The Captive Herald

Chapter 1

Herald Ronan and his Companion, Kira, were trotting along through Iftel at a good clip, feeling as if the trip couldn't be going better.

"I think I like this," Ronan said, scratching Kira's crest. "We're seeing the world, and we get to spend six months as ambassadors in Iftel's neighbor of Ashten. Only twenty-five years old and here I am, going everywhere and meeting everybody."

:Don't get too complacent, Herald: Kira admonished. :We know very little about Ashten except that the language is similar to that used by Iftel.:

"Well, that's why we're going there," he reminded her. "To learn more and report back what we learn."

:And because yourIftellan is the best out of anyone's in the Heraldic Circle: she said sounding rather proud of him. :How you learned to swear in that tongue when no one ever dared do so around you is beyond me.:

"They didn't know I was around when they were swearing," he told her. "They never noticed the little runt in the corner of the room."

:You are not a little runt: she snapped at him. :I think you are adorable and cute and absolutely precious.:

He laughed, leaning down to hug her neck. "Ah, thank you, love," he said, giving her a little kiss. Kira had a great deal of maternal instincts, and most of them were lavished on her Herald. Many would have thought that these instincts would have interfered with her relationship with her Herald, but they did not. No, she was motherly only when he sought her out, needing to be comforted, and the rest of the time, she let her Herald learn from his mistakes and guided and advised him only when it was necessary.

:Well, you are, and you are still as lovely as that little boy I Chose fifteen years ago.:

Ronan smiled at that. He had been an orphan, living with the town's old spinning-woman who had taken him out of a sense of "duty" to the town. He hadn't been happy with her, but during the five years he'd been with her, he'd learned how to read, write, cipher, and take care of himself. If he was neglected in any way, it was emotionally. He had shown signs of what he now knew to be Thought-sensing and Empathy, and being Chosen as a Herald-Trainee had confirmed him in his Gifts and taken him to Haven.

They both remembered the day Kira had come to his tiny hamlet. He had been outside, weeding the garden, and he'd heard the hooves of a horse behind him. Hearing it draw very close, he got to his feet and turned, trying to see where it was, but a white shape with blue eyes rose up before him, and once he had looked into those eyes, he'd been lost.

:Hello, Ronan: he'd heard. :I've found you at last, my little love. I Choose you.:

"Do you remember what Granny said when she realized I'd been Chosen?" Ronan asked, fighting down a chuckle.

: 'Are you at least going to finish the garden before you go, or is an old woman going to have to do it herself?': Kira teased, laughing.

"Then the town declared they would help her and sent me on my way," Ronan finished, ending a dialogue they often had several times whenever they wanted to laugh.

Being Chosen had meant an entirely new life for Ronan. Living at the Collegiumunder thepresent King, who wasthegreat-grandson of Selenay,Ronan hadfelt as if he'd been dropped into the deep end of a lake he didn't know how to swim. Insecure except with Kira, he'd had a difficult time feeling at home with all the other Trainees at first, but once he realized that they accepted him wholeheartedly, he had gained dozens of Heraldic "siblings." Older Heralds, teachers and others he talked to, began to advise and admonish him when necessary, much like parents. Most older Heralds found his large blue eyes, mop of curly black hair, and adorable and wistful face irresistible, so he had been given as much affection as he could handle. According to Adain, the King's Own, he'd literally blossomed in response, transforming from a shy Trainee to a competent young Herald who could handle any diplomatic or administrative duties, no matter how difficult. That, in addition to his Empathy and Thought-sensing, made him the ideal candidate to send to Ashten, despite his being much younger than the usual envoy.

"Do you think we're almost there?" he asked for what had to be the thousandth time that day.

:It's another day to the Iftel-Ashten border: she reminded him. :So no, we are not there or almost there. Once we pass the border, it's two days to the capitol.:

"I wish we were there now," he sighed. "As much fun as traveling is, I would like to be there and learning all there is to know about Ashten."

She whickered, sounding as eager as he was. He didn't realize that it wouldn't be long before he learned much more than he wanted to know.

Space

Ashten, they were discovering, was a beautiful land. Mountains, rivers, fields, and forests seemed to be the terrain they could expect. They used the main roads, often seeing nothing more than a few villages during the day, but as they drew nearer to the capitol city of Hedena, the towns became bigger.

They reached Hedena just as the sun was setting on their second day in Ashten. They reached the top of a rise and stared down at the city, seeing it sprawl almost to the horizon.

:It's. . .huge: Kira said, staring at the lights of the city. :It's even bigger than Haven.:

"I know," Ronan almost-whispered, trying to fight down a growing feeling of panic. "Once we get in there, how will we know where to go? I can see the palace from here, but it might be difficult to find once we're on the streets."

Kira thought for a minute. :Is there a map in those letters that were sent to you:

He pulled them out and began to study them. Once his position as envoy had been confirmed, the Dean had given him a packet of papers. One wasa letter from the Ashten monarch, requesting an envoy in return for her ambassadors sent to Valdemar. Another letter was the way he would be identified by the guards at the palace, and the third was a letter entitling him to anything he needed in Ashten. There was no map of the city to be found.

:Someone's coming: Kira said, pricking up her ears. :Three riders, and they're all wearing uniforms.:

Ronan tucked the papers away inside his tunic and sat up straight in the saddle, trying to resemble a proper ambassador.

"Herald Ronan?" the rider in the leadsaid,speaking in aheavilyaccented Iftellanas theydrew nearthe Herald and Companion. Heavily accented, but completely understandable. Ronan began to thank all of the dieties watching out for him.

"Yes?"

"We are your guides from the Hedena Guard," the man explained. "I am Captain Aldiss, and on behalf of Her Majesty, Queen Storena, I welcome you to Ashten and Hedena."

Ronan bowed slightly from the saddle in acceptance, and worded his own politegreeting and expressions of gratitude. Once the formalities hadbeen disposed of, Captain Aldissstayed by Ronan's side while the two accompanying riders fell back, flanking them.Once they were so arranged, they rode into thecity.

Space

The Palace was a complex just as large as the one in Haven. Theyhad ridden through the city and several times Ronan began to feel completely lost. According to what Captian Aldiss told him, the city wascircular, and each district was shaped like a wedge of pie. You had the Merchants' Wedge, the Market Wedge, the Scholars' Wedge, the Nobles' Wedge,theSmall Wedge, andat theapex ofall the wedges, you had the palace. If he ever became lost, the Captain told him, all that would be needed would be for him to point himself toward the center of the city and head in. Eventually, he would reach the Palace.

The Palace looked like a bunch of different buildings that had been cut up and stuck together to make one large, mismatched building. Every four generations, a monarch was requiredto add to the Palace, and every four generations, building styles and preferences had changed, leadingto a very patchwork effect. All the different wings of thebuilding were devoted to different Guilds that were responsible for public services. The types ofGuilds handled everything to do with all walks of life:There was a HealingGuild, a Builders' Guild, a Writers' Guild,a Merchants' Guild,aPriests' Guild, a Music Guild, an Artists' Guild, and soon. ThePalace provided a place where all the guilds couldmeet without crowding in their ownquarters, and it allowed the queen to keep an eye on the proceedings.

"Do you follow me so far?" Captain Aldiss asked politely as they rode through thePalace gates.

"I think so," Ronan said thoughtfully. "There is just one thing I don't understand. Whatis the Small Wedge? Who livesand works there?"

"The Small Wedge is where the city's poor live," Captain Aldiss explained. "They are a varied lot, so they end up together. They are people who do not really fit in."

Ronan nodded. That seemed to be the case of cities everywhere.

They dismounted in the courtyard, and Ronan asked to see Kira's accomodations.

:I don't mind the stable, but I would prefer to come and go as I please: she said, eyeing the lock onthe large box stall that had been prepared for her.

:I'll tell them, love: he said, scratching her poll. He relayed the messge to Captain Aldiss and received a very strange look, but he assured him that it would be taken care of.

Once that was taken care of, Ronan groomed Kira from nose to tail and poll to hoof, getting filthy in the process.

:That's one bad thing about country roads: he thought to Kira as he curried her up. :Dust, dust, dust, and more dust.:

:I'm just glad it isn't mud, mud, mud: she thought, obligingly lifting one hoof when he pulled out the hoofpick.

:Too right.:

Ronan finished, filled her feed and water buckets himself, and spread an extra bale of straw for her comfort. He knew that she always liked a soft bed.

:Ahh: she said as she dropped and rolled in the straw. :Ohh, that's perfect. Remind me to nuzzle you later.:

"I will," he promised aloud, getting another strange look from Captain Aldiss.

Once Kira declared herself comfortable, Captain Aldiss led him inside to his quarters. A sitting room and study, small dining room, bedroom, and his own private bathing room left Ronan feeling slightly intoxicated with all of the space he had to himself. He'd been introduced to his servant, a boy called Neran, who would be cleaning his rooms, fetching and carrying for him, and doing whatever else was needed.

Once Captain Aldiss was satisfied that Ronan was satisfied, Ronan began to get a bath ready for himself. Neran was surprised, but he accepted Ronan's request that he go for the night, since he was tired and was sure he wouldn't want anything but his bed.

The boy bowed. "Very well, Herald Ronan," he said, giving the older man a grin. "I thank you. I've been up since before dawn, getting everything ready for your arrival. There's supper in the dining room, and it will be warm and ready when you are. I'll have your clothes and things put away in the wardrobe, and your bed will have a warming pan if you want it."

"That sounds lovely," Ronan said, pulling off his boots. "Thank you, Neran."

Neran simply bowed and headed off.

Ronan scrubbed up and soaked out the aches of riding, and, once he was clean, changed into his nightclothes. He wouldn't be meeting the queen or anyone else tonight, no, he would meet them tomorrow at Court. He sat down the supper that had been provided, and he had a certain feeling that he would be eating very well. There had been soup, pastries filled with egg, cheese, bacon, and spinach, steamed vegetables, and a dessert that left him feeling weak in the knees when he finished it. Above all else, he loved sweets.

He found a letter on his desk in the study portion of the sitting room, and he recognized the seal: The Queen had sent him a letter.

Dear Herald Ronan, he read.

I welcome you to the Palace, and I hope that your journey here has been pleasant. I look forward to meeting you on the morrow, and I hope that you and I shall become friends since we will be seeing one another every day. My best wishes to you and to Valdemar. May your sleep be restful.

Queen Storena

Not knowing what to make of such a letter, Ronan tucked it into his portfolio that held the rest of his Ashten papers. He'd be able to think about it over breakfast.