I first published this in Companion's Grove, a print fanzine (after the proper release forms were submitted, of course).
Disclaimer: Mercedes Lackey owns everything. I own nothing.
The dark-haired, violet-eyed little girl sat playing with her homemade doll in the back yard of the little wooden cottage that stood on the edge of the Forest of Sorrows. The tall grasses of the countryside blew gently in the wind, bowing their heads, or so it seemed, in respect to the great, dark forest that stood before them. They were so tall, in fact, that the little girl was as perfectly concealed from the view of anyone who might look over the rolling hills that swept out from the forest as a groundhog might be. On more than one occasion, her parents had rushed outside when they had looked out of the window of the cottage and hadn't seen their daughter. The only thing to betray her was her clear, sweet voice as she talked to her doll.
"There, Beebee," she said, pouring imaginary tea from a pine cone into small acorn shell cups. "Some for you and some for me." She drank up and then held the petite cup to her doll's mouth so that it could drink, too.
The little girl then stood up, taking her doll by the hand . "Time to pick flowers for Mommy, Beebee." She began to skip through the meadow grasses, stopping every so often to pick a pretty wildflower, or an unusual blade of grass, all the while being careful not to go out of sight of the small house.
Suddenly, she heard her mother scream shrilly from inside the cottage. She stopped skipping and stood still for a heartbeat. Her mother screamed again, and the little girl dropped her bouquet of wildflowers and ran as fast as her little legs could carry her to the house. As she rounded the corner to the front of the cottage, she saw two strange white horses standing there, untethered. She had never known anyone to come visit them before.
Frightened, she pushed open the door to the one-room cottage and stopped, terrified at the sight that greeted her. The inside of the small cottage looked like a storm had blown through it, leaving nothing unturned. Her father was tied up in a chair, and her mother--
The little girl screamed and rushed over to the bedstead where two strange, rough-looking, dirty men were raping her mother. She beat them with her little fists, one of which still tightly clenched her doll.
"Mommy, mommy," she cried desperately.
"Aeran--run!" her mother gasped, her eyes wide with a fear for her child.
"Little brat!" Spat one of the men. He slapped her hard with the back of his hand, sending her crashing into a corner where she dropped her doll.
Aeran looked over to her father as he called her name. She rushed over to him and tried to untie the heavy knots, but it was no use.
"Daddy," she wept. She tried to wipe the blood off his face with the corner of her dress, but he stopped her.
"No, Aeran. Don't stay here. Go. Run to the forest as fast as you can, just like I taught you, just like we practiced. It will keep you safe." His voice dropped to a whisper as he struggled for breath. "Run into the forest, and don't look back. I love y-" His head dropped and the little girl cried out.
"Daddy? Daddy!" She pushed his arm, but he didn't respond. A final, sharp scream from her mother drew her attention back to the bedstead. Her mother's throat was covered in blood that still dripped and glistened from the knife in her attacker's hand.
Without another thought, Aeran turned and ran out the door and towards Sorrows, never once looking back.
"Hey, the brat's escaping!" called one of the bandits. He tumbled off the bed and pulled up his breeches.
"Go after her, then!" snapped the other one, who was busy emptying a small jewel box into a satchel.
Wordlessly, the first bandit wiped his knife on the once pristine sheets and ran out the door, stopping short in the bright light from the sun. He blinked a few times to let his eyes adjust, and then looked around.
"I can't see her!"
"Check behind the house!" came the order from inside the cottage.
The first bandit mounted his horse and went around the back yard. He saw a little brown head bobbing in the grasses near the edge of the forest.
"She's headed for the forest!" he called to his partner.
A moment later, the second bandit appeared on his horse. "Well, what are you waiting for? Let's go after her!" Their horses broke into a run just as Aeran entered the forest.
Shaking with fright, little Aeran ran farther into the forest, which grew darker with each small step. Finally, exhausted and out of breath, she sank into a thick underbrush and drew her knees up to her chest and buried her face in her dress, sobbing as only a child can.
Suddenly, she heard a twig snap. She thought that the men might have heard her sobbing and the fear of them was so great in her small form that it swept away her tears in a sudden fury. Quiet now, but still trembling, she heard the sound of more twigs snapping and soon, muffled voices that became clearer as the men drew closer to her hiding place.
"Where is she?" asked the second bandit, looking around. "She couldn't have gone too far."
"Forget her, Jay. Let's go. This place is eerie. The horses won't even come in here."
"But she saw us--"
"So what? Who's she going to tell? There's not another soul around here for miles. Now let's go! I don't like it here."
"Yeah, me neither. Feels like something is watching us."
The two bandits quickly turned and headed back the way they had come. Soon, though, they began to jog, as a feeling of utter fear came over them. The feeling of being watched turned into sheer terror as they reached the edge of the forest. They started to run, but tripped and fell instead. Their last thoughts were ones of surprise as jagged spears of wood rose from the floor of Sorrows to impale them.
Ten years later......
Herald Rykar sighed with contentment as he walked with his Companion, Kerrilee, in the Field. A warm summer breeze teased both his wavy black hair and Kerrilee's flowing white mane and tail.
"Isn't it wonderful what we're doing?" he asked lazily.
"Nothing. Absolute, blissful nothingness. No disputes to settle, no outlaws to hunt down, no lovers to retrieve, no nothing. It's just you and me."
Kerrilee chuckled. :It is nice, isn't it?:
"Mmm. Unfortunately, it doesn't last forever. I'm to meet Wesley in a few candlemarks to discuss our new assignment."
Sapphire eyes met emerald ones and Kerrilee stopped walking, surprised. :Discuss? It must be serious.:
"I know," Ryker replied. "Usually we're given the assignment and we go. There's nothing to discuss. I wonder what the problem is. You haven't heard anything from Chandras, have you?"
:No,: Kerrilee replied. Wesley's Companion hadn't given her any more clue as to their new assignment than Wesley himself had. In spite of the seeming importance of it, though, she felt a brief flash of irritation at the speculative mood her Chosen was falling into. The reason they were in the Field was to relax, not worry. She nudged him in the arm with her nose. :Worry about it later, Chosen.:
Ryker frowned in concentration, but then gave into his Companion and smiled warmly at her. "Okay, Kerri, you win. We'll do whatever you want to do today."
Kerrilee's eyes sparkled with amusement. :Well, first, you can brush out my mane and tail, and then--:
Rykar laughed richly, interrupting her impishness. "You are, without a doubt, the most vain creature in Valdemar."
:Me?: she asked. :What about you?:
"I'm not vain," Rykar replied seriously. Inside, though, he was bursting with the effort to contain his laughter.
:Not vain!: Kerrilee exclaimed before realizing that her Chosen was teasing her. Her tone then changed to one of concern. :Have you looked in a mirror recently?:
Rykar hesitated. "Yes, just before I came here. Why? Is something wrong?"
Kerrilee laughed merrily and pranced softly on the grass, her eyes shining. :I rest my case.:
Rykar sighed and rolled his eyes skyward. "Come on, you." Their teasing was legendarily known throughout the Collegia.
They started walking towards a small shaded grove of trees. "Shall I fan you and feed you bits of apple and sugar while you relax?"
Her blue eyes filled with impishness again. :Oh, Rykar, would you?: She batted her eyelashes at him in a way that would put the most practiced courtier to shame, and laughed to herself as she caught her Chosen in a trap. She didn't really expect him to do anything of the sort, though--she'd die of embarrassment if he even thought of taking her up on her request!
Rykar bowed to Kerrilee. "Of course. There's nothing too good for my Queen." He turned to go to the tack shed, a wicked grin spreading across his face.
Kerrilee stood in the grove, waiting. Rykar wouldn't embarrass her like that with others watching, would he? Of course he wouldn't, she told herself, but her voice sounded dubious at best, even to her own ears.
She nervously twitched her tail and glanced around as she saw Rykar return with an enormous feather fan and a bowl of apples and sugar. Goddess only knew where he found them! She saw other Companions looking strangely at him as well, and she was half-tempted to call for Chandras to come, knowing his presence would divert Rykar back to the very mood she had been trying to shake out of him. But serious would be better than silliness!
Rykar watched as Kerrilee looked anxiously around her. He knew she didn't think he'd actually honor his suggestion, and he was teasingly enjoying every minute of her discomfort, especially when Lancer walked up to her. He could only imagine that conversation!
:Kerrilee, what is Rykar doing?: Lancer asked, casting her Chosen an odd glance.
:Well, I--: she spluttered as Rykar arrived.
"Hello, Lancer. Want to join us?" Rykar asked.
:Rykar, please,: Kerrilee pleaded, for his ears only.
"We're just going to relax and eat a few apples," he continued smoothly, taking a big bite out of one of the shiny red fruits. "Kerri, here, likes sugar with hers, so I brought some of that along, too." He sat down, leaning against a tree, and began to fan himself with the huge red and orange plumed fan while munching on his apple, all the while looking like he engaged in that particular activity every day.
:Your Chosen is...odd: Lancer said after a moment. :Does he do this all the time?:
Totally flustered, Kerrilee could only reply, :Well, I...not...really.:
A shrill whistle broke the embarrassing mood and Lancer looked over his shoulder. :Well, that's Jacquelle. She's practicing her whistling skills for some reason. She says it's in case we're ever Mindblocked, but we've got one of the tightest bonds in the Circle. I think she's just jealous that Wesley can whistle halfway across Haven and she can't. I'd better be off.: He took another look at Rykar, who was happily fanning himself and giving no notice to either Companion. :Strange creature, your Chosen.: With that, he trotted off to his own Chosen.
Once Lancer was out of earshot, Rykar closed his eyes contentedly and rested his head back against the tree, still fanning himself. He cracked an eye long enough to see Kerrilee lean against another tree in relief. He felt her surprised shock as he lazily remarked, "You owe me, Your Majesty."
About a candlemark later, he and Wesley were sitting in Wesley's office, pouring over the details of Rykar's next assignment.
"I don't exactly know what to tell you," Wesley began, looking over the official letter from Castel, a small town on the southern border of the Forest of Sorrows. "It seems that a Roadguard found this old abandoned cottage about a half a day's journey west of Castel, still on Sorrow's border. It's the only building around, next to the barn--a rather odd thing, too. There are very few, if any, solitary residences up there. Given the harshness of the climate, and the threat of raids, people tend to stick together in the north."
"So what's the problem," Rykar asked, confused.
Wesley grimaced. "The remains of two bodies were found inside with all the markings of murder on them."
"What does Haven have to do with it? Castel has law enforcers and judges. What do they want a Herald for?"
"Because the bodies have been there for, oh, about ten years or so," Wesley replied. "Castel won't even go near the situation. The first thing they did was send an official letter, requesting that a Herald be sent up to investigate."
"So what am I supposed to do?" Rykar asked.
"Investigate," Wesley replied simply. "Find out as much as you can from the people up there. They're being a little tight-lipped, though, so I'll warn you. They refused to send any more details, saying they'd prefer to talk to a Herald face to face. But you can cast both stages of the Truth Spell, so I wouldn't worry."
"Yes, but, Wesley, a ten year old murder?"
"I know how you feel. Off the record, no one expects you to come up with anything, let alone solve the crime."
Rykar sighed. "When do I stop, if I don't uncover anything?"
Wesley shrugged. "Whenever you think you've spent enough time up there, come home." He leaned back in his chair. "The people of Castel are plain folk who don't see much action. This has stirred them up quite a bit, enough for the mayor to feel that he has to call for a Herald's help. The sooner you get there, the better."
Rykar nodded. "I understand. Kerrilee and I can leave in the morning."
"I know it seems like a waste of time," Wesley said. "And I'd take it myself if I could. But I have teaching responsibilities, and the Mindhealers are still uncomfortable with the prospect of any separation between Jacquelle and me while she is Healing."
Rykar smiled. "It's okay, Wesley...you don't have to apologize. I should be grateful that it's going to be simple and dull. The alternative could be much worse."
"Truer words were never spoken," Wesley replied, rising from his chair. Rykar followed suit and both walked out the door. "By the way, do you feel alright? Lancer said you were acting awfully strange earlier today in the Field. Something about sugared feathers."
Rykar laughed. "It's a long story about the vanity and embarrassment of Companions. I'll tell you sometime."
Wesley shot him a sidelong glance. "Knowing you and Kerrilee, I think I'll pass on the explanation." They stopped at the end of the hall. "Well, my class begins in a few minutes. Good luck, Rykar."
The men shook hands. "Thanks, Wesley. I'll see you soon," Rykar replied.
Rykar left the Collegium building and made his way back to the Field to tell Kerrilee the news, the thoughtful frown returning to his face.
The tanned young woman, dressed scantily in buckskin, knelt by the small stream. She cupped the fresh, cold water in her hands and splashed it on her face and proceeded to scrub away a previous day's worth of sweat and dirt. Once she was clean, she picked up her brush, made from dry reeds, and began to brush out her thick, dark hair that fell to her waist.. After she finished, she stood up, stretching with all the finesse of a wildcat, and turned away from the stream to go back to her home.
She was of average height for a sixteen-year-old, lean and muscular, and possessing all the skills of one used to living in the forest for as far back as she could remember. As she walked back to the cave that was her home, she heard a shrill cry above her head, and looked up to see a hawk land on a branch of a small tree near her. She smiled and walked over to it, looking deep into its eyes.
:Good morning, bright one. Something is wrong?:
The hawk rustled its feathers impatiently. :Fawn caught in trap,: it sent, along with a corresponding image.
:I will come,: she replied. :Go tell it not to worry.:
The hawk launched itself from the branch and flew back the way it had come. The young woman followed it by foot, soundlessly making her way through the forest.
There was a doe standing near when she arrived, frantic with worry.
:Help!: she sent to her.
:I will help. Watch and tell me if any others come while I get your fawn untangled.:
She carefully disengaged the fawn from the ropes and once it was free, it bounded away toward its mother.
:Many thanks,: the doe sent, as she licked her fawn warmly.
:You're welcome,: the young woman replied. :Now go, before you are seen by the trappers.:
Wordlessly, they lept away, just as the young woman heard a twig snap in the distance. In a heartbeat, she climbed the nearest tree and watched as two men cam into view. They spoke in a language that she did not understand, even though she felt she should.
"I thought you trapped a deer."
"So where is it?"
"How should I know. Sorrows is a strange place."
"You said your traps were the best. I think I will find someone else to do business with."
The voices grew fainter as the men drew away.
"Wait. There is no need to be hasty..."
The young woman waiting until they were long gone before climbing down and going back to her home.
The young woman possessed a rare Gift--the ability to communicate with animals--quite rare, and quite strong. So strong, in fact, that she could hear the thoughts of animals all over the forest, and even some of those outside the forest. There were so many that she had to block them out of her mind, else the thoughts of all the animals of the forest in her mind at once would overwhelm her. To compensate, she had selected animals in each part of the forest to keep watch for her and inform her of any trouble, just has the hawk had done, as she has appointed herself as a sort of guardian of the forest animals. She saved all that she could who were in trouble, unless it involved the natural cycle of life--predator against prey. Those she left alone, knowing that it was never good to disturb the balance of nature.
Most of her messengers were birds, since they could easily get from one part of the forest to another without much of a problem. But even with their help, there were always some animals that she simply could not save, because of the distance between them. By the time she could get to the trap, the animals would be dead.
Not that she wouldn't try--she always did, but it was rare that she could reach the trap of one so far away before the trapper did. It wasn't unusual for her to turn around and go back less than a candlemark or two into her journey.
As she walked home, a messenger of another sort came up to her and began walking beside her.
:Bright morning, Aeran. You walk well,: he said, referring to her ability to walk soundlessly through the forest.
Aeran smiled down at the giant snowcat. "So you were watching me, were you, Snowstar?"
:Of course. A good teacher always watches over his pupil.:
Snowstar, as far as Aeran could tell, was from the mountain range north of the forest, and was just as intelligent as she, if not more so. He was white with emerald eyes, and stood as tall as Aeran's waist. He had a short, silky coat, and a long tail that snapped like a whip when he was angry or irritated. Aeran had known him for as long as she could remember. He had taught her everything she knew, from how to build a fire and walk without making a sound, to shielding the thoughts of the animals out of her mind. She had learned his language out of necessity, and over the years, her knowledge of her life before they had met had slowly faded from her mind.
:Breakfast is waiting at the cave,: he told her
"What did you get this time?" Having her Gift made it nearly impossible for her to kill any animal, so Snowstar did the hunting for both of them.
:A nice rabbit. You will like it, I think, and you can use the fur to make new winter clothes for yourself.:
"Only one? What about you? Aren't you going to eat?"
:I ate on the way back from hunting.:
"Well, then, will you stay and keep me company while I eat?" she asked as the cave came into view.
:Of course. I would be delighted to spend time with you. I can fill you in on the news from my patrol, and you can tell me why you leave your things out for all to see. Do you wish others of your kind to find you and take you away?: he admonished as he saw some of her clothes lying in the sun.
"I washed them last night, and they need to dry well, or they will get musty and rot," Aeran replied. "Besides, the animals will tell me if someone is nearby. You worry too much."
:I worry because I care, and would not see you hurt, Aeran.:
"I know," she replied, kneeling down to wrap her arms around his neck in a warm embrace. "And I love you for it."
Kerrilee stood quietly next to the stables, waiting for Rykar to come and saddle her. It was early in the morning, and they were scheduled to leave soon for Castel. A soft breeze ruffled her mane and tail and she watched the sun come slowly over the horizon, chasing away the last of the stars. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day.
She pricked her ears as she heard the sound of musical hooves coming up from behind her. She curvetted slightly so as to see who it was. Surprise touched her lightly as she saw Rhis anxiously step up to the stables.
:Where are the stablehands?: he demanded impatiently.
Kerrilee hesitated. The only reason Rhis would be there was in order to be saddled. He hadn't Chosen, yet, so that meant he was going out to Choose. While it wasn't proper to comment on such a personal thing, she and Rhis had grown up together...
:They'll be right back,: she replied. :Is your Chosen in trouble?:
As a basic rule, only the Monarch's Own Companion had to leave the Collegium to go in search of his Chosen. Usually, a person made his or her way to Haven where they would meet their Companion and be Chosen. Companions didn't normally go out after them unless they couldn't make it to Haven for some reason, and when that happened, it was usually a very serious reason.
While Rhis could have remained silent, he chose not to. :I don't know, but she can't get to Haven and she's been ready to be Chosen for quite some time.:
Having already overstepped her bounds once, Kerrilee only replied. :Be safe, Rhis.:
A stablehand appeared, then, with Rhis' gear and quickly saddled him. Without another word, Rhis pivoted and broke into a gallop, opting to jump the fence (and the gatekeeper, who happened to duck at just the right time) that surrounded the Field instead of waiting for the gate to be opened. He soon disappeared from Kerrilee's sight.
"Amazing, isn't it? He's finally decided to Choose," said the stablehand, who, when Rhis was out of sight, went back into the stables.
He decided to Choose a long time ago, Kerrillee corrected in her mind.
Rykar stood quietly next to Kerrilee and watched as she watched Rhis. "Rhis' Choosing, is he?"
Kerrilee had been so focused on her friend that her own Chosen's voice startled her so that she jumped slightly and turned her head so fast that her mane lightly whipped Rykar's face. :Goddess! You could scare a body to death!: she exclaimed, glaring at him.
He smiled sheepishly as he began to saddle her. "All ready for our adventure?"
:As ready as I'll ever be.:
"Good," he replied, kissing her nose. He check to see that his bags were securely fastened to her saddle before mounting. He swung up into the saddle and Kerrilee turned and trotted out of the Field (by way of the gate, much to the gatekeeper's relief), heading for the northern gates of Haven, where she and Rykar would begin the long journey to Castel.
Rhis slowed down and moved off to the side of the road, his sides heaving. He knew that he didn't need to push himself at such a rate like he had been doing for the past two days. His Chosen wasn't in any real trouble. Not yet, anyway.
Rhis slowly walked down to the small stream that ran next to the road and drank deeply from it. He then knelt in the shade of a tree as it was high noon and quite warm. He decided that somehow he needed to get rid of his saddle--it made rolling impossible. Tired, he closed his eyes, remembering a similarly warm summer day, so many years ago...
He had been resting in a small grove of trees at the far end of the Field when he heard a strange rustling in the bushes. He opened his eyes to see a little girl with violet eyes, holding a cloth doll, regarding him with a curious look. She had looked into his eyes, and he had looked into her soul and had known. She would be the one, his Chosen, when she came of age. He had decided then and there that he would travel to the ends of the world to find her, protect her, help her--whatever was necessary when the time came.
And when she touched his mind with her Gift, that had merely solidified the decision all the more. He had opened a link between them, so tiny that she could never pick up on it, but enough so that he would know when she was ready to be Chosen. He would then be able to call her to Haven in such a way that she would not sense it, but would somehow make her way to the city after that.
Her parents had come then, in a frenzy at having thought that they had lost their daughter. They had taken her away from him moments later, and he had never seen her since.
Rhis sighed. By all rights, she should have come to Haven by now. She had been ready for nearly three years. He had called to her, but nothing had happened. She hadn't come. She wasn't dead--he would have known if she had died. Something was wrong, though. She seemed to be elsewhere, as if she wasn't the same person he had decided to make his Chosen. No matter--he would know soon enough what had happened to cause such a change, and he needed to reach her as soon as he could.
He rose wearily and made his way back to the road to continue on his journey.
The sun was near the western horizon when Rykar and Kerrilee finally crossed through the gates of Castel, more than a week after they had left Haven. Rykar looked around, noting that Castel was indeed small. It had one main street that sported the businesses, and several side ones where the people lived in small wooden houses. At the end of the main street, a brick building stood tall and strong. He recognized it as serving jointly as the mayor's house and Valdemar's northern Roadguard station.
No sooner had he ridden up to the door of the Station then a man came out to meet him. He was heavyset, complete with brown hair, eyes, and beard. He extended a hand to Rykar as he dismounted.
"Welcome, Herald. I'm Octorn, the mayor of Castel. Please, come inside."
Rykar grasped his hand firmly. "Thank you. I'm Rykar, and this is my Companion, Kerrilee. I'd like to see her safely bedded down for the night before we get involved in anything.
"Of course," Octorn replied. "Jan!"
A young boy of about ten years rushed out of the main door and came to stand beside Octorn. "Yes, m'lord?" He absently brushed his thick blond hair out of his eyes.
"Take Herald Rykar down to the stables where he can groom his Companion." He turned to Rykar. "We've had a stall prepared especially for her."
:They'd better be better than those last ones,: Kerrilee growled to Rykar.
Rykar surreptitiously elbowed her. "Thank you. I'm quite sure she'll like them."
:We'll see, and I'll kindly thank you to keep your elbows to yourself.:
:Then quit being rude,: Rykar replied, grasping her reins and following Jan around the building to where the stables were.
:Rude?! Humans! You don't know what rude is. Let me tell you what rude is. Rude is having to sleep in moldy hay and eat rotten grain while horses--horses, mind you--in the stalls beside you live better than royalty. That's what rude is, my boy,: she replied indignantly.
Rykar sighed as they stepped inside the stables. :Kerri, I've already apologized a hundred times for not having been able to get you something better. Besides, I doubt this will be as bad.:
Jan stopped in front of the largest stall. It was full of fresh hay and had two large buckets hanging from one wall for water and food. "The door doesn't have a lock on it," Jan explained, "so she can come and go as she pleases. There's a pond out back and plenty of fresh grass." He opened the door to the stall.
"Thank you, Jan," Rykar said, and then switched to Mindspeech. :What do you have to say for yourself now?:
:It's about time.:
Rykar bit off an irritated reply and got her brushes out of a saddlebag.
"Could I groom her?" Jan asked hopefully. "I know all about Companions, honest. I've been reading all about them. I can even feed her, too, and clean her tack. Then you and the mayor can talk sooner." He went to stand next to her, looking at her in wonder. "She sure is pretty."
And she knows it, too, Rykar thought.
:Very funny,: Kerrilee replied. :Let him, Chosen. He probably doesn't get much excitement in this backwoods.:
:Uh-huh. You just want someone to pander your ego a little more.: He wasn't quite joking this time and she picked up on it, giving an affronted snort as she shut him out of her mind.
"Well, she doesn't mind, so feel free. If you have any problems, come and find me," Rykar replied. He left them and headed back to the Station. Not that she wouldn't tell me herself immediately.
He felt a brief apologetic wave of emotion follow him as he walked up the small hill to the Station, and with a rueful smile, he paused and sent back the same before continuing on his way.
Rykar went to the mayor's office where Octorn was waiting for him. They sat down together.
"I really appreciate Haven sending you, Herald. The townspeople are as spooked as a wild stallion, although they've calmed down considerably since I told them you were coming."
"Do you have any more information you can give me?" Rykar asked.
Octorn shook his head. "Not much. I'm not native to Castel, and I've only been mayor for seven years, but I've been told that a family used to live in that cottage. They came to town every once in a while to get supplies, and they disappeared ten years ago."
Rykar held back a sigh of disappointment at the appalling lack of information from Octorn, but he knew it wasn't the mayor's fault. "Would you mind if I questioned the townspeople?"
"Not at all! Many of them have been here for decades, so you'll likely have better luck with them than with me." He smiled his apologies.
Rykar stood up. "I'll begin as soon as I'm settled in."
"We have a room for you all ready. It's on the upper floor of the Song, the tavern at the end of the street." He stood up and held out his hand. "I really appreciate this, Herald. If I can be of any assistance--"
"I'll let you know immediately," Rykar finished. "And thank you."
He had no trouble finding the tavern, Sorrows' Song, and once he had gotten settled in his room, he went downstairs to the common room where several townspeople were gathered for an evening meal. He sat alone at a table and ordered the meal of the day and some wine. He noticed the townspeople were giving him sideways looks and it wasn't long before one, an older man, approached him and sat down.
"You've come to investigate that murder," he said without preamble or greeting.
Rykar nodded. "Can you help me?"
The man settled in his chair before continuing. "That family was a strange one. They lived alone, away from everyone and everything. They only came to town a few times a year when they ran low on supplies, and especially before winter set in. The woman was something of a healer, or so the rumors went, and they had a little girl, I remember, who had the most unusual eyes. I'll never forget them--they were as violet as a river iris. And she had a way with animals--even the most feral of cats would come up to her. Lady only knows how they managed to survive all those years by themselves."
"What did they do for a living?" Rykar asked. "Where did they get the money to buy their supplies?"
"The man, Garet, was a craftsman," the old man replied. "He made the most beautiful musical instruments you ever laid eyes on. He must have spent all his time making them, because once a year, he would take a dozen or so of them to Haven to sell them to the Bardic Collegium. He never came back with a single instrument, either."
Rykar's eyes widened. "Garet? As in the Garet Harp?" At the old man's nod, he shook his head. "I'm no musician, but even I have heard of him. His instruments are highly sought after in the bardic community. We had no idea this case involved someone so well-known to Haven."
"The last time I saw Garet, he was loading up on supplies for a trip to Haven, which was unusual, since he had just come from there not that long before. He said that Bardic wanted to make a permanent contract with him for his instruments, using his exclusively, and that they were moving to Haven. No one ever saw him since, and we all figured that he'd gone to Haven like he said he was going to."
Rykar looked thoughtful. "And if I remember correctly, it was about ten years ago that he was last seen in Haven." He looked across the table. "Do you know of anyone who would want to kill him?"
The man shook his head. "No, I'm sorry. I can't imagine who would. Garet never bothered anyone. It must have been bandits."
Rykar nodded his agreement. "Thank you, sir. You've been a great help."
The man nodded curtly and left the table as the serving girl came over with Rykar's meal. He ate and then turned in for the night. He'd learn more tomorrow, what little there was left to learn. A mystery would be solved, and with any luck, he and Kerrilee would be on their way home in a few days.
Rhis staggered into Castel, utterly exhausted. He had been traveling for two full days at a gallop, ever since the farmer who had caught him had finally let him go. That, of course, after Rhis had Mindspoken him and threatened to kick down the stall door. The farmer had had good intentions, though. He had found Rhis walking up the road, barely able to keep his nose off the ground. He had taken care of Rhis for several days until he had gained his strength back. Now, though, he was in almost as bad of a shape as before.
Except that I don't have that infernal saddle to worry about, he thought. The farmer had blessedly removed it, and Rhis was eternally thankful. The first thing he had done when he got out of the stall was roll before galloping headlong towards his Chosen.
Now, she was close to him, he could sense it, and he let himself relax. He remembered that Kerrilee and Rykar were in Castel, and he managed to stagger down to the pond where Kerri was before he collapsed in complete exhaustion at her feet.
Rykar was about to leave his room when he noticed a slip of paper lying on the floor near the door. He picked it up and read it. His eyes widened and he felt for his bond with Kerrilee.
:Beloved, I need you.:
:Right here, Chosen.:
:Read this and tell me what you make of it.: He could feel her looking through his eyes as he scanned the paper for a second time.
Don't think this is a case of bandits, it read. Someone wanted Garet dead. Perhaps you should check to see who got the contract he should have gotten.
:I think someone's trying to help us, Chosen,: Kerrilee said after a moment.
:So do I. I'm going to try to reach Wesley and have him check the records about that.:
:Better try Jacquelle,: Kerrilee prompted. :Wesley's main Gift is Empathy, not Mindspeech. She can relate the message to her lifebonded and get back to you.:
:Good idea. Link with me, okay?:
:I'm here for you. You won't get lost.:
Rykar tranced down and felt for the familiar minds at Haven. He never usually tried to Speak this far, but Jacquelle had an unusually strong Gift of Mindspeech. Once he reached her, it would be easy. He followed Kerrilee's link to Lancer's, and then to Jacquelle herself. He "knocked" at the edges of her mind. A moment later, she was there.
:Rykar? What is it? What's wrong?: Her mindvoice was as clear as bells. Rykar relaxed from a deep trance.
:I need Wesley to look up some records for me. Ten years ago, Bardic offered a contract to a man named Garet for his instruments. He never showed up. Who was that contract given to?:
:It may take some time, but I'll have Wesley get on it right away. I'll contact you when we find out.:
:With pleasure. Take care.: With that she terminated the link, and Rykar opened his eyes to find that he had no headache at all. He breathed a sigh of relief--the last thing he needed was an inconvenient thing like a backlash headache.
:Consider us even,: Kerri said.
:You saved me from embarrassment, I saved you from a headache,: Kerrilee explained. :We are even, Your Majesty.:
Rykar chuckled. :Deal. And thank you, dearest.:
:My pleasure.: She paused. :When you get some time, you should come down here. Rhis arrived late last night.:
"Rhis?" Rykar exclaimed aloud. :Why didn't you tell me?:
:He's asleep,: Kerrilee replied, :so I don't know any more than what I've just told you. But I think he'll be waking up soon. He doesn't look good, and he's lost his saddle.:
:I'll be down as soon as I grab some breakfast. Let me know if he wakes up before that.:
Rykar hurried through his meal and then met Kerrilee down by the pond. Rhis was just coming to his feet when Rykar arrived. Kerri had been right. He didn't look good at all.
"What happened? Why is he here? Has he Chosen yet?"
:Apparently, his Chosen is nearby,: Kerrilee answered.
Rykar turned to Rhis. "Lady Bright! What do you think you're doing, pushing yourself like this?! It's certainly not going to help your Chosen if you're dead!"
:She was ready to be Chosen years ago. I waited for her, but she didn't come. I even called to her, but she didn't answer. She is here, but she is not. She has changed and doesn't recognize me,: Rhis said to Kerrilee, his desperation leading him to forsake all bounds of privacy, and confess everything to the only other soul around who might understand.
Kerrilee felt a twinge of sympathy for her friend. She hadn't had to worry about such things, as Rykar had grown up in Haven, and had answered her call almost immediately. But she knew of other Companions who weren't so fortunate, like Rhis. She turned to Rykar. :His Chosen hasn't been able to make it to Haven. He's had to come for her.:
"Is she in trouble? Is that why you've been pushing yourself so hard?"
:I don't know!: Rhis exclaimed fretfully.
:Unknown, Chosen,: Kerrilee said.
Rykar sighed. "Well, I want you to get some rest, Rhis. If your Chosen is going to be in trouble, you'll need to have more strength than you do now."
:He's right,: Kerrilee added privately.
Rhis said nothing, but he followed docilely behind Rykar as Rykar led him to Kerrilee's stall. It was clean, and he groomed Rhis and gave him some food. Rykar then turned him loose and Rhis found a comfortable spot near the pond. He laid down and went to sleep.
Rykar looked at Kerrilee. "He should be fine in a day or so. I think we should go out to the cottage and look around."
:We'll have to stay in a Waystation,: Kerri commented.
"Getting used to this nice treatment, my Queen?"
:Yes,: she stated emphatically. :I am!:
Rykar chuckled. "Let's go, Your Majesty."
Aeran was just waking up when she heard a frantic cry from outside her cave. She scrambled outside to find her hawk swooping to and fro. When it saw her, it settled on a bush near her head. She looked into its eyes.
:What is it?:
:Man comes this way. Comes on white horse. Must hide.:
:Thank you,: she replied and quickly padded around her cave until she came to a strong tree. She scrambled up the tree and balanced on a branch, waiting. She didn't have to wait long. Soon, she saw a white horse approach, ridden by a man in a white uniform. He was talking aloud in that almost-familiar language.
"I'm sorry, Kerri. I didn't know the Waystation was old and abandoned. It's not my fault that a Herald hasn't had to stay here in a long time."
Just then a memory flashed into Aeran's mind with such force that she felt as though it struck her. White horses, two white horses, her mother's scream, white horses with depthless blue eyes, blood on her father's face, white horses chasing her into the Forest. She became dizzy and fell out of the tree, landing unceremoniously on the ground. When her vision cleared, she found she was staring at the white horse. An overwhelming terror seized her and she stood up and fled into the darkness of the forest before the man could even recover from his surprise.
Rykar found his voice. "Kerri, what was that?"
:A girl, I believe.:
"I know that, but what's a girl doing dressed like that and in the forest? There's not a house for candlemarks."
:I don't know, Chosen.:
"Should we go after her?"
:We'd never find her. She knows her way around the forest.:
"I wonder why she was so scared," Rykar mused. She was enchanting, probably mid-teens, and possessing the most beautiful violet eyes he had ever seen. He shrugged and then nudged Kerri on, but suddenly pulled her up short as a thought hit him. "They never found the little girl's body, did they?"
:Now, hold on, Chosen. You don't think--"
"I don't know," he admitted. "She does have violet eyes, and that's not something you see every day. She's the right age, and there's no one else living out here. Could a child survive alone for this many years?"
:I don't know,: Kerrilee said. :This is getting stranger by the day. Let's just go on, Rykar.:
A candlemark later, they came to the little cottage and the barn. The elements had taken their toll over the years. Rykar dismounted and pushed the door to the cottage open. Immediately, he recoiled in horror. There were two skeletons, one on the bed, and one that lay around a chair on the middle of the floor. The house was covered in dust and cobwebs. The windows had been opened, though, so it didn't bear the sickening smell that would have otherwise accompanied it. He turned away. It would be his job to bury them. He found an old rusty shovel and he dug a deep hole in the earth. Then, forcing down his nausea, he gathered the skeleton on the bed in the tattered bedclothes and dropped it in the hole. He then swept up the bones of the other skeleton into another rotting blanket and put them in the hole. He filled the hole with dirt and whispered a small prayer for their souls.
He went back into the house and searched around. There were a few shattered instruments and overturned furniture. He was about to leave when something caught his eye. There, in the far corner, covered by cobwebs, was an old doll. He bent and picked it up, brushing it off. It was made of homespun cloth and had a faded dress of indeterminate color. It was rotting on one of the feet, missing a button eye, and the thread mouth was unraveling, but it was otherwise undamaged. A thoughtful frown crossed Rykar's face and he took the doll and put it in his saddlebag. He was just about to remount Kerrilee when he received a mindtouch.
:Rykar?: came Jacquelle's clear voice. :Wesley's got that information for you.:
Rykar sighed with relief. :That's the best news I've gotten all day. What is it?:
:Garet was given the contract, but Bardic has a letter from him turning the job down.:
:What? But he didn't!:
:Wait--it get's better,: Jacquelle said. :The day the letter arrived from Garet, a man showed up at the Collegium wanting to show the bards his instruments. Next thing you know, he has the contract.:
:I don't like the sound of this,: Rykar commented.
:Neither did Wesley. He followed a hunch and compared the handwriting of Garet's letter to Dryden's, the man who conveniently showed up. They match.:
:Where is Dryden now?: Rykar asked urgently.
:He lives in Haven,: Jacquelle replied, :so the Circle had him brought in for questioning. He admitted everything under Truth Spell.:
:He killed Garet?:
:No, but he paid two men to do it,: she said grimly.
:Where are they?: Rykar asked.
:Unknown. According to Dryden, they never showed up to collect payment.:
:Something must have happened to them.:
:Probably, but we'll never know,: Jacquelle said.
Rykar gave a mental sigh of sorrow mixed with relief. :Thanks, Jacquelle, and tell Wesley I said thank you, too.:
:I will. He says that you're to come home once you inform the mayor.:
:Understood,: Rykar replied. He withdrew from the link. "Did you get that, Kerri?"
:Yes,: she replied. :At least we caught one of them.:
Rykar nodded and pulled himself up into the saddle, his thoughts returning to the girl in the woods as he and Kerri started back for Castel.
Aeran ran until she could run no longer. She collapsed to the ground, breathing hard. She heard a twig snap behind her and she cried out in alarm, turning around, curling up into herself. She relaxed, though, when she saw Snowstar.
"There was a man and a white horse, and-- " She broke off, sobbing, as more memories flooded her. She put her hands to her head and shut her eyes, trying to block them from her mind.
:The man went to the Evil Place,: Snowstar calmly told her.
Before, the Evil Place was just words, but now, there were images: images of a cottage, of white horses, of evil men, of her mother's cries and her father's still form. Aeran tried to block them out, but she couldn't.
:Do not fight the images, Aeran,: Snowstar said. :They are a part of you, and it is time to remember.:
"No!" she cried, and then gasped in horror. She had said the word in the almost-familiar language, the language of her past. She scrambled to her feet and ran away from Snowstar, away from the memories. She would not remember, she could not!
But as she ran, a voice from her past floated up through the memories.
Run, Aeran. Run into the Forest and don't look back.
She stopped and fell to her knees, sobbing incoherently as the memories overpowered her mind.
Rhis felt a terror echoing down through his bond from his Chosen. He started immediately to his feet from where he had been resting near the pond. Without a second thought, he broke into a canter, and then a full gallop as he headed towards the source of the fear.
He opened the link between himself and Aeran enough for him to definitively locate her. She was in Sorrows, a scant candlemark or so from him, and she was terrified beyond any kind of fear he had ever known. He tried to calm her fears through the bond, but it was too strong for him to have any effect on it. She wasn't soul-bonded to him, yet, nor was she in physical contact with him.
He entered the Forest, slowing a little, but dodging branches, or just pushing through them, instead of being careful in his navigation. He didn't care though. He ignored the stinging of branches as they scratched his skin or pulled stray hairs out of his mane and tail. He focused entirely on Aeran. Her fear was growing stronger, his desperation to reach her almost as strong. Without thought to what it would do to him in his already weakened state, he Fetched himself to within earshot of her, and stopped suddenly, sending dirt and dead leaves spraying into the air in front of himself. She was there, sobbing as a frightened child, at the other side of the clearing he had just entered. Rykar and Kerrilee had just entered the clearing, too, he vaguely noticed, but he was too focused on Aeran and her fear to pay them any mind.
There was nothing around her to cause such terror. He would know it if there was. He thought for a moment that she had lost her mind in the years that they were apart, and his heart was torn in two at the choice he might have to make if that were the case. He stepped towards her, but stopped when she looked up at him.
The color drained out of her face and Rhis felt an even greater wave of terror through the bond. He was stunned as he realized that he was the one she was afraid of--he and Kerrilee. He felt an outpouring of relief and love for her.
Don't worry, my Chosen, my heart, he thought. I will heal all your fears.
Rykar and Kerrilee were deep into the forest when he looked up to see Rhis at the other side of a small clearing that they had just come upon. He opened his mouth to call to him, but he stopped as he heard a strange sound. Frowning, he dismounted, looking around. There, at the edge of the clearing, was the girl, sobbing. He saw Rhis take a step forward, but then stop as the girl looked up at him. Rykar saw how afraid she was and he had an idea. He took out the doll from his saddlebag and slowly advanced towards her.
Exhausted from running and spent from crying, Aeran looked up, and through her tears she saw two white horses. She had no more strength to flee, but she scrambled back, terrifed. White horses were evil, they bore evil men who did wicked things. She shut her eyes tightly against the memory. They had returned for her for her.
She opened her eyes to see the strange man approaching. She backed away from him, but stopped as she noticed the doll in his hands. He threw it so it would land at her feet, and then backed away to his horse.
"Beebee?" she whispered, kneeling to pick up her childhood friend. The doll only served to stimulate her memories and she continued to back away from the white horses while mentally calling for Snowstar to help her. She saw him appear at the edge of the clearing, but he didn't intervene. She began to panic, and was about to turn and run when there was the most curious touch in her mind. It was accompanied by a new memory, a memory of white horses with blue eyes, horses that were kind, who had kind riders that lived in the big city with the palace and the musicians. She had touched one of those horses with blue eyes, a long time ago. She looked over at Rykar, frowning in thought.
"It's alright," he said to her. "I won't hurt you."
She understood his words, his language, and it made her afraid, until that curious touch seemed to gently soothe her fears. She noticed that the riderless horse was slowly approaching her. She realized then that he was the one who had touched her mind. He seemed vaguely familiar to her, and she didn't run. She looked at him, remembering more. Horses with blue eyes, blue eyes that she had looked into long ago. Rhis was close enough now that she could feel his breath on her face. She reached out a trembling hand and touched his soft nose, his cheek, his neck. Horses with blue eyes that she had looked into long ago.
Yes, my beloved, now look into them again, Rhis thought.
Blue eyes that she must look into now. Time slowed to a snail's pace. Finding courage from within, she lifted her eyes to meet his, and found herself wrapped in a depthless blue sky of peace and love.
:Finally, I Choose you, heart of my heart. Too long we have been apart, but never again.:
Time resumed its normal course, and Aeran threw her arms around Rhis' neck and began to sob into his mane.
A moment later, Snowstar came padding quietly up to them.
:Thank you for caring for my Chosen.:
:I give her back to you. Take care of her now for me.:
Rhis bowed his head in solemn promise, and Aeran let go of him long enough to give Snowstar a hug.
:I think I must leave you, Snowstar.:
:Yes, you must.:
:Will you stay here?:
:No. My task here is complete. Walk well, Aeran,: he replied, caressing her once with his face before disappearing into the darkness of the forest.
:Kerri,: Rykar asked, staring wide-eyed at Snowstar. :What was that?:
:A miracle,: she replied, but would not elaborate.
Rykar hesitantly approached Aeran. "Are you well?"
The young woman caressed the doll she was holding with a strange, sad, faraway look in her eyes, but she only nodded. "My name is Aeran," she said.
"I am Rykar," he replied. "And this is Kerrilee." He indicated to his Companion.
Aeran nodded thoughtfully. "I go to live with the people in white, in the city of music."
She didn't reply. She only closed her eyes and stood silently for a long moment. Rykar began to grow concerned, but Rhis didn't seem upset. Finally, through the trees, he saw a hawk flying towards Aeran, and it came to land near her in a tree at the edge of the clearing. She looked in its eyes.
:I must leave you, spirited one, to go with my Companion, my spirit horse. I don't want to go, but--:
:If I have to run away, I promise you, I will come back,: Aeran replied with determination.
:Have many young ones then,: the hawk said, and Aeran smiled. He had just found a mate not long before.
:I want to see your young ones.:
:You come, I show,: it said.
:I will. Hunt well, spirited one.: And with a small sigh of sadness, she watched him launch himself into the air. He circled the clearing and then flew above the trees and disappeared.
Aeran turned back to Rhis, the sorrow of her memories driving her into his mental arms. She held him close to keep herself from being overwhelmed.
:I don't want to leave, Rhis. This is all I've ever known. How can I start over? Can't you stay here with me?:
:I cannot,: he replied, then bowed his head low, preparing himself for the answer that would ultimately mean his death. :But you do not have to come with me if you don't want to.:
Rykar frowned at Rhis and turned to Kerrilee. :What's going on?:
:Aeran doesn't want to leave. Rhis is letting her go, if that's what she wishes to do.:
:But he'll die!: Rykar protested, stepping forward.
:Rykar!: Kerrilee admonished sharply. :It is not for you to decide.: Rykar stopped, helplessly frustrated.
Aeran looked to Rhis. He was giving her her freedom! She looked to the sky where the hawk had flown and for a moment, her heart soared with him. But then she sighed. Her life had been changed, and there was no going back to what was. Snowstar had gone, and her memories had come to take his place, and things would never be the same again.
She looked back at Rhis. Here, in the wondrous creature before her, was a whole new life waiting to be discovered, a life of love and happiness. Her heart soared a second time. Was it possible that she could love him so completely already? She knelt beside him and looked into his deep blue eyes. In a whisper, soft as feathers, she spoke into his mind.
:I choose you. Forever.: