D I S C L A I M E R :
I may have created a few characters but I DO NOT own anything in these stories. Valdemar, the Herald, the Companions, and most characters are the intellectual property of Mercedes Lackey. I desire no monetary return on these stories and have written them solely for the enjoyment of myself and others who love Mercedes Lackey's books. If you enjoy these review here and buy her books.
A small brown bird darted about above the rutted, snow-covered road watching the lumbering, gaily painted wagon. It was unlike most wagons that traversed this little used road, most were farmer's wagons piled high with hay on its way to market. This wagon was decorated with various birds in flight with incredible, unlikely feathering, painted ribbons trailed from their painted beaks. Four massive grey horses that trod gamely along pulled the wagon.
On the seat of the covered wagon was a stolid looking man with black hair and eyes with a perpetual smile on his lips as the small boy on the seat next to him chattered happily. The little boy had the same black hair and eyes as his father but was much more animated than the man. Both were dressed in fine, natural coloured wool shirts with dark brown pants. The more colourful clothing they owned was being saved for when they wanted to impress a customer.
A girl, about thirteen years old, guided her spirited bay mare through the ruts of the road more intent on her mount than anything else. She had ebony black hair like her father with grey eyes and pale skin.
"Sweetheart, we should stop for lunch soon." A brown haired woman with silvery grey eyes hung out the small window on the side of the wagon.
The man on the wagon nodded and stopped the wagon. "Elf, ride ahead and find us a good spot."
The girl nodded and grinned widely. "For lunch or for longer?"
"I want to go too!" The little boy started to bounce on the seat. "Please Elf? Can I come?"
Elf guided her horse around the wagon and pulled up next to her father. She said nothing, just looked at him pleadingly.
"Calum, I need you here." Their father smiled down and ruffled his hair. "I'm so tired I'm about to fall asleep. You need to stay here and keep me awake."
Calum looked between his elder sister and his father. "I gotta keep papa awake." He informed Elf solemnly.
"Maybe next time." Elf reached out and ruffled his hair affectionately before kicking her horse into a canter.
"Are you still awake?" Calum asked his father.
Echoes of their mother's laughter chased after Elf.
"Go Wind." Elf urged her horse into an eager gallop. An entire day of being kept to a slow walk behind the wagon since dawn had made them both mad with boredom.
It wasn't until she reached a small clearing next to the road that had been used for centuries by travelers did she finally stop.
"What do you think?" Elf asked Wind as she swung easily to the ground and surveyed the clearing. She could hear a stream gurgling past some trees so there would be water for the horses. A deep fire pit was ideal for making their lunch and the old worn logs were arranged perfectly for sitting to eat.
She walked out Wind then left the intelligent mare to roam as she first swept the snow off the logs so they would have a dry place to sit. Then she managed to locate the depleted stack of kindling and wood. Obviously some inconsiderate travelers had not replaced the wood they used.
Elf didn't bother with the kindling as she arranged some small logs in the center of the pit and settled back on her heels. Closing her eyes, she searched within herself for the ball of light her grandmother had taught her to use. She pictured a thread separating from the light and touching the wood. Slowly the smell of smoke filled the air as the logs caught fire.
Wind snorted and danced at the sudden appearance of the flames.
"Relax girl." Elf stood and patted the mare's neck. The incredible horse had been an early birthing day gift from her parents. They had traded some rare dyes for the Shin'a'in bred mare that was obviously not a cull. Wind was a beautiful, spirited blood bay with not a single white hair. She had long agile legs and massive intelligent eyes. She had been trained very well before she had been traded to Elf's family and obeyed many commands in Shin'a'in such as 'come' and 'stand'.
The mare settled under the firm hand and nuzzled the tunic of her rider.
"No treats till later." Elf admonished.
She removed a collapsible leather bucket from the back of her saddle, filled it in the small spring, and hung it on an iron hook near the fire to warm.
"Are you still awake?" Calum's voice reached her through the trees.
"Yes." Her father's deeper answer followed.
"Over here!" Elf stepped out onto the road and waved her arms.
Her father waved back and urged the wagon horses on.
It took the experienced family only minutes to unhitch the horses and to let them drink from the warmed bucket of water. A task Calum carried out with all the solemnity a drenched five year old could muster.
"Calum, you go change into something dry before you catch a cold." Their mother ordered and she brought out the cold meats, bread, and dried fruits that made up their lunch. "Be quick about it."
Elf and her father checked over all five horses for any signs of injury or strain, they could only travel as swiftly as the slowest horse, and examined the harnesses for any weak spots.
"Alright you three, come eat." Their mother set the food out on a log that had been worn completely flat by many travelers.
Calum bound out of the wagon wearing a bright red shirt, a dark green vest, and loose yellow pants.
"My little Shin'a'in today?" Mother laughed.
Elf settled on the log and bit into a piece of bread. Her entire life had been like this. The weather varied, the locations changed, but always with her parents, sometimes her grandparents. Thirteen years of age and she had spent fewer than ten nights behind stone walls. Soon she would have a wagon of her own and would be following these same roads selling her wares.
She had already decided she would follow in her father's footsteps and sell the high quality fabrics very few people could afford to trade in. She had the same contacts as her parents. She could speak and write fluently in more languages than could be counted on both hands. She could barter with the best.
Her mother used to dream that Elf would follow in her footsteps and become a mercenary but by the tender age of six it was obvious that Elf wanted to become a trader like her father.
"Mama? Tell us how you got married again." Calum requested around a mouthful of food.
She laughed and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Again?"
"Please?" Calum begged.
She glanced at her husband. "It started when your father was looking for a guard. It was the height of summer and I had just finished a contract and was at loose ends when this tall, dark handsome stranger asked if I could be hired for a year. He wanted to go into Elestia to barter for their famous silk."
"One bolt could buy a crown." Their father added.
She ignored the interruption and continued the oft-told story. "He heard I was good from his cousin and was willing to split the profits with me when it was over."
Elf smiled as she listened to the familiar words. Calum asked for this story at least once a week.
"I had been paid well by my last job and I figured it was worth the risk. Especially with such a hunk along." She winked at her husband. "It all started out well, we had to travel through some of the thickest woods you have ever seen. It was often months between villages. There wasn't even a country there, just tiny towns eking out an existence in the Pelagirs. We managed to reach the borders of Elestia with only a few confrontations but it was nothing we couldn't handle. Jaden and I spent three months in that fair country buying the fabrics he wanted before we set out again."
"And you traveled through the big forest again didn't you." Calum said knowingly.
"That we did, and when we reached the other side it was rather, um, obvious that we were madly in love."
Jaden laughed. "Much more obvious was that she was pregnant."
"Is that necessary?" She protested as she always did.
Calum watched eagerly, this was all part of the routine of the story.
"Of course, it is part of the tale." He winked at his son. "She was unable to even sit on her horse. When we managed to find a priest willing to over look the fact that she was in labor it was nearly dark. She was also swearing that she would be a widow by dawn."
"She was having Elf wasn't she?" Calum said knowingly.
"Jaden, you shut your mouth. Poor Elf doesn't need to hear this again on her birthday."
"Yes I do." Elf disagreed.
"The poor priest was eighty if he was a day with your dear mother holding a sword on him all the while throwing whatever came to hand at me swearing that 'by all the gods my baby will be legitimate!' He barely managed to say the words before your mother started screaming that it was all my fault and she would be a widow by dawn. The poor priest actually believed her. He told her babies need fathers and she told him she would just find another father for her baby."
Calum ignored his meal in favor of the story. "Then what happened?"
"Then, with your mother distracted, I managed to get her on the bed, get the sword away from her, and remove most potential weapons from her reach. She was still screaming when Elf was born. The poor little dear's greeting from the world was her mother threatening to castrate her new husband."
"That was you." Calum said to his father.
Jaden met his wife's eyes and winked. "Yes."
"What about when I was born?"
"When you were born I had already removed everything that wasn't nailed down." Jaden explained in all seriousness.
Their mother laughed. "Your father is an incredibly brave man; otherwise he would have taken me at my word and run for the hills."
"I promised to stay by your side for eternity, did I not?" Jaden placed a kiss on her temple. "Through thick, thin, and death threats."
"When will we reach Briarbridge?" Elf asked before Calum could ask more questions.
"In about four days if the weather holds." Her father assured her. "How is my birthday girl?"
"Same as yesterday." Elf shrugged.
"So no change being twelve and being thirteen?" Her mother asked.
"When can I be thirteen?" Calum asked.
"In eight years." Their father assured him.
"I feel the same I guess." Elf shrugged.
Her father produced a small tissue wrapped package and handed it to her. "This is from your grandmother and grandfather. They want you to spend this winter and spring with them learning magery."
Elf hesitantly accepted the gift. "I don't want to be a mage, I want to be a trader."
"Who says you can't be both?" Her mother asked shrewdly.
Elf didn't answer, instead she unwrapped the fragile green tissue and a silver chain fell over her hand before she revealed the gift. "A necklace?"
"We don't know, we didn't look." Her mother leaned forward to see what the gift was.
As the last thin piece of tissue fell away a perfectly sculpted rearing horse, every hair on it mane in excruciating detail, forged of gleaming silver with sapphire chips for eyes stared up at her. Stunned she turned it over in her hand, the back was as equally carved as the front. "What is it?"
"Who knows when Taniel is involved?" Her mother shrugged.
"I got a gift for you too." Calum said eagerly and ran towards the wagon.
Elf slipped the chain around her neck and tucked the horse inside her shirt, against her skin, as she waited for her brother to return.
"Here it is!" Calum scrambled onto the log next to her and dumped a book on her lap.
Elf traced her fingers over the leather. "Collected poetry? This is wonderful! Thank you Cal."
Calum gave her a tight hug. "Is it the best gift?"
"Even better than Wind?"
"Of course." Elf ruffled his hair and opened to the first poem. Her family listened as she read several before her father insisted it was time to move on.
"Do you want to drive dear?" Jaden called to his wife.
"No, I am going to lie down again." She called back as she hitched the last horse into place.
Elf swung back into Wind's saddle and took her position in the rear. Her father and Calum sat in their accustomed spots, the late autumn chill not enough to deter the little boy from the adventure of riding next to his father.
As they rode out Elf pulled the silver horse out of her shirt and examined it again. She knew the Shin'a'in gave small black horse figures to children when it was time for them to choose their own horse from the herds, she had even seen several of the little figures, but the meaning behind the little horse eluded her.