Disclaimer: Misty owns Van and Stef and everything and everyone else in this, alas.
A/N: Although Magic's Price is priceless (forgive the pun), I felt something was missing in between Vanyel's death and Stef's first journey to the Sorrows. So, here it is :). Also, I've only read this trilogy and Arrows of the Queen once and twice, respectively, so forgive me if the canon is inaccurate at parts. Please feel free to correct me if you do see a mistake! I'll be more than happy to change it. Thanks for reading!
He didn't remember much of the journey home. There were strange hands that tried to soothe him and whispers that reached his ears but not his mind.
"The only thing he's been muttering is 'Vanyel'," a puzzled voice said.
"Poor child," another chimed softly. "They were lifebonded, you know."
The first voice gasped. "Great Gods, no wonder! He's doing well just holding on."
"Let's hope he lasts 'til Haven…"
Stefen awoke to the blinding light streaming through the opened shutters, feeling as if a dozen horses had trampled him. As his vision blurred then cleared, he saw Medren sitting at the table, pale as bleached Heraldic whites with bloodshot eyes staring into nothing. Then, everything that had happened hit him like another dozen wild horses right on his heart and he let out a strangled cry. Tearing frantically at his sheets, he tumbled to the floor with a thud and startled Medren out of his stupor.
"Stef," his friend croaked, moving quickly to his side. "Oh, Stef."
No more words were needed as Medren grasped Stef's shoulders and they both wept, their sobs harmonizing their raw sorrow, until they were completely drained. Stefen's eyes stung, his throat ached, and his body cramped, but no amount of physical pain paralleled the pain in his heart. Van's death had completely ripped it apart so that there wasn't much left except the slow thumping that kept him alive, but barely. Oh Gods, I should've stayed with him. I should've died with him. I have no place in this world without him…
"Gods, Stef, when the Death Bell tolled…" Medren finally choked out. "Half of us couldn't believe it, and the other half… we were completely lost… I heard Lady Treesa was unconscious for over a candlemark."
Stef nodded dumbly but Medren's words had barely penetrated his mind. His surroundings were becoming more and more surreal as a whirlwind of loneliness pulled him deeper into himself.
His friend's hand shook as he wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Stef, they're holding the funeral in an hour… at the Grove," Medren said shakily. "No one expects you to go…"
Stef tumbled unwillingly back to reality then and tears he didn't know he had left filled his eyes. He closed them, feeling dizzy and slightly nauseated from his weariness and grief.
"No," he said hoarsely, "I- I should go. I was the last one to see him…"
"Alive" died in his throat, but Medren nodded with his eyes on the floor. "You shouldn't go through this alone," he said after a pause and a deep breath, "I won't let you."
Stefen shook his head, not knowing himself if it was in protest or agreement. I bet they told him to keep a close eye on me. Surely, he knows what I'd do if I were alone in here.Funny, I've always told Van that I value my skin. How can I value it now that it's only a shell?
An hour later, Stef found himself standing in the Grove, trembling like a dry leaf in the wind, as he waited for them to carry out the empty casket. No one had found his body. And when he thought about the moment he found Vanyel's mage-focus, charred and broken amid the massacre, his knees gave out. Medren's arms shot out to grab him and he nodded his thanks. As he struggled to compose himself, he looked around him. It seemed like everyone at the Collegium came to bid Herald Vanyel a final goodbye. The array of colors was stunning and swam before his eyes as they blurred again. Oh Van, if you could see this, you'd finally know how much good you've done and just how many people mourn for you. You died alone, but not unloved… Across from him, he glimpsed Randale, who insisted on being carried to the Grove so he could properly honor Vanyel's name. The King was grasping onto the last bare string of life as he shed silent tears for his old friend. Shavri held Jisa as they both wept shamelessly, each owing so much to Vanyel, to his kindness and strength.
Suddenly, he caught a flash of brilliant silver hair as it gleamed in the afternoon sun. Vanyel. His heart leapt into his throat and his grip on Medren's arm tightened twofold. He turned sharply towards the man, but his heart plummeted under leaden despair when he saw, not his beloved, but the two Hawkbrothershe had met briefly at Forst Reach. Moonshine? No, Moondance and… Starwind. As the ache of his mistake subsided, he realized his shock at their presence. According to Savil, they rarely left their home, and seeing them here at Van's funeral left Stefen with a strange feeling that wasn't at all unpleasant. They stood tall, proud, and unmoving, like glorious alabaster statues until one saw the living sorrow in their depthless blue eyes. Stefen finally tore his eyes away from the poetic sight they made that tugged unwittingly at his Gift. To their left, Lord Withen stood motionless as he comforted his wife. Only his eyes betrayed his heart's anguish and frailty. He was hoping to make it up to Vanyel, those thirty or so odd years he had failed to love his son right. So many people lost the chance to truly show Van his worth. Now he's gone and where does that leave us? Where does it leave me?…
Suddenly, anger flared hot through his veins, spreading and scorching everything it reached. Why did it have to be you, Vanyel-ashke? Why did the Gods have to pick you? Didn't you suffer enough, lose enough, to appease them? Why did they torment you so? Every time you found love, they tore it away from you. Every time you created peace, they made another war for you to fight. Stefen felt a wave of nausea hit him and his knees buckled again. It seemed to him that the Gods had been toying with Vanyel, stretching him to his limits again and again, never completely breaking him until now. But a part of Stef knew that Vanyel had chosen this path freely. Damn him for being so righteous and self-sacrificing! If he'd only been the slightest bit selfish, maybe he'd still be alive. Then, Stef's rational side assaulted him with guilt. Vanyel would've hated him for thinking that. Stef had always told Van that he understood, but it was almost impossible to keep that understanding within reach now that Van was gone. Gone.
Suddenly, Stef's anger changed direction completely, now aimed at the faces he saw before him. They don't know half of the pain, the suffering I feel! They still have loved ones and family. I have nothing, no one! Tomorrow or in the days after, everyone will return to normal, smiling and laughing because Vanyel will only be a memory to keep in their store of memories. I can't afford that luxury… I won't afford it! He's more than a memory, he's my heart… Stefen sobbed loudly and then clamped his hand on his mouth. In the dark recesses of his mind, where there was still some reason left, he knew that he was being too harsh. Vanyel's parents and friends undoubtedly shared and understood Stef's pain. But it was this all-consuming, bone-crushing, soul-wrenching pain that fueled itself and this anger to frightening degrees. On top of that, his mind was near exploding with the pressure of all these wayward thoughts coming every which way, eroding his reason along with his sanity.
Then the bearers came with the casket and Randale was moved to the front of the procession to speak a few words. Despite being near death, the King's voice carried to the edges of the Grove with a stubborn strength that persevered for the sake of his friend. When Stef perceived this strength, guilt seeped through his anger. He knew, better than most, the pain Randale endured that grew as the illness took over more and more of him. Where the King found the will to start each day, much less get through it, amazed Stef, and shamed him. And as he swept his eyes across all the grieving faces again, something besides anger flared within him. Blocking his own grief until it became a dull ache, he turned to Medren.
"Friend, will you fetch my gittern for me?" he whispered. "There's something I need to do." There was one sure thing his anger and grief had not yet consumed: his Gift.
Medren quickly nodded in understanding and disappeared into the crowd. He returned just as Randale finished his epitaph and Stef grabbed his case and walked steadily to the King.
"King Randale," he said, bowing low, "with your permission, I'd like to play a song for everyone here. I think Van- Herald Vanyel would have liked me to." His throat tightened and he swallowed harshly, but maintained a cool exterior.
"Certainly, Bard Stefen," Randale replied, a little surprised but undoubtedly pleased with the request. "Vanyel wouldn't have wanted us to be so gloomy…" His smile tinged his eyes with a sadness that was bright in remembrance.
Stefen hadn't planned anything in advance, but his heart directed his fingers and his voice. "To Herald Vanyel, may his name and his deeds stay forever in our hearts and never be forgotten as long as Valdemar stands."
And as he played and sung about the glory and goodness of Herald Vanyel, the grief on every face before him transformed. Lord Withen's face shone with pride, Jisa smiled with tender love on her lips, and each Herald's eyes filled with admiration and respect. I understand now, Van. You had tried to explain why you did the things you did. A smile ghosted over Stef's lips, tinted with irony and regret. Now, I understand. He sang and sang until he soothed everyone's grief while his own escaped his shields and surged to new, unbearable heights. When the last note sounded and faded, his fingers burned, but not nearly as much as his heart. No matter where you are, I'll find you, ashke. I promise.
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