not noticing Skif's unfinished thought, "Damn shame about Christa." he said mournfully. He put his head down and started to snore.

Skif and Neave looked at him, surprised. "I think we better leave him where he is, for a bit." said Skif, after shaking Davan to no effect. He looked back at Neave, "He's right though, it is a damned shame." His eyes were wet and bright in the firelight.

Neave sighed, "Yes." He brushed his wet cheek. They both silently drank to Christa's memory.

"So," Neave said after a few minutes, trying to shake off his sorrow, "What's the latest on the argument then?"

"I'm pretty sure they made up last night. Dirk went and caught himself some fever and just about passed out in the common room. Kris was right there taking him to the Healers. Wouldn't leave until he was sure Dirk would be all right. And I think Kris and Talia must have made up too, because Selenay sent them to Hardorn together this morning, to check out this Prince Ancar."

"Sorry?  What do you mean?" Neave had never expected to hear that name again-at least not in a way that pertained to him, the Heralds, or Valdemar. He'd known for years that Prince Ancar was the Heir Apparent to the Hardornen throne, but he thought of himself as Valdemaran and didn't give a thought to it anymore.

"Thought you would have heard," Skif shrugged. "This is the Prince whose suit the Council has been so keen to consider for Elspeth."

"I'd heard something about it, but I didn't follow it." Neave felt himself grow sober.

"Well, the Council feels it would be a valuable alliance and Hardorn's been having more trouble with Karse than they used to. Selenay doesn't want Elspeth forced into a state marriage, but it would make a lot of sense. Poor Elspeth is in a bit of turmoil about it. Seems that she and Talia argued last night, too. She was in a flood of tears when I saw her earlier-Elspeth I mean. She wouldn't tell me what they'd argued about. I told her that it'd be fine when Talia gets back. They're both just under a lot of pressure. I wouldn't have either Talia's or Elspeth's places for anything."

Skif tried to pour more wine, but the bottle was empty. He put it down with a mournful expression, before he continued. "In a week's time, Selenay is going to make a state visit to Alessander. Just about every Herald in residence is going. We're even taking Cymry's foal, which is wonderful. I am damned tired of cooling my heels here. I expect Elcarth and Kyril will give you the option of going or not, since you just got back."

Neave nodded absently. He was cold inside. He thought of telling Skif some of the things he knew about this Ancar, but wondered if the tale would sound too strange, too much of a fever dream. He remembered the rumors that had flown around the town when he was a boy, but they had been too outlandish to be credited until His Lordship had come with his retinue.

Surely, that sort of thing wasn't still going on, was it? Certainly, if Talia had gone, they were sure to learn if Ancar was as Neave remembered him.

It wasn't too long afterwards when Skif and Neave dragged Davan back to his room. Skif was weaving a bit as he headed down the corridor. Neave sought his own bed.

For once he was too tired to dream.

In the morning, he presented himself at Elcarth's office to meet with him and Kyril. He was a little hung over, but if they noticed they didn't say anything. They had been pleased with Coroc's report. Neave gave them his own.

"Well," said Elcarth, "It seems that you just came back in time to accompany the Queen to Hardorn, if you're willing. We won't require it, since you're so recently in from the field."

"I'd like to go." said Neave, he'd been considering this all morning.

Elcarth smiled and Kyril nodded, "See Housekeeper about putting a rush on some new uniforms." said Elcarth.

Neave took his leave of them. He considered perhaps approaching Elcarth with some of what he knew, but again, how much of what he remembered was true? Some of it seemed so strange-chances were that half of it was the product of a fever dream anyway. And a highborn taking out some of his ill feeling on a lowborn brat wasn't unknown, even in Valdemar. The biggest difference here was the Heralds and the fact that Selenay would hear about such crimes through them.

Besides, wasn't that why Selenay was making this visit? To avoid having Elspeth take a husband sight unseen?

At least this is what Neave told himself, but the scars on his back itched and prickled.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The day before Selenay and her escorts left, Neave heard that Dirk had demanded that the Healers allow him to go as well. Dirk still looked pretty bad, but Skif promised the Healers he'd keep an eye on him. Neave didn't envy Skif that task. The Healers worried that Dirk might have a relapse if he overexerted himself or got caught in any bad weather. Skif had received stern instructions from them to keep Dirk out of trouble.

As it happened, they needn't have worried quite so much, the journey to the border was an easy one. The weather was finally cooperating, remaining sunny and warm. They were held to the pace of the baggage animals, so the Companions were treating it as something of a holiday. The only ones who seemed to have anything to complain about were the Courtiers who had decided to make the journey. Most of the Courtiers who had come were part of the households of Council members who were accompanying Selenay. Neave was entertained by the sheer amount of stuff they seemed to think necessary to pack and their dismay at the slightest inconveniences.

Neave couldn't shake his uneasiness. It only grew as he got closer to the border. By the time they called a halt at the border itself, he was downright anxious. He didn't remember any dreams, but every morning he woke up feeling like he did when he was in Raider territory.

As he was rubbing down Kydathar, he wondered if it was merely that he was returning to Hardorn. He had never considered going back for any reason.

Unbidden, he thought of Mara. Spring always made him think of Mara. He wondered again who she really was. Since he'd been out on circuit, he had the chance to hear a lot of different accents, which added to his curiosity. He'd been able to place Mara's (and the accent in which he spoke Valdemaran) as coming from Haven, probably from a well off family. She had always acted like someone used to giving orders, too. It was odd.

She said she'd run away from a bad husband. She told him, rather bitterly, that the only difference between her and a high born lady was the number of her customers. Possibly she was speaking more literally than he had credited at the time. Perhaps one day, he would look through the records and see if any high born wives were recorded to have gone missing suddenly.

This was part of his unease. This business of alliance marriages seemed little different than the way a poor man might sell his daughter to pay a debt. Save for Selenay's insistence on meeting the Prince herself, the Council would have married off Elspeth will-she-nil-she. A cold chill went down his back, like someone walking over his grave. An unwanted image of Elspeth, her toes dangling over empty space in her gray boots, and her face.... He pressed his face into Kyldathar's shoulder.

::Chosen?:: She turned to nudge him.

Neave took a long breath to calm his racing heart, ::Just...bad memories, and wild imaginings, I think.:: His palms were sweating now, he wiped them on the towel he was using on Kyldathar.

::I'm not so sure.:: Kyldathar said slowly, ::I feel like something's...happened.::

Neave looked around, others were continuing to pitch tents and care for Companions. No one seemed to share their anxiety,: :Love, I think its just me,:: he told her, ::we knew it might be hard to come back here. ::

Kydathar touched her nose to his cheek, ::Can I do anything?::

Neave's eyes prickled with tears, ::Just be with me.:: He blinked a few times to clear his eyes, gave her a tremulous smile, ::It's just something I need to get through.:: He went back to grooming her, finding comfort in the prosaic task.

Much of the way from Haven, Neave rode with Alberich and the Herald Chronicler, Myste. Alberich seemed to welcome his company as a friend now that Neave was no longer his student, possibly because they habitually spoke in Karsite. Neave didn't know Myste well, although she did help tutor some of the advanced language classes and she was often down in the Common Room of an early morning. She was fascinating to talk to.

After camp was pitched, he collected some dinner from the cook tent and wandered over to the tent Alberich shared with Myste. She was there alone, making the best of the fading afternoon sunlight to write. She looked up, smiled and indicated that he should sit, then went back to her writing. The camp sounds were slowing in tempo as people gathered around fires to talk and eat. He ate in silence, knowing that she wasn't being rude, it was just that she needed to finish before it got so dark she couldn't see. There was lamplight aplenty at the Palace, but out here she needed more than a few candles could provide. He liked Her company because she didn't see the need to fill every silence with chatter.

Neave heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Alberich coming over with Myste's dinner and his own. Alberich set the tray down by the fire, smiled at Neave who returned it.

They talked about inconsequentials while they ate. Was it Neave's imagination or did Alberich look worried about something? Myste finally gave up and put her writing things away, coming to sit comfortably next to Alberich. He liked to see the two of them together--the bespectacled scholar next to the scarred armsmaster. He would have to draw them one day.

The next day passed without the expected contact from either Kris or Talia. One of them was supposed to rendezvous with Selenay's honor guard, here. When the third day arrived with no word, the order came down to move the camp to a more defensible place.

When he had finished his own packing, Neave volunteered to help Myste strike her tent and pack up. Alberich was conferring with the Queen and Kyril.

"Neave?" Myste was carefully wrapping up her pens and ink. She put them in her travel desk. "Did you ever hear anything about this Prince Ancar when you were living in Hardorn?"

He took a long moment closing up the bag he had filled with bedding, unsure how to answer. "Rumors." He swallowed, then went on, "And...and maybe more." The last was a whisper, his chest was so tight.

She didn't ask him anything else while they packed. It was only later, when they had pitched their camp and a much subdued supper was being served did Myste seek him out. He was sitting with his Companion, using a piece of charcoal from the fire to sketch a small flower. He found that drawing eased his nerves and was never without a sheaf of paper.

She sat down on the ground across the fire from him. After a moment she said, without preamble, "What rumors did you hear?"

He sighed, looked up from his drawing. The sun was a hand over the horizon and threw half of her face into shadow. He moved to a fresh spot on the paper and sketched the curve of Myste's jaw. She didn't repeat herself or seem at all impatient, "They were a little wild. Said he was dabbling in dark magic." Neave said finally, he looked at her again, trying to get the shape of her chin.

"People say the same of Heralds." Myste said.

Neave shook his head, "I never heard that much about Herald's magic...Well, except from the Karsites. Mostly Herald's magic was just a tale to scare children. And sometimes you'd hear the stories about the ghost horses. But Ancar's mages scared people in a different way...I was never sure why." It was easier to talk about this if he kept drawing.

"You said you might know more than rumors?"

Neave felt Kyldathar stiffen behind him. He scooted back more comfortably against her, adjusted the slate he was using to back the paper on his lap. The reflection of the light off Myste's spectacles was difficult to render with charcoal, "Not too long before Kyldathar came for me, a highborn came to the town. I heard people refer to him as Prince Ancar." Neave stopped, "I-I'm not sure what you may have heard about me..."

She shook her head "I know you come from Hardorn..." She didn't seem to understand why he was asking.

He looked back to his drawing, tracing the curl of hair that blew against her temple. "I was raised in a brothel. My mother died when I was young. I had to earn my keep." His voice didn't seem to be his, "Mostly it was serving in the taproom. The usual things you'd expect in an inn. Sometimes it was...other things."

Her face was perfectly still, Neave knew that people reckoned her plain, but he thought she was beautiful. Not like Mara had been (or Kira, before what had happened...happened), but she had a kindness about her that was more than mere prettiness.  One of his favorite things about drawing was the ability to find the beauty hidden in people's faces. He began to fill in the shadows of her hair, "The Prince was in town a few days. After the first night he seemed to get bored with the girls from Gareck's. They went after a few of the town girls. I'm not sure what they did to them. Mara told me to make myself scarce the first night they got there--she got herself beat up by one of them, but they used a knife on one of the Karsite girls." Neave looked up, trying to gauge her reaction. He wasn't sure how to go on, these were things he had never spoken aloud. He wasn't even sure how much of it had actually happened.

She leaned forward, looked at him intently. "I know this is difficult, but I've got a bad feeling that it may be important. A lot of the Foreseers are feeling that something is wrong, but no one can See what. We need every scrap of information." There was nothing of horror or disgust in her manner.

He nodded, bent back to his drawing. "They caught me one night. I'm not sure how--I don't remember parts of it really well. But...well...I just thought the one who had me was one of those who liked hurting people." He focused on drawing the lines of her throat. "I'd had that happen before...I'd learned to do something like a trance. Like I wasn't really there anymore."

She nodded understanding.

"That seemed to upset him...like he knew what I was doing. He...the rest of them were downstairs. They'd sent Garek and most of the rest away and they had a girl...oh..." Neave hadn't thought of that scene in so long. He suddenly put together that the girl had been Kira.

"Neave?" Myste prompted when he stopped.

Neave shook himself a little. He put aside his drawing and stood up. Kyldathar scrambled up to stand beside him. He couldn't meet Myste's eyes. "I'm not sure what they were up to. There was a man with them. He was the one everyone was calling a mage. Everyone except His Lordship was afraid of him. He said he could use us to raise power." His skin crawled with disgust, like he'd just turned over his pillow to find an evil, scuttling vermin underneath.

"Raise power? What does that mean?"

"I'm not sure. I think thats what he said. Maybe I heard wrong, I don't know." He shrugged, trying not to feel the panic. He could hear his racing heart in his ears. He wound one hand in Kyldathar's mane for support. "Then, they tied me up--I'm not sure what they were doing to the girl. She just kept...screaming." The words were gaining volume and momentum. Falling from his lips like a rock slide. "In some ways that was worse than when he'd been hurting me." he stopped to take a breath. He felt like he was sparring with Alberich rather than merely talking with Myste, "I couldn't get away from it. When...when she finally did stop, they started on me."

He pressed his face against Kyldathar's neck, taking strength from her warmth. He breathed her scent in deeply before turning his head so he could keep talking to Myste. "It was different from what I expected. They became rather creative."

"What..?"

Knowing he could never explain with words, he untucked his shirt from his breeches, pulling up the back so Myste could see the scars. He didn't look at her as he let his shirt fall again, "And then the really horrible part happened. Or maybe it was all in my head. I was half mad with the pain, I think." He was still talking fast. If he stopped, he'd never, ever have the guts to talk about this part, "The mage-he was singing or maybe chanting something and...and...it was like he was pulling my soul out." Another gulp of air. Kydathar pushed her shoulder against him. Supporting him as if she thought he was going to collapse. "I don't know how else to describe it. I thought I was dead and in Hell. I heard screaming again and I couldn't tell if it was mine or not. I think I passed out. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor. They were talking about needing to pay Garek off because they'd done me in. His Lordship and the other man were gone. So was the girl." Neave wiped his hands on his breeches, finally turned to face Myste.

She hadn't moved from her seat on the ground, nor changed her quiet expression. "So, what happened then?" She asked in that same calm tone she'd used throughout.

"One of them kicked me. I really thought I was dead then. I couldn't breathe and it was like I was smothering. I couldn't move either. After a while, Mara came in. Garek wanted to throw me out. She argued with him--told him she'd tell the law keepers he'd done it." Neave resumed his seat by the fire. The sun had almost set now, "She was gone for a little while, then she came back with some herbs from the midwife. She--this is the other really odd part--she was chanting something too. It was as if whatever they'd taken from me, she was putting back. Not all of it, but enough so that I stopped feeling like I was going to die. Then she did something to my ribs." He paused, trying to find words for what he'd never been able to articulate before, "She wasn't a healer, but she said something and my ribs healed. Afterwards, she said they were just cracked, but I know what I felt. Before she fixed it, I couldn't breathe at all and I my mouth was full of bloody foam. Then she slept in the kitchen with me for two days, Cook said. I was better though." He closed his eyes, "The girl they had, her father sold her to Garek a week later. I was better off than her. She killed herself a week after that. I found her in the stable."

"Thank you for telling me this." Myste said gravely.

Neave opened his eyes, and attempted to smile, "I'm not sure how much help my sad story is."

She returned the attempted smile gently, "It's more than I knew a candlemark ago. Some of the Foresights people are getting are very strange." she hesitated, "I know what you've told me is very personal, but if it should become necessary...can I tell others?"

He knew that Myste was not given to gossip. If she felt someone needed to know, then it was likely that they did. She reached forward and clasped his hand, then she stood. He did too. "I've volunteered for night watch," said Neave, "I should get my coat and see where they want me."

She nodded, "If you feel like you need talk later..."

He managed a real smile this time, "I know where I can find you."

::When did you volunteer for night watch?:: Kyldathar wanted to know as they made their way to the Lord Marshal's tent.

::As soon as we get there.:: replied Neave, ::Do you think I could sleep tonight?::

Chapter Text

Telling Myste about what he knew about Ancar seemed to open a box in Neave's head. He'd never been able to remember most of the incident before. He found himself sorting through a pile of images and feelings he'd only ever glimpsed in dreams. Other horrors from his childhood he had spoken of, to Kyldathar, to Ylsa, to Elcarth and once in a great while (usually fueled by one too many glasses of wine) to a friend like Skif or Christa. But this...never

They'd caught him asleep that night-he'd fallen asleep by the kitchen fire when he thought they were gone. He'd woken up to the man pawing him.

He remembered, clearly now, how Kira screamed in the tap room. Her empty eyes afterwards. When she came to Garek's, it was as if she were already dead. She never ate a scrap of food and seemed indifferent to cold or beatings. At the time, he couldn't bear to connect the screaming girl with Kira. It would have made what had happened too real.

As a Herald, he had seen the results of rape. Raiders commonly used it as a tactic to demoralize border settlements. And he'd had to judge a court case himself. As bad as that was though, there was something even worse in what he'd seen in Kira's eyes. Worse than merely broken, worse than madness.

The same thing had happened to him. Why was he different? Why was he alive?

He remembered Mara looking grey and exhausted by the kitchen, muttering and throwing herbs into the fire. It reminded him of the way Heralds invoked a Truth Spell-a little muttered rhyme and then something happened. Then it was as if something of her had flowed into him.

"Neave," she'd said, "you have to trust me. They drained you down to nothing...I can give you something, but you have to let me."

He remembered hearing her cry and curse at Garek, at the Prince, at the general injustice of the world. And he remembered her telling him stories. Herald stories. At the time they had seemed like simple tales to comfort a child.

Kyldathar was keeping very quiet. He hadn't quite blocked her out, but she understood he wanted a little privacy to think. He knew she knew about this from the way she watched his dreams, but he never spoke to her of it.

He was glad he'd volunteered for night watch duty, because he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep at night right now. At least this way, no one thought it strange that he didn't fall into his bedroll until dawn.

The fourth day and the fifth were of tense watchfulness. Neave woke after only a couple candlemarks of sleep both days. He noticed that the Companions had, ominously, taken up their own watch of the perimeter. Voices were subdued and conversation was difficult. People tried to occupy themselves, but by the sixth day, most had given up even a pretense of it.

Neave awoke on the sixth day before the noon meal, from a sleep taken up with Mara's voice. He and Kyldathar paced restlessly around the perimeter again, following the same circuit they'd followed in the night,

:Kyldathar?: Neave asked suddenly, :Why did you Choose me?: He'd asked her this before, but never gotten a satisfactory answer.

Kyldathar understood that he was not going to accept the answers she'd given in the past, ::I'm not sure how it happens,:: she said slowly, ::Like the birds know its time to move south for winter, I guess. We just suddenly know we have to go. And what direction. And..and if our Chosen is in danger, we know that too. Sometimes...rarely...Companions don't get there in time...usually they don't return.::

Neave waited. She still hadn't answered his question.

::It's magic that goes right back to the Founding, we think. We just know.:: She looked at him sideways. If she'd been human, she would have sighed, :I heard the Calling. I hauled tail for days. When we go out to Choose, we don't stop for anything. It's a hunger that blocks out everything else. I thought I was heading for the border, not clear across it. And then I had to slow down and hide-take back ways. I didn't want to have to deal with everyone who saw me putting me in their stable. It wouldn't have been fair to have to keep leaving holes in them. And then I found you. It was awful, not being able to take you away right then. The hardest thing I've ever done was leave you there once I'd found you.:: She shuddered.

::So, what then?::

::Felara answered my call:: she replied quietly, ::I knew I needed a senior Herald. I was a little beside myself, I'm afraid.:: He got the sense that she was a bit embarrassed, ::Felara and Ahrodie were very kind though. They stood with me at the border until Ylsa came back with you.: she nuzzled his cheek,: : Ylsa only let Tantris come with his Kris because Kris was playing the part of a noble. She decided to go in disguise because it was so close to Karse. I was afraid that the Karse woman would...:: She stopped as though she couldn't go on.

So, it was after His Lordship's man had gotten through with Neave that Kyldathar had taken it into her head to Choose.

::Why is it important, Chosen?:: Her mind voice sounded plaintive.

::I'm just trying to make sense of things. What they did to me wasn't a normal sort of evil. But, being Chosen isn't a normal sort of good, either.:: There was a piece of the puzzle just outside of Neave's reach, he felt. Something he couldn't quite articulate. Unbidden, that image of a weather beaten, vine covered door came to mind. He'd seen it before in dreams and it frightened him. He woud have asked Kyldathar what she thought of that but the next moment it was driven right out of his head.

::One of the lookouts just reported a Companion coming.:: Kyldathar stood rock still, her head up and alert.

The whole camp roused. Neave was not far from Selenay and Kyril. Alberich stood on Selenay's other side along with Myste and Keren. Dirk, Teren, Skif and Elspeth stood a few feet away. They all waited silently in the hot sun.

A Herald Neave didn't know ran up, whispered in Selenay's ear. Neave was behind her, so he couldn't see her face, but Kyril moved restlessly from foot to foot. Myste's hand reached out and clasped Alberich's, just for a moment. Neave thought he heard Keren gasp.

The Companion came into view. Alone.

Rolan. There was no mistaking him, even in the terrible state he was in. He looked like a ghost horse from Neave's childhood tales, gaunt and dusty. He staggered up to the Queen and dropped a bundle at her feet. He was exhausted and in pain. Keren gave a cry of dismay, threw her cloak over him, leading him to where she could tend him. Neave knew that if she could have carried him, she would have.

Selenay picked up the bundle. Two arrows fell out at her feet-one headless and one broken. The crowd of Heralds gasped. Neave felt as though he'd been plunged in cold water.

"NO!"

Neave looked in the direction of the cry. Skif and Teren grabbed Dirk before he could run for Ahrodie. "Damn you, let me go!" Dirk yelled at Skif. "I've got to go to her-got to help her!"

Ahrodie stood ready to bolt, caught in her Chosen's need. His emotions could overwhelm her good sense. ::Kyldathar!: called Neave ::Don't let her...:

::We know.:: Kyldathar and several other Companions moved in around Ahrodie, keeping her from helping her Chosen act on his mad impulse.

"Dirk, man, you don't even know if-if she's still alive!" Teren fought to hold onto Dirk.

"She's got to be. I'd know if she weren't. She's got to be!" Dirk was fighting them, furiously.

The rest of the crowd was silent as Kyril picked up the arrows. In a low tone, that nonetheless carried to every corner, he said, "The headless arrow is Herald Kris. The broken is Herald Talia."

"You see? I was right! Let me go!" Dirk cried in anguish.

Skif was weeping as he grabbed Dirks chin. "Think man! That was the broken arrow she sent. She was as good as dead when she sent it and dammit, she knew it. There's no hope of saving her, but she gave us the warning to save ouselves. Do you want to kill yourself too, and make us mourn three of you?"

"Oh, gods!" Dirk sagged to the ground, his shoulders shaking as he wept.

Selenay began to give orders. Neave returned his attention to her, feeling that he hated to intrude on Dirk's grief.

"Who's here with speed?" she was asking Kyril.

Kyril looked around, saw Neave, nodded. Looked around some more, mentally tallying those with speed, those with endurance. Kyril gave Neave a little beckoning jerk of the head as he and Selenay began to head to her tent.

Neave spared another glance for Dirk and Ahrodie. The other Companions had allowed Ahrodie to get close to her Chosen now. Skif and Teren stood with them. Knowing there was nothng he coud do for Dirk, Neave moved off towards Selenay's tent. He'd be needed to carry messages as soon as they had them.

Kyril and Selenay conferred with those Heralds who had experience in war. Every so often, a Herald was handed a set of orders with the royal seal. The gathered Heralds were perched on every available surface. After a while, Neave sat gingerly on the end of Selenay's bed. The Guard officers and the Guard Healer and members of the Council who had accompanied Selenay came in. They stood, leaning over the table looking at maps and discussing tactics.

Elspeth was there for a little while, but she didn't join the people standing around the maps. Instead she sat in the corner, weeping quietly. The next time Neave looked she was gone, but Skif had come in. For a moment he met Neave's gaze-Skif's eyes had turned murderous. Neave nodded slightly, in understanding.

Neave reached for Kyldathar, but she wasn't paying attention to him. He thought that perhaps the Companions were making their own preparations, decided to let her be until she was needed.

The candles in the tent had burnt down somewhat when the guard on watch outside the tent gave out an inarticulate cry. They all jumped and looked to the tentflap. Elspeth came in. She was white as a sheet and trembling with exhaustion. Dirk followed her with a bundle in his arms. Elspeth pushed Neave and the other Heralds on Selenay's bed out of the way.  Neave hastily stood to the side of the bed and had an excellent view of what Dirk had in his arms. A jolt of pure horror ran through him.

When the rest realized what it was that Dirk carried, the cry was repeated in the tent.

Very gently, Dirk lay Talia's bloodstained body down on Selenay's bed. Neave wasn't even sure that she still breathed, but she bled sluggishly from innumerable wounds. Dirk grabbed Healer Myrim's shoulder and pulled her to Talia's side. Then, he stood with the exaggerated care of a drunk man and passed out like a felled tree.

Six Heralds moved to pick up Dirk, but Neave was trapped between the bed and the wall of the tent, by the flurry of activity. He therefore, was witness to the wreck that was Talia. Her clothing was in tatters and she was bootless, her feet misshappen. There was a wound in her chest that looked like a hand print had been branded there and another deeply infected wound on the other shoulder. He could smell the infection from where he stood. Old blood stained the crotch and legs of her breeches in such a way that Neave understood at least some of what had happened immediately. Her hands looked as though someone had tried to strip the skin from them and there didn't seem an inch of her below the chin that wasn't mutilated in some way.

"Herald!?" Myrim's sharp voice cut through his shock. "Can you aid Healers?"

Neave started out of his morbid staring and focused on her, "Yes, ma'am."

She grasped his hand then and he dropped his shields, feeling his energy drawn into Myrim's clean, green core. Myrim's healing energy snatched at something, like a moth out of the air. He grew dizzy, but then Kyldathar was back, supporting him.

After a few moments, Myrim let go. Other healers had arrived. They made room for Neave to get out from the niche he'd been caught in. Selenay was looking around, "Where's Elspeth?" she asked.

"Here she is." called Skif. Elspeth had collapsed in the corner.

Kyril grabbed Neaves arm, "We need more Healers, I think," He urgently pushed a scroll into Neave's hand. "How fast can Kyldathar make Haven and back?" Neave marveled at Kyril's coolness under pressure. Neave himself was just too astonished by the fact that Talia was here to even think beyond the next hearbeat, let alone to tally how many Healers they might need.

Neave asked her, "She says six-maybe five days, If we don't stop."

Kyril nodded. "Good lad, there's the list of who I want. I've sent to Elcarth to put whoever's there onto this, but there's too many of us here. If Talia doesn't need them, there will be others."

Neave was in the saddle for over a candlemark before he realized that Kyril was expecting war.

Chapter Text

 

In five days time, Neave reached the border again, with a Healer and as many supplies as Kyldathar could carry. He had stayed at Haven long enough to sleep for a few candlemarks in the hallway of the Healer's Collegium while the Healer he was ferrying packed. Every Herald that could be spared was carrying a Healer or someone else who was needed at the border. Elcarth was orchestrating logistics from the Palace side as Kyril was from Selenay's encampment. The encampment bristled with Guard units coming in. The Healers and the Councilors had withdrawn to the local Lord's hold.

Within half a candlmark of reporting in, Neave collapsed into his bedroll with his head on Kyldathar's flank, within the wall of the keep. He and Kyldathar were ordered to get at least eight candlemarks sleep and report back after they'd eaten. Chances were, they'd be needed for something.

When he finally crawled out of his exhausted sleep, it was dawn. Kyldathar, stirred and stood. Others were scattered about the lawns-with the weather fine, it made no sense to do more than pull out a bedroll. Neave went to find Kyldathar her breakfast in the stable. With five days of almost continuous running, she was starving. She'd made the round trip faster than most, Neave thought proudly. She'd outpaced many of her peers.

::It helps that you're so thin.:: She replied to his thoughts, teasingly. ::And the Healer we were bringing was just a slip of a girl:: She didn't look up from her grain bucket.

Neave took himself to the cook tent to find his own breakfast. Even with the early hour, people were already moving about. Keren was there, eating on her feet. She beckoned him over, "You're back already? Kyldathar must have all but flown."

He smiled at the compliment, then sobered, "How's Talia?" he knew that Talia was as close to Keren as he'd been to Ylsa.

Keren frowned, shook her head. "She's still not awake...the Healers don't know why."

"I left right when Dirk brought her into Selenay's tent. There's some pretty mad stories going around. How did she get here?"

"The stories aren't mad, youngling." Keren sighed, "Dirk Fetched her. Damn near killed himself doing it. He was out, himself, for two days. He's still up with the Healers."

"Gods, thats amazing."

Keren nodded, "We keep hoping she'll wake up and tell us what happened, but..." Her voice trailed off. She brushed her cheek with the heel of her hand, "We're all waiting for the ax to fall now."

Neave presented himself to Kyril once he'd finished eating. Kyril ordered him to remain at the Keep for the next several days. The plan was, should the border become too dangerous for the Councilors and the Heir, a group of Heralds were to escape with them and head for the Forest of Sorrows. Since there were no Hardornen troops on their doorstep yet, Heralds who needed to rest from relay work were being assigned to this as they came i

There was plenty to do around the camp. He made himself busy helping the Healers for the next two days. Although Dirk and Talia were there only patients now, everyone expected more. The Keep's Lord had moved his own household up to Haven, leaving them the whole place to be used as they saw fit.

The Keep's infirmary was judged to be too small for any but the worst of the expected wounded. Their first task was to set up several wards, organizing the placement of the varying casualties that were expected, including a space in the stone Chapel where the dead could be kept for burying. Neave hoped that it would prove to be a much too large space for that purpose.

He had never spent much time with Healers when he wasn't helping with (or being) a patient. It was an instructive assignment. Off-duty Healers were very different from their public personas. At one point he sat in on a lecture on battlefield Healing, even the senior Healers referred to the possible casualties with irreverent labels.

"And whatever you do," One pretty young woman quipped. "Don't go past the first dead Herald."

There was a little silence, she'd apparently forgotten Neave was there. She blushed. Neave winked at her and grinned, wishing he was better at saying clever things. He understood that the grim jokes made it all easier to bear.

Kyldathar slept solidly for a day and a half. The tension grew in the keep, feeling like the oppression of a gathering storm.

In the afternoon of the third day, a very small page ran up to him. "Herald?" The boy was panting a little. "Healer Devan needs someone to find Herald Alberich, Herald Kyril and the Seneschal".

Neave's Mindspeaking wasn't strong but it was certainly strong enough to reach Kyril. His heart sank as he asked, "Where does he need them?"

"Herald Talia's room, Milord Herald"

Neave reached for Kyril and passed on the message. The icy foreboding that gripped his heart was echoed down from Kyril's mind. Kyril replied that he was with the Seneschal and he would inform Alberich.

::Is she dying, do you think?:: Neave asked his Companion.

::I don't know:: Kyldathar was pensive. She was gathered with a group of Companions. ::We know something changed...but I'm not sure what::

Two candlemarks later, Kyril Mindtouched Neave, rather shakily asking where the Healers wanted the dead to be taken until they could be disposed of.

::The Chapel:: he replied, :Do you need help?: He had no sense that the Death Bell was ringing, but they'd not had any when Kris had died. Something had happened to prevent them from knowing-perhaps that was why he hadn't Felt it ring for Talia?

:Yes.: replied Kyril, ::Alberich's going to go find Selenay.:: Confirming Neave's worst fears.

Neave raced down the corridor to Talia's room. Elspeth sat on a window seat, weeping hysterically on Healer Devan's shoulder. Kyril stood next to a body covered in a blanket, looking a little befuddled. As if he couldn't believe what had just happened. Neave didn't know what to say to anyone, instead he went to help Kyril move Talia's body.

Or at least, he had assumed it was Talia.

When he bent to take the head end of the body, he realized that this body was much too large to be Talia, "Wait...What?" he asked Kyril, startled, "I thought Talia..."

"No...no...Talia's awake." Kyril spoke out loud, then continued in Mindspeech, ::This is Lord Orthallen's body. He was a traitor. Elspeth...executed him.:: They both glanced at Elspeth who wept still. ::Selenay will make an announcement later.::


 

Late that night Alberich related to Myste all that the now-conscious Talia had told them. "Ancar grew tired of waiting to inherit the throne legitimately. He murdered his father and every noble with enough power to oppose him. He has his own army."

"Well, this is not much more than we guessed," Myste sighed, fiddled with her pen. "What else?" She knew Alberich well enough to know that mere strength of arms would not have him looking this worried.

"She speaks of mages. Old magic, like in tales. She said one of them blocked her Gift and they can do much more. One of them burned a brand on her skin with nothing but her bare hand." He shook his head. "If I did not see the mark myself..."

Myste sat very still. "Alberich...how much do you know about Neave? I mean has he ever spoken to you about what happened to him just before Kyldathar Chose him?"

Alberich had been pacing but turned to face her where she sat on her stool. "I know that he was injured by some highborn swine. Ylsa told me the lad had been in rough shape. Why? Do you think he knows something about these mages?"

"I think...I think he might." She had told Alberich about asking Neave for information of rumors, but she hadn't as yet, told him the results of the conversation.

Alberich turned to stride right out of the tent in search of Neave, but Myste grabbed his arm. "Wait a moment, Just let me tell you what I know first-it cost him a great deal to tell me what happened. I could see it. It may be that we can coax him to remember more, but not if you don't go carefully."

Alberich inclined his head and leaned up against the small table covered in maps to listen. As Herald-Chronicler, Myste's memory for conversation was extremely well developed and she repeated the conversation she'd had with Neave verbatim.

Alberich was quiet for long moments after she was done. He reached for Kantor, his Companion ::Would you have Kyldathar ask Neave to come and meet with Myste and I?:: Alberich hoped that since Neave had already confided in Myste once, that he would be willing to speak to her again. It helped that Neave had taken to him as a mentor.

While they waited Alberich resumed his pacing. He knew the tale Ylsa had brought back and he had seen Neave on the mornings after he was troubled by dreams. On those mornings, the boy always had the faraway stare of the soldier who had seen too much death.

Neave came quickly enough that Alberich knew they hadn't disturbed his sleep, "Kyldathar said you wanted me?" The candlelight washed out what little color he had. giving him a haunted air.

Myst had set some wine glasses on the table and was filling them. She handed a glass to Neave, "We wanted to ask you more about what you know of Ancar." There was no time to be tactful. And Alberich had always felt tact was overrated.

Neave nodded, closed his eyes momentarily, reaching for Kyldathar, Alberich assumed. When he opened his eyes, he sighed and took a long swallow from the glass Myste had handed him. "All right, if you think it's pertinent."

Alberich leaned again on the table, Myste sat of the cot and beckoned Neave over to sit next to her.

"You heard that Herald Talia has awoken?" Alberich, as he generally did, spoke with Neave in Karsite.  Neave nodded so Alberich continued, "She had tales of mages who shielded Ancar and kept us from knowing of Kris' death. We expect that Ancar will bring an army here within days. We need every bit of information you may have-anything that might help us understand these mages."

Neave looked at his wine glass rather than either of them, "I've been remembering more since the other night." His voice was low. Alberich moved to sit on a stool so he could be closer without looming over the lad. "I'm not sure, but I think...Do you remember how I told you that the one who first got hold of me seemed upset when I tranced out a little?"

"Yes." said Myste.

"I think my Gift was starting to wake up. I think the mage wanted people with latent Gifts." Neave's hand holding his wine glass started to shake, but his voice was steady, "He talked about 'raising power'. The more I think about it, the more it seems like he was doing something like what a Healer does when they borrow energy." Neave took another swallow of his wine, draining the glass. Myste took it and refilled it.

"Ylsa once told me that you were in shock when Kyldathar found you." Alberich said slowly, "But she thought your injuries..."

"They were pretty bad. The more they hurt me, the more the mage seemed able to pull out of me." In the last few days, Neave had begun to realize how much he'd blocked out, and how much what he'd assumed to be just dreams were real. "I think Ancar feared that what he was doing would get back to his father. The mage stopped whatever it was he was doing and Ancar told him to leave off before someone caused a scene."

"So, it seems these mages can draw power from pain." Myste said slowly, thinking through the implications. "I think I remember something of that from the Chronicles."

Neave nodded, looking at the floor, "And death." He looked up at Myste and Alberich for the first time, his eyes hollow. He finished the glass of wine in his hand again. Again, Myste refilled it. "One of them said that if I was that close to dying, they shouldn't...shouldn't waste it." He was whispering now, "But Ancar said he didn't want to be around when I died...said it was too early to tip his hand. That's when he left. I think that's when I got kicked."

"Whatever they did, the only reason I didn't die was Mara. She went to the midwife who told her what to do, she said. I'm beginning to think...I'm beginning to think she was using power like they did-only she was using it like we use Gifts. Does that sound mad?"

"Wait...why would the midwife know what to do?" asked Alberich puzzled.

Myste's eyes had suddenly gone large, "Do you mean 'midwife' or do you mean 'witch'?" In Karsite, like in Valdemaran, they were two separate words. In Hardornen, the words were the same.

"I don't know." Neave said puzzled, "Mara spent a lot of time with her. I assumed she wanted to apprentice to another profession before she was to old to whore. And Mara had more knowledge in her head than anyone I ever met who wasn't a Herald"

Alberich and Myste stared at each other in rising confusion,

"Could it be," said Myste quietly, "That old magic has been sitting on our doorstep for years and we never saw it because it's being practiced by old women?"

Alberich sighed and let that speculation go for the nonce, "I worry more about the mages we know about. Thank you, Neave. I will have to ask you to repeat this to Kyril."

Neave nodded, his shoulders sagging as he stood to follow Myste and Alberich out of the tent to see Kyril.

Chapter Text

Kyril did not want the story repeated just once, Kyril wanted to hear it a dozen times.

Neave might have resented it, but Kyril himself looked as though he hadn't slept since he'd heard about the mages from Talia. After a candlemark of questioning, Kyril said, "I think we've gotten all we can this way. " He hesitated, then said, "Neave, if the situation did not seem so very grave, I wouldn't even consider asking you this, but...I have some experience with triggering lost memories. Given what you've said...it may well be that you have some other pieces of information, that you've blocked out."

"What does that involve?" Neave already felt like he'd been forced through a sieve. Myste bit her lip and Alberich crossed his arms over his chest, wearing the expression he sometimes had when Heralds sparred with live steel in the salle.

"It is a Mindspeaking technique. I would clear blocks you may have with those memories. I will warn you though, the mind tends to store things like this away, rather...untidily. It may be somewhat overwhelming. Once I clear any blocks, you may find yourself reliving those memories, rather than merely remembering." Kyril's eyes never left Neave's, "Given that your Gift is a projective one of both Mindspeech and Empathy, I should get the full scene. That way you won't have to tell the story again."

Neave nodded. "There's a lot to this that I'm not sure was real-some of it seems more like a fever dream-will you be able to tell?"

Kyril looked a little thoughtful, "Hm. I think I should be able to. " he paused, "I know it's a great deal to ask. I could check if there was a Mindhealer available..."

Neave cut him off, "I'd rather keep this among Heralds, if you please, sir. And Talia's in no fit state. I'm sure I can cope with whatever happens. When do you want to get started?"

Kyril smiled faintly for a moment. "Thank you. If you feel up to it, we can do this now."

Neave did not feel up to it, but he was not likely to feel better about it later, "What do you need me to do?"

"I just need you to drop your shields. It may also be best if you sat down on the bed there. If you swoon, you won't have far to fall. Myste?" Kyril turned to her, "Can you keep a shield on us both?"

She nodded, moving her chair nearer the bed.

Neave sat down on the bed and Kyril pulled his chair opposite him. Kyldathar caressed Neave's thoughts, ::Be careful, love.:: she said. Her mind voice sounded as though this were against her better judgement.

He closed his eyes and dropped into a light trance. He had a touch of Sight and Kyril appeared to his inner eye as a solid blue silhouette. Kyril reached out as Neave opened his shields. There was an almost physical sensation, like a cracking knuckle and then...

The room was dark except for the firelight in the hearth. Neave stood with his arm in the iron grip of a man who stood a head taller than himself. He heard a girl crying. In the dim light, he could see six, maybe eight, men.

"Found another one, Milord. He's got something there...the signs you told us to look for." The man who gripped Neave's arm said to someone seated by the hearth

"So, you have your subjects," said the seated man lazily to the man standing next to him. "Show me the wonders you claim."

"Of course, Your Highness." The other men in the room shrank back from this one almost as much as Neave did. This was the man the Prince's people called a mage. He threw back his cloak and snapped his fingers.

Two others brought the weeping girl over and tied her roughly, face down, to the bench. A strange, small light, like a miniature sun suddenly flared and lit the room. The girl lifted her frightened face to look at Neave and then put it back down. She whimpered softly, the sound made Neave's stomach hurt.

The mage nodded sharply at one of the men. Neave shut his eyes tightly, knowing he didn't want to see what was to happen. The girl began to scream. He tried to pull away from the man holding him, but the man was too strong. Unwillingly, he opened his eyes.

It was a vision from a nightmare. The man knelt behind the bound girl. He had her skirt up and she was screaming in pain, but that wasn't what was freezing the screams in Neave's throat before they could emerge. The mage held his hands out in front of him. A weird red mist seemed to flow from the girl to the man's open palms.

The Prince sat in his chair with his wine cup in his hand, watching as though they were entertainers performing at his Court. In the bright witchlight, his expression was one of bored indulgence. "Yes, yes. Very amusing. What do you propose to do with the power you're collecting?" The Prince had to speak loudly to be heard over the girl's cries.

"In good time." Said the mage, "I dare not attempt what I intend without an ample power store. It could get loose."

The surrounding men looked at each other, some amused, some alarmed. One by one they took their turn with the girl. Neave wanted to vomit, but he'd not eaten that day, so there was nothing in his stomach to lose.

Time jumped. The girl had stopped screaming. Someone had cut the ropes that held her and dumped her limp body to the side. Neave hung by bound wrists from the hook near the hearth. Apparently the Prince had different plans for him than the girl. For a bare moment Neave was grateful-beatings were not so bad. And then they began.

He heard himself screaming. The pain was his whole world, blotting out everything else. Something seemed to be pulling at him, pulling his life out of him. Behind his closed eyes he could see the mage as a black and red blur, pulling that red mist out of him. He lost track of time, of everything but the pain. Mercifully, at some point he blacked out. Someone had dropped him onto the floor, where he lay dimly aware. "This one's done, Milord." A rough voice said.

"That's disappointing."

The mage's smooth tones interrupted. "Perhaps I could capture his death throes, Your Highness? It would be a shame to waste them."

"No, if we're still here when he dies, someone might make a tedious fuss back to My Father. It's too soon for that. I think you've demonstrated what I wanted to see."

Neave heard the door open and close, the unnatural light left the room. "I suppose we'd better pay his master off, to keep him quiet too. Take the girl back to her father."

A terrible blow impacted his ribcage. Bones cracked and all the air seemed to be forced out of his chest. He could do nothing but lie still, half conscious, trying to suck air into his lungs. The taste of blood filled his mouth.

From where he was on the ground, he could see a green painted door that was out of place in Garecks taproom. Its handle rattled.

More terrified than he had been even when the men had been heating daggers to use on him, he knew his own death lay behind that door and he couldn't move. He could only wait until Kira's shade returned for him. The mages had stolen his soul and he was only an undead shell. The relief of death would be...

::Chosen?::

The voice was in Neave's head. He knew the voice. He was mad as well as dying. The gods visited madness upon the witch born Cook said. He knew he had gone mad. His breath was coming in gasps and it hurt. Mara wasn't here to keep the door shut. When that door opened he would...

::CHOSEN!::

"Neave!" Another voice, but outside of his head. "Neave, come out of it." Someone shook him. He wished they wouldn't do that.

He opened his eyes to a woman's face. She wore glasses and an expression of concern. "Who..?" he croaked.

She held his eyes with hers, "Neave, its me, Myste. We're in Kyril's tent, remember?. We succeeded in triggering a memory-a little too well I think."

"Oh." he said and shut his eyes. His head was beginning to hurt abominably. Myste started shaking his shoulders again.

::Chosen?:: Kydathar's mind voice was frightened, ::Are you all right?::

::No. I'm going to be sick if Myste keeps shaking me:: She stopped abruptly. Her Companion must have passed on the message.

People were talking above his head. About what he didn't know or care. He was going to be sick even though Myste had stopped shaking him. Kyldathar must have warned somebody. He found himself tipped on his side so he could vomit into a basin off the side of the bed.

Someone must have summoned a Healer. A pair of small hands touched his head and the vomiting subsided. Other hands sat him up and put a hot drink to his lips. He recognized it as a very strong concoction of headache tea. He must have given himself backlash sickness. After he'd swallowed it, the small hands were on his head again, and he felt himself being led down into a calm sleep.


 "I hope that was worth it." Myste's voice was harsh, and she took off her spectacles to wipe her eyes. She seldom wept, but she was weeping now. She was unashamed of it since both Kyril and Alberich were white faced and shaking.

Because of the way Neave's Gift worked, they had all received the entire memory as one piece rather than normal mind speech. They saw what happened from his point of view and shared his emotions. The Bard Gift was enough like Empathy that, in the right circumstances, it could be a weapon. Fortunately Neave's Gift wasn't that strong, but it was strong enough.

The Healers had just taken Neave to sleep off his backlash headache. Kyril told them that Neave had been gathering intelligence, so they were treating him as they'd treat an overextended Farseer- of which there had been several in the past few days.

"I think it was." Kyril squared his shoulders, visibly trying to pull himself together. "I think I need to meet with Talia about this, if the Healers can hold her together for half a candlemark."

"Why?" Myste still didn't quite see the use of what they'd uncovered.

"We suspected, now we're sure, that these mages can pull energy from pain and despair. Neave doesn't have a lot of Sight, but he could See the energy drain. I imagine that's why he was selected by the mage. He had enough Gift active to make it easy to drain him. And untrained he'd not be able to even try to shield."

Myste nodded, "Poor lad."

"This Ancar has a great deal to answer for." Alberich said, following Kyril to go to speak with Talia.

Chapter Text

The Bardic Gift best manifested itself through song or in Neave's case, spoken word. Mindspeaking and projecting at the same time always gave Neave a headache. This little adventure gave him the queen of all headaches. He was glad it was night. Even the candles were too bright for his eyes.

::How do you feel?:: Kyldathar asked, softly. She must have felt him wake

::Bad. Gods, just thinking hurts.:: The worst hangover of his life had been nothing compared to this. Slowly he levered himself up. ::Please, my love. Don't say anything for a while, all right? You're too loud.::

::You should ask the Healers about that.:: She lowered her mind voice to a whisper.

He caught the hand of a healer as she walked by the cot he was sitting on. "Yes, Herald? Are you all right?" She was a sturdy middle aged woman with quiet voice.

"My head hurts when I talk to my Companion."

The healer nodded, "You overextended your Farsight. When you overextend a Gift like that, the backlash can cause the rest of your channels to be raw. Ask her to stay out of your head the rest of the night and you'll be right as rain tomorrow. You don't have any other strong gifts do you? If you do, they might be a tad sensitive too."

Abruptly, Kyldathar's presence slipped out of his thoughts. She'd been listening.

Neave shook his head, wondering why the healer thought he was one of the overextended Farseers. Myste and Kyril must have told them that. He wished that were the case. He felt a fraud-he'd been merely passing on a memory. The intelligence it held was coming far too late to be of any use. If he'd gone to Elcarth when he'd first heard about the marriage suit, he might have been able to prevent Kris' death and Talia's torture.

The healer looked through him. "Wait here." She stood up and strode out of the room, returning with a cup of hot tea. "Drink this and get some sleep."

He knew better than to argue with the healer. He swallowed the bitter cup with a grimace.

The headache potion usually gave him sleep untroubled by dreams. This night was different. He dreamt of the door he saw in his memory. An ordinary door that led into a hillside, like a root cellar. It terrified him. As in the vision, the door began to rattle. His heart pounded in his ears, his breath came in noisy rasps. The most horrible thing in the world lay behind that door...

"Herald?" A hand on his shoulder. He grabbed the wrist attached to the hand. A woman's hand. He relaxed his hold when the other hand touched his forehead gently. "Shhh. It's alright. You cried out. Are you in pain?"

He was shivering with cold and his ribs ached distantly. "No. Bad dream." He struggled upright. "Excuse me." On the end of his bed, his coat lay neatly folded. He made to grab it.

"Where do you think your going?" The healer tried to push him back down onto the bed, but he shrugged her off.

"I'm all right. I just..." He focused on the healer in front of him. If it had been one of the older healers, he might have given in to them, but this was a girl his own age or younger. In the dim light, he could just make out her dark hair and big eyes. He swayed dizzily. The room's stone walls seemed much closer than they should. He wanted her to take her hand away from him. She didn't realize...

With what strength was left to him, he invoked a little of his gift. "I'm fine, healer. I just need some air." He concentrated on making her believe his words. His headache redoubled, making his vision blur.

She smiled. "All right, then. Go take a walk. It will be breakfast soon, you should eat something."

"Yes." He took the blanket from the cot with him.

Kyldathar scrambled up from where she'd been sleeping near the door that entered into the infirmary. ::Neave?::

"Ow. Gods. Don't. Bad dream." He hoped she understood what he was saying. The headache was so bad now, he couldn't string two words together coherently and he didn't dare mindspeak to her.

She seemed to understand. Tenderly she nuzzled his cheek, knelt down on the ground like she used to when he was first Chosen and he practically fell onto her back. In a moment she had taken him to the stables that had been cleared of horses for the Companions and settled down into warm, clean straw. He tumbled off her back and fell into a deep sleep.

The next time he was aware of waking, the sun was low over the horizon. ::You should eat.:: Kyldathar spoke so softly that she almost didn't hurt him.

"Yes." Gingerly he turned his head. The headache seemed reduced to a dull roar. "I think I need to take a bath first." His skin crawled with grime; he wanted to scrub the skin from his body. A dark self loathing that he hadn't felt in years welled up in him, worse than his backlash. Neave was grateful he'd told Kyril that he'd prefer to keep it among Heralds. He couldn't have borne anyone else knowing he was too cowardly to examine those memories closely. 

Kyldathar nodded reluctantly. ::All right.::

Neave winced. "Sweetheart." He said gently. "Please. That hurts." Much less than earlier, but it still wasn't good.

Her eyes very contrite, she nodded.

"I'll probably come back out here to sleep. If no one's looking for me yet, they must not need me.

The Keep had bathing facilities enough that they could accommodate most of the Healers and Heralds at the Keep. Because it was warm, the Guard Units were making do with the river and this early in the evening, no one was there. He ran a bath that was perhaps hotter than was comfortable, but not hot enough to do him real injury.

He sat in the hot water, weeping as he'd not done since Ylsa died.

After the hysteria of his tears wore out, he stared at the white uniform that lay over the bench with its assortment of blades stacked neatly on top. He had to pull himself together, people were counting on him. He couldn't afford to give in to the black depths that were pulling at him. They sat on the edge of a battle, he didn't have the luxury of going mad.

He remembered what he used to do as a child when things were especially bad. He got up, pulled a towel around his waist and considered the dagger he always wore at his hip. It was sharp and clean. He was glad Kyldathar already staying out of his mind, as she would neither understand nor approve. He remembered briefly how Mara had reacted when she'd found out. At the time he'd defended it by pointing out that it was better than the poppy habit some of the girls had. He hadn't felt the urge to do this since he'd been Chosen.

He pulled it out of its sheath, careful not to drip water onto his Whites. Walked back over to the bathtub. Holding his forearm out over the tub, he considered how best to do this. The skin of his arm was bright red from the hot water. With deliberate movements, he drew a long shallow cut down the back of his arm, from just below the elbow to just above the wrist.

It bled freely, but the relief was instantaneous. The pain cleared his head, settled his stomach. He grabbed another towel, pressing the wound hard so he didn't drip blood onto the floor. He was able to cope again.

Before he dressed, he made sure the cut was clean and had stopped bleeding. If it got infected, he'd have to go see a Healer and that was not something he wanted to do. He didn't want anyone to catch him doing this, least of all Kyldathar. He hated keeping secrets from her, but he knew she wouldn't understand and would only become distressed. She never pried into his mind, so as long as she didn't see it, she wouldn't ask him about it.

Now he felt like he could face some food.


 

Neave sat in the woods with a unit of Hardornen defectors. All of the Hardornen Border Guard had come over to the Valdemaran side. Talia had been aided by a trader who had gotten her message arrows to Rolan. The trader had then fled the Hardornen capital carrying with him the tale of Ancar's murder of Alessandar, passing it on to other traders who carried it further. They Truth Spelled the defectors, so there was very little chance of planting a traitor in their midst.

It was two days since Neave had spoken with Kyril and Myste. At one point he thought he'd seen Myste giving him a hard look from a distance, but everyone had far more things to worry about than him. He had hardly spoken with anyone but Kyldathar. He could sense her concern, but he told her he was just having the same battle nerves as everyone else. At least he thought that must be it. His encounters with raiders had happened so fast he didn't have time to get antsy beforehand.

Valdemar's forces had arrayed themselves according to her warleader's plans during the night.

Neave's job was to pass on orders from Kyril that he received through Mindspeech. Hardornen being Neave's native language was a real asset here-there was no fear that in a panic he'd not be able to remember a phrase. Under stress, he still swore in Hardornen.

They could hear the sounds of battle from beyond the screen of the trees. Neave could follow the battle through Kyldathar's connection with the other Companions. She kept up a running commentary describing it. Tensely, Neave listened to her describing the mage born demons who cut through their forces.

Then, finally, it seemed that Griffon had reached the mage with his firestarting. They saw a column of smoke rise up over the trees. Half a candlemark later, they had the order they were waiting for. Barking tersely in Hardornen, Neave drew his sword and pointed forward so that any who were beyond the reach of his voice could see the signal. As one, the mass of soldiers burst from the woods.

At last, released from their duty to relay messages, Kydathar and Neave threw themselves into the battle. He sheathed his sword and drew his bow. Neave was good from horseback, as he'd discovered against the raiders. His thin frame was little burden to Kyldathar and he seldom missed a shot, no matter what manuevers Kyldathar had to take. The only way to get Neave from Kyldathar's back now would be to kill one of them.

When he ran out of arrows, he drew his sword. Men were turning their backs to him. Ancar's forces were turning tail. They fled with no discipline, in panic rather than retreat. The Valdemaran forces around him were standing and cheering or beginning to look to their wounded comrades.

For a moment, Neave sat stunned. He'd felt the same against the raiders-it felt oddly anticlimatic when they just turned and ran. As though it were a trick and they'd be at his throat again in a moment.

After a few minutes, he realized that the victory was real and no ruse. He quickly dismounted and began the to look to the wounded himself, for there were many. The ground was littered with the broken bodies. He called to the closest standing Guards to help him.

Neave took a several pieces of chalk, along with some chunks of charcoal from Kyldathar's saddlebag :Why don't you go up and find some food, love?: he told her, :I'll be up once we get the wounded sorted.: She touched his cheek with her nose.

They removed helmets, separating the quick from the dead. If they had a pulse and still breathed, they were marked with white chalk which showed up on the Guards blue uniforms nicely. If they were already gone, they were marked with black charcoal. This way the Healers who were already making their way onto the battlefield would know where to use their time.

Once they'd sorted those out, Neave went back and helped with field dressing wounds. It was upsetting to discover that some of those with white chalk marks had to be given black marks when he made his second pass.

The walking wounded were already making their own way up to the rear. Those who were not badly hurt could be treated within the encampement, the rest were sent on to the Keep.

It was many candlemarks later when Neave made his own way to the camp. He had stayed, first helping the Healers and then, when they ran out of wounded, helping recover the bodies of the slain. He couldn't see leaving them any longer than he had to. The sun westered and sank. The light became dim enough that it was hard to see, he wondered if he should call for a torch.

Kyldathar asked when he was planning on returning. :Soon, love.: was all he said.

Finally, one of the officers came over to him, "Herald?"

"Yes?" Neave didn't look up. He was helping heave another one of the bodies into the wagon.

"Pardon me Herald, the men say you've yet to take a break."

"I'm fine." Neave said shortly, wondering why the man couldn't see that they still had so much to do.

"No, Herald, you're not. You've been down here since the battle ended and you're dead on your feet."

Neave shrugged.

The officer took a deep breath, "Herald, if I have to have someone hit you on the head and drag you to the Healers, I will. We're calling it a night. None of the men here." he indicated the few bodies that were left waiting to be taken to the Chapel, "Will be any the worse off in the morning."

Neave peered at the man in the darkness. The officer was quite a few years older than himself. The man sighed and took Neave's arm, "Come on, Herald, you're done here."

The officer led Neave past the encampment, up to the Keep, "Cook tent's closed. They've got a late supper up here for the stragglers." he explained.

They went into the great hall where a handful of blue, white and green and grey uniforms sat around tables. The officer sat Neave down next to a grey clad young woman who was picking at her own food with disinterest. After a moment the officer set a plate of food in front of Neave, "Eat. Thats an order." The officer walked away muttering about Heralds without the sense the Goddess gave a chick.

Neave took a few bites and began to take a bit more interest in his surroundings. He realized that he sat next to Elspeth. She looked dreadful, "Are you all right?" he asked her softly.

She looked up at him with haunted eyes, "No. I don't think I'll be all right for a while." she said in a low voice. Neave realized that her grays were flecked with blood. She must have been helping the Healers.

He nodded, "I know what you mean."

Chapter Text

Selenay issued orders to move the wounded and most of the Heralds back to the capital the day after the battle. Full powers of regency were given to Elspeth. Kyril and the Council were accompanying her back to Haven and Selenay was remaining at the border. The Foreseers were still uneasy, apparently.

It took several days to make the arrangements. The Healers wanted to make sure all of the wounded were stable enough to make the trip. Every Herald who was able was being pressed into helping the Healers. Neave was one of those Heralds with a particular talent for it. His Gift was enough like the Bardic Gift that he had primitive pain blocking and he could talk a frightened or confused patient calm as well as feed a Healer energy.

Neave worked himself to a shadow helping the Healers. It felt so much better when he was in motion. Then, when he did collapse, he slept like the dead. He valued that escape. Kyldathar fretted about him, but he kept telling her that everyone was working just as hard as he was. It was mostly true.

Kyldathar picked up something of his turmoil, but she seemed uncertain what to say. For the most part she just wordlessly let him know she was there. Neave didn't feel like talking.

He was relieved that Myste was to stay with Alberich and Selenay at the border. She'd tried to speak with him after the battle, but he had dodged her efforts. She'd want to talk about the memory that she and Kyril had dug out of his head, to ask him why he hadn't told anyone before. When it could have been some use. She was not likely to condemn him, but in some ways that was worse.

The healers argued and debated about when Talia should make the long trip back to Haven for ages.  For the sake of her mental state as well as her physical, they decided to take her home as soon as possible. The word was she was out of danger, but it would be some time before she would be well again.

Two Healers, with the help of Dirk and Skif, carried her down to a wagon on a litter the morning of their leave taking. She was bandaged to her neck and drugged to her eyebrows. Half conscious, Talia's face was still lined with pain.

The Heralds, caring for their Companions or already waiting to get started, involuntarily stopped what they were doing to stare. Some of them couldn't look for more than a moment and turned their faces away. Keren, mounted on Dantris not too far from where Neave stood, choked back a sob. None of them had been allowed to see Talia except Elspeth and Dirk, until now.

As soon as she was settled in the wagon, Rolan came over to nuzzle Talia's face. She opened her eyes and rubbed his nose. Her face held a bit less pain now that she was in contact with her Companion. Elspeth and one of the Healers climbed in next to her, arranging a sheet of cloth held by strips of wood above the wagon to keep the sun off.

Neave knew that Skif had spent that morning waiting outside her door, determined that he should at least see her and help if he could.

There were other wounded who were carried on wagons attended by other Healers. The pace was slow enough to be entirely maddening to Neave. He found himself scratching at the long cut on his arm with his fingernails. When he noticed he was doing that, he wound his hands in Kydathar's mane instead.

By that afternoon, Neave was exhausted by the effort of trying to act normally.

They camped early, the Healer's determined that the wounded were to be allowed as much rest as possible.

::Chosen? When did you last eat?:: Kyldathar asked him gently, as he stripped off her tack and set up their camp.

"Uuuh...this morning...I think?"

Kydathar gave him one of her looks, her eyes worried. :Love, go eat. You don't help anything by making yourself ill.: She leaned forward and touched his cheek with her nose, like a kiss. He leaned his forehead on her nose and closed his eyes. :Skif's looking for you: she said, suddenly, a breath before Neave heard quiet footsteps.

"Over here, Skif." Called Neave, turning from Kyldathar.

Pale and worried, Skif trotted over. "Devan needs someone who can help with Talia. One of the other Healers said I should find you. Dirk and I are no good at it and Elspeth's going to wear herself out."

"Yes, of course." Neave said immediately, he moved to follow Skif, but Kyldathar moved in front of Neave and gave him a shove with her nose, "Right after I find something to eat." he assured her.

Skif grinned like his old self for a moment, "I think I can manage to find you something. Just come on before Devan has kittens."

Kyldathar paced alongside them as though to make sure Skif followed up on his promise.

They had Talia sheltered in one of the larger tents like Selenay normally used. Dirk and Elspeth both stayed with her, although they both appeared to be elsewhere at the moment. Talia lay with her eyes closed. Devan was there looking tired to the bone. "Thank you, for coming." Devan said, "Healer Thesa said you were quite good at this."

Talia opened her eyes and smiled wanly, "Neave's another one with odd Gifts." she whispered.

Neave took his seat next to Devan and linked with him in the way that had become familiar in the last few days. Neave closed his eyes and watched the energy flowing from himself into Devan-he realized that Talia was being fed by Rolan as well. Kyldathar joined the link and for a moment he was completely at peace.

When he opened his eyes again Talia looked better, not quite so pale and pinched. Devan sounded pleased, "I might ask you to do that again Neave, thank you."

Neave shrugged, smiled tiredly.

Just then Skif came back with Elspeth and Dirk, all carrying food, "Here," he handed Neave a plate, "Eat that, so Kyldathar stops giving me dirty looks." Neave moved out of the way so Elspeth and Dirk could take the seats he and Devan had been occupying. Devan moved to sit on his own cot. Neave sat on the floor of the tent, since it seemed like it would be ungracious to just leave, Skif sat down next to him.

Neave watched Talia while he ate. Dirk helped her sit and Elspeth fussed with the food. She was so weak that getting spoon from plate to mouth was obviously an effort. After a few bites she seemed to give up. "Come on, love." coaxed Dirk gently, he touched her cheek.

She winced away a little, gave Dirk a brief brave smile, "I can't. I'm tired." She closed her eyes. Neave didn't need to be an Empath to see the tension in her body, or the way she shrank into herself a little at Dirk's touch. He wondered if Dirk realized it, or perhaps Dirk had never learned to read those signs.

Skif sat beside him, giving Talia a measuring look. Neave stood, touched Skif's shoulder, beckoned him to the tent flap with a jerk of his head. Skif stood too, picking up the remains of his dinner and Devan's, "If you lot need anything," said Skif, "Let Cymry know."

Dirk and Elspeth turned to acknowledge their leaving, "If Devan needs more help, Kyldathar can call me."

As soon as they were out of earshot, Neave said, "You saw that?"

Skif didn't say anything for a moment, then he nodded. "I'm still not entirely sure what they did to her...I'm not asking her and the Healers won't tell me."

"Did you-did you see the state of her clothes when Dirk brought her in?" Neave asked in a low voice.

Skif shook his head, "No, not really."

"She...well...from the blood...I'm pretty certain she was raped at least once. Given everything else they did, I can't imagine they stopped at once."

"No."

"Didn't you tell me once that she was shy of men in general? Does Dirk know that?" Neave had heard the tale of Dirk and Talia's lifebond. That was all over the camp. He tried to think though, how often he'd ever actually seen them together. He had a sneaking suspicion that he knew Talia better than Dirk did.

"Oh." The copper dropped. "I never thought of that."

Neave nodded, "I know that life bonds are just short of Companion bonds, but even so, we don't just instantly know everything about each other. And it won't even occur to them. You're close to them both. Can you talk to them?"

"Yes, I think so...maybe I should talk to the Healers too...They might not realize, either, about her life before she was Chosen," Skif mused. "She always acts so damned strong."

"We get so used to thinking of ourselves as Heralds, that we sometimes forget what we were before we were Chosen," murmured Neave, his own stomach roiling again. He didn't like to think how much damage had been done because he had forgotten what he was.

Skif's chin jerked up. His narrowed eyes searched Neave's face but he didn't say anything.

Neave continued, "It might be hard for her to cope with people being close to her for a while. Worse, since she's so hurt, she has to have help with even the simplest things. It makes you feel pretty vulnerable-when I..." Neave stopped realizing he was saying more than he intended. "Well, anyway...it's got to be hard to be trying to deal with all that and being so wrecked that you can't even run away."

"Hmm." Skif rubbed his chin. "Yes, I think that makes sense."

They stood quiet for a while. "Well, I suppose I should find my bed." Skif finally sighed. "Good night."

"Good night." Neave knew he wouldn't be able to sleep after seeing Talia again, without some help. Much to his relief, Kyldathar was already sleeping. She never noticed if he shielded her out after she'd dozed off. Most of the time it was because he'd found himself some female companionship, so it didn't set off any alarms. The last few nights had been so he could do this.

He strolled a little way out into the darkness, beyond the campfire lights and found a log to sit on. The moon was half full and provided enough light not to break his neck. Although, if it hadn't been for Kyldathar, perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad option.

No, that really wasn't what he wanted. He wanted Kira's screams to stop echoing in his head. He wanted to stop seeing Ancar's bored face. He wanted to stop feeling like he was going mad.

He drew his smaller hip dagger.  Talia had reawakened that awful black wave he'd been staving off with overwork. He pushed his shirt sleeve up to his elbow and regarded the healing cuts on his arm, barely visible in the moonlight.

Just below his elbow he made a small cut perpendicular to the long one, underneath the others. He couldn't say it felt good exactly, but the pain left relief in its wake.

::Chosen! Stop that!::

Neave started, instinctively jumping to his feet. He'd been so intent, he hadn't even heard her come up behind him.

::What are you doing?:: Kyldathar's tone sounded exactly like Mara's had so many years ago.

It would be silly to deny it. ::If I cut myself, it helps sometimes.::

::But-but you're hurting yourself!:: she wailed.

::It hurts less than what's going on in my head,:: he told her matter-of-factly. He could think now.

She came close to him. ::How long have you been doing this?::

He shrugged ::Recently? Since Myste and Kyril dug that memory out of my head.:: He pressed a handkerchief over the new cut before it could spot his Whites.

::Damn them.:: Kyldathar spat angrily, ::And damn me for letting them do it. I knew we should have tried to find a Healer...::

::Love. Let it go.::

::I will NOT.:: She stared at him in the moonlight, ::I don't want you hurting yourself anymore. Promise me you'll stop.::

::I can't.:: He couldn't lie to her mind to mind, ::I can't promise to stop. I can't explain it, but it's all I know to do with this.::

She stood there considering him for a long time, her head tilted to one side. He wondered if Companions had ever repudiated someone for madness.

::No, Chosen,:: she said gently as she caught the thought. ::And I don't think you're mad. I think you're just hurting a lot. Will you at least talk to one of the Healers?::

::Maybe.::

Chapter Text

The journey to Haven took over a week and Devan was not able to breathe easily until Talia was safely ensconced in her own rooms. Caring for someone as injured as Talia on the road was something he never wanted to do again. Neave knew this because Devan told anyone who'd listen.

Talia would be months Healing and she was stubbornly insisting that she needed to meet with the Council and demanded that Devan find ways to hold her together. Devan didn't understand, but Neave did. He remembered what he told Ylsa a lifetime ago, that sometimes looking after someone else was the only thing that made it bearable.

Kyldathar worried about him. She didn't say much, but Neave could feel her all the time in his head. With her comforting presence, he had less of an urge to cut himself.

::You'll speak with someone when we get back, won't you?:: Kyldathar asked him again, as the entire train entered the palace gate at last.

::I'll talk to Elcarth.:: Neave promised. It was a compromise. She wanted him to talk to the mind healers but he feared what they'd say-what they'd think.

His Companion wouldn't judge, that wasn't her way. But a healer?

The point was moot until now. None of the mind healers came to the border.

He felt her unease with the plan. "Look," he said out loud. "Given what some of the soldiers who faced down demons are dealing with, I think this can wait." 

Kyldathar's ears flicked and her skin shivered as though to get rid of flies. ::This is Kyril's fault.:: Her mind voice was unwontedly dark and bitter.

Neave wasn't angry at the senior Herald the way Kyldathar was, but he agreed that perhaps certain memories were best left unremembered.

For Kyldathar, he tried to keep his hands busy and his thoughts away from his knives on the journey home. Once or twice, when it just got to be too much, he quietly shielded her out and added to his small collection of healing cuts. She wasn't happy, but she understood it was the best he could do.

When he was a boy, he hadn't even bothered to hide it. He seemed to remember that after that night with Ancar, he did it daily. There were other things about that time just beyond his reach. Dim pictures that had a fuzzy, dreamy quality. Now that he thought about it, nothing was clear from that night until he arrived in Haven. He always avoided trying to remember too much about that time.

Their arrival at Haven was chaotic and time consuming, but eventually everything was done. Many hands at the Palace took care of the baggage. Guard members were relieved of duty and sent to their barracks. The Healers and wounded were taken to the Healer's Collegium. The Companions were turned out to the Field and the Heralds were given orders to eat and rest.

Neave felt human after he had his first decent meal and decent bath in weeks. That wasn't entirely accurate, but that's how it felt. Most of the Heralds seemed to feel the same, given how their moods shifted for the better after dinner.

Neave wandered back out to Companion's Field. It felt good to be able to let his guard down. He wasn't the only one seeking a moment of peace. Skif and Dirk  leaned against the fence of the Field.

"Healer's run you off?" he asked them quietly, coming to stand next to Dirk.

Dirk nodded, giving him a glance and a sad half smile, then wen back to staring out over the field.

Skif caught Neave's eye, cocked his head toward the preoccupied Dirk. Neave gave the slightest of nods. This seemed like a good opportunity to talk to Dirk about Skif's idea. "You two want to come back to my room for a drink?"Skif asked, nonchalantly.

Dirk sighed and spoke with much less than his usual enthusiasm. "That sounds like a fine idea."

Neave nodded, and walked back up to the Palace alongside Dirk and Skif. Skif asked a page to bring up a few bottles of wine. By the time it arrived, the three of them had settled into Skif's room.

"So, how is she today?" asked Neave, when Skif handed him his glass.

Dirk answered, instead. "Devan says she's getting better. She's just so weak. And she's...I don't know...nervous? After what she's been through..." his voice trailed off.

Skif exchanged a knowing glance with Neave. "She needs some time," Skif told Dirk.

"I know." Dirk stared at the wine glass in his hand. "It's just, sometimes, when she looks at me, I know she's not seeing me. And I can't stand to see her afraid like that. I'm not sure what to do." He ran his hand through his hair, making it stand straight up. "How does someone get over something like that? Half the time I'm not even sure what I'm doing to upset her. I can see it in her eyes, but she won't tell me what I'm doing wrong."

"Dirk, I know its not what you're doing. She's always been a little afraid of men...She'll get over it again." It sounded like Skif had gone over this with Dirk before. It had the air of a well worn path.

Dirk stood and began to pace the length of Skif's room. "Yes, but do women get over this? I need her like nothing else...and...and I thought...but is she ever going to want me?" His normally smooth voice cracked on the last few words.

"Whoa, calm down," said Skif. "Of course they do. And this is Talia we're speaking of. I don't know anyone stronger. I've known a lot of women who've had...who've been..." Skif swallowed, then seemed to lose his nerve. "Who've had this happen. And they do get over it."

"How?" Dirk all but wailed. "I'm no healer. I've never known anyone this happened to. Gods! How do you even start?"

Neave sighed. Dirk ceased his pacing abruptly and stared at Neave. A brief, wide eyed expression of surprise indicated he forgot Neave was in the room.

"You don't 'get over' rape. " Neave caught and held Dirk's haunted gaze. The older man winced at the ugly word. "You're never the same." Dirk's face crumpled, fighting down grief. Neave hurried to explain. "But...look..." He searched for the way to make Dirk understand and remembered Ylsa's words. "It's like when you break a bone. If you don't take care of it, you can be crippled forever.  But, if you give it time and care, it heals properly and you can get on with your life. You feel it when it rains, you might even have a limp. But you heal." The ache in his chest made his voice thick. Neave paused to take a drink of his wine, breaking eye contact, before going on in a softer voice. "As for not knowing anyone its happened to, chances are, it just never came up in conversation."

Dirk sat down again, a red flush darkening his cheeks. "I beg your pardon, Neave I...It didn't occur to me..."

Neave waved off his half formed apology with a slight smile. "It's all right. Long time ago. I almost never think about it anymore. You see?. The point is that Talia will not be well for a while and that's just how its going to be. She needs to learn to feel safe again. Some of that's just going to come from being home and Healing physically. "

Skif nodded emphatically, "She's already doing as well as we could hope, really."

Dirk looked dubious, so Neave said, "Truly. She is. Listen, there was a woman on the border that I met, she got caught by raiders. She was too afraid to leave her house. She just lay in her bed, wouldn't even look at her family. We had to take her to a Healing Temple because her husband was afraid she'd do herself injury some night. Talia's not doing that. She still wants to meet with Kyril and the Council. She still wants to do her job. Talia hasn't given up living. She's too stubborn to let them win. That's the reason she didn't die in that damned dungeon I'd wager."

"But..." Dirk began, then stopped.

"Did Kri...did you ever hear about the girl who killed herself the day Kyldathar found me?" Neave asked.

Dirk nodded soberly, Skif shook his head.

"Kira..." The name stuck in Neave's chest. He coughed so he could continue. "She decided to stop living weeks before she hung herself, I guess. She didn't have anyone to look after her or help her." Neave wasn't sure if he was saying this for Dirk's benefit or his own, "When things...happened...I had Mara. And then I had Kyldathar and Ylsa. And then I got here. Talia's got you, and Rolan and all the rest of us."

"So, what can I do for her, right now? I keep feeling like I'm making things worse." Dirk said sadly.

"I had a thought," said Skif. "Maybe-maybe you should leave for a little? All of us who were at the border have leave coming, according to Kyril. Maybe you should go away for a bit. Let her get her equilibrium back."

"You think I should leave her? How would that help?"

Neave took a quick drink of his wine, emptying the glass. He never talked about this, but the least he could do was help Dirk after he'd failed Kris and Talia. "Do you know how hurt I was when you three came to rescue me?"

"I know you had a broken rib."

"Some highborns..." The lie of omission made him cringe inwardly, but he soldiered on. "Got ahold of me. They wanted more than the usual. They..." It was no good, he could never explain adequately in words. "Well, look."  He stood, untucked his shirt from his breeches and turned to show the scars.

"Gods above and below. Why would they do that?"

Dirk's horrified whisper made Neave almost afraid to turn around. Afraid that the sheltered Herald would turn away in disgust when Neave answered his question.

"Because..." The word came out a whisper. Clearing his throat, Neave resumed his seat, tried again. "Because I was a whoreson. Because after a while, they got tired of bed sports. Because they could, I guess." Neave picked up his wine glass with his shaking hand and held it out for Skif to refill.

"Whoreson..?" Dirk repeated the Hardornen word slowly. It wasn't a word generally covered in their language classes, now that Neave thought about it.

"Son of a prostitute. And about the worst thing you can call a man in Hardornen." Neave shrugged, trying to distance himself. He couldn't meet either Skif or Dirk's eyes. "Much worse than a woman who sells her favors. It's whispered that most prostitutes will smother any male children they bear. Anyway, that's not what I was trying to say." He took a long cleansing breath. "I spent a long time at the border after I was Chosen. We didn't come back here until I was well healed physically. When I was hurt, I didn't want even a male healer or Herald near me. I was terrified of Kris and he was about the least threatening man I ever met. If one of the male guards at the border garrison so much as spoke to me, I'd hyperventilate until I nearly passed out.  When I felt better physically, when I felt like I could run or fight, I stopped being so hair-triggered."

"So...what? I should leave until she's completely healed? That could take months, the healers say."

Skif shook his head. "Just let the healers get somewhere with her. Come back when she isn't drugged every moment of the day and she has some of her strength back."

Nodding in agreement, Neave added, "Being muddled from pain potions doesn't help."

"Maybe..." Skif said slowly, as if he had just now thought of it. In actuality he had spoken to Neave, Keren and Devan at length a few nights ago. "I don't know... You could go back to see your family? You haven't told them that you're planning to get married, yet."

Dirk smiled a little at that. "Yes, I suppose they may want to know. But...do you think I can leave for that long? I'm not sure..."

"Have you talked to the Healers? I know that Devan was planning on asking Rynee to work with her." Rynee was one of the mind healers. "Ask her what she thinks. We can be out of here before lunch tomorrow. You know if we stay here, we'll get assigned to something."

Dirk looked, if not happier, at least more settled now that he had a plan.

Chapter Text

"Why didn't you tell them?"  asked Kira. She stood in front of the ancient, vine covered door, one hand on the handle. "You should have told them."

"Don't." The door wasn't something she should meddle with, something terrible lay in wait behind it.

"You did this."  Kira...no, Neave realized, the woman before him wasn't Kira, but Talia; she turned around, her Whites stained with blood both dried and fresh. "You failed us, like you failed her." Talia pointed to where Kira's body swung from a tree in Companion's Field and took a step toward him. "Don't think you can hide your true self forever." Her voice sounded more like Mara's husky alto rather than Talia's clear soprano.

Another step and she was Mara. Taller than either Talia or Kira, with dark hair and an ashen face. Somehow he was in Garek's kitchen again, laying on his thin pallet or rags. She leaned over him, threw herbs into the fire and muttered "You can only lock these things away for a time. Remember that. "

::Neave. Chosen. Wake up.:: Kyldathar's gentle mind nudge yanked Neave out of his nightmare. He sat bolt upright in his bed, trembling and wiping tears from his face. It was still dark. Moonlight shone through the window and the glazed door that led out to the garden. ::Chosen?::

"I'm all right." Neave muttered out loud. The dream faded as it always did.

::Do you want to come out here? I could come fetch you.:: Kyldathar offered.

::No, thank you, love. I'll go get some food.::

He was alone this morning as he ate his cold breakfast, turning the little snippets of his nightmare over in his mind, trying to work out if it meant anything. Mara...something about Mara tickled the edges of his consciousness. A half remembered conversation floated to the top of his awareness. Mara and he planning to go somewhere?

"I've got the letters of introduction from the old magewife," he remembered Mara telling him, "She's written them for both of us. As soon as we save enough silver, we'll take passage on the first caravan heading out to Jakatha."

Jakatha, because she didn't want to go back to Valdemar.

"She gave me the name of an old friend who will take us from there to the school."

What school? He couldn't even read at the time. Perhaps she'd gotten a recommendation for some foreign bardic school. Ylsa always reckoned Mara had a touch of Bardic Gift like Neave himself did.

A different voice echoed in his memory, then. The Prince's pet mage whispering something ugly about storing power. And then Kira's screams.

Neave ran his thumb across the knife he ate with, hard enough to draw blood.

::You promised you'd speak with the Dean this morning.::  Kyldathar reminded him, speaking more sharply than she usually did. ::This cutting thing scares me.::

He was sorry to upset her, but the idea of talking about this scared him more. "Not this early." He didn't even pretend to himself that the cut was accidental. 

::His Companion says he is already in his office. He has no other meetings this morning.::

"Dammit." A weird angry desperation gripped him, making him snap. "Will you please allow me to see to my own appointments?"

::Not about this.::

::Bloody demon horse.:: Neave sucked the blood from his cut thumb and thought of the Karsite phrase.

::Yes. I am. Absolutely.::

A little tendril of thought touched the edge of his mind. ::You need to speak with me?:: The Dean asked in mindspeech.

Hoping he kept the alarm out of his reply, Neave mindspoke back. ::If it's quite convenient:: He also hoped the Dean didn't catch his reluctance. 

::I have no meetings this morning. Please come up as soon as you finish.::

::Yes, of course. Thank you.:: The channel closed off. "Damned night gaunt steed." He growled at Kyldathar out loud in Hardornen. "Your clan's too ashamed to claim you." He added in Shin' a 'in (the phrase translated as "bastard" the mercenary woman who'd taught it to him at Garek's had said).

Kyldathar wisely said nothing.

A sudden sharp memory of the first time he'd walked into the Dean's office added to his anxiety and made the walk seem much longer than it should. He knocked and the Dean called him in.

"Sorry to bother you, Dean."

"No bother. Actually, given that classes won't start for a few more weeks, you've picked a fairly good time." Elcarth said lightly. He moved a stack of books off one of the chairs so Neave could sit, "What can I do for you?"

"I...Kyldathar said I should show you..." He pulled up the sleeve of his shirt, showing the pattern of slashes he'd made on his forearm. Some of them mostly healed, a few of them fresh.

Elcarth's gaze moved from Neave's arm to his face, not really comprehending, "How did those happen?"

Neave licked his dry lips, "I did it." Uneasily, he passed his hand over the cuts, resisting the urge to scratch at them.

Elcarth's gentle face grew serious. "How long have you been doing that?"

Very quietly, Neave told Elcarth about the memory Kyril had triggered, and how he had been since then "Since Kyldathar found out, I've been doing it less. It upsets her." he finished.

"I imagine so." Elcarth spoke quietly. One of the things Neave had always liked about the elderly Herald was that he never became visibly ruffled. Even in anger he was stern rather than violent. Now, he was shaken, but he still kept his calm demeanor. "I think it rather upsets me."

"I'm sorry, sir...I don't know how to stop. I..." Neave took a long breath, "I can't. I've tried." His voice dropped away and he averted his eyes.

"No, no. I'm not upset with you." Elcarth cut in. "I do think Kyldathar is correct and Kyril triggering that memory is what brought this on. You say that you haven't even had the urge to do this since you were Chosen?"

"Well, actually, since a little before that, I think. From when they...When I was hurt. I don't know why."

Elcarth got up from his seat. A page waited outside the door, "Would you go find Rynee for me, please? I believe she's seeing Talia this morning. Go wait for her and ask her to come see me when she's done." The Herald sat back down, "Kyril tells me that Rynee's with Talia now, so we have some time to wait, I don't want you leaving until you speak with her."

Neave nodded, his stomach knotting up and his face hot with shame.

"Lord of Lights, I'm sorry Neave." Elcarth said after a moment.

"Pardon me?"

"I'm sorry that you had to go through all this."

Neave shrugged fatalistically, "It happens."

Elcarth was at a loss, Neave had appeared to be the most stable of people. Perhaps too stable, Elcarth reflected, given his history. Elcarth had watched the boy carefully for years. He knew, of course, that Neave had spent his first few months at the Collegium sleeping with Kyldathar. But it hadn't taken that long for him to settle down. He was not one for displays of emotion, although he would let his guard down in front of a few of his mentors. Almost never had Elcarth seen the young man angry. Perhaps this cutting had to do with that.

They sat quietly for a few minutes. Elcarth couldn't think of anything to say that would help. "Can I ask you something?" Elcarth ventured, the young man nodded. "Why do you think you do this?"

Neave shrugged again; he wouldn't look up. After a long moment he spoke as someone parting with a closely held secret. "Sometimes, I can't think. It hurts, but it makes my mind stop going in circles. Otherwise, I can't stop thinking of..." he paused, "Of things I remember. I don't know why...I know it's crazy."

"But you're not intending to do yourself serious hurt?"

"No." Neave finally did look up, his eyes narrowed. "It's not about killing myself, if that's what you're thinking." he spoke a little more sharply than he usually did.

Elcarth grasped his hand, "I'm glad to hear that."

There was a knock at the door. "Come." called Elcarth.

It was Rynee, "You wanted to see me, Dean?" Neave had never met her before and looked dubiously at the young Healer who hardly seemed of sufficient age to have full Greens.

"Yes. I wanted you to have a word with Neave, if you don't mind. I have somethings to attend to so you can use my office for the next candlemark or so." He stood, "Neave, I'll be available later if you want to talk." he said kindly, and left.

Rynee sat herself down. "Want to tell me what this is about?" she asked, gently.

Neave closed his eyes and pulled up his sleeve to show her.

"How did you get these?" Neave still had his eyes closed, but her voice was kind. She took his arm in her hand and touched the slashes lightly, "They were made by a knife, but most of them are too fresh to have been gotten at the border." she said.

Neave nodded. He was having a much harder time telling this pretty young girl what he'd done than he had with Elcarth.

"They're all wrong to have been picked up fighting, anyway. So, you did this to yourself?"

Relieved that he didn't have to say it out loud, he finally opened his eyes, "Yes."

She nodded. "Can you tell me what started it off?"

"Kyldathar thinks that the memory Kyril recovered from me before the battle did it. I never remembered it properly before and now it won't leave me alone. It...I see it all the time...when it gets bad I cut myself and it goes away for a while."

Rynee just listened. When he'd run out of words, she said, "I think that Kyldathar is correct Neave, to an extent. I can certainly help with that, right now. I also think that I can probably help with more than that, if you'll let me."

Neave didn't like the idea of a non Herald in his mind, but he promised Kyldathar. He nodded. She looked into his eyes, "Will you tell me everything you remember?"

Yet again, he recounted the memory Kyril triggered. After the first few words, it got easier and he found himself admitting to Rynee what he'd not been able to admit to Elcarth. "I should have come forward sooner." He trembled as he said it. The healer's green eyes wouldn't let him look away. "If I had...Kris would still be alive. And Talia..." A lump in his throat stopped him. The sound of a woman screaming echoed through his memory.

::Shh.:: The mind healer's mental caress eased itself between him and the sound. The screaming became distant, then ceased.

Rynee leaned forward to brush his hair out of his eyes, "How do you feel now?" she asked.

Neave shook himself, how long had he been talking? His throat was sore, and by the light, they'd been here for much more than a candle mark-it seemed almost dinner time, "I think I'm hungry." he said, surprised it was true.

Rynee smiled tiredly, "Good. Go get some food and have an early night. If you find yourself wanting to cut yourself, I want you to take Kyldathar for a long ride. A fast ride. If you still want to cut yourself after that, come find me and I'll do my best for you. Its too hard to handle by yourself. All right?"

He nodded, shaking himself from the half trance he fell into while talking to her. The images that had been so vivid this morning were fuzzy again, not so intrusive. "Thank you." He said, standing unsteadily, stiff from spending most of the day in the same chair. He smiled shyly, finding the weight in his chest lessened, and left to do as he was told.

Rynee sat there for a few minutes, collecting herself. Elcarth and Kyril came in as soon as Neave was around the corner. "I have a bone to pick with you, Kyril." she said evenly, "Next time you decide to go mucking about in people's heads, you need to make damned sure you contain the damage."

Kyril exchanged a worried glance with Elcarth. "I knew he was upset, but he would speak with no one. I had no idea...Will he be all right?"

"If he hasn't had a breakdown through this...Heralds are all made of extraordinarily strong stuff. Though, I think that I am beginning to hate that you all think you're invincible." The healer rubbed her tired eyes, then went on, "I wonder if you'd do me a favor, though? I'd like to borrow him for a particular duty. Until at least until Midwinter."

"Of course." said Kyril immediately. "I'll have him assigned to the healers, if you want to keep an eye on him. Do you think he might have further trouble?"

"It's not so much that. I have a notion that he may be able to help me with Talia. You know we sent Dirk off this morning? I think that Talia needs some men around her that she can feel safe with. Elspeth has been sleeping in Talia's rooms and plans to continue since Talia can't be left alone. I have been trying to think of someone who could share the duty with her. I think Neave would be perfect."

"Why?" Asked Kyril. He paused delicately, "I mean, I realize that Neave's demeanor is very reassuring and Devan tells me that he's quite good at helping healers but given his history..." The dignified man cleared his throat, his cheeks turning a little red. "After what he's been through, I wouldn't like to ask too much of the boy. I was thinking courier duty."

"I think, if he's willing, he can be a real asset. From what I sensed in that healing, he won't be horrified by what Talia's been through. He won't have to fight down disgust and he won't fear she's forever broken--he knows better than most Heralds what she's going through.  That's half of what is the trouble between her and Dirk right now. His very natural feelings just overwhelm her. Its not his fault, but it complicates things." Rynee explained.

"Hmm. Ylsa once told me that Neave finds taking care of people a great comfort. This would be light enough duty to let him regain his bearings." said Elcarth thoughtfully, "And Talia knows Neave fairly well. Yes. I think that might be very good for both of them."

Chapter Text

The sound of a message sliding under his door woke Neave late the next morning. ::I wonder what the pages will think about my door being locked all the time?.:: He asked Kyldathar as he retrieved it.

::They'll probably assume what the other trainees did--you entertain pretty Bardic apprentices every night.:: Kyldathar sounded as though her good humor had been restored.

::Well, they were right some of the time.:: Neave smiled for what felt like the first time in days.

The letter came from Elcarth:

Neave,

I hope you are feeling better. I would like to meet with you after luncheon today to discuss a new assignment. Rynee has requested you for special duty the healers. This is strictly voluntary, but I believe it would be well suited to you.

Elcarth

"I'm glad they wanted to meet in the afternoon." Neave said to Kyldathar out loud. Rynee had probably guessed he would sleep half the day away. His sleep last night had been very deep.

::I suppose Rynee feels she needs to keep an eye on me:: Neave continued in mindspeech. ::We're probably going to get fetching and carrying duty until she's convinced I'm not going to lose my mind entirely.::

Neave made himself presentable to meet with Elcarth and Rynee. He felt better than he had since the battle-not on such a short fuse.

He decided he didn't mind working with the Healers, he just didn't want them hovering, waiting for him to crack at any moment.

Rynee arrived at Elcarth's office the same time Neave did. She gave him a smile with no sign of awkwardness. Elcarth's office door was open, so they went in.

"Thank you for coming Neave," Said Elcarth as they sat down, "I have to tell you, I'm very sorry to have to hand you yet another assignment, right on the heels of what's already happened. Usually we can manage a week or two leave between crises."

Neave wondered what he'd do with a week or two leave.

::Maybe sleep?:: Put in Kyldathar.

Neave told her to hush, gave Elcarth his full attention again.

"Unfortunately the truth is, we're short handed, as usual. And, as I said, this may just be something you're uniquely suited to."

"I'm not sure I understand." said Neave. The tone of Elcarth's voice seemed to imply something beyond just assisting as he'd done. And certainly not the message relay work he'd been expecting to be assigned.

Elcarth nodded to Rynee, "I'm sure Healer Rynee can explain better than myself."

"Would you be willing to help Elspeth look after Talia?" Rynee asked, "Elspeth is running herself ragged. We can assign some Healers or Herald trainees to do a certain amount of the purely physical care during the day, but I hesitate to have anyone with her at night that she doesn't know well. I understand you do?"

"She was a year ahead of me. We've always been fairly friendly." Neave confirmed, "But, why not ask Keren or Sherril? Either of them are much closer to her than I am."

Rynee cleared her throat, "You know how badly Talia was hurt?"

Neave nodded, it was common knowledge.

"How much do you know? I mean, are you aware that some of the injuries were...sexual...in nature?" Rynee asked him delicately.

Neave nodded again, waiting for her to come to the point.

"It's important that she have some men around her that she can feel safe with. Normally, I'd be asking her father and brothers, if she had any, to come stay with her but.."

Neave smiled understandingly, "Talia's only family are the Heralds."

Rynee looked pleased that he'd grasped the problem so quickly, then she took a deep breath, "Which brings me to my next point...How much do you know about her Gift?"

"Quite a bit, actually. We were in the same class for training Gifts."

"Well, I need someone with her who won't upset her with their feelings. One of the reasons I have to be careful about who I ask to do this is that their reactions to what Talia's been through might be a problem." Rynee looked as though she feared to offend him but plunged on, "From what I picked up from you yesterday, you seem to have a strong stomach for this sort of thing."

"It's not exactly unusual." remarked Neave, shrugging, although he had noticed that many of the Herald trainees from better backgrounds were often shocked by some of the subjects that came up in the higher level classes.

Rynee's mouth was set in a grim line, "No, but most people want to believe it is. And the closer someone is to the victim..." she grimaced, "Sometimes its difficult to cope with. Talia's fairly exhausted most of the time. Her shields are very good, but I don't want her to have to use her energy to keep people out, which is why I only want Healers or Heralds looking after her for now. I especially don't want her spending energy keeping someone's horror or fury out. I need someone who is very solid emotionally, who can shield well and who is not unaccustomed to the idea that dreadful things happen in the world."

"And you couldn't find him, so you thought you'd ask me." Neave said lightly, his mouth quirked up at the corner. This was very different from what he'd expected.

Rynee gave him a wry smile, "I think you'll be fine. Please don't think I'm asking you to do this lightly. Devon suggested you actually. It would be very helpful if whoever we find for this can also help her Healers. Devon and Thesa spoke very highly of you on that count and Myrim mentioned that you'd helped the night Dirk brought her back."

Neave shrugged, "I'm pleased to be able to help, but are you sure? I haven't exactly been...I mean..." he felt himself flush and passed his right hand over his slashed forearm.

Rynee's eyes were kind, "Truly, it's nothing we can't help you with, should you need it. I also gather that you feel better when you have work to do?"

He nodded in assent. 

For the next week or so, after dinner, he climbed the long stairway to Talia's rooms. Most days the Healers were just getting done with her. Elspeth was taking most of her meals with Talia, so there was usually a servant clearing away.

A few minutes of flurry was expected as things were squared away. Neave would carry Talia to bed as her feet were useless and would be until the broken bones healed. Elspeth would help her undress. More than once Elspeth teased Talia gently about reducing the Heir to the Throne to a lady's maid. After that Elspeth would retire to the cot she'd had set up outside Talia's bedroom door so she could hear if Talia called. Neave slept (if he did sleep) on the other cot they'd set up. He found himself catching up on much reading and producing lots of drawing.

If this was duty, it felt an awful lot like leave. He had no duty during the day, so he spent his mornings catching up on the sleep he couldn't get in Talia's rooms. His afternoons he spent mostly with Kyldathar. Although the urge to cut himself had eased, it hadn't gone away completely. He did as Rynee told him and took long rides on Kyldathar-he found that twice around the obstacle course generally made it bearable. If that didn't work, he looked for someone to spar with. Oddly enough, he discovered that Elspeth was in the salle almost every afternoon looking for someone to spar with herself. Every morning and every afternoon for a candle mark the healers would send Elspeth away. She seemed to need the sparring as much as he and when they were finished, Neave was usually exhausted enough to lose his urge to play with his knives.

Tonight, Rynee was the only one there, she smiled at Neave as he came in. "Neave, can you help me take Talia to her bed?.: Elspeth hadn't returned yet-she was taking dinner with the Court for the first time since returning from the border.

Neave nodded and smiled at Talia who was looking more awake than she usually did this time of day. He bent and gathered her up in his arms as gently as he could.

She gasped.

"Sorry."

"It's all right," she said a little breathlessly, as he carried her the few steps from her couch to her bed, "The Healers are trying to reduce the pain potions I'm on. I'm tired of being drugged all the time."

"I can understand that." He set her down as gently as possible on the bed, while Rynee arranged the bolster and pillows.

"Neave, will you hand me a bed gown from out of the press there?" Rynee asked as he made to leave. He handed it to her and took himself out of the room.

Elspeth had just returned when he went into the other room. She looked tired. She gave him a smile and went to help Rynee. When both the women came out, Neave was already settled at the table with paper and charcoal, working on a piece he'd started some days ago.

"We've changed the potions she's getting," said Rynee, "I think she'll be all right, but if she has too much pain during the night, I've left something stronger." Elspeth nodded. She'd already changed into a lounging gown, "Thank you, Rynee," she said, yawning as she closed the door behind the Healer. When Elspeth came back in, she sat on Talia's couch looking pensive. "What are you working on?" she asked suddenly.

Neave blushed a little, "Its nothing..." he turned the paper so she could see it.

"Oh, this is beautiful!" Elspeth exclaimed. It was a portrait of Christa he'd been working on from memory. He had a vague idea of burning it in the Sovvan bonfire this year. "Thank you." he said softly.

"I-I feel I should apologize," said Elspeth, "I've hardly spoken to you in the evenings in the last week. I'm afraid it must come off as very rude."

Neave smiled gently, "You've had a lot to contend with lately. I'm not exactly great company myself."

She smiled back, settled herself more comfortably onto the couch. He continued with his drawing. Usually, Elspeth was so tired that she was asleep by now. He supposed that she had recovered a little from the recent stresses. She pulled out the book she'd been reading and they sat in companionable silence. After a few minutes, Neave heard Elspeth's book fall to the floor. She'd dozed off on the couch.

Neave picked up the book and threw a blanket over Elspeth. He didn't sleep much here. It was hard to sleep when he couldn't lock the door. When he was out on circuit, he didn't have that problem with Kyldathar so close. The first place he could ever remember feeling safe was a Herald's Way Station. This tower room made him nervous on principal, there was only one way in or out unless one wanted to throw a rope out the window.

His own room was on the ground floor of the Herald's wing and had a glazed door out into the gardens. Neave had requested it at once, when he learned it was free. It had been part of a larger suite that had been broken up for the increasing number of Heralds. It was free because it was a little drafty and the servants whispered it was unlucky, but no one could remember why. He never worried much about "unlucky" and having a second bolt hole from his burrow was worth a little draft. If he was here during the winter, he'd just get more blankets.

Carefully, he blew the extra charcoal from the finished portrait of Christa and put it into the portfolio he'd brought. He stood and stretched, it was quite late now. He considered attempting some sleep, decided against it and pulled out another piece of paper.

He heard a low moan from Talia's bedroom. He walked over to her door and opened it, "Talia?" he called. Her candle had burned out and the banked fire only afforded a small dull glow. Neave picked up a candle from the table by the door and put it in the wall sconce.

Talia's hands moved restlessly on the coverlet and she was sweating in the cool night. Neave wasn't sure how best to wake her. It was so hard to know how not to hurt her. He took two steps toward the bed.

She opened terrified eyes and threw a hand up to shield her face.

In the dark, there was nothing but pain. Kyldathar was beyond reach and Ancar had him. The men came and used him, left his body broken and dying. Nothing but the pain was real. Kris was dead and it was his fault. The men would come again. There was nothing he could do. He was dying. He had failed his friend and his kingdom. Death's release would be...

::NEAVE! Wake up.:: Kyldathar cried, ::You're in Talia's nightmare.::

Neave stumbled into the wall, released from the grip of Talia's sending.

She was still not awake, although her eyes were wide and fear maddened.

Rather than get any closer to her physically, Neave reached out with his mind, hoping she'd recognize him and not pull him in again. "Talia?" he called with voice and mind, "Talia, you're having a bad dream."

"Wha-what?" she looked lost. Not recognizing her own room.

::Rolan says she's confused. Don't let her hurt herself.: Kyldathar told him.

From the other room, Neave heard Elspeth cry out. A thump and a curse.

"Elspeth!" cried Talia, moving as if to fling the covers back, to try to run to Elspeth.

"Talia! Don't." Neave crossed the room to her, "You'll hurt yourself." he put as much of his Gift behind his words as he had in him.

It worked. She froze, staring at him. Intelligence flowed into her face, "Oh. Neave."

"Elspeth?" he called, "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." she called back, "I, uh, fell off the couch. Do you need help?" she sounded a little shaky.

It was Talia who answered, "No, catling, I'm fine." In a lower voice, she said "Please, I...don't want her..." tears were starting to trickle down her face and Neave guessed Talia didn't want Elspeth to see her break down.

"Should I get Rynee?" Neave asked her.

Talia shook her head, took a breath that was a sob.

Not knowing what else to do, Neave sat beside her on her bed. She put her arms around his waist and her head into his lap. He stroked her hair and murmured gentle reassurance, invoking his Gift again. "It's all right, sister. You're safe now." he said over and over. With the force of his Gift behind it she might believe it.

After a very long time she ran out of tears. She wasn't asleep, he could tell from the tension in her body, but she was much more relaxed. Her bedgown was soaked with sweat and she was going to get chilled if she didn't change.

"Would you like me to get you another gown?" Neave asked after a long time. "Or, I can wake up Elspeth."

"Would you help me? Poor Elspeth gets so little rest."

Neave pulled another gown out of the press. He had gotten a lot of practice helping the Healers with the practicalities of their patients. He gently helped Talia pull her gown off and pulled a clean one over her head. Having him help her like this had to be frightening; that she could allow it was probably something of a breakthrough.

"Do you want me to change the sheets?" he asked.

"No." she was silent for a moment, "Would you...stay with me? I don't want to be alone right now."

"Of course. Do you want the stronger potion Rynee left?"

"No-it makes me too sleepy. If I dream..." she shuddered.

"Maybe just a swallow, to take the edge off? And I don't mind sitting with you if it will help."

She nodded, "Yes, maybe that's a good idea."

Neave went into the next room to get the potion from the desk and a more comfortable chair.

Elspeth was sitting tensely, ::Is she all right?:: she asked in Mindspeech, not wanting Talia to hear.

::Mostly. She thinks you're sleeping:: he grabbed the chair and potion.

::Not after that.: she looked frightened and sick and notes of horror crept tinged her thoughts ::Don't tell her...::

::Wasn't planning on it.: Talia had taken him for an enemy and defended herself with her Gift. He'd taken no harm from it, so he wasn't about to tell her. Although, from the look on her face, Elspeth might be in difficulty. Well, he could talk to her when Talia was soothed down again.

Chapter Text

Talia still sat tensely under the covers where Neave left her. It was too painful for her to move much without help. "Is Elspeth asleep?" she asked.

"I think so." He was grateful for the way his Gift worked--and for the Bardic training that taught him how to manufacture emotions when he needed to. Ylsa reckoned he could probably fool most Empaths unless they deliberately shielded him out.

"Good. This is a lot for her. Poor thing."

He handed her the open potion bottle and the goblet of water. She swallowed delicately, handing it back to him almost full, "I'll take more if it doesn't help." she promised as he looked at her with raised eyebrows, "I just...don't want to sleep just yet."

He helped her lie down comfortably on her stack of pillows and then settled himself into the chair, "Want to tell me about it?"

She shook her head, looked away.

"It might help." He reached out his hand and carefully took her bandaged one in his.

She didn't pull away, but she didn't look at him. "I don't know that anything will help." The fingers of her hand tightened around his, as if she needed to anchor herself somehow.

They sat like that for a long time. The candle burned down and then out. Neave thought of all those nights when he sat with Kyldathar, taking comfort in her presence.

"Talia?" Reaching out with his Gift, he brushed Talia's shielded mind, like a timid knock. Talia glanced at him, puzzled, but opened a thin channel between them.  Using his Gift this way he dulled her pain a little, convincing her weary mind and body to rest easy.  Kyldathar, then Rolan joined the link, boosting his Gift, smoothing the sharp edges of her fear and grief.

Eventually, the black window turned gray. The four way link faded as Talia drifted to sleep, just as pink started to touch the horizon.

Neave was still sitting there, holding Talia's hand when Elspeth, Rynee and Devan came in.

"She had a bad night?" asked Devan gravely.

Neave nodded, careful to move slowly and not jar her as he let go of her hand. "She went back to sleep a few minutes ago." he whispered.

Devan ushered them both out into the other room, "Why don't you two get some sleep. Elspeth, cancel whatever you had going on today. You'll make yourself ill if you carry on like this."

Deep circles ringed Elspeth's red eyes and her pale cheeks made her look half ill already. Neave was certain that he looked no better.

"I don't want to see you up here until dinnertime." Devan said sternly, to both of them.

For a moment, Elspeth looked towards Talia's closed door, but then she sagged. "Yes, Devan." Her voice subdued.

"Come on," said Neave. "We'll get a page to bring some food to my room." His head hurt and he was hungry. What he really wanted was a quiet meal and his bed, but he had a bad feeling that she wouldn't eat if left to herself.

Elspeth followed him silently to his room and didn't speak until the page had brought them breakfast. Finally, she asked "How was she?"

"About how you'd expect. She was worried about you."

Elspeth shrugged, using her fork to chase food around on her plate, not looking at Neave.

"When she woke up, she took me for an enemy. She struck at me...I guess...did you feel it too?" Neave asked carefully.

Elspeth nodded, her chin trembling, "Is that what she went through?" she whispered, her eyes filled with tears, "I..." she couldn't finish. The tears spilled down her cheeks and she wiped them away with a handkercheif from her sleeve.

"Elspeth, sshh. It's all right." said Neave tiredly, "You need sleep. Finish your food. We can talk about this later."

Elspeth nodded and they finished without speaking. Elspeth picked up the plates and put them on the tray to take them with her. At the door, she stopped. "I'll be at the salle before dinner. Will you be there?"

"Yes."

She turned away and tiredly walked off down the hallway. He watched her until she turned the corner. Relieved, he shut the door, throwing the lock.

It was late afternoon when Kyldathar woke him. ::Gwena wants to know if you'll talk to Elspeth. She's not doing well.::

::I'll talk to her. Let me clean up first.:: Neave replied.

Elspeth didn't look well. She wasn't at the salle, she was with her Companion in the Field.

"Hello," she said as he drew close though she didn't turn around. "Did you sleep?"

"Yes. Did you?"

She turned away from Gwena, looking much the same as she had the night after the battle. "No, not much." Tears tumbled down her cheeks.

Neave reached over and pulled Elspeth into his arms. She held onto him as if she were drowning, "I can't bear what they did to her. I can't." she whispered.

"Shhh. She'll be all right," he whispered back. "Devan says she's better, doesn't he?"

Elspeth pushed him away, "That's not what I mean."

Kyldathar came at Neave's mental summons. "Come on, Elspeth. Let's ride." he said, not knowing what else to do.


 

Over the next few nights, Neave spent more time sitting with Talia. Rynee said the nightmares were normal. As Talia's body healed, her grief and fear expressed itself, coming out in her dreams. Sometimes she woke crying out Kris' name, sometimes she called for Dirk. A few times, she woke up fighting off some attacker. On guard now, he was careful to shield himself so she didn't pull him in. When the dreams woke her, he sat with her, sometimes talking, mostly just being a quiet presence.  Between he and Rolan, she was sure she wasn't alone.

"Neave..?" Talia lay in her bed, looking out of her window at the setting moon.

"Yes?"

"I wanted to tell you, thank you. For sitting here with me. And for everything you've done."

Neave shrugged, "It's no problem. I don't mind." he shifted uncomfortably in his chair; he didn't deserve her gratitude, "I know what it's like."

She nodded soberly. Years ago, when they had been students, he'd shared one of his more unsavory memories with her. Ylsa, in an effort to test her theory that Talia's Gift was Empathy had directed him to project the most emotional scene he could at her. He chose one of the memories of earning his keep at Garek's.

"How did you get over it?" she asked, turning her head to look at him. In the candle light, her brown curls turned shimmery gold, haloing her face, making her look like an ethereal, dark eyed angel. Although no angel should ever look so stricken.

He smiled crookedly, shrugged. "I have Kyldathar. And the Heralds. And I run around looking after everyone else until I'm too tired to think."

She smiled back briefly, then looked pensive again. "I miss Kris." She whispered.

"I know." What else was there to say? Some inner prompting led him to add, "Did you know that Kris, Dirk and Ylsa were the first Heralds I ever met?"

She shook her head, surprised, "No."

"Hm, I suppose they wouldn't repeat it. I think they were both deeply embarrassed by the whole situation. I really only spoke to Kris." Neave smiled a little, "Poor Kris wasn't at all sure what to do with a traumatized fourteen year old. "

"You?" Talia asked, interest kindling in her eyes.

"Yes. Looking back on it, I'm fairly certain that he must have argued with Ylsa the whole way there." Neave said, smiling a little at the thought, "But he was the only one who could play, as Ylsa put it, 'the debauched highborn' with any believability."

A true smile appeared on her face. Brief but real.

"There was a girl who killed herself. She had been badly used and I suppose she snapped. I found her in the stable. I was rattled by it, I guess. That night, I was hiding in the attic with a couple of ales I stole when I saw Kyldathar through the window. She Chose me, but she couldn't whisk me away because I'd been hurt a few weeks before. My ribs were broken and my back was all torn up.

The next day Kris, Dirk and Ylsa showed up dressed in Guard Blue."

Talia watched his face, fascinated.

"Kris had to get me alone to explain what was happening. I just assumed he wanted to bed me."

"Oh, no." Talia put her hand to her mouth, "How old were you?"

"Fourteen." The sympathy in her eyes made him look away. "When I took him to one of the rooms, I was so scared. He was dressed like an officer and he talked like a highborn. I was terrified of highborns. When he said he just wanted to talk, I was so confused. Then, I just figured he was one of those customers who liked to pretend to court me. Well, once I realized he didn't want to play any of the nastier games.

He must have talked to me for two candlemarks. I guess he was trying to make sure that they weren't going to get blamed for kidnapping."

"Your parents were dead?"

Neave nodded, "I had Mara, but she was one of Garek's girls. And I was just a-a..." He found himself unable to say the word to Talia, "I mean, Garek was my master, so all they had to do was pay him off. Anyway, when he finally got tired of listening to me, and said he wanted to go to bed, I got scared again. I asked him to go easy because my ribs were so sore. I don't think he understood what I was saying first. I don't think it occurred to him that I'd still think he wanted to bed me. When he did understand, he went bright red and looked like he wanted to crawl under the floor. Said Ylsa was going to skin him."

A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, "Oh, gods, I can imagine."

"He asked me if I even liked men." Neave smiled a little too. "I'd never thought about it, because what difference would it have made? I thought he was going to have apoplexy when I said that. Then he gave me the blanket off the bed and told me to stay put.

The next morning, they gave Garek some money for my keep and put me on Kris' Tantris. Mara gave me a bunch of poppy resin and Ylsa had to trance me or they never would have gotten me to the border."

"But, how did you break your ribs in the first place?"

Neave sighed, realizing why he'd brought the story up, "I...had a run in with a high born a little before that." The guilt was bitter in his mouth. He knew suddenly he needed to confess it to Talia; she deserved to know. She'd never forgive him, but he could request long circuits to get him away from Court to make certain she never had to look at him again.

She sensed his withdrawal behind his shields, "I'm sorry," she said, misunderstanding, "Don't talk about it, if it upsets you."

He rubbed at the sleeve over the mostly-healed slashes on his forearm and felt himself go white. "No, its not that. It's...Talia, I'm so sorry. You and Kris...I never thought that Ancar would...I mean even after I heard about the marriage proposal. I never thought Elspeth could be in danger. I never told anyone because I thought I must have imagined most of it. That's what I told myself anyway."  His mouth twisted. "I'm so, so sorry." All his Bardic training left his voice and Talia stared at him in alarm

He took a deep breath. Looking back into Talia's face, he said in a measured voice, "Two weeks before Kyldathar came for me, Prince Ancar came to the town. We'd heard some rumors before that about him, but we didn't credit most of them. The first place he came was Garek's."

Talia's eyes were huge.

"The first day or so, it was fairly ordinary stuff. I think so, anyway." he shrugged, "I don't remember most of it. But Kyril triggered a memory just before the battle...I knew there was something there, but...if I'd said something sooner, you and Kris wouldn't have walked into a trap."

"I don't understand."

"The mages...Ancar had them with him. They were using people to raise power from pain. It was in my head, all the time, but I didn't mention it to anyone. And when I finally did say something, Kris was dead and you..." he couldn't look at her anymore.

Very softly she said, "What did they do to you?"

This was much harder than telling Myste or Kyril. Talia always struck him as so...innocent. Small, shy and gentle, she had the demeanor of a woodlark. Even with all she'd been through, he hesitated. Then he remembered what Mara used to tell him-that being seen as innocent and harmless was wonderful camoflage.

He glanced up. Her face was perfectly nuetral and her brown eyes had taken on a stony glint.

"They...raped the girl who hung herself later." Kira's screams echoed in his head as loudly as ever. "They raped me too. But that wasn't what was so bad. They beat me and...and practically stripped the skin from my back." He sat on the bed with his back to her and pulled up his shirt to show her the scars, "They saw my Gifts, I guess. It made it so they could raise power from me more easily. It felt like they were trying to pull out my soul." he sat back in his chair. "They thought they'd pay off Garek because I was as good as dead. And they broke my ribs. Just for fun I guess."

"Wait," she spoke very slowly, "Kyril...just before the battle...he said he'd gotten some intelligence that the mages raised power from death-that we could track the mages through pain. That came from you?"

He nodded, looking at the candle on the table.

"I'd wondered where that came from." she said. "It made all the difference, you know. Grif and Davan couldn't get through the mage's protections alone. But I could track him down. Lead them there." Her voice trailed off, her energy turned inward. The hiss and crackle of the fire was the only sound for a long time.

 "Neave." 

He stared at his hands that were folded on his lap. "Yes?" he whispered, waiting for her to ask him to leave, to tell him to find Elspeth or Rynee so that she didn't have to see him.

"Look. At. Me." The words cracked out like the sound of a whip. The steely chill in her voice was all he deserved. Gathering the shards of his courage to face her condemnation, he looked at her, finally.

She didn't look angry. She looked sad and tired, but the hard glint hadn't left her eyes. "What happened to Kris and me. No one's responsible for it except Ancar. All right?" She reached out her hand to touch his, rather than recoiling from him as she ought. "We had warning days before, that things weren't right. We just kept doing what made sense. We knew...I knew something was wrong, but we had to find out what." She gasped as though fighting back a sob. "Ancar planned this for far too long and far too well. Please, don't blame yourself."

"But I..."

"You were a child, Neave. That's just the sort of thing a child would bury in the darkest corner of their mind. And even if you had remembered properly, Selenay would have still sent us. We had to find out what was going on."

"I..." He couldn't think of anything to say.

"Rynee's awfully clever, you know." she said, seemingly apropos of nothing. She sniffed, trying to hold back tears, "I keep blaming myself for Kris...and here she's got me telling you what she's been trying to tell me." She bent her head to her hands. "It isn't our fault, Neave." The words were gasped out between sobs as he reached out to hold her.

This time, it was she that brushed timidly against his shields. He opened them a little cautiously, not quite sure what she was about.

Uncomplicated friendship and gratitude reached out to him through her sending. No forgiveness, because there had never been any offense. In her eyes he had done everything he could. Everything a Herald could be asked to do.

In turn, because she was so vulnerable, he glimpsed her fears: never being whole again, never being able to trust, never feeling safe enough, her body never accepting loving. He sent back his confidence that she would heal, that she wouldn't feel this way forever. She would be able to share herself with her love without fear. Not today perhaps, but soon.

Eventually, Talia's healing body demanded more sleep and she dozed off in Neave's arms. The link they shared faded gradually and in the safety of his sister's affection, Neave slept too.

It was sometime later when Kyldathar woke Neave up, ::Chosen?:: she said. ::Don't startle, you'll hurt Talia. Rynee's coming in::

Neave was glad that Kyldathar had warned him. Otherwise he might have jumped when he heard the footsteps at the door. Instead he carefully helped the sleeping woman lie down.

Chapter Text

Elspeth took dinner with the Court once each week and spent mornings with the Council. If the Healers and her duties had allowed, she would have stayed every minute with Talia. The strain began to tell on her; her Grays and her court gowns were looser than they were a few weeks ago.

Her sleep had been disturbed since the night Talia struck them with her Gift. Most nights Neave heard her tossing around. Sometimes she'd wake up and they'd talk about small things. However there seemed to be things she wanted to confide, but was hesitant to.

Most afternoons, she spent a candlemark in the salle where she seemed to take out most of her frustration. Sometimes when he came in she would be throwing knives at the target as if it were her worst enemy. Maybe she was visualizing it as Ancar.

He didn't like to push her too much, but it was as though she was getting more anxious rather than less. "Elspeth?" he asked her one evening after Rynee had left. Talia was sleeping easily for once. "How are you doing with all this?"

She looked up from the letter she was reading. "I'm fine." she shrugged.

He smiled tightly. "Nobody's fine right now. And after the other night..." he let the sentence trail off.

She paled.

"How much did you get from her?" he asked as gently as he could.

She put down the letter, "I've been trying not to think about it. I..." she trailed off, "How much did you...?"

"It was pretty bad." he admitted. "She thought I was one of those swine. She threw what she was dreaming about at me...about Kris being dead and being in Ancar's dungeon." he paused for a moment, swallowed, "And what happened to her there. Kyldathar pulled me out pretty quickly though."

Elspeth wrapped her arms around herself as though she was chilled, although the night was so warm they didn't even have a fire going. "Gwena wasn't so fast." Bowing her head so her face was hidden by her unbound hair, she whispered, "The Healers don't want to talk to me about what happened. I understand but..." She looked up, her eyes pleading for something. "Neave, she wasn't just having a nightmare. She was remembering, wasn't she? That's exactly what happened to her."

Elspeth said the last shrilly, more loudly than she meant to. She clapped her hand over her mouth and looked worriedly at the door. After a moment, there was no sound from the bedroom, so she continued more quietly, "I knew what happened...I'm not stupid...but..." 

"Elspeth, a hell of a lot's happened in the last few weeks. Gods! You're Regent until Selenay gets back, you're looking after Talia all the time, you're meeting with the Council every day. Of course you feel dreadful." he said.

She shook her head violently, "Its not just that. I felt everything in her dream like it happened to me. It was bad enough that I knew she'd been...but to feel it. Gods."

Neave had been afraid of that. Kyldathar was so accustomed to pulling him out of nightmares that he hadn't had time to get too far into it. Perhaps his own familiarity with nightmares helped him sort out himself from Talia as well. Elspeth had no such history. He didn't know a whole lot about her actually, but he was pretty certain that this was her first experience with horror of this type.

"I would have died in that dungeon. I can't bear it..." One hand rose to cover her mouth and she closed her eyes, perhaps trying to fight back tears. She wiped her face with her sleeve. "Rynee keeps telling me I have to be careful not to upset her with what I'm feeling. She wouldn't even let me stay with her alone. I feel like a fool. Nothing really happened to me but I feel like...I don't know."

"Elspeth, it's all right. What she went through was horrible."

"Can I tell you something? Herald to Herald? And you won't repeat it?"

"Of course." He was taken aback that she felt she had to ask.

It must have shown on his face, because she blushed and said, "It's just I'd be really embarrassed if anyone else knew." She went redder, "Mother and Talia know, but I wouldn't want anyone else to. Talia and I argued the night before she and Kris left."

"I'd heard that."

Elspeth smiled bitterly. "Yes, but you didn't hear the details."

"No."

"I'd had a-a... well- an encounter. With one of the younger courtiers." Her blush looked almost painful. "He was flattering...he said he loved me. And I wanted to..." the word stuck in her throat. "...you know."

"So..?" Neave prompted.

"Talia caught us together in the hay barn. Turns out the boy was hoping to get into the throne by way of my breeches. And Lord Orthallen was encouraging him. To make it so that I would either have to take this boy as consort or wed Ancar. And then I don't know..maybe have Mother assassinated."

"But you never actually bedded him?" Neave asked. He'd seen enough of Court life to never go seeking a lover from those circles. Especially if he wanted the affair kept discreet.

"No. Gwena told Rolan what was happening. Talia came in like an avenging angel or something." Elspeth smiled sheepishly. "I didn't know she could be scary. She pulled the boy and me into a link so I saw what he was up to." She shuddered. "Then she told him to get back to his father's holding and never say a word or else he'd never sleep again."

"So, if the boy really didn't love you, what did you and Talia argue about?"

"My pride mostly," admitted Elspeth. "I felt like such a fool. I'd started hanging out with that boy and the others because I was feeling rebellious, I guess. Since Talia got back, things were different between us. She had more duties and not much time for me, I felt like. I started talking to that bastard Orthallen. He made it seem like...well, he made some of the more petty things I was thinking seem less so. He introduced me to Corby and the rest."

"Wait. Lord Corby's son?" Neave winced involuntarily.

"Yes, you know him?" asked Elspeth.

"I nearly broke his arm once. I pulled him off a serving maid. His father wanted to have me on charges. Glad to hear Talia dealt with him. He's a complete bastard."

Elspeth sighed and nodded seriously. "I've heard that he was taking liberties with some of the servants."

"Yes. The one I found him with was twelve. I'm sorry, now, that I didn't break his arm," said Neave mildly. "In fact, beating him to a bloody pulp has appeal."

Elspeth smiled a little. "You're always so calm. I see why Rynee wanted you up here. You make me think of what Alberich must have been like when he young."

Neave smiled back. "Maybe. I don't think I could scare people like he does."

"I think you could." Elspeth said, her smile getting wider, mischief gleaming in her eyes. "If you wanted too." She turned serious again. "I felt so guilty after we argued. And then she was gone. I was certain I could make it up to her after this whole state visit business was finished. And then, all of this happened."

"It's been hard."

Elspeth nodded, her face tight. "What they did to Talia...when she...it was like it was happening to me. I know it wasn't real, but...I..." she sniffed. Took a huge breath and stopped.

"You should talk to Rynee," he said. "She'll help you sort it out."

"You don't think I'm being foolish?" She twisted her fingers around each other.

"Gods, no." He said positively.

Elspeth smiled a little again, "Thank you. I was afraid no one would understand-they'd just think I was being a stupid child with an overactive imagination."

"Trust me, Rynee won't." Neave said, "But how does this relate to your lordling suitor?"

"It's just...After that...and what's happened..." She seemed to be pleading with Neave for something, but he couldn't understand what. "I never...I've never been with a man. But now, with a war on..."

Neave wasn't sure where she was going, so he waited patiently for her to find the words.

"If there were some foreign prince that could buy us an alliance against Ancar, Mother would have to allow it." she said shakily, "I'd be sold off like a common..." she stopped. "It's worse than before. And I have a better idea why, now. But it doesn't make it any easier. And how am I supposed to trust any man when I know any of them could be like Corby or Ancar?"

Not for the first time he wished he was better with words. The bards could teach him to tell a story, but that wasn't the same, "I'm sorry, Elspeth. I don't know what to say-I wish...I don't know." he finished rather lamely.  He tried again,"I think that you're getting yourself all tangled up over nothing. Your mother..."

"My mother has to think of the good of the Kingdom." She stood to begin pacing around the room. "I understand that. I didn't before, but now I do. I'm just a gaming piece."

"Elspeth, you're upset. I'm sure Talia wouldn't let your mother do that to you."

Wrong thing to say. Elspeth's face went white, "That's why she went to see Ancar in the first place. That's why she's lying in there," Her hand waved in the general direction of the door. "Broken and-and I can't see that she'll ever be right again."

"She's not broken." Neave affirmed. Talia did not need Elspeth seeing her that way. "They tried, but they didn't. She'll be well and whole, soon. Even the bad memories fade."

Again his words missed their mark. "What would you know about it?" she demanded. "It's so easy to say that when you don't know what you're talking about. You don't have to worry about being raped. You don't have to worry about being sold off like some damned common street whore." Elspeth's pretty mouth curled into an ugly expression of contempt and disgust as she said it. "You sit with her, night after night, and you just don't even...Don't you care?"

That hurt. Neave felt like she'd punched him in the stomach. He gazed out the window at the dark sky. Very carefully he drew a tight shield around his mind, not wanting Talia to get any of this. He counted to ten, rubbing his hand over the healed slashes on his forearm. He counted to ten again before he replied, "You don't have to be a woman to be raped." he spoke very quietly. "And boys are sold off too. You don't need to be female. Just helpless. With nothing else to trade."

He still gazed out the window so he wouldn't have to see her face. "What-what do you mean by that?" she said, sounding shocked.

"I mean, Your Highness," he said stiffly. "That before I was Chosen, I was a common whore. I was a damned whoreson little urchin who needed to earn my keep or starve. I was, in fact, sold off to the Heralds who rescued me. The fact is, I am quite distressed by current circumstances. I am merely trying to cope in my own way." He spoke most formally because he was not going to shout at the Heir outside of the bedroom of the Queen's Own.

He stood, still without looking at her. He brushed off his tunic and picked up a sheaf of paper and his drawing things from the desk, "I think it's best if I leave you to your rest." He didn't want to cope with her reaction, so he thought it best to go sit with the sleeping Talia.

It took him a long time to calm down. He was glad that the bardic training had taught him to dampen his projection so well.

"Neave?" Talia said softly.

Neave woke out of his doze in the chair all at once. The early morning light was coming in through the window. Talia had evidently slept solidly through the night. He smiled at her tiredly, "Good morning."

She smiled too. "Could you help me sit up? I think its almost time for breakfast." It was the longest really good sleep she'd had since she'd been home. She looked much better for it.

He helped her sit. Elspeth tapped lightly on the door, "Do you want us to help you dress and things or shall we wait for the Healers?"

"Actually," Talia said, smiling gently at them, "If you both don't mind playing lady's maid, I'd be grateful."

Elspeth seemed a little subdued while they helped Talia, furtively observing Neave under her eyelashes.

The Healers arrived right after Talia's breakfast was brought up. This morning it was Myrim, Devan and Rynee. As Elspeth and Neave were leaving, he saw Elspeth whisper something to Rynee who nodded. He sighed inwardly, relieved that Elspeth was going to take his advice.

He was walking tiredly back to his room when he heard soft hurried footsteps behind him. He turned to see Elspeth, "Wait!" she said. "Would you mind having breakfast with me again?"

He nodded curtly. "All right. Common room or my room?" He didn't want to go to her room. If she wanted to give him a dressing down for speaking to her the way he had, he wanted to be on either home or neutral ground. She was technically a Trainee and therefore had no such authority, but she was also currently Regent and that made telling her off a very grey area indeed.

"Your room, if you don't mind." she said.

Neave was glad he'd slept a little last night. He didn't have the urge to fall into his bed exhausted that he often did. When he'd closed the door behind the page who brought them food, he hesitated over the lock, then threw it. He didn't want any of the pages coming in looking for him in the middle of this.

As soon as he sat down at the table, Elspeth looked at him and said, "Neave. I'm very sorry I spoke to you the way I did. I was thoughtless. And mean." Her words had the ring of a speech. She must have been considering what to say all night.

"It's all right." He was surprised at her tone, "I think I may have been a little over-sensitive. I guess I assume that people have heard." He shrugged. He had expected to have to argue her around to understanding.

"No. It's not." she sighed, "I did sort of know. I mean, I knew you were from Hardorn and you'd come from a pretty rough background. Skif told me that you'd come from worse than him. And he said, when I asked, that your mother was a-a prostitute. I just really never thought about it before. I sat up most of last night thinking about it. That's why Rynee's has you looking after Talia isn't it? And why it doesn't seem to upset you as much as everyone else."

Neave had also had time to consider the conversation. In some ways it was a wonderful sign that what he had been had not occurred to Elspeth. Clearly, it was as Ylsa had said it would be, no one would ever know what he had been, unless he chose to tell them. On the other hand, perhaps this was the reason people like himself were Chosen. So that people like Elspeth could hear what the lives of the least of their subjects could be like.

"It was a long time ago." He said quietly, "And most days it doesn't bother me."

"Except when someone says nasty things. like I just did." Elspeth blushed. "I-I'd been wondering why you were so-I don't know-nonchalant about helping Talia with everything. I mean dressing her and helping her to the privy and...everything. I sort of assumed it was because you're used to helping the Healers, but..." Elspeth let the sentence trail off into a question.

Neave shrugged again.

The silence became uncomfortable. They both ate, trying to think what to say next.

"Have you arranged to meet with Rynee?" asked Neave finally.

Elspeth nodded. "When she finishes with Talia, she said she'd send a page to find me."

"You told her you'd be here?" Neave asked.

"I hope you don't mind." Shamefaced, she looked down at the table. "I hoped you'd talk with me."


 

When Neave saw Elspeth that evening, she looked better, less strained. She must have spent a considerable amount of time with Rynee and rearranged her meeting schedule, because she didn't appear in the salle before dinner.

When Talia had been settled for the night, Neave asked her, "How are you now?"

She smiled with less effort than she'd needed of late, "Better. Rynee is good. You were right, she didn't think I was being foolish."

"Good."

"Can I ask you something?" she said humbly.

"You can ask. I won't guarantee an answer." he replied.

"You and Christa, you were pretty close. Did you love her?"

That was not what he was expecting to be asked, "Yes, I loved her. I miss her like hell. Do you mean, was I in love with her?"

Elspeth nodded.

"No." Neave had thought long and hard about this, "Elspeth, Kyldathar will always be the first lady of my heart, I think. I'm not looking for anything deeper than friendship. From anyone. Actually, Christa had almost as many lovers as Destria. We laughed like hell when she got assigned as Christa's counselor. Christa was hoping to get Coroc. No, she was a good friend and a good lover, but that's all. Why?"

Elspeth blushed a deep crimson, but she kept her eyes on his, "You've been so good to me. I thought maybe...I like you a lot."

Some pieces began to fall into place. Like the strange pleading looks and some of the things she said in their nightly conversations. The way she kept showing up at the salle right about when he would.

"Oh." he said.

"I just...I've never been with anyone. And I wanted to. I need to know how it's supposed to be." 

He hadn't considered her as a lover before, she was the Heir for gods' sake.

She looked away, "I'm sorry. I'm being stupid." Her eyes swam and he realized abruptly that she took his silence for rejection.

"Elspeth, I just hadn't thought about it." he said gently, "I'm stupid that way." He moved closer to her and kissed her on the forehead.

She tilted her head up to kiss him on the lips.

He returned it, then he said, "Not here." he smiled down at her, "I'm on duty, even if you're supposed to be resting. Maybe in the morning?"

Chapter Text

"I think you should escort Elspeth in the wedding ceremony." Talia announced. They were alone and her eyes glinted mischievously as she said, "After all, I think you've been partnering Elspeth in more than dancing lately." A tilt of her eyebrow implied that she knew exactly what they did in the afternoons before Neave came on duty and Elspeth had a free candlemark.

Neave, who never blushed at the bawdiest of remarks, felt his face flame. She didn't seem annoyed, which was good, "I...yes." he admitted, knowing there was no point denying it, "She's a good friend." A little worried that Talia might think he'd somehow seduced Elspeth into his bed, he added, "It was sort of her idea."

Talia smiled slyly, "She's been in a much better mood. You must be enjoying yourselves."

Neave said nothing, just returned the smile tentatively, feeling his cheeks get hotter. "I hope we haven't been...well, I mean I hope you haven't picked up on..."

Talia giggled. "It took her about two days to tell me. She wasn't going to, but then I asked her what had put the sparkle back in her eyes."

Neave thought that it was the first real laugh he'd heard from her since she returned home. He relaxed, clearly Talia didn't mind.

"Well, she couldn't have picked anyone more discreet." Talia said, she reached over and took Neave's hand, "It's nice to know that things can be all right. Just be careful, she is the Heir and..."

It was Neave's turn to chuckle, "Believe me, I never forget it. I have no interest in getting caught in Court politics or Court gossip. Everyone thinks I have a pretty Bardic Apprentice who's been coming to my room."

"What do you mean?"

"Talia, nobody ever looks past what makes sense to them. Elspeth has a set of Russets I borrowed for her. No one in residence at my end of the Herald's Wing actually knows her and the servants just see the uniform." Kyldathar suggested this, as he was known for his connection with the bards, "The young lady I acquired them from had just earned her Scarlets and was leaving. She thinks I've got a highborn lover in the Court. All the Bards have it that Heralds bed the Court ladies..."

Talia giggled again, "You're more devious than Skif."

He grinned, "Now, as you love me, sister, please don't give me a part in the wedding."


 

Dirk and Skif returned just before classes restarted at the Collegium. Neave was reassigned from "Talia watch" to teaching a class in Hardornen.

It was gratifying to see the way Talia lit up whenever Dirk was in the room.

As the leaves were beginning to fall, Selenay returned from the border. With gratitude, Elspeth relinquished the role of Regent. After the Court Ceremony where Elspeth officially welcomed the Queen back to her throne, Elspeth shared her relief with Neave. She told him that she would never understand how her mother been able to take on the role of Queen when Selenay had been just a year older than herself. "It explains an awful lot about my mother" Elspeth said thoughtfully.

Neave was privately pleased by Elspeth's reluctance to power, since it indicated that she understood it.

The wedding was magnificent. By agreement, Elspeth didn't dance with Neave any more than she danced with any other Herald. In fact, as usual, Skif was making himself the center of gossip by claiming many more dances with Elspeth than was strictly wise.

Before Neave slipped off to find the Herald's gathering, he placed his wedding gift on the table with the others. By tradition, wedding gifts to Heralds were small. They didn't need the kind of gifts people who were beginning households would need, they were more much more personal and portable. Many Heralds carried small metal frames, no more than a palm length wide, that fit into saddle bags to hold portraits of loved ones. Neave had three of his drawings framed this way. One of Talia, one of Dirk and one of Kris.


 

At the the Sovvan memorial gathering, the newly dead were honored and the roll of names chanted by the priests. The rolls were much longer this year than in years past

Tradition had it that anything burned in a Sovvan fire would go to the loved one it was meant for. Neave tossed the portrait of Christa he'd completed into the fire, along with a letter he wrote to Ylsa which he'd done every year since she died.

As he turned away, he nearly ran into Dirk who had also tossed something into the fire. Talia sat on the ground near the fire, on a blanket with pillows propping her up, eyes streaming.

"I beg your pardon." Neave said, courteously, moving to let Dirk pass, not liking to intrude on their mourning.

Dirk's solemn face transformed into a broad smile. "I wasn't sure you'd be here." He gave Neave an awkward one armed hug, "Talia told me how much you helped her while I was gone. Thank you." Dirk said softly, "Come sit with us?"

"I'd like that." Neave didn't think he'd done all that much, and the time he'd spent with Talia had benefited him much more than it did her, but he was touched by the invitation. Often he sat alone at the memorial (and everywhere else), not necessarily by choice, but rather because he never completely got over his shyness, even with other Heralds.

Talia had picked up on that, because when he bent to give her a careful hug she told him. "Don't ever think you need sit alone when we're about, little brother." She gave him a tremulous smile through her tears.

The three of them sat quietly together, listening to the priests chant the Names and watching the fire burn down.


 

Winter was very quiet. Even the Court Midwinter Celebrations were said to be subdued. Neave wouldn't know, he avoided Court when he could.

Quite a few Heralds stayed at the Palace this year. Some of them went to the Court celebration, but the servants invited the ones who didn't down to the servant's hall for their celebration afterwards. Keren and Sherril were there, as was Myste and Alberich.

Neave thought it was a shame that Elspeth was trapped at Court. The only thing he would have liked to have seen was the entire Court standing to applaud Talia when she walked in on her own feet for the first time. It would be some time before she was up to anything strenuous, but now the undertone of gossip that she was crippled forever would stop.


 

"So, how long do you think you'll be gone?" Elspeth sat on his bed next to him. Neave wanted to tell her about his new assignment privately and before she heard from her mother or Talia. He knew she was going to be unhappy. They'd both been braced for his reassignment, but this was different from what either of them expected.

"We're going to leave around spring equinox. I don't expect to be back much before the winter after next."

"That's longer than a circuit." she said slowly.

"I'm not going to be on circuit." Neave took a deep breath, "They're sending me to Karse."

"Karse!?" sputtered Elspeth, "As-as a spy?" She was white as chalk.

Neave shrugged, "Yes."

"Do you know what they do to Heralds if they find them?" she squeaked.

He looked at her very seriously, "Yes. Herald Eldan has been briefing me."

Why you?" she demanded, "Did-did Mother find out about...?"

"Us?" He smiled. Elspeth had been terribly worried about how her mother might react if she had found out about them sharing blankets. "I don't think Selenay would have concocted something like this just to get rid of me. No. Alberich suggested me."

"But, why?" she wailed

"There's a lot of strange reports coming from Karse and someone needs to go find out what's true and what's not. I look Hardornen and there's a lot of Hardornen refugees in Karse at the moment. Besides, Alberich says I still speak Karsite like I learned it in a Hardornen whorehouse."

Chapter Text

The night's fog and drizzle was a blessing, although it made walking over these trails treacherous. Even the hill shepherds were staying close to home, for fear of losing themselves in the weather.

::Can you hear me yet?:: Neave Mindcalled, hoping he hadn't walked the wrong way in the dark. To most people, it would have been like trying to navigate with a blindfold on, but Neave's Farsight, although not any use for most of the usual purposes, gave him excellent night vision if he invoked it and unfocused his eyes just so. The effect made the night light up as though under a bright moon. More than once he avoided possible ambushes. It was a passive enough use of his power that neither the Karsite Sun priests nor Ancar's mages ever spotted him. He knew because he would be dead several times over if that hadn't been the case.

::Chosen!:: Kyldathar called.

Neave heaved a sigh of relief. He was very close to the border, then. ::I think I'm a candlemark away. Is there anyone with you? And did you bring any food?::

::No. I came up alone-But there's food in my bags and a clean uniform.::

::A uniform? I'm being recalled?:: Neave's heart lifted.

::Yes, love. New orders are in the bags too. They want to hear your report in person. We're going back to Haven.:

The prospective trek through the woods seemed much shorter than it had a moment ago. When he finally saw her through the drizzle, she positively glowed in his Sight.

::I've missed you, Chosen.:: She said as he stumbled down the wet hillside.

He hugged her around her neck. Pulled himself into her saddle, ::Come on, can we go somewhere dry?:: He wasn't cold yet, he'd been keeping himself warm with walking, but he'd soon get that way if he stopped and didn't change his clothes.

::There's a Way Station about a candlemark's ride away. Or the Guard Post which is a little more than that. Do you want to eat? There's dry rations there.::

Neave's hunger subsided some time ago. The hunger would be back again soon, but he thought he'd be better if he made himself some soup or porridge before he attempted anything as substantial as road rations. ::No, I'm tired. Just go to the Way station if its closest, love.:: Neave found a cloak folded up behind the saddle behind him and put it around him, pulling up the hood against the light rain.

::If you want to doze,:: Kyldathar said. ::Go ahead, I'll wake you if needs be.::

Neave could have fallen asleep standing up. He tucked the cloak around him and crossed his arms. After he closed his eyes, it seemed less than a moment before Kyldathar was waking him, ::We're there.::

Neave jerked, a little surprised he'd fallen so deeply asleep.

Instead of the Way Station, they were outside the Guard Post. Someone wearing a white uniform was at his knee, although he couldn't make out the face. "Neave? You must be absolutely exhausted," a woman's voice said. "Come on, let's get you inside."

"I-I'm all right." The cold seeped into his bones as he slept and he was shivering. The cloak helped a lot, but his clothes were still wet. At last, out of the rain in the warmth of the stable, Neave swung out of the saddle.

One of the stable hands came over, "I'll take care of yer lady, there, Milord Herald."

::Go on, Chosen. You're tired.:: Kyldathar gave him a nudge with her nose.

Neave thanked the man and didn't protest when the Herald took him by the elbow and led him into a room just off of the stable.

A fire was lit in the hearth and hot food sat on the hob. He finally took a proper look at the other Herald, "D-Destria." he said. He shivered and now his teeth were chattering.

She smiled, took his wet cloak. "Get out of those clothes before you freeze to death." she said. She went back out into the stable closing the door behind her, while he started stripping off his soaked clothes. She came back in a moment with a clean set from the guard stores and a few towels. "Your Companion told mine that she was bringing you here about half a candlemark ago."

Neave took the towels and dried off his wet hair before pulling on the dry shirt. In a moment he was in the first set of clothes that was both clean and dry that he'd worn in three months. Destria walked in and out a few times, taking the wet things and bringing his bags for him.

He looked over to the food on the hob: hot soup, brown bread and tea. Kyldathar must have caught his thought about food and brought him here. And told Destria's Companion. He filled the bowl and sat down right on the hearth with his back to the fire.

::Thank you, love.:: he said to Kyldathar.

::I assumed you wouldn't mind.::

Destria came in again and sat down on the chair opposite the fire. She didn't say anything for a few minutes.

Neave ate his first bowl of soup without tasting it, then moved on to the loaf of bread.

"If you don't mind me saying," said Destria at last. "You look like a scarecrow. When was your last decent meal?"

Neave smiled wryly as he poured himself tea, adding a generous amount of honey and cream. "Two, maybe three days ago." He didn't tell her that it had been that long since he'd eaten at all. He'd been trying to avoid being seen by Ancar's press gangs near the border. Given that it was so close to when he was supposed to rendezvous with Kyldathar, he figured he wouldn't risk stealing food.

Truth to tell, the average Hardornen didn't have enough to steal. Ancar was doing his best to bleed his small holders dry. If he wasn't pressing the able bodied young men into soldiering, he was taxing the landsmen so heavily that they were barely left enough to keep body and soul together. The last winter had seen grain shortages in the border towns, not due to a bad harvest, but exorbitant taxes to support Ancar's war on Valdemar.

Destria winced little at his answer, "I'm sorry you came in so late, I'm not sure where to put you. They're pretty full up in the barracks."

Neave shrugged, "Give me a clean bedroll and I'll sleep in the stable with Kyldathar. I've been sleeping in ditches for weeks, it'll be positively luxurious by comparison."

"Are you sure?" Destria asked.

"Oh yes," Neave affirmed. He hadn't seen Kyldathar for three months and then it had only been to pass on written reports and get some supplies from her. It was far too dangerous to take a Companion into either Karse or Hardorn right now. In Hardorn, Neave had seen several ordinary white horses put down just because of their color. People were even butchering light gray horses on the off chance they might be taken for Companions. As a result they'd been apart for far too long, often unable to keep in touch even mentally. Neave was happy for the excuse to stay with her.

Destria walked out and returned after a few minutes with blankets. While she was gone, Neave finished up the loaf of bread and most of the soup, feeling full for the first time in ages.

"Thank you," he said gratefully.

"We'll talk in the morning," said Destria. "You look like you're going to fall over."

Neave smiled, nodded in agreement. He walked back out to the stable. Kyldathar was settled in the loose box. He wrapped up in a couple of blankets and lay down with his head on her shoulder.

It was light when he next opened his eyes.

:Chosen?: Kyldathar poked his shoulder.. ::There's someone here.:: Her mind voice was overlaid with the reassuring sense that the "someone" was harmless. Otherwise, Neave was likely to greet them with six inches of steel at their throat.

"Herald Neave?" called a woman's voice. Not Destria, although she sounded familiar. She tapped on the half door of the loose box "It's gone noon. I wondered if you wanted something to eat?"

Neave stood up, rubbing his eyes and stretching. "That sounds like a wonderful idea." he said. He pushed his hair out of his eyes and looked properly at the green clad woman. "Healer Deena?" he exclaimed.

She grinned broadly. "I wasn't sure you'd remember me." she said.

Neave grinned back. "You look just the same." It was true, her hair was graying now, and she was perhaps a little heavier, but she was exactly the same otherwise.

"Oh, go on with you." She laughed, "You have greatly changed, my lad. I wouldn't have known you if Destria hadn't told me who was out here. I'd've never thought you were that same poor scrap that Ylsa brought in. Although you look like you need some feeding up again."

"I think I do." he agreed.

"Well, they're giving second call for the noon meal."

Neave pulled on his boots and followed Deena down the hall. Apparently there were enough stationed at the Guard post now that meals were being served in shifts. No wonder Destria worried where to put him. The Guardsmen were probably sleeping in shifts too.

He collected some food and slid in beside a Guardsman. Deena sat on his other side. He was starving now. Deena watched him eat with a sort of proprietary air. "Been on short rations for a while, then?" she asked.

He nodded; he wasn't the first Herald to turn up here looking like a starved rat, given that no one was taking much notice of him other than the occasional sympathetic glance.

"You haven't changed that much," observed Deena. "You still don't talk a lot."

He smiled and shrugged. "I don't have a lot to say at the moment."

The Guardsman beside him stood up to leave and Destria sat down with her own food. "Thought you were going to sleep all day." she said lightly, "The Commander wasn't happy when I told him where I'd put you. He reckoned we could have found you a cot or turfed someone out of their bed."

Neave shook his head. "I was fine. And I won't put someone else out of their bed."

Destria smiled. "I told him that."

"As I recall, the last time you were here, you slept out with your Companion, mostly." said Deena.

Neave smiled again, a little sheepish, nodded.

"Oh?" Destria asked. "When were you out here last?"

"When I was Chosen. I had a couple broken ribs and it was winter. Kyldathar wouldn't have been able to get me back to Haven the shape I was in. Ylsa, Dirk and Kris brought me back. It's got to be almost eight years now." Neave replied, adding it up in his head.

Deena nodded, "You should have seen his Companion. She all but dragged Ylsa off with her teeth. They decided that it would be better to go as Guardsmen rather than Heralds. The whole time they were finding uniforms that fit and horses, that Companion paced back and forth in front of the gate. If she'd had hands she would have been wringing them. And I would swear Ylsa and that Companion were arguing about Ylsa's plan. Any of the Guard who were here that day who might have thought that Companions were nothing more than clever beasts got over that notion."

"She did argue with Ylsa," Neave said. "She was upset that Ylsa wouldn't let her come."

"So they brought you back from Hardorn?" Destria asked. "Did you have to leave your family?"

"I didn't really have a family. There was a woman that had sort of adopted me, but she wasn't related to me. Oddly enough, she was Valdemaran."

"Did you see her again?" Destria asked, interested

"No." Neave looked for Mara in his guise as a Hardornen refugee. Garek was still there, but all the girls were different. "She said she was going to take a caravan to Jakatha. I hope she did."

The three of them were quiet for a moment. They all knew how bad things had gotten on the Hardornen side of the border. Refugees carried terrible tales.

"So, where are you bound for now?" asked Deena to change the subject.

"Back to Haven." replied Neave.

Later that night, Destria and Neave sat in the cramped room off the stable, it was just a closet with a hearth really. It was used for warming up after coming in from outside and the stable hands kept their food hot or boiled their tea kettles there. It was the only one that had anything like privacy. Destria was sleeping on a cot in the Healer's quarters, it would have been difficult to talk there.

Neave planned to leave early the next morning, his guessed his report wasn't likely to create any great changes in tactics, but it seemed that all intelligence was important. For the moment, he was enjoying the chance to clean up and get another couple of meals.

"It's good to see you back on duty." Neave told Destria. The last time he'd seen her, she been just getting out of bed and walking around the Palace grounds

Destria smiled a little sadly, "They've got me here to relay messages because I'd be no damned good if I had to fight." She rotated her right arm slowly. "The arm's still stiff and I can't swing a sword anymore." Neave had noticed that she was doing many tasks left handed. Her right hand was scarred and clumsy. "My Mindspeaking is strong enough that I can reach Kyril from here though. If we weren't on a war footing, I guess they'd have me in Haven or as a courier. As it is, they want a strong Mindspeaker at all the border Guardposts."

"So, have they officially declared a war yet?"

"No, its still just border skirmishes." Destria sighed. "Its unnerving really. And the refugees who come over the border..." She shuddered. "Their stories give me nightmares."

Neave nodded, thinking about some of the more nightmarish things he'd seen.

"How is it, over there?" Destria asked. As a fellow Herald, she had the right to ask about his mission.

"Bad. They're not going to like what I have to report. Looks like Ancar's trying to put together a real army and doesn't care if he takes every last able man to do it. I don't know how the hell he expects to train them, but perhaps the lash can train them up faster." He shuddered now. "They're coming down mercilessly on anyone who's seen as disloyal. A lot of the ordinary people believe what Ancar's telling them. If they haven't seen the atrocities themselves, they're hard to credit." Neave stopped to swallow a mouthful of his tea, "A lot of the people are blaming us for the grain shortages. Casting us as raiders and thieves."

"What do you mean atrocities?" asked Destria slowly.

Neave sighed heavily. "If someone raises a voice against Ancar or his tactics, there are reprisals. I've seen people flogged in the public square. One man, used to be a village headman, pressed to death under a board that they piled with stones. There's one or two villages where everyone's just...gone. You find the bodies of women and children, but the men have disappeared. I've seen more than a few women who never wished to raise a sword get pretty skillful, pretty quickly though. They're fleeing this way, if at all possible."

Destria swallowed, her face gone white, her mouth pressed into an angry line. "This is the type of thing we've been hearing from refugees. And worse."

Neave nodded. "I think Ancar's gotten rid of any of the officers who might have opposed him. His methods have become more extreme lately."

"When do you plan to leave?" asked Destria.

"First light." Neave yawned, standing up. "I must sleep. I've been shorting myself for weeks."

Destria clasped Neave's hand with her good one, kissed him on the cheek, "Go get some sleep then. You need it."

It was long before first light when Kyldathar woke him. He ate a hasty meal and they were on the road. They pushed hard to make it to Haven, only stopping at Kyldathar's insistence that Neave stop to eat at inns along the way. His Whites were about two sizes too big for him.

Chapter Text

"Have you seen his army with your own eyes?" the Lord Marshall asked.

Neave sat in the Council chamber facing the full Council for the first time in his Heraldic career. He hoped he conveyed the full import of what he witnessed. Talia and Selenay were eager for their spies to give their reports in person to convince the Council. The further from the border one came, the more distant and small the events on the Hardornen border seemed. Half the Council seemed to have forgotten the fact that their first battle with Ancar had been won by pure good luck.

Neave nodded, "I've seen enough. He has press gangs all over the country side. I saw one of the outposts where they were training some of them."

The Council members shifted uneasily in their chairs. "But, it's harvest time. Surely he hasn't...he can't have conscripted men in those numbers," Lady Cathan said. "His people will be facing starvation next winter."

"Frankly, Lady, I don't think he cares." Neave spoke clearly but quietly, so that the Councilors leaned forward to hear him. A trick to get them to pay close attention to his words. "Many of them are just short of starving now, and he's got a fair number of them blaming us. If there's no wheat for the merchants to buy, they don't know it's because Ancar is leaving no one to work the farms."

Selenay and Talia exchanged a dark glance, "Have you any more information on his mages?" asked Selenay.

Neave nodded. "There's a lot of tales around, but it seems that Ancar is putting most of his efforts into an army of men and steel this time. He does have some of his mages stationed with the army. I'm not sure what they're there for, apart from putting the fear of the gods into the men. The things I saw for myself were all accomplished with ordinary men and muscle."

Neave outlined for the Council some of the more extreme things he had seen. Finally Talia stood, "I believe Councilors, that we need to make a decision on this now. Tonight. I don't think we have any more time for gathering intelligence." Talia turned to address Neave, "Do you agree, Herald?"

"Yes, from what I saw, we need to make our plans as soon as may be." Neave replied.

Talia sat again and Selenay rose. From where he sat, Neave saw Talia nudge her in the leg. Selenay turned her head to the Councilors beside her. "Does anyone have further questions?" At the shaking of their heads, the queen sat gracefully and nodded at Neave. ""Thank you, for your report. Herald Neave." 

Neave rose at the dismissal and bowed himself out of the Council chamber, grateful that he needn't stay at what looked to be an all night meeting.

The hall was quiet. Because of the lateness of the hour, the pages had been dismissed from the Council and Herald Trainees had taken their places. The Palace was subdued, the atmosphere one of waiting.

As soon as he and Kyldathar checked in, they told him the Council wanted to hear his report. He'd bolted a quick bite and changed his clothes before going to the meeting that had already been in progress. Now that he was done with the ordeal of reporting to the entire Council, he was tired and hungry again. Two weeks of inn food hadn't restored all the weight he'd lost.

For the better part of the past two years, he had lived with the same constant hunger he'd lived with as a child. Since getting back to Valdemar, he returned to the same habit of eating he remembered from his first days in Haven. The availability of food after scarcity caused him to want to eat as often as possible. He was careful never to eat to fullness-he'd seen people make themselves sick that way. Rather, he ate small meals as often as he could get them.

It was too late to ask someone to bring him some food, but he thought he'd help himself to something from the kitchens before retiring.

"Neave?" called a voice from behind him.

He turned to see Elspeth. The Council was taking a recess, otherwise Elspeth would be still stuck there. Other members were filing out as well, talking quietly to each other.

Neave stood until Elspeth caught up with him. She threw her arms around him, "I'm so glad you're back."

He returned the embrace, "It's good to be back." He held her at arms length, "You look amazing in Whites." he said sincerely.

She turned a little pink and giggled.

"Is the Council going to need you back?" Neave asked.

Elspeth sobered and sighed "Yes. We're taking a candlemark for the Councilors to get their wits together before there's a vote. It's likely to be another long session, after that."

Talia came up beside Elspeth, smiled and held her arms out, "Give me a proper greeting now, brother." she said.

Neave hugged her too, pleased that Talia had taken a moment to come see him. "Thank you for saving me in there." he said.

Elspeth looked confused but Talia's eyes twinkled. "You Felt like you would have preferred to be on the battle field rather than spend another moment with that many eyes on you. I assumed you'd take Selenay's simple thanks rather than listen to a speech." she said.

Neave smiled and nodded. "I hope it wasn't that obvious." Public speaking had been a difficult skill for Neave to master. He finally gotten over his stage fright through the help of a few Bardic friends. They pointed out that crowds were only ever going to be looking at the uniform, not him and that he should concentrate on that. After that, he'd always thought of his uniform as a kind of shield. This trick had finally enabled him to speak in front of a group without his voice shaking. He never grew to like it though.

Elspeth shook her head. "Not to me, it wasn't"

"I think I was the only one who could have noticed," confirmed Talia.

"So, what's the likely plan?" Neave saw that there were circles under both Talia and Elspeth's eyes and lines of anxiety between Talia's eyebrows. He didn't imagine that any of the other agents in Hardorn had better news than he. The only good news he could pass on to the Council was that Karse was far too embroiled in its own internal strife to take advantage of their precarious situation.

Talia shook her head. "Selenay's going to ask for help from Rethwellan. The only question now is who's going to be the envoy. We're also considering hiring mercenaries, but the Council is against it."

"I can imagine," said Neave. "But, I understand that most other nations do so. Some of the discontent in Hardorn comes from people remembering that Alessandar never used to conscript men. If the regular army wasn't enough, he paid professionals. Most of them seemed to do as good a job as the regulars. At least that's the talk."

"But, fighting for money. What kind of person does that?" asked Elspeth with a shudder. "It seems wrong somehow. And then if we win, what's to stop them from turning against us?" Clearly, Elspeth fell on the side of the Councilors who were against it.

Talia replied, "Eldan seems to think his contact is a trustworthy one, and even his Companion was willing to vouch for this Kerowyn."

Elspeth didn't look convinced, "Yes, but he met her-what? Five years ago? Before she was even made Captain of this group. How much could leadership have changed her? And does this Mercenary Guild's Codes truly bind its members?"

"From what I've heard, it does," put in Neave. "The word was that Ancar put the Guild out of Hardorn because he didn't care for their scruples. I suppose their codes are as binding as any other guild's." He didn't say that, from what he remembered, Guild Mercenaries were fairly welcome customers at Gareck's. They didn't tend to mistreat the girls or even himself. If they were looking to play roughly, they paid accordingly. It was a point of pride that they were mercenaries, not brigands.

Like the army regulars, some regiments were better than others, of course, but Guild Mercs were still pounds better than the village toughs who also used to frequent Gareck's. And compared to the Hardornen regulars now...Neave shuddered involuntarily.

"I have to get back," said Talia. She hugged Neave again, "Go get some sleep. You look dead tired."

The next day, he slept until well past noon, enjoying a long sleep in a soft bed in a locked room. He really hadn't had the sensation of safety since he'd crossed the Karsite border at the beginning of his assignment

Neave had been given a month's leave after his long stint as a spy. He wasn't sure what he was going to do with himself. He had no family to visit, so he had nowhere to go. His plan was to catch up on two years worth of sleep and news.

He woke when he heard envelopes slide under the door. Elspeth sent him a note that she was free for sparring that afternoon. Their code for the possibility of partnering each other more intimately later. She also said that if he didn't feel up to sparring yet, she'd be happy with his company for just dinner.

He wrote a reply saying that sparring, of any sort, would have to wait until his nerves were a little less edgy, but dinner and conversation would be more than welcome. On his way to the bathing room he handed it to a passing page.

Chapter Text

"Someone get me a Healer!" Eldan barked. Someone dashed off on a Companion to fetch one.

Kerowyn lay in Eldan's arms unconscious, but she had woken long enough to say a few words before passing out again. Those few words meant her sword would have the time to Heal her before she could take damage to her brain. For a moment Prince Darren had been afraid that the blow had killed her.

Kero's lieutenant, Shallan charged over on her horse. "Captain!" she cried, white as a sheet.

"It's all right, Shallan." said Darren wearily, coming to stand at her knee, "She spoke to us. A Herald went to get a healer.” He lowered his voice, for Shallan’s ears only. “And she has Need."

Shallan’s eyes closed for a moment as though she was offering a prayer. When she opened them, she said,  "I-I'll go find one of ours, milord, The Captain…" she trailed off.

“Yes. Go.”

Selenay looked curious at the exchange between Shallan and Darren but said nothing. Finally, Darren turned back to her. Again, as he had been the moment he had first seen her up close, he was struck dumb by the sight of her.

She had apparently recovered her voice, though, "My lord," she said formally, "I seem to owe you my life. Moreover, perhaps my kingdom."

All of Darren's eloquence escaped him. "I-yes," he stammered, the words trapped in his throat. To cover, he moved to complete the act that had been interrupted by the attack on Kerowyn. He took Selenay's hand in his and kissed it in his best Courtly manner, "I am very pleased to make your acquaintance." he said falling back on formality. Selenay's hand trembled in his. He fought the urge to pull the woman into an embrace and kiss her. What on earth was wrong with him? It was perhaps the giddiness of the battle won.

Or the giddiness of being Chosen. His Companion moved to stand beside him and touch noses with Selenay's Companion. Darren had the distinct feeling that Selenay's Companion was offering congratulations to Jasan.

"It seems, Your Majesty, I am to remain here. Jasan informs me that his Choice has made me a Herald." Jasan had not told Darren this in words, but it was as if the knowledge was sliding itself into Darren's mind. A good deal of information was just suddenly there. It was the sensation of recalling a long forgotten piece of music, the more he thought about it, the more fragments of it came to him.

Selenay smiled like a sunrise. "And you are most welcome, my lord ..?"

"Oh. My apologies." He returned the Queen’s smile a little embarrassed. "Prince Darren, Lord Marshall of Rethwellan." He hesitated. "Ah. Perhaps I should say former Lord Marshall."

He still held her hand. She seemed to realize it at the same moment. She looked down at their clasped hands and turned a little pink, as though she was a young village maiden rather than the victorious ruler on the field of battle. They let go reluctantly.

Darren heard a teasing chuckle in his mind from Jasan.

The next moment, Jasan had sobered again. :: There's a problem with some of your men.:: he said urgently. :: Get up here.:: he wanted Darren to mount.

"Pardon me, lady..."

Selenay mounted her Companion even as Darren turned back to her. "Come on," she cried, "Before it turns to more bloodshed."

"What's happening?" Darren asked as Jasan cantered in Selenay's wake.

:: A Companion is wounded.::  Jasan's tense mindvoice replied,:: One of your men offered to help the Herald 'put down his horse'::

"Ah, hell." Darren realized that his men would see the Companions as beasts like Kerowyn's war steeds. Intelligent and valuable, certainly, but when severely injured, an animal to be put out of its misery.

Selenay had arrived a breath before Darren did. The Herald stood with his sword out between Darren's officer and the bloodied mare, "I will tell you one last time," the Herald was saying in a quiet and deadly voice, "You will walk away, or I will gut you and leave you for the crows."

The officer and two of his men stood around the Herald, giving him ample room, but trying to position themselves to rush him. When Darren rode up the officer turned to him, "My Lord, the lad's addled. There's not a scratch on him, but we found him under his horse, knocked out. Stunned, I think, as he doesn't look like he's hurt at all. But maybe he hit his head-I don't know. When we got him out from under the mare, he seemed sensible, but he would not leave her. Then he demanded a healer for the horse." The officer shook his head at the injured man’s raving. "I can see the poor thing is in pain. I know how it is to be attached to a mount, so I offered to help him do the needful, and he just went mad." This officer loved animals; the sight of one suffering broke his heart.

While they spoke, Selenay got down from her Companion who moved around to the head of the injured Companion.  

One of the nearby men reached out and grabbed Selenay’s arm to prevent her from getting too close. "Lady…” He looked into her face and choked. “Your Majesty…” he said weakly, the color draining from his face.“The lad’s out of his head.”  

The Queen just shook him off, not making any comment about a common soldier laying hands on Her Royal Personage. She hardly seemed to notice in her anxiety for the wounded Companion and Herald. "Neave! It's all right. We’re here." Selenay murmured as she drew near, heedless of his blade. "Put up your sword. They're not...they just made a mistake. Kyril's sent someone to find a Healer."

“Majesty.” The young man croaked. He dropped his sword to the ground and indicated the Companion’s body, “Kyldathar…She…” He shook like a leaf in the wind.

“I know.” She put her arm around his shoulder and steered him to sit down at the mare’s head.

Darren turned back to his men. The Rethwellan Regulars openly stared at the spectacle of the Valdemaran Monarch sitting on the muddy ground with one of Her Heralds, supporting him as he wept. "We will take care of this," he said to the officer, "you and your men go and help with the mopping up."

"Aye, my lord."

The downed Companion breathed quickly and harshly; red foam flecked her mouth. Neave stroked her nose and cradled her head in his lap. In a choked whisper, he told Selenay, "I don't know how long we were down. I don't remember what hit us but look..." his hand came up from under the mare's body, red with her blood. "How much blood can they lose?" he wiped his bloody hand on the thigh of his uniform, "I think someone came in underneath...that's the last thing I remember anyway...there was no room to parry and..." his voice trailed off, his words lost in a sob.

Two Heralds came pounding up, each with a green robed healer. The older of the two Heralds sat down on the other side of Neave, "I brought two Healers who've worked with Companions before. If it is possible, they will save her."

Neave nodded vaguely.

"Thank you, Kyril," said Selenay to the newcomer. "Were you hurt, Neave?"

"N-no." The lad shook his head, but he still shivered as though from a deep chill, his face a sickly ashen hue. "I think I just blacked out when they hit Kyldathar."

"Prince Darren?" called Selenay. In spite of the gravity of the situation, a thrill went through Darren at the sound of his name from her mouth, "There's a cloak behind my saddle. Would you hand it to me?"

"Of course" he replied.

A Companion came forward, maneuvering to put his saddle in Darren’s easy reach.  As Selenay took the cloak and wrapped it around Neave, Darren found his heart swelling with admiration. It reminded him of his old teacher Tarma. She had taught both he and Kerowyn to value the blood of those they commanded as if it were their own. Rather than send for a Healer and let them carry on with it, the Queen sat on the ground, heedless of either battle grime or the dignity of her office and wrapped her own cloak around the dazed, bloodstained Herald as tenderly as if he were her child. What’s more, the Valdemarans just worked around the pair as though this were a regular occurrence

"What can I do?" Darren suddenly felt foolish to be standing there staring.

It was one of the Healers, working on the Companion, who answered, "We cannot move the Companion tonight, my lord. Perhaps you could have your men just set up a tent around us? If there are any other Heralds or Companions injured, we will need a large one."

"Captain Kerowyn was injured." said Selenay, "And she has been Chosen…two in one day! Have the others bring her here."

Darren bowed to Selenay, "As you wish, Your Majesty." Again he was rewarded with Selenay's smile. He wondered as he went to make the arrangements, what it was that he could do to make her smile at him like that always.

Chapter Text

Once Darren gave the order to set up a Healer's tent on the battlefield, he went to make sure that it was one of the Skybolt's Healers who was tending Kero. She was edgy about outsiders knowing that Need was anything but an ordinary sword.

As Darren had expected, Shallan had gotten one of their Healers to look at their Captain-she'd brought him herself, before the Herald that Eldan had returned. The Skybolt's Healer made a great show of examining and working on her. When he was done, he reassured Darren and Herald Eldan that Kerowyn was in a Healing trance, not a coma, "She will be fine in the morning. It was just a glancing blow; her helm took most of it."

Eldan, who'd witnessed the attack, looked dubious though the Valdemaran Healers were satisfied.

They took Kerowyn into the tent followed by the Companion who'd apparently Chosen her. Darren hoped to be on hand when Kero came to and discovered she had gotten a Companion to go with her magic sword.

“Make sure she has her sword,” Darren told the Healer in charge. “Put it against her cot or something. She will react badly if she wakes up without her weapon."

She nodded knowingly; all the healers here were accustomed to fighting men and women.

Selenay and the older Herald that had been with her before stood outside the tent, talking quietly. Darren walked over to them, followed by Jasan.

"We need to send for Talia." Selenay was telling the Herald, "If..." she saw Darren and whatever she was going to say died on her lips. She recovered quickly, however, clearing her throat, "Elspeth can handle things there for a few days."

The older Herald frowned in concentration for a moment, "Elcarth says that Talia and Dirk will be on their way in a candlemark." said the Herald.

"Is there anyone here that is close to him? I do not want him to be alone if the worst happens."

"I will ask Alberich to look in on him."

"Perfect. Thank you. Would you also see to getting the lists of other casualties?" Selenay was keeping one eye on Darren as she spoke.

The Herald nodded and bowed slightly to Selenay, then to Darren, "Of course, I will start that now. If you need me for anything else, call me." he mounted his Companion who had come trotting up.

Darren gave Selenay the same kind of half bow he had seen the Herald give her. "Your Majesty." he said formally, but with (he hoped) his most charming smile

She laughed kindly, and Darren warmed right through, "Please, Prince Darren" she replied, "Just call me Selenay."

"Then, you must call me Darren," he told her, glad that this was going so well. He glanced toward the tent, "How is the Companion?" he asked, sobering.

She sighed, biting her lip, "The Healers cannot say. She lost a lot of blood. Those bastards hit her with a short blade, fortunately. If it had been a sword, she would have bled out quickly." Selenay's blue eyes clouded with an old sadness, and Darren wanted to put his arms around her again, this time to comfort her. He could not remember ever being affected by a woman like this before.

"What happens to the Herald if the Companion dies?" Darren asked quietly. He figured he had better know what he was in for.

Selenay looked from him to Jasan and back, "Sometimes they are Chosen again. They are never quite the same, though."

"What about the ones who do not get Chosen again?" Darren asked, "Do they have to give up being a Herald?"

Selenay looked bleak, "They usually die." Her Companion nuzzled her cheek, and for a moment she leaned against the stallion, drawing strength until her mouth firmed and her chin rose. "Still, Kyldathar's young and Companions are remarkable. I won't give up hope yet." She smiled at Darren again. "I believe there is some attempt at food preparation being made. Would you care to join me in my tent for dinner?"

In answer, Darren extended his arm courteously, delighted to have some excuse to have her arm in his.


 

Kerowyn was vaguely aware of Healer Jaran making a big fuss of her. He knew that Need would take care of her, but she instructed him to do just this if she ever took a severe wound while they were working on a contract. Someone picked her up and put her on a litter, and she drifted off again.

When next Kerowyn came back to herself, she was lying on a cot covered in a layer of warm blankets. She could not think where she was. She heard the sound of two men talking quietly. She opened her eyes to slits, her head ached, and she wanted desperately to go back to sleep. A gray-haired man sat with his back to her on the other side of a large tent. The red light of sunset was coming in through the tent flap.

With a cold shiver, she realized what had woken her. The two men were talking in Karsite. All thoughts of sleep were pushed away, but she could not seem to get rid of the cobwebs. She wondered if she had been drugged.

She reached out her hand. Star-eyed be praised, Need was right beside her, leaning up against the cot. She would make sense of that later.

There only seemed to be the two men here and the one closest to her was sitting on the floor at his ease. The other one was sitting, wrapped in blankets, next to a large pile of rugs or something. He did not look like any threat; his pale face,  overly bright eyes and the thin sheen of sweat on his brow marked him as injured or ill.

Kerowyn took a deep breath, grasped Need's hilt and surged out of the blankets piled on top of her, pulling the sword from her sheath. Kerowyn's knees were shaky, but she held Need steadily enough, pointing her at the man closest to her.

He turned around at the sound of her standing up. His sharp Karsite face was seamed with old scars.  He tensed as if to spring to his feet, then he deliberately relaxed. He did not stand, but raised open hands to show he was unarmed, "Peace, Captain." he said in oddly accented Valdemaran, "You are among friends."

::Chosen! Calm down!::  Someone mindspoke to her. Kero shook her aching head looking for the source. It was a woman's voice, as trusted as Tarma's or her Grandmother's.

A Companion stood beside her.

"Oh." she said vaguely to the horse-shaped person."You weren't a dream."

:No, kechara, I am not.: said Sayvil gently.

Kerowyn's mind lurched into functioning, and questions poured out.  :: Who's that? Where am I? Why is a Karsite here? And why does my head hurt so much?::  She Mindspoke to the Companion, dropping Need’s point a trifle. With a start, she saw that what she had taken for a pile of textile was another Companion, also covered in blankets like the injured man.

:: That is Herald Alberich. He and Herald Neave always speak in Karsite. Your head hurts because someone hit you over the head with a mace. You are in the Healer's tent. You cannot wake up properly because you are supposed to be in a Healing trance. Moreover, you need to lie back down before you fall.::

"Oh," said Kerowyn cleverly. She sheathed Need, "Sorry," she muttered at the dark haired man, who gave who gave her a half smile and a nod before he turned back to the other man.

She lay back down, making sure that she tucked Need next to her on the cot.

It was quite dark when she woke up, feeling much more alert. Need tugged at her insistently; she wanted Kero to do something. Kerowyn lay quietly trying to figure out what the sword, which had been remarkably quiet since they had entered Valdemar, wanted.

::Chosen?:: The voice of her Companion in her head made Kero jump, :: Sorry.: said Sayvil,::I heard you wake up. How do you feel?::

::Better.:: Kerowyn sat up slowly. In the dark her knee brushed a cot set up right next to hers.

::That's Eldan,:: supplied Sayvil. ::He wanted to be nearby.::

A figure came in holding a candle, wearing the green robes of a Valdemaran Healer. Kerowyn could not tell if it was a man or woman. They leaned over the Herald curled up with his Companion.

The Healer straightened and turned to see Kerowyn sitting up on her bed, "Captain? You are awake. Do you need anything?" asked a woman's voice.

"No. No, I am fine," She replied softly, not wanting to wake Eldan or the other man that was lying near the sleeping Companion.

The Healer walked over to her. "Would you look up please?" Kerowyn did so. The Healer brought the candle to where she could see Kero's eyes. She put a hand over one of Kero's eyes, took it away. Did the same with the other eye, checking to see that both her eyes reacted to the candlelight. The Healer smiled, looking pleased. "Your Healer said you mostly needed rest. He has gone to get some sleep now. He said he'd be back to check on you in the morning. You were very lucky; you should be just fine."

"Are we the only casualties?" asked Kerowyn looking around.

"You and Herald Neave and his Companion are the only Herald casualties. We treat the Heralds separately because we also treat Companions." The Healer took a candle stub out of a holder and put the lit one in it. "I'll be awake, right outside if you need me, Captain." said the Healer as she left.

Need tugged harder at Kerowyn. ::What's going on there?:: Kerowyn asked Sayvil indicating the man and the Companion.

::Kyldathar was injured during the battle. Neave was under her as she fell and blacked out. She lost a great deal of blood while they were lying there.:: Sayvil sighed. ::Sometimes we just can't be fixed. We-we think they're both dying.:: Sayvil's mind voice took on a flat despairing tone, ::Neave's Bond with Kyldathar was always strong, and he's been pouring his energy into her. He passed into a coma about a candlemark ago.::

:: Kyldathar's a mare?::  Perhaps Need didn't realize the dying female wasn't a woman but a Companion, or perhaps she didn't care. She'd just sensed a female in jeopardy.

::Yes. Why?::

:My sword, it's magic. It has healing powers. It only works for females, and I think she wants to help the Companion.:

Sayvil considered what Kerowyn was saying for a long moment,:: Show me.: she said at last.

Kerowyn understood Sayvil to mean she wanted Kerowyn to drop all her shields; to be completely open to her. For a moment she hesitated, then. “In for a sheep as well as a lamb,” she muttered and dropped all her shields for the first time since she learned to shield.

Sayvil moved through her mind as though through a library, carefully examining memories and putting them back in the order she found them. ::I do think she might be able to help. All right, let's try. It can't hurt, and it might help.::

Kerwyn stood up and looked at the dim shape of the snoring Eldan.  ::I'd rather not have the whole world knowing about Need...::

Sayvil whickered like a soft chuckle, ::He won't wake up. Ratha says he's so worn out you could have a tourney in here and he wouldn't notice. I can keep the Healer out, too.::

That was an interesting thing to say, thought Kerowyn.

Kerowyn took Need and went to sit down next to the Companion. This was what Need wanted; she was making that clear in the back of Kero's mind. The Herald and Companion both scarcely breathed as Kerowyn laid the sword against the Companion's side. As she did so, she felt a sharp wrenching tug somewhere in her chest, then a sensation of falling into blackness.

She snatched both sword and mind back, her heart racing with panic.

: :All right. I see what she's doing. It looks like she's using a mage spell in combination with normal Healing...hmm. I haven't seen that in a very long time.:: said Sayvil calmly as she knelt down next to Kerowyn,:Put your hand on my neck and then put the sword down.::

This time the sensation was of standing in a swift river, feeling the water run past her with Sayvil serving as both anchor and bulwark.

::She is using a mage spell,:: Sayvil was saying,:But she needs more energy than she can tap for this. The boy’s nearly spent. I wonder...:: Sayvil sounded as though she was talking to herself. ::I think between us the sword has enough to work with.::

::?::

Kerowyn jumped. Something had come into the tent and was watching her. She looked around, but couldn't see it. The sensation of energy movement became stronger as did the feeling of being stared at. Was this what had driven her mages to distraction?

:Shoo.: said Sayvil absently, as though shooing away an overly friendly dog, ::Go, we're busy.::

::!::

The feeling of being watched went away.

After a long time, the Companion began to breathe more deeply and evenly, as did the Herald. It seemed that whatever Need was doing to the Companion was doing the young man good as well.

A hand grabbed the wrist that held Need. Kerowyn looked at the Herald lying beside her. His eyes were confused and sleep-muddled, "What are you doing?" he whispered.

It was Sayvil who replied, :: Helping Kyldathar find her way back. Go back to sleep lad.:: The boy didn't even seem to realize that it was Sayvil who spoke, he just nodded and dozed off again.

::I think we can stop now: said Sayvil after a few more minutes, she sounded very satisfied.

:Will the Companion live?: asked Kerowyn.

:: Oh yes, :: chuckled Sayvil, ::She will. I don't think Neave will remember in the morning if you're worried. I think he was too far gone to understand what we were doing.::

::That suits me.::  Kerowyn looked back at the cot where Eldan slept. She could see it now, in the grey light that came in through the open tent flap. It looked quite sturdy and not too narrow. She stood, taking Need with her and Sayvil went back to the spot she’d claimed.

"Eldan?" Kero whispered to him and shook his shoulder. He opened his eyes, smiling delightedly when he saw her, "Is there room in there for me?" she asked.

"I think so." he said, moving over.

 

Chapter Text

When Kerowyn woke in the morning, Eldan was still asleep, his arms wrapped around her on the narrow cot. He woke when he felt her stirring. For a moment he lay still, then he brushed her mind gently with his own. : How's the head?: He lifted his hands, gently feeling it for lumps.

She smiled, "It's fine," she said aloud, "Jaran is very good."

:Don't give me that, :: he mindspoke with a half smile. : :You Healed way too quickly the last time you were thumped on the head.:: he referred to the first time they met, almost ten years gone now. : And there was no Healer there.::

She just shrugged.

Eldan sighed when he realized she was not going to enlighten him, right now. "I'm just glad you are all right," he said, kissing her forehead, "I thought I'd lost you." He held her closer, "I've heard some people say that being Chosen was like being hit on the head with a mace..."

"No. it's not really like that at all." Kerowyn laughed.

"Captain?" called a voice from just outside. "Are you awake?"

Kerwyn untangled herself from Eldan's arms, "I'm awake." Sayvil was gone.

:: Sayvil?:: she Mindcalled, uneasily.

:: Outside, kechara. Eating.::  That was the second time Sayvil called her that. It sounded Shin'a'in, but...not.

Sayvil's answer brought Kerowyn's hunger to awareness. She could not think when last she had eaten.

Another green robed Healer came in, a man this time, "How are you feeling, now?" it was the same man who'd just called from outside the tent. He put his hand on her forehead and smiled broadly, "You seem much better."

"I am feeling quite well, thank you. " Kerowyn realized she wore nothing but a long shift. She had not noticed that when she had woken the last couple of times. She must have looked a sight when she had jumped up pointing Need at that man the evening before, "Can I get dressed?"

"Yes, Captain. In fact, your Lieutenant brought some clean clothes over early this morning. Her Majesty requests that you meet with Herself and Prince Darren as soon as you feel able." The Healer replied courteously, indicating a folding stool that held some of Kero's clothes, "I am happy to release you from our care, now. Although perhaps you would like your Healer to check on you?"

"No, no that's fine," said Kerowyn, hastily. The Healer smiled and turned to check on the Companion and the Herald still sleeping at the end of the tent.

"How're they doing?" asked Eldan.

The Healer turned, still smiling, "It was a near thing, but they will be all right."

Kero saw that someone had set up a screen in the corner and went to change clothes. Eldan and the Healer were talking too quietly for her to hear, then she heard the Healer walk out. She came out from behind the screen, sat down to put her boots on.

"So what's going on with them?" asked Kerowyn nonchalantly, as she buckled on her sword belt, indicating the Companion and Herald.

"Kyldathar was wounded. The healers were not sure they were going to save her." Eldan replied, "Although, it looks like she had more fight in her than they thought. It will be some time before she will be completely healed, but she will be fine."

: Thanks to us: said Sayvil.

Kerowyn had to struggle to keep a straight face.

The camp was relatively quiet, and Kerowyn guessed that many of the soldiers were still in their bedrolls after so many days on the run. Kerowyn reckoned she ought to see Selenay before she found a meal. She and Eldan made their way to Selenay's tent.

When they arrived, Kero was unsurprised to see Darren and Selenay standing over piles of paper. They both looked up as Kerowyn and Eldan entered, "Kero!" said Darren, clearly pleased and relieved to see her.

Selenay smiled, "Have you eaten yet? We were just going to have something sent over."

Kerowyn smiled back, "No, and I am starving."

 Whatever reservations the Valemarans might have had about Kerowyn were banished by Sayvil’s Choice. Darren had also been Chosen, and he was making eyes at Selenay like a boy with his first crush.

 Decisions and plans needed to be made. Kerowyn’s people needed payment and Darren’s would need to be sent back to Rethwellan, but it would be several days. For now all the soldiers needed food and rest.

The underlying mood was very different from the meetings before the battle. Conversations were peppered with jokes and good-natured banter, and the sounds of merriment outside grew as the day wore on.

By late afternoon, the Queen’s business wound down. “Is there anyone left?” she asked Kyril.

“No. I think it’s safe to say we’re finished for the day. Shall I have some dinner sent over?”

“Please.”

“I’ll bid you good evening then, Majesty.” Kyril bowed himself out.

Kerowyn began to rise in order to excuse herself but Selenay stopped her. “Kerowyn. Will you have a glass with us before you leave? My Companion tells me that Talia and Dirk have arrived in camp and I know she would like to see you.”

“Of course.” Kerowyn reflected that her life was very strange; not only was she drinking with the Queen, but the Queen actually poured the wine for her.

Talia came in,  limping a little and followed by Dirk. Kerowyn wondered if she only did that when she was tired.

Selenay stood to embrace her and pulled one of the chairs over for her to sit. "Darren, I believe you have already met Talia and Dirk?" Selenay asked when they were both settled.

Darren and Kerowyn had risen when the Queen did and now retook their seats. Talia stared at Darren for a moment, turned startled eyes toward Selenay, then held out her hand to Darren. "It is splendid to see you again, Prince Darren," she said, with a broad smile.

"Ahrodie tells me you were both Chosen?" asked Dirk.

Darren grinned, "I am not sure how I am going to explain to my brother that I'm not coming back, especially when I’m not even sure I understand it myself.”

Selanay poured glasses of wine for Talia and Dirk. “Thank you for coming so quickly,” she said.

"Are all the Heralds accounted for?" asked Talia, moving on to business

Selenay studied the wine glass in her hand. "Yes. We didn’t lose any in battle. Only those with the missing scouting parties."

Talia nodded, her face expressionless. "They knew better than to be captured." Her hand rose to rub at a scar on her chest that could barely be seen above the collar of her shirt.

"Wait, what do you mean by that?" asked Kerowyn. A scant breath later, she knew she did not want an answer. Selenay and Talia both looked away.

With a glance at Talia, Dirk answered, "Heralds were to avoid capture by whatever means necessary. Even if it meant taking their own lives."

A heavy silence fell over the five of them, while laughter and snatches of song continued out outside. Finally Talia shook herself and asked in an almost normal voice, “What were the rest of the casualties like?”

"Mine were fairly light." said Darren, "Mostly because of those farmers that Ancar had bespelled-they were not planning on coming back. All my troops had to do was stay out of their way."

"We are about the same," Selenay said. "Kerowyn's Skybolts took the brunt of it, I'm afraid. Whatever we can do to compensate your people, Kerowyn, name it."

Kerowyn smiled sadly, "Just the terms of the agreement will do. All my people know what they were getting into."

Selenay nodded.

“Elcarth told us that Kyldathar was wounded,” Dirk said. “How is Neave?” As he spoke,  Kerowyn saw Talia’s hand reach out for his, as if bracing herself for bad news.

 “It was a near thing," Selenay replied, “we thought we were going to lose the two of them. However, the healers tell me that Kyldathar will live.”

Dirk and Talia shared a smile of relief. "I should go see him." She turned to Dirk, "Would you go find us a bed, love?"

Dirk nodded, "If there's nothing else that's vital, I can see to that now."

"Go on, then," Selenay said, "I know you rode all night, to get here so soon."

Darren turned to Kerowyn, "I am sure you want to have an early night, too." and he gave her a little wink.

Kerowyn had a hard time keeping from laughing as his transparent attempt to get Selenay alone. “Yes. Of course, my lord prince.” She stood and gave him a formal salute. If he was trying to impress the Valdemaran Queen, it wouldn’t do to have a mere mercenary captain seem overly familiar. She bowed to Selenay, “Your Majesty. By your leave.” She could play the minor noble when it suited her.

Instead of graciously nodding Kerowyn out, Selenay jumped up and embraced her. “I will never be able to thank you enough.”  The Queen backed off to look her in the face. “We will speak later of your plans when you’re rested.”

Her plans? Yes, being Chosen by a Companion would certainly have repercussions. That would wait until tomorrow. It was late and Kero wondered where Eldan could have gone.

Sayvil waited outside the tent for her.

“Have you been here all day?” Kerowyn asked.

The mare shook her head. ::Rolan wanted a word.::

“That’s Talia’s Companion?”

::Yes.:: A thin feeling of exasperated amusement came with the words. :: I'm in trouble. ::

“Sorry?” asked Kero.

::Rolan wants to have a word with me about last night. Don't concern yourself.::

Sayvil did not sound worried, but Kerowyn was not sure she liked the sound of it.  ::About what? My damned sword? If he wants to have a conversation about it, he'd better talk to me.::

::It's not so much your sword as not consulting him about it.:: Sayvil said.

They started walking in the general direction of the Skybolt's encampment, ::So, this would be the proverbial begging pardon for not asking permission?:: asked Kero.

::That it would.::  replied Sayvil.

Long before they reached the Skybolt encampment, Rolan appeared out of the shadows. He looked first at Kerowyn and then at Sayvil. His attitude was one of irritation. He stood and looked at Sayvil for another moment.

::Rolan, I am well aware of the rules.:: Sayvil said sharply, ::I have broken none of them.::

Another silence and then Sayvil said, ::Would you prefer we did nothing and we lost more of us?: she stamped her front hoof for emphasis.

He shook his head, Kerowyn felt like a child, eavesdropping on her mother and father.

::She is my Chosen. That is not up for discussion. The artifact she carries also happens to be what prompted her to remind Faram what he owes us.::  Sayvil must have picked that out of her brain last night, it was stretching the point , but still. ::She also said that if you wanted to discuss her damned sword, you could talk to her your damned self.:: Sayvil's mind voice was acid.

"That's not, quite how I put it." Kero protested as her cheeks went hot..

A deep masculine voice spoke now, sounding tired, exasperated and vaguely amused, as Rolan looked at Kerowyn, ::No, but perhaps you and she are both correct. It is only that I worry that the sword is a danger. I have spoken with Ratha about this artifact.::

When Kerowyn had first met Eldan, the sword had created a problem by drawing Karsite Sunpriestesses to them while they were trying to escape from Karse. "That makes sense, Sir." Rolan made Kerowyn want to treat him with all the respect she showed a head of state. "I prefer to have anything my people pick up checked out by my mages."

::Quite.:: Rolan seemed to look on her with a little more favor.::How did you get the sword to help the Companion?::

"I didn't. The sword helps women who are in danger. Apparently she thinks Companions are women. She was the one who wanted to help."

:Would you allow me to See?: he asked courteously.

Kerowyn hesitated, then replied, "All right." she dropped all her shields once again, Rolan was as careful as Sayvil had been, but he was more thorough. Examining things she'd forgotten she knew.

::Thank you, Captain.::  He said, apparently reassured. He also sagged with weariness, ::My Chosen is looking for me, and I am tired so I will leave you. Welcome, Herald-Captain Kerowyn.:: He turned and disappeared into the shadows.

The Skybolt's campfires stood out in the twilight as the afterglow of the sunset faded from the sky.

"Kerowyn? Is that you?" called Eldan's voice. She saw his white uniform in the darkness, "What are you doing out here?"

"I was..." Kerowyn hesitated; for a moment she could not think what she was doing. She had the disconcerting sensation that she had forgotten something important. She leaned against Sayvil and whatever it was seemed less so. The moon was rising and an evening breeze blew from the south. "I was just watching the sunset, with my Companion."

"Gods, you watch sunsets?" Eldan smiled as he drew close enough to see her, "To hear some talk, you wouldn't ever do anything so frivolous."

She smiled back at his teasing and put her arm around his waist. "Sometimes, I do."

 

Chapter Text

"It's all right, Neave," Mara said. She brushed his damp hair back, "They've drained you down to nothing. I can give you something, but you have to let me in. Do you trust me?"

He nodded, not having the breath to answer. The mage had taken something from him; some vital essence drained away with that red mist. He was lying on his pallet of rags in front of the kitchen hearth covered in Mara's cloak. He was cold, even so.

As Mara began to chant in a low voice, she took something from the bowl on her lap and cast it into the fire. Her hands glowed a soft yellow in the same way that the mage's hands had glowed red. She laid her hands on his side, muttering in a strange language. His breathing eased, "You're lucky," Mara said, "They’re only bruised." she stared into his eyes. "You'll be all right."

That was not right; that last kick caved in the side of his chest.  Every breath made the bones scrape against each other and he tasted blood in his mouth.

"Listen to me." Mara held his eyes with hers. "You do not need to think on what happened tonight. You were roughed up some, but you will heal. You just had the wind knocked out of you. Don't think on it."

Yes, that made sense. He did not want to think about what had happened. The memory slid away to the back of his mind, behind the door made  of brass and wood.

It did not hurt so much to breathe and he began to believe he might live.

"That's right. Just let it go. You don't need to think on it. There's a good lad." she paused for a moment, "And I don't want you cutting yourself anymore." she was always going on about that. Well, for Mara, he'd stop.

Something changed. The light from Mara's hands turned blue-white. He reached up and grabbed her wrist, "What are you doing?" he asked.

"Helping Kyldathar find her way back. Go back to sleep, lad," said a woman's voice that wasn't Mara's.

He remembered that name. If Kyldathar came back for him, everything would be all right. He nodded and closed his eyes.

"Do you have any tales, Mara?" She told wonderful tales when she was of a mind.

He heard a smile in her voice as she replied, "Have I told you about the Heralds of Valdemar..?"


 Talia was here. "Neave?"

He knew it was Talia, she always announced her presence with a little mental brush against his shields. Kyldathar's flank rose and fell under his cheek.

"The Healers wanted me to wake you up and get you to eat something."

Healers. Right. He shook his head to clear it; he wasn't hurt. Echoes of Kyldathar's screams rang in his ears. To his dismay, he found himself too weak to move.

Talia put her hand on his shoulder, "No, brother, you stay put. The Healers tell me that you're drained down to almost nothing. They thought we were going to lose both of you."

The battle. Alberich told him they'd won? They must have. He was alive. Talia was here. The Council was to flee to Rethwellan with the Heir, if the battle had gone badly.

"Sh-shouldn't you be with Selenay?" he asked, confused. There must be loads of stuff she had to do, more important than see to him.

Talia's eyes twinkled, "Selenay is-umm-occupied. With-ah- affairs of State.”  She seemed to find something very funny.

"What do the Healers say about Kyldathar?" he asked anxiously, he remembered arguing with, then holding off some of the Rethwellan regulars with his sword. They'd wanted to put his "horse" down.

"She lost a lot of blood. It was touch and go there for a while. But it seems that it turned around during the night." replied Talia. "The Healers say she'll be fine, now."

Dizzy with relief, he closed his eyes. "Good. That's good," he said shakily.

Talia sat cross-legged on the floor next to him. "The Healers say that you opened an unrestricted channel between the two of you. That's why you're so weak-if she had died, you would have gone with her."

"I know."

"You would have been Chosen again, you know," Talia said, looking at the floor rather than him.

"It wouldn't have been her," Neave replied. He'd known what he was doing when he'd done it. "I've lost too much in my life. I won't live without her. Don't ask it of me."

A sad little smile played on her lips, "That's your right, as an ordinary Herald, of course."

The Monarch, the Heir and the Monarch's Own did not have the right to choose to follow their Companion to the Havens. No one ever spoke of it, but somehow every Herald knew it. They both knew the story of Talia's predecessor. Talimer, the former Queen's Own had been Chosen by Rolan after the death of Taver, his first Companion. Everyone said that half of Talimer's soul went with Taver.

"I just wanted to make sure you understood what you'd done." Talia continued, "And that you knew you'd leave a Neave sized hole in all our hearts if you left us." She reached over and grasped his hand. At the same time, with her Gift, showing him just how big a Neave sized hole in her heart would be.

Neave had no idea what to say to that.


 

Kyldathar took another day and a half to wake up and Neave thought he was going to fret himself to pieces before she did. He mind touched her at least once a candlemark to be sure that she merely slept.

Other Heralds came to check up on him throughout the day. He was surprised when even Selenay and Kyril came to see him, given how busy he knew they must be. He was half dozing, curled against Kyldathar, when he heard them come in. The Healers had asked him if he wouldn't prefer a cot to sleeping on the floor, but he couldn't bear to be even that far from his Companion.

The usually serious Kyril was smiling more broadly than Neave had ever seen him, and Selenay was flushed with happiness. Selenay sat gracefully on the ground next to Neave, who was still far too weak to do more than sit up a little.

"How are you feeling, Neave?" Selenay asked.

"Tired." he replied. Although he hadn't actually been injured, the Healers told him that he'd recover at about the roughly same rate Kyldathar did, due to the amount of energy he'd poured into her and the way he'd opened up their Bond. If she died, so would he.

He didn't care. Kyldathar's death would remove whatever reason he had for living, anyway.

"Are you comfortable? Do you need anything?" Selenay asked solicitously.

"I'm fine. " He gave her a worn little smile. "Just tired."

Selenay leaned forward to hug him, taking him by surprise, "I am so very glad to hear that you're going to be all right. We've lost too many of us."

Neave blushed. He'd never had that much contact with Selenay before and felt quite overwhelmed by the attention. She sat sat back, letting him go. "We'll be going home soon. The Healers say that Kyldathar will need a long rest before she's completely well again. We'll have you assigned to Court or Collegium for a while."

Kyril cleared his throat, "I believe that Neave did well teaching languages." he supplied to Selenay.

::And you'd rather go back to Karse than be assigned to Court.:: Kyril mind spoke privately to Neave and to his complete astonishment, grave aloof Kyril winked.

Selenay smiled at Neave and hugged him again, "I know Elspeth will be pleased to have you around the Palace for a while." she whispered in his ear, so that Kyril couldn't hear. She got up, "If you want anything at all, let the Healers know."

Neave shook his head as they left. That had to be one of the strangest conversations he'd had in a long time.

Everyone who came to see him was just as giddy. It seemed that, as more reports came in, it was confirmed that Ancar's army had been completely destroyed. It would take Ancar years to rebuild his army.

Apparently, the war was over.

The Healer's tent was a little removed from the rest of the camp but he could still hear the sounds of celebration in the distance. Neave couldn't share anyone's joy. Not until Kyldathar woke again. He listened to her steady breathing, wishing he had enough strength to pace. However, his very weariness was a blessing, as he kept falling asleep. Healers came in a few times and woke him to eat and drink.

Early the next morning, Kyldathar's breathing changed, waking him. :Chosen?: She struggled from her lying position to a kneeling one, ::I am so stiff.:

"Oh. Love." He felt tears slide down his cheeks and couldn't speak.

::What happened?: she asked, worried by his tears. :Chosen?:

Neave took some deep breaths, getting himself under control, ::You were hurt. I thought I was going to lose you.::

:Oh: She sounded confused, ::Oh, yes. Something hit me, didn't it?::

Neave wiped his wet face on his sleeve. :Yes. We were down for a long time. I was pinned under you, and stunned when you were hit, I think. I don't remember anything till they found us.:

:I remember hearing you call for me...You were so far off...: She heaved to her feet, took a long drink from the water bucket that was there for her, lay back down again, :I'm still tired. I think I'll sleep a little longer. Maybe I'll eat, in a little while.:

:All right, sweetheart. I'll still be here.:: Relieved tears started down his face again. He hadn't dared to believe that she was really going to be all right, until now.

A few minutes later Talia's presence brushed against his shields and he heard two sets of footsteps behind him. He turned to see Talia and Dirk standing at the tent flap, "Neave?" said Talia softly, "Are you all right? Rolan thought we should check on you."

"It's all right." he said, smiling through his tears, "It's just that she woke up...She spoke to me. I..." he couldn't go on. He stopped, not wanting to break down entirely.

Talia and Dirk's faces lit up, in identical joyous grins. Talia sat on one side of him and hugged him hard. That undid him completely, he sobbed into her shoulder. She and Dirk supported him as he cried helplessly.

"S-s-sorry." he said when he could speak, "it's just that..."

Dirk's hand rested on his shoulder, from his other side, " 'Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps' " he said, with an understanding smile.

 

 

Chapter Text

The Herald courier stood in the hallway while Neave read the latest orders and then penned his reply. Unfortunately, she didn't wait quietly, she was talking to a couple of Guardsmen just outside the office the Post Commander had lent to Neave. He could hear her through the closed door. He had told her to go find some food so that he had some time to go over these things, but apparently she couldn't resist stopping to tell the Guardsmen about the astonishing events in Haven.

She was a young Herald-for the last two years it seemed that they'd been pushing younger and younger people into Whites. This past year, the combat losses were so heavy among the Heralds that trainees weren't even being given proper circuits for their internships. They spent maybe six to nine months out in the field with a senior Herald before being cut loose on their own. No one was happy about it, but there was very little choice.

Neave found that these young Heralds were of two kinds. Either, they were the kind that had the grown-up-too-quickly look in their eyes and could be relied upon, or they were the type that were still convinced of their own immortality and could not.

This one, sadly, was of the latter kind. She was smart, pretty, high born and from a district that hadn't seen any fighting yet. She was telling whoever-it-was about the strange creatures and foreign mages Heralds Elspeth and Skif had brought with them. Apparently, she was friends with one of the Heralds who'd escorted them to Haven. Neave listened with half an ear as he read this latest set of orders.

Every time Neave thought that the dispatches the couriers brought brought from Haven were as weird as they could get, they got weirder. Weirder and more ominous. The most recent orders were that they needed to evacuate the civilians from this little corner of the Kingdom. Apparently, Ancar thought he would defeat Valdemar through sheer force of numbers.

According to the letter from Kyril, Neave was specifically assigned to this because of his Gift. As Ylsa had once observed, people he set out to convince were convinced. He was to speak to the people of areas that were threatened with being overrun and convince them to flee so that the Guard could concentrate on places that could be saved with a minimum of loss. Not an easy thing, when many townsfolk and villagers never went more than two days ride on horseback from where they were born.

In truth, Neave preferred to be out here, rather than working with these mages that Elspeth and Skif had somehow brought back with them. The idea of them made his skin creep, although he knew intellectually that the magic they used was different from what Ancar's people did. It would have to be for Skif and Elspeth to trust them.

Since the mage protections had fallen, his dreams had gotten bad again for the first time in years. He hadn't even known there was a connection until Kyldathar had pointed it out.

Well, assuming they lived through this, he'd talk to Talia when they returned to Haven.

"And they brought gryphons with them!" The Herald's voice rose excitedly, answered by general gasps of astonishment, "They say they're creatures just steeped in magic. They talk, even! And they look vicious, but they're so gentle the Queen lets her children play with them."

::As if she doesn't ride a Companion,:: remarked Neave to Kyldathar.

::You have a little more perspective on this sort of thing,:: said Kyldathar. ::But, yes.::

Neave and Kyldathar had spent more than a few candlemarks convincing refugees from the southern border of Hardorn that the Companions weren't ghost horses who were going to steal their children. And he spent an equal amount of time trying to convince their new Karsite allies that he wasn't going to steal anyone's soul.

He was tired of listening to her prattle and he had penned his reply. He opened the door, smiled broadly, "Oh, good, Herald Shella. You've finished eating. I appreciate you being so quick. I need you to take these replies right away. It's important that they get to Haven as soon as may be, so I'd suggest you get on the road right now, before you lose anymore daylight."

She faltered, "Oh. Right now? But..." she stopped, her cheeks turning red.

"Yes?" he said solicitously.

"Nothing, Herald." she said, recovering. She took the message tubes from him, clearly caught between disappointment and embarrassment.

"Thank you." he said kindly, "Fair roads to you, sister."

"And to you," she returned stiffly. She walked down the hallway towards the stables rather than the dining hall.

::That was unkind,:: Kyldathar said, although she was laughing, ::She'll be eating road rations now, instead of a proper hot meal. And no chance of a hot meal until at least tomorrow. There's not even a Way Station she can reach in the daylight that's left.::

::What a shame.:: Neave returned to his desk. ::At least she's got rations. And if she really wants to make it to the Way Station, they'd only have to ride in the dark a couple of candlemarks::

:Hmm. True.::

::Anyway, better I handle it that way, than give her a dressing down that she'll resent. She'd just decide that I was being a sour old man.::

::Sour maybe. Not old though. Her Companion mentioned she was hoping to perhaps spend the night and pass some time with you.:: Kyldathar replied.

::I'm just has happy I sent her off, then. I've no interest in spending the night with a green-as-grass, ought-to-still-be-in-grays youngling who I'll scare to death if I have a bad dream.:: he yawned and rubbed his eyes. ::I am getting sour,:; he observed to Kyldathar.

::No,:: she said placidly. ::You've always thought that way about many of the highborn Chosen.::

Well, that was true. He started opening his personal letters now that the business what out of the way. There weren't many. No one had much time to write these days.

A letter on top was from Elspeth, which surprised him. He hadn't heard from her the whole time she was away-but then no one had. There were rumors among non Heralds that she was either dead or that she was plotting against the Queen.

Even some of the Heralds who didn't know her had been caught up in the speculation. He'd steadfastly pointed out to those Heralds that Gwena would repudiate Elspeth for such a thing. According to both legend and Chronicle, a repudiated Herald was not good for much afterwards. There was so much fear going around that people were getting paranoid.

Dear Neave,

I'm not dead.

I've been greeted so many times with "I thought you were dead." that I thought I'd get it out of the way. Although, the truth is much stranger than many of the rumors. You will have probably heard by now that I have abdicated as the Heir, in favor of my brother and sister. So much has happened, that I'll have to tell you most of it when you get back.

I've found a new sparring partner, like you advised me I should, all that time ago. "Someone in keeping with my abilities" I think you said. I think he'll be a long term challenge.

We are going to be gone from the Palace. Kerowyn is sending us to safety. It will be like a holiday! Although I have abdicated, I can't let my duties go though. While I'm away, I'm planning on hosting a dinner party for a good and dear friend of the family. He is a handsome man and very skilled in obscure arts. Perhaps a permanent relationship may be formed! Who knows? I might stay there forever.

Its important to me that I let you know. Perhaps if the party is particularly good, you'll hear the Bell ring from where you are.

Your Very Dear Friend,

Elspeth,

By My Hand and Seal.

"Ah Hell." Neave said, shaken. Elspeth was using the code she'd worked out so long ago for writing to her friends in the field. If the letter went astray, it looked like a letter from a silly Highborn girl with no concerns other than dresses, dinner parties and husband catching.

So, Kerowyn was sending her on some secret mission. One she might not come back from.

"Hell." he said again.

Chapter Text

A sort of temporary town sprang up around the guard encampment. It was the first place safe for the civilians to stop. Karsite and Valdemaran regulars were between them and Ancar's forces. Everyone knew that this was subject to change, however. If the order came down, everything that could not be packed up in the given amount of time would be left behind.

Most of the civilians had brought all the food they could carry with them, and a nearby Guard garrison was delivering supplement rations. The real problem was keeping the water clean with this many people. Trenches were dug for camp waste, and Guards had been placed upriver to prevent illicit dumping.  Neave was pleased to see that someone had thrown down some planks on the pathways in between tents, to keep people's feet out of the muck. The last thing they needed was an epidemic of the flux from bad water.

Neave wanted a Healers station set up to look out for that kind of thing and to treat the people who were coming in with injuries. The garrison's Healers had enough on their hands as it was. One of the purposes of today's tour around the camp was to look for Healers, midwives and whatever other needful skills there were.

He passed the word around that he was looking for Healers whenever he stopped to talk with people. As was usual, on these daily walks, his Whites brought mixed reactions. The Valdemarans were reassured, the Hardornens suspicious and the one or two Karsites that were there made the sign to avert evil whenever he passed.

A much larger group of Karsites were foremost on his mind today; they had staggered into the encampment at last light, he'd been told. They must be incredibly desperate to have come this far over the border of their ancestral enemies.

The whole lot of them huddled in a group of tents separate from the rest of the camp. A few old men and the rest were women and children. Either younger women who appeared to be the mothers of the small herd of children or older women who were probably grandmothers. The youngest man there was the red-robed priest, who was likely in his fifth decade. He had his back turned to the pathway and was talking to a group of their younglings, perhaps giving a lesson or telling a story.

"A word with you, Father," Neave called in his northern accented Karsite.

The priest turned, a half smile of welcome forming on his face as he evidently expected to see one of his own, "Yes?" The smile turned to fear when he took in Neave's uniform, and he jumped up to stand between the Herald and the children.

"I beg your pardon, Father." Neave spoke as if he hadn't noticed, "I wouldn't interrupt you, save my time is short, and I wanted to reassure myself that there was nothing you needed."

"Nothing I...need?" the priest looked confused and suspicious.

"Yes, Father." Neave said respectfully, "Are you well situated with food? Are your women and children well?"

"We're fine. Just fine." the priest replied shortly.

They didn't look it. Travel-stained clothing told of days on the road without respite. Their shadowed eyes spoke of both hunger and exhaustion, and the babies Neave could see were far too thin.

Neave heard one of the women whisper, "Demon Spawn," in an awed voice to one of the others.

"Father, my name is Herald Neave. I am in charge of this camp, and I wish people to be as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. If you have any difficulties, please ask for me." Neave put a good measure of Gift behind his words.

The priest stared at him, then nodded, reluctantly.

"Do any of your folk need healers?"

A murmur went around the circle of women, but the priest shook his head, steadfastly. "We need nothing from you, sir."

The tone was guarded, but civil and the man called Neave "sir" rather than "white demon." Neave took it as a hopeful sign. "We have made provisions for civilian rations if you need them. Oil and flour are available. Send someone to the main tent with a count of your women and children, and we'll give you enough for two days."

More whispering from the women and the priest glanced over his shoulder at the ragged group of hungry children. His weary eyes came back to meet Neave's, and the Herald could see the conflict. The old man wanted to accept the offer for the good of his charges, but he feared the Herald and what he represented.

"Father...I realize I have no right to ask this, but I wonder if there's something you would do for me?" Exerting all of his Gift and Bardic training, Neave let hesitance leak into his voice, as if he were asking for something genuinely onerous or burdensome.

As expected, the walls sprang up behind the old priest's eyes. "What do you want?"

"You see, Father, I come from Southern Hardorn, and a woman from Karse took me in when my mother died. She raised me to worship Vkandys." To be sure, old Cook at Garek's had gone to the Temple at least three times in Neave's life, and she had taught him all the common prayers. He made a little gesture at his uniform and went on, "I wonder if you might give me a Soldier's Blessing?" Traditionally, those who feared they might die in defense of hearth and home were given this. 

The priest didn't move, but glared at Neave, looking for the trick. "Why would you ask me that?" He demanded.

His sharp features and crossed arms reminded the Herald of Alberich suddenly. An unexpected longing overcame Neave to see the old Armsmaster and Myste. His eyes prickled and the thickness of his voice was entirely unfeigned when he said, "Father, I'm a very long way from home, and it would comfort me." To his own ears, his voice sounded very young.

Surprise and then gruff compassion softened the man's face. "All right then, lad."

 Neave knelt on one knee before the man, in the traditional posture of a supplicant seeking Vkandys' Blessing.

After a moment, the Sun Priest put his hands on the Herald's head, muttering the formula of the Blessing.

 No Sun Fire came down to obliterate Neave, as it should have if he were a demon. He looked up into the priest's eyes and returned the proper response and then stood. "Thank you, Father," he said, sincerely. A weight lifted from his heart and he smiled. Perhaps Vkandys was pleased by the new peace between Valdemar and Karse. Neave reckoned he'd take any help he could get.

"Blessings of the Sun to you all," he said, taking his leave. He bowed slightly to the priest with his hand over his heart and then to the women.

Sometime this week, he would come to one of their Sunset ceremonies. The priest was not allowed to refuse it to anyone. They believed very firmly that the Sunlord would destroy any who falsely sought His Blessing.

Fortunately, the Sun Priest did not appear to be a mage who could fry him with a thought.

::No,:: put in Kyldathar, as Neave walked back to the main camp, ::even were he a mage, that one wouldn't.::

::Have you been prying?:: he asked her, surprised.

::No, I saw them come in. I heard him telling his people that Solaris said they'd be safe here. He said that Solaris is the True Son of the Sun and so they must put aside all fear.::  Kyldathar liked to hang about the road that was the front entrance to the camp, listening to the talk as people went by. Most of the foreigners took her for a horse, although the Valdemaran children always knew her for what she was, and often begged to feed her a carrot or an apple.

::Huh.::

"Take your mind off your troubles, milord?" a young woman called in Hardornen as she sashayed past him, "I could put a smile on your face, for a silver or two."

The woman next to her hissed in her ear. The first one paled and stammered, "Of course for you, milord, I-I really wouldn't need silver." He wasn't sure if the other woman had told the first one that he was the camp commander, or that merely being a Herald merited her charms for free.

Neave smiled at her, tiredly, "No, thank you, mistress. We're not allowed to accept gifts on duty-goods or services. And tempting as your services may be, I have a lady who's very jealous of my affections." He didn't want to insult her, and he wasn't sure what the last lot of Hardornen refugees had heard about Heralds

"Oh," she said. "I beg your pardon, milord."

He turned to walk with her and her friend.  "How are you situated, mistress? Are you comfortable?"

"I-yes." She said turning red and looking like she'd rather be anywhere but with him. Neave understood. She did not know how her profession was viewed in Valdemar and propositioning a man in authority was sometimes an unwise thing to do.

"You have enough food and fuel?"

"Yes, milord," she said.

"I have little time, mistress, so I'll get right to the point," he said, knowing that nothing he said would make her less wary and too tired from using his Gift on the Karsites to use it here. "There are no laws in Valdemar against your profession, but given the atmosphere of the camp, I'd like you to be discreet. No sense in upsetting the self-proclaimed respectable."

That got a slight curve of the mouth from her.

He paused a moment, thinking where best to put that sort of thing, "I'd prefer if you confined your activities to the garrison side of the camp. You'll get more custom there anyway. Also, the age of consent is sixteen. No one younger is to work as a prostitute. If you could pass the word, I'd appreciate it." He stopped and took another breath, "If you have any difficulties with anything, please ask for me, Herald Neave."

"Uhh, all right." The woman said skeptically.

"Oh, and if any of you are interested, I'm looking for anyone who might be disposed to help the healers."

"Milord?"

Neave smiled lopsidedly, "I find that prostitutes are always excellent healer's assistants. And many times you are already trained as midwives."

The two women nodded cautiously, and he bowed to them. As he walked away, one said, "Aye, we're damned good as long as the "respectable" don't hear what we used to do."

He sighed, feeling sad. This was another group of people he'd have to persuade that he wasn't going to have them summarily fed to Ancar's forces.