Disclaimer: Everything relating to the world of Velgarth, and the Kingdom of Valdemar, is the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey.
Notes: What, like you didn't see this one coming? I'm just thankful that something managed to eel past the writer's block that's currently stomping all over my mind.
I sigh loudly— just so that everyone in the vicinity is fully aware of how I feel— and give some serious thought to drowning myself in the nearby water trough.
:Why?: I ask my Chosen in what is a very level voice, all things considered. :Why in the name of Astera's pet fish would you volunteer us for— for that?:
Alexander regards me from where he is currently sprawled across the top of a pair of hay bales and elegantly raises an eyebrow. "Do goddesses have pet fish?"
:Don't you try and change the subject, boyo,: I say severely. :Not until you've adequately explained to me just why we are going to Greenlake. With the Court. On our holiday, no less!:
"You make it sound like we're marching to our deaths, Teva."
:The Court, Alexander. The. Court.: I flatten my ears and snap a wisp of hay out of my hay net. No, I don't chew on it in an exaggerated and violent fashion. I'm not that kind of funny white horse.
Alex laughs. "People usually reserve those kinds of emphatic tones for things like wars and plagues."
I give him a transparent look. :Your point is?:
He groans and mimes throwing something at my head. "I should've expected that. It won't be that bad, Teva; it's only for a few days and it's not like we're going to be all on our own against the massed hoardes of the Haven nobility. There's going to be five other Heralds and Companions too, not including the King and Gaska."
:Your point is?:
"You can be a very irritating horse when you put your mind to it."
I sniff in a superior fashion and flick my tail from side to side. :Some Herald's going to be walking to Greenlake if he doesn't watch his mouth.:
"I'm shaking in my boots." Alex pokes his tongue out at me. "I'm sure you'll have an enjoyable time. You and Harali'll probably spend the entire week plotting together."
:I don't envy Sam trying to explain this to her.:
"Quite." Alex quirks one side of his mouth at me. "Although she'll probably take the news more calmly than you did. She also has the advantage of possessing some sense of logic."
I cross my eyes at him and snatch another mouthful of hay. :You really are going to be walking to Greenlake.:
"You wound me, fair lady!" Alex claps one hand over his heart and sprawls over onto his back, miming a stage death.
I stare at him.
:Is it too late to trade you in for a different Chosen?:
"Ouch!" He sits up and gives me a wide-eyed look. "I know I said 'wound', but I wasn't expecting an axe to the neck!"
I continue to stare at him in an unimpressed fashion and he finally sighs and shakes his head.
"It's only sort of a voluntary effort; you know everyone has to take turns at being on the Greenlake escort."
:We have just gotten back from an eighteen month Circuit, Alexander.:
"And this is the first time we've been in Haven in time for the first hunt."
:We spent six months being chased by things in the Pelagiris Forest, Alexander.:
"It's not like we'll have to do anything really energetic."
:Many of those things had teeth, Alexander.:
"You know most of the nobles are quite content to spend half a morning trotting around, then laze the rest of the day away by the lake."
:Big teeth, Alexander.:
"It'll be like a proper holiday."
:The Court includes, as if I need to remind you, your odious family.:
"We probably won't even see most of the actual Court."
:And Veran frequently reminds me that I am strictly, absolutely and positively banned from turning any of your relatives into gloop.:
"Alright, alright! I'm sorry for subjecting you to a week of the Court. Even though everyone has to do it at some point." Alex sighs and gives me an exasperated look. "You really are the most irritating horse in existence."
I don't deign to give him a reply, but instead concentrate my attention fully on my hay net until I hear him sigh in a resigned fashion and leave.
Two days later Harali and I are standing next to each other, arrayed in our formal tack in all its jingling and annoying glory, and watching the extensive circus that is the High Court trying to co-ordinate anything.
I scuff one front hoof through the gravel and groan loudly. :You'd think that— given that they only do this, oh, every year— there'd be some kind of plan of action.: On the far side of the gravelled expanse of parade-way in front of the main entrance to the Palace, a noble wearing an utterly vile green coloured riding outfit manages to startle his mount— and those of the seven people near him— into prancing and rearing. :You know, to at least ensure that this walking circus show gets on the road some time before midday.:
:That would be logical.: Harali sniffs. :Logic and the Court are mutually exclusive occurrences— you should know that.:
:That is true.:
:Besides,: Harali continues, giving me a wicked look out of the corner of one eye. :You hate getting up early, so really you should be thanking the Gods for the fact that the average Court noble would absolutely just die if forced out of bed before midmorning!:
I give her an unimpressed look. :You think you're funny, but you're not.:
"Morning, ladies!" We both swing our heads around at the cheerful greeting and watch Harali's Chosen, Samyel, expertly dodge four grooms and three pages, all of whom seem to be conducting their business at a dead run.
:It's practically the afternoon,: I say.
"This should mean you're in a delightful mood, because you loathe early mornings!" Sam grins widely at me and exchanges looks with 'Ali.
:Right now, I loathe the fact that you pair seemed convinced that you're funny when you quite obviously are not.: I flatten my ears and give them a grumpy look. :Honestly, a whole flock of nobles milling around, and who do you pair snipe at? Me, that's who! It comes to something when a Companion can't even depend upon her friends to—:
"Nobles flock?" Sam interrupts me.
Harali cuts me off before I can reply… okay… continue complaining that everyone is mean to me. :Of course they do. Like geese.:
Sam stares quizzically at her. "Geese?"
:Lots of squawking, pointless flapping and hissing,: she clarifies. :Although your average goose fits into a roasting pan better.:
:Ugh, can you imagine it?: I ask, complaints forgotten. :It'd be all fat and no flavour and the brocade would get stuck in your teeth something awful
"Do I really want to know?" Alex appears suddenly and pokes me in the shoulder with one elbow, before dropping a double armful of saddlebags at my feet. "Or will finding out mentally scar me for years?"
"Teva already Chose you," Sam points out. "So there's no hope for your mental state anyway."
:Hey!: I object loudly.
'Ali defends me whilst I splutter in an indignant fashion. :Well of course Alex's mental state is impaired, Chosen. He ended up with you, didn't he?:
"Hey!" Both Heralds chorus in unison.
:Ha.: Harali produces a purely mental smirk. :You asked for it.:
I don't know how it's even possible, but the noise coming from the milling crowd of nobles, attendants, stablemen, animals and Kernos only knows what else increases in volume. For a wonder, there actually seems to be some kind of order appearing amid the chaos.
:So are you going to attach those to our saddles, or am I supposed to be kicking them into the Terilee?: I bump one of the packs with my hoof and shake my head from side to side. :I only mention this because, if you want to attach them to our saddles, you've only got about another two candlemarks before we actually go somewhere.:
Alex takes the hint and bends down to pick up one of the packs; you can tell his apart from Sam's, because Alex's are decorated with abstract hoof prints.
Offering to kick his bags into the nearest body of water? Not exactly an idle threat.
"Alright, Miss Sarcasm," he chides, attaching the bag onto the back of my saddle. "We all know what you think about going on this trip."
:The trip's fine, it's the company I'm not impressed with,: I say severely. :Speaking of which, look who's crawled out from under his stone.:
Alex, Sam, and 'Ali follow the sharp gesture I make with my head. Next to the noble in vile green, sitting easily astride a large black hunter is Alex's odious half-brother, Baren, or— as I prefer to call him— Mister Poopy-Head.
Did you ever hear me claim to be mature? No? Well, there you go. Mister Poopy-Head.
:Oooo…: Harali pricks up her ears and looks between Mister Poopy-Head and myself. :Are you going to stamp on him? If you are, can I watch?:
Alex groans and runs one hand through his hair. "Can you stop your Companion egging mine on?" he asks Sam. "Teva— please keep your fratricidal tendencies on a very short leash, for my sake?"
I flatten my ears, drop my head and look rebellious. 'Ali cackles loudly.
"Teva—" Alex's voice gains a warning tone.
:You're too late,: I say glumly. :Veran already cornered me this morning and spent half a mark detailing all the things I'm not allowed to do to Mister Poopy-Head, Mister Poopy-Head's friends, Mister Poopy-Head's belongings… I was trying to eat at the time, and the Groveborn distracted me so much that a thieving pair of foals gobbled most of my breakfast!:
Sam bites his lip and turns away. I can see his shoulders shaking, though, so I know that he's laughing.
:Bah!: I narrow my eyes and sulk as Alex finishes attaching the saddlebags and Samyel checks his bags over and mounts easily. :I won't see those oats again in a hurry!:
Sam gives my midriff a pointed look. "It's not like you're going to miss them, Teva."
:Oi!: My hair practically stands on end, I radiate that much outrage. :Alexander, you better get a puppy to keep you warm at night because he is about to be spread very thinly over an acre of the Field!:
I follow up on my threat by bumping my Chosen out of the way with my nose and advancing on Harali and Samyel. Sam doesn't seem to be taking my threat very seriously; he's leaning over the pommel of the saddle, wheezing with laughter. 'Ali, however, has spent many a moon witnessing me having tantrums over assorted things, so she smartly gets out of the way.
:We're going to find the others!: she announces loudly, before clearing off at a scrambled trot, leaving Alex alone to cope with me.
:I don't know what you see in him.:
Alex crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow at me. "Teva, you've got to admit; he does have a point. The saddle doesn't cinch up nearly as much as it did a month ago."
:Alexander!: I shriek. :You're my Chosen, you're supposed to be on my side! Besides, I've been eating more than usual to gain back the condition I lost during those six months— and I'm sorry if I keep on bringing this up, but— those six months we spent being chased around the Pelagirs by things with teeth!:
Alex opens his mouth to reply, but I don't give him a chance.
:Big teeth!: At some point during this exchange, I've adopted a stance remarkably similar to that of a stubborn mule. I glare at Alex with narrowed eyes. :And before you think of trying to defend him or yourself, consider that you could not only be walking to Greenlake, but you could also be carrying me!:
Oh, yeah. Hear me threaten.
"I was merely going to point out that we're being left behind."
:Don't you try and change the— what?: I blink and look around. He's right; the parade is almost completely deserted bar a few servants tidying up and the main body of the hunting party is practically at the gateway into the city. :Get on, you snail!:
Alex sighs, rolls his eyes and pulls himself into the saddle with an economical set of movements. I barely give him chance to find his balance before I wheel about and bolt down the road after the hunting party.
I stretch out my neck and ignore Alex as he fumbles after the reins, muttering under his breath. Instead I concentrate on catching up with the Greenlake party; something that I only do once we've passed through the tunnel under the Palace wall and gone a short distance through the city itself.
A set expression on my face, I brush straight past the servants riding at the rear of the party— there is no way I'm playing tail-guard— and weave my way through the leisurely riding nobles. About two thirds of the way through them we come up behind Mister Poopy-Head.
:Teva—: Alex's hands tighten on the reins. :Behave.:
I ignore him, prick my ears and pick up my speed so that I draw level with Mister Poopy-Head's showy hunter. I then shy violently sideways, squeal loudly and snake my head sideways to snap my teeth in the air mere inches from Poopy-Head's leg.
Both Mister Poopy-Head and his horse start violently. The horse jumps sideways, crashing into another noble, knocking over a fruit-seller's stall and generally causing havoc, mayhem and a rather large argument that seems to centre on old Poopy-Head being blamed for everything.
I trot placidly past the rapidly forming jam in the street. Sometimes this whole ineffable and infallible thing has something to it.
"I cannot believe you just did that." Alex sags forwards over the saddle and hisses at me.
:There was a fly,: I say glibly. :A horsefly. I decided to bite it before it could get me.:
"There was no such thing!"
:There was a fly.:
"Teva!" Alex sounds exasperated. "You are absolutely and completely the most irritating person I know."
:A big fly.:
"We're supposed to be part of the escort, you know."
:It was buzzing.:
For some reason, my Chosen vents a loud sigh and refuses to talk to me for rather a long time.
Harali and I are sharing a corner of the large, sunny meadow that is being used as the Court's main camp with two of the other Companions that have been dragged along on this delightful trip. The other two— Radin and Fleet, along with their Chosen, are accompanying the hunting party. Gaska, as the King's Companion, doesn't get a say in the matter; he has to go. I wasn't at all unbearably smug about that this morning.
Chaffi, a rather young mare, and Lask, an equally young looking stallion, are busy watching the bustle of the camp site with undisguised interest. Greenlake escort is usually a duty reserved for newly-appointed Heralds, as a sort of gentle way of introducing them to the hotbed of backstabbing and sheer bloody minded annoyance that constitutes the 'ruling classes' of Valdemar.
I may have Chosen a noble, but that doesn't mean I have to like them.
Harali is busy dealing death, destruction and a really close cut to the grass— and Sam reckons I've been scoffing more than my share!— and I am… not sulking, because I don't sulk.
The meadow really is quite large— can't have the servants camping near the nobles, after all— and slopes gently down from the edge of the Greenlake woods to the lake that gives this area its name. The edge of the meadow that is bordered by the water is itself on a slope; one end of it is quite a respectable cliff and the bank slopes to about two thirds of the way across, when it reaches the level of the lake and forms a fairly respectable sandy beach that reaches the remaining third back to the tree line.
Most of the nobles are out on the morning hunt with the King, currying favour. Well, most of the male nobles. The Ladies of the Court— those that have made the journey, at any rate— have all gathered under large open-sided pavilion down on the beach and are assiduously avoiding the sun least they actually tan.
Those few Lords and Barons that are still around are lazing around near a set of archery butts that were set up when we arrived the day before yesterday. I won't call what they're doing to those poor arrows archery, because that'd be lying.
:Well, I'm certainly glad that the defence of the realm is generally held to be the responsibility of the ruling nobles and their first born.: I curl my lip slightly and suppress a wince as yet another of the arrows flies, not just wide of the intended target, but wide of the five other targets standing near it.
:Huh?: 'Ali flicks one ear, but doesn't remove her attention from cropping the grass.
:That lot over there.: I jerk my nose in the direction of the butts. :The actual function of a bow and arrow seems to have eluded them completely.:
:I think they drank rather a lot last night,: Lask offers in a diffident tone of voice.
:That's like saying fish need a little bit of damp to live.: Harali raises her head and swallows noisily. :The whole lot of them are nothing but beer-sponges.:
Lask and Chaffi give 'Ali startled looks and I stifle a snicker. 'Ali's opinions about the upper classes are pretty similar to my own.
:Um…: Chaffi flicks her ears back and forth and looks at me in a somewhat confused fashion. :Isn't… um… your Alexander a noble?:
I sniff and look regally down my nose at the younger mare. :Just because I like grass, it doesn't follow that I adore all vegetation.:
:Uh…: Chaffi gives me a bewildered look and edges slightly behind Lask, who is also looking confused.
:Teva, you are so full of manure sometimes,: Harali says with a snorted laugh. :I'd just ignore her, if I were you, Chaffi.:
:Hah.: I ignore 'Ali and begin eating grass.
:If you can't ignore her, then at least be reassured that you get used to her… eventually.:
I continue to eat grass and pretend that my friend isn't slandering my graceful and benevolent self to the younglings.
It won't take long, Alexander had said. That and, you don't need to come along if you don't want to— which is, can I just state, the most guilt inducing phrase ever uttered. I mean, I know Heralds are supposed to be all… Heraldic… but since when did being Heraldic including bullying your Companion into acting as a mobile snack bag in the middle of the night?
Someone paid a bit too much attention in his ethics and empathy lessons.
What we are actually doing, my bleeding-heart Chosen and I, is trampling around beyond the perimeter of the hunting camp in the meadow. Alexander decided— apropos of absolutely nothing, as far as I can determine— this evening that the soldiers acting as our perimeter guards might appreciate a bit of a midnight snack in the way of some mulled cider and honey cakes.
Of course, after appropriating said supplies from the cook tents, Alex had to come and find me and wake me up to ask if I wanted to go with him. I pointed out that the guards were, you know, used to standing around and looking at nothing much in particular for long periods of time. I also reminded him that if there did happen to be a secret army of bandits hiding under some compost somewhere then a large white horse flouncing up to each of the perimeter guards in turn would give their positions away and kind of invite an ambush.
That's when Mister Guilt Inducer hit me with those lines.
This explains why I have a pair of bags that were filled with flasks of hot cider and honey cakes hanging over my shoulder, twigs in my mane, knots in my tail and a bruised nose because four trees have viciously leapt out at me in the dark and beaten me up.
:If my nose is purple in the morning, Alexander,: I threaten. :I will not be responsible for the colour your nose turns shortly after.:
"I thought that Companions were supposed to have good night vision." If I squint, I can make out the vaguely Alex-shaped shadow standing on the edge of the meadow, highlighted by the faint light provided by the night fires of the camp.
:Night vision, Alexander,: I say snippily. :Not crawling around in the bottom of a pit with a bag over my head vision!:
"It's not that dark, Teva!"
I don't dignify that comment with an answer. I merely concentrate on making it out into the clear air of the meadow before any more in the way of foliage decides to savage me. Once clear of the trees I snort and shake my head from side to side in an attempt to dislodge some of the twigs, leaves and Gods only know what else has taken up residence in my mane. I don't have much success.
"At least it's brighter with the fires?" Alex says in an uncertain fashion, backing away from me a few steps. "We've just got to walk back to our tent."
:Which is where?:
"Um." Alex looks embarrassed.
:If you say 'on the other side of the meadow' I will bite off your arm and stuff it up your nose.:
"The sooner we set off, the quicker we'll be back at the tent!" Alex sounds falsely cheerful and I notice the careful way the him-shaped shadow stays well out of biting distance.
I mutter something highly unflattering about Chosen whose idea of a good night is to drag their Companion through wilderness and trail after him. After a moment it becomes apparent that, rather than trying to weave through the middle of the camp, Alex is leading us round the edge nearest the lake.
Well. It actually seems like he's showing some sense for once. I pick up my pace slightly and lift my head. :I'm glad to see that you do have a grain of sense upon occas—argh!:
Something invisible in the dark of the night catches on one of my front legs and I stumble sideways. The whatever it is makes a loud twanging sound and I squeak… just as a second invisible twangy thing catches hold of one of my back legs and I nearly end up nose first in the grass.
:Alexander!: I yelp. :Something's eating me!: I kick out with my free back leg and manage to get that trapped by whatever as well. :Argh!:
Some generalised flailing around seems to be in order, and it's not until I figure out that the big flat looming thing on my left side is a tent that I realise that I'm caught up in a couple of guy ropes.
Unfortunately, this realisation happens at about the same time that someone inside the tent shouts, "What in Kernos' name?", Alexander tries to scramble to my aid and I accidentally head butt him in the nose, and I seriously lose my balance.
As a side note here; despite being made of canvas and so on, tents really are not that soft, particularly when one is falling over into the side of one.
:Waaa!: I wail loudly as I attempt to stand up and free myself, but succeed only in tripping over more ropes and falling over again.
"Attack! There's an attack!" the person inside the tent— who actually has a rather familiar annoying nasal voice, now that I think about it— shouts.
"By dose!" Alex… well, I'll be charitable and call it a shout.
Two more abortive attempts to stand up and the whole tent starts to collapse sideways, just as any number of fires in the immediate vicinity are kindled up as people come to see what all the racket's about.
"Teba, wadth out!" Unfortunately, I don't speak weirdo, so I elect to ignore Alexander for the moment, along with all the people who are gathering around and shouting conflicting bits of advice.
The added light is actually something of an asset, as it means that I can see just how I'm tangled up with the tent. With a triumphant yelp I manage to kick my way free.
:Take that, evil tent!:
"Oh, no," Alex says somewhat thickly as I pause in the middle of a victorious little dance.
The tent, instead of just collapsing over like it should do, is falling over the edge of what I can now see is the steep slope-type-cliff thing that constitutes the bank at this end of the lake.
It makes quite a spectacular mess as it falls into the lake, and all kinds of stuff is left scattered on the grass around me and floating around in the shallows of the lake.
One of those things floating around in the shallows seems to be Mister Poopy-Head, who doesn't seem too impressed. "Bloody inbred horse!"
Um, make that definitely not impressed.
I watch him splash around after some rapidly sinking velvet drapes for a moment, then turn to stare at my rather large audience. I seem to have gained the attention of most of the camp.
Alexander is standing at the front of the crowd, blood from a nosebleed all down the front of his tunic, a rather spectacularly purpling nose, and a set expression on his face.
I look from him to Mister Poopy-Head (who is now paddling after a small wooden chest and calling me all manner of awful names) and back again.
:Um.: I scuff one front hoof through the grass. :Oops?: