Disclaimer: I disclaim ownership of any and all things in this story that belong to Mercedes Lackey.
A/N: This story is set in the AU that I created for "Worlds Collide," and is a gift for etcetera-cat on the occasion of her upcoming birthday (no, I can't wait until then...I got inspired). Actually, I never thought of writing a story for someone's birthday until I saw her do it for someone else here. See what you started? -smile- May the only angst you find on your birthday be fictitious.
A Forest of Sorrow
Herald Aiqueth leaned over the neck of his galloping Companion, every nerve afire with a near-terror. He didn't need to urge Delia on. He could practically feel her own fear in their mindlink, one so strong that the pain of having hairs ripped from her mane and tail by the passing tree branches didn't even register in her mind.
:They're everywhere!: she cried out.
The Great Forest was full of raiders. It always had been, but this summer had been particularly bad, and the Circle wasn't sure why. Already that year, they'd lost six Heralds trying to defend their northern border.
Aiqueth had the sickening feeling that he was going to be number seven.
:It's broad daylight,: he Sent back, :and they're not even trying to hide.: He'd seen a scattered few among the trees just before that arrow had nearly pinned him to the tree he'd been resting against. He and Delia were now headed south at her fastest pace, and to the lowest hells with any underbrush or low-lying branches. Aiqueth was bent over her neck as low as he could manage, but he still felt the sting of the branches as they whipped his face. Looking down at Delia's withers, he could see angry red scratches, some bleeding, and his heart went out to her. But she was concentrating so much on moving that he knew she wouldn't feel the pain the branches inflicted until they were out of danger and resting.
If they survived.
They shouldn't have come into the Forest that morning, Aiqueth realized, but he knew it would do little good to relay that information to his Companion now. The village of Wellsmeet had been attacked the day before, marking the most southerly excursion the bandits had made into Valdemaran territory to date. He'd had a bad feeling about pursuing the raiders back into the Forest, but he ignored it. Having only the faintest touch of Foresight, he'd never really been able to tell the difference between the working of the Gift and his own intuition. And it was so slight, it had never really mattered anyway. The Forest had everyone spooked, and if Heralds obeyed every bad feeling they got about it, the raiders would have pushed the border back halfway to Haven by now. But when his Gift did work...
Aiqueth forced the thought from his mind. There was nothing he could do about it now.
An arrow hissed near his ear and he felt a sudden pain in his right arm. He looked down to see a tear in his Whites, and a long, bloody cut near his shoulder.
:Dammit, that was close!:
:Hold on, Chosen,: Delia replied, and Aiqueth noticed that there was a desperate edge to her voice that he'd never heard before. :We're almost there, and I've sent word to Jasen in Berrybay. He and his Chosen have warned the Guard there, and are riding to Wellsmeet even now.:
A scant few seasons ago, the raiders would never have thought of leaving safety of the Forest. But they had been growing bolder, not only leaving the Forest, but doing so in the light of day. Wellsmeet had been attacked in the early afternoon. The Guard—for each border town and village in the north had its own contingent of Guard—had chased all the bandits back into the Forest by evening, and Aiqueth and Delia had followed the following morning to scout out the area—
Only to find that the bandits hadn't left, something unprecedented in all the Circle's dealings with them. Aiqueth hoped Jasen and Carin could make it in time. The Guard would need all the help they could get—and so would he and Delia. Not for the first time, he cursed whatever god had denied him a stronger Gift of Mindspeech that would have enabled him to Speak to the sergeant in Wellsmeet who had a slight touch of the Gift herself. They had no idea what was coming.
Squinting through the trees, Aiqueth could see the edge of the treeline in the distance. :Go, Delia, go!:
Before she could reply, he felt a burning pain in his side and he glanced down to see an arrow shaft protruding from his waist. Vision swimming, he looked up in time to see several archers draw back their bows.
"Delia, no!" he cried.
But it was too late.
With a scream of defiance that reverberated through their Bond, Delia skidded to a halt and reared just as the raiders let loose their arrows.
Aiqueth gasped as the arrows found their mark in his beloved's body. She screamed in agony, but through their Bond, he felt only her love for him and pride in having shielded him from certain death.
:Run, Chosen!: she cried, deliberately bucking him off as she fell to the ground.
He was duty-bound to leave her, to try to escape to warn the village. He could feel her fading as he rose to his feet and drew the sword that had been strapped to her side. He turned to dash away, and saw that all avenues of escape were cut off, and what seemed like a hundred arrows were trained on him, waiting for permission to fly.
He was a dead man.
He dropped to his knees next to his Companion, ignoring the pain in his side.
:Delia,: he called.
:Did you make it, Chosen?: she asked faintly. :Are you safe?:
Tears flowed freely as Aiqueth listened to her delirium. :Yes, beloved,: he replied. :All will soon be well.:
:Good,: she whispered, her voice faltering. :Live, Chosen...don't mourn. Find another. I'll be...waiting for you...when your time comes.:
He heard the distinctive twang of a dozen bowstrings.
From inside and out, a thousand swords sliced into him—
The pain took his very breath away, and he slumped over Delia's lifeless eyes, closing his own against the sight of her blank expression.
"I'm counting on it," he whispered as the darkness claimed him.
"What happened?" Jaelle asked, hearing the Death Bell toll on, and watching Lucia chase after a butterfly.
Landon sighed heavily. :What always happens. We've lost another Herald in the Forest.: