Magics promise vlhm 2, p.12

Magic's Promise v(lhm-2, page 12

 part  #2 of  Valdemar (02): Last Herald Mage Series


Magic's Promise v(lhm-2

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  It glared over its shoulder at him as if it had heard his thought, and bared huge yellow teeth at him.

  I've never seen a nastier piece of work in my life. You couldn't pay me enough to try and saddle - break this nag!

  "Well?" Meke said, bursting with pride. "What do you think?''

  Vanyel debated breaking the bad news easily, then remembered what his little brother was like. He not only did not take hints well, he never even knew there was such a thing as a subtle hint. Vanyel braced himself, and told the truth. "Meke - there's no way to say this tactfully. That monster is no more Shin'a'in than I am. You were robbed."

  Mekeal's face fell.

  "I've seen a Shin'a'in warsteed," Vanyel said, pressing his advantage. "She was under a Shin'a'in. The nomad told me then that they don't ever sell the warbeasts, and that they literally would not permit one to be in the hands of an outsider. And they never, never let the studs off the Dhorisha Plains. I'll give you a full description. The mare I saw was three hands shorter than this stud of yours, bred to carry a small horse-archer, not anyone in heavy plate; she was short-backed, deep-chested, and her hindquarters were a little higher than her forequarters. She had a big head in proportion to the rest of her; and if anything, this stud's head is small. Besides being large, her skull had an incredibly broad forehead. Lots of room for brains. Need I say more? About the only things she had in common with your stud are color and muscles." He sighed. "I'm sorry, Meke, but -"

  "A half-breed? Couldn't he be a cross?" Mekeal asked desperately.

  “If a common stud caught the mare in season and if she didn't kill him first and if the mare's owner decided - against all tradition - to sell the foal instead of destroying it or sending it back to the Plains. Maybe. Not bloody likely, but a very bare possibility. It is also a very bare possibility that this stud has Shin'a'in cull blood somewhere very far back in his line." Vanyel rubbed his nose and sneezed in the dust rising as the stud fidgeted in his stall. The precious stud laid his ears back, squealed, and cow-kicked the door to the box as hard as he could. More dust rose, there was a clatter of hooves all through the stable, and startled whinnies as the rest of the horses reacted to the stud's display of ill - temper. "Meke, why did you buy this monster? Forst Reach has the best line of hunters from here to Haven."

  "Hunters won't do us a hell of a lot of good when there's an army marching toward us," Mekeal said, turning to look at him soberly. "And even if this lad isn't Shin'a'in, crossed into our hunters he'll sire foals with the muscle to carry men in armor. I just hope to hell we have them before we need them."

  Incredulous at those words coming from this sibling, Vanyel looked across his shoulder at his younger brother. “That's what this is about?"

  Meke nodded, the flickering lantern making him look cadaverous-and much older. "There's trouble coming up on the West. Even if it doesn't come from Baires and Lineas, one or both, it'll come from the changeling lands beyond them. It's been building since Elspeth died. Every year we get more weird things crossing over into Valdemar. Plenty of them here. Check the trophy room some time while you're visiting; you'll get an eyeful. Liss thinks they're either being driven here by something worse, or they're being sent to test our defenses; neither notion makes me real comfortable. Hunters are all very well, but they can't carry a fighter in full armor. And the tourney-horses I've been seeing lately don't have the stamina for war. One thing this lad does have is staying power."

  Gods. Oh, gods. If the problems are so evident even Meke is seeing them - Vanyel's spine went to ice.

  "Do you want my advice with this beast?" he asked bluntly.

  Mekeal nodded.

  "Given what you've told me, he might be useful after all. Breed him to the best-tempered and largest of the hunter-mares. And see what comes of breeding him to plowhorse mares. Maybe make a second-generation three-way cross - if you have time."

  Meke nodded again, smoothing his close-cropped beard. "I hadn't thought about plowbeasts; that's a good notion. He is vicious. I like the willingness to fight, but I can do without viciousness. So, you agree with me?"

  Vanyel turned slowly, a new respect for his brother coloring his thoughts. "Meke, even if this Border stays quiet, there's Karse, there's Hardorn, there's Iftel-Rethwellan seems quiet, but their king is old and that could change when he dies. There's even the north, if those barbarians ever find a leader to weld them into a single fighting force. May the gods help us - you'll have a ready market all too soon if you can breed the kind of horses you're talking about." Vanyel pondered the worn, scrubbed wooden floor of the stable. “What have you heard? About here, I mean."

  "The Mavelans want Lineas. Badly enough to chance a war with us, I don't know. The Lineans don't much like either Baires or Valdemar, but they figure Valdemar is marginally better, so they'll put up with us enforcing the peace as third-party. It all comes down to what's going to happen with this mess with Tashir being disinherited."

  Lady Bright, more words of political wisdom where I never expected to find them. His view may be shortsighted - he may not see the larger picture - but where his neighbors are concerned, my little brother seems to have them well weighed and measured.

  "I heard Lord Vedric is behind the protests," Vanyel ventured. Mekeal looked skeptical.

  "One thing I've learned watching them, anything the Mavelans do openly has about fifty motives and is hiding a dozen other moves. The protest might be a covering move for something else. Vedric might have the backing of the family. Vedric might be operating under orders. Vedric might be acting on his own. Vedric might have nothing to do with it. And Vedric might really be Tashir's father - and might actually be trying to do something for the boy. The gods know he hasn't any true-born offspring and it's not that he hasn't tried."

  Vanyel nodded and stowed that tidbit away. "I'll tell you what, Meke, I'll do what I can to get Father to see why you want to breed this stud - and persuade him that since you aren't breeding hunters, he ought to leave you alone to see what you can come up with. But those sheep - "

  Mekeal coughed and blushed. "Those sheep were a damnfool thing to do. There's no market, not with Whitefell just south of us, with furlongs of meadow good for nothing but sheep. But dammit, the old man goes on and on about it until I'm about ready to bash him with a damned candlestick! I am not going to give in to him! We aren't losing money, we just aren't making as much. And if I give in to him on the sheep, he'll expect me to give in to him on the stud."

  Vanyel groaned. "Lady bless! The two of you are stubborn enough to make an angel swear! Look - if I manage to get him to agree on the stud, will you please agree to clear out the damned sheep? Bright Havens, can't one of you show a little sense in the interests of peace and compromise? ''

  Mekeal glowered, and Mekeal grumbled, but in the end, on the way back to the keep, Mekeal grudgingly agreed.

  The silken voice stopped Vanyel halfway between the keep and the stables, dimming the bright autumn sunlight and casting a pall on the sweetness of the late - morning sky.

  "Good-morning, Herald Vanyel." The slight hesitation before the second word called pointed attention to the fact that it lacked little more than a candlemark till noon. The cool tone made it clear that Father Leren did not approve of Vanyel's implied sloth.

  Vanyel paused on the graveled path, turned, and inclined his head very slightly in the priest's direction. "Good afternoon, Father Leren," he replied, without so much as an eyebrow twitching.

  The priest emerged from the deeply recessed doorway of the keep's miniature temple, a faithful gray-granite replica of the Great Temple at Haven. Leren had persuaded Withen to build it shortly after his arrival as Ashkevron priest, on the grounds that the chapel, deep within the keep itself, couldn't possibly hold the family and all of the relatives on holy days. It had been a reasonable request, although the old priest had managed by holding services in shifts, the way meals were served in the Great Hall. Vanyel alone had resented it; the little gray temple had always seemed far too
confining, stifling, for all that it was five times the size of the chapel. The homely wood-paneled chapel made the gods seem - closer, somehow. Forgiving rather than forbidding. He had hated the temple from the moment he'd first stepped into it at the age of five - and from that moment on, had refused to enter it again. In fact, Vanyel wasn't entirely certain that Leren had ever even set foot in the old chapel-which was why, as a boy, he had accomplished his own worship there.

  "I have seen very little of you, my son," came the cool words. The priest's lean, dusky face beneath his slate. - gray cowl was as expressionless as Vanyel's own.

  Vanyel shrugged, shifted his weight to one foot, and folded his arms across his chest. If he wants to play word-games - "I'm not surprised, sir," he replied with detached civility. "I have spent very little time outside of my room. I've been using this time alone to catch up on a year's worth of lost sleep."

  Leren allowed one black eyebrow to rise sardonically. "Indeed? Alone?" His expression was not quite a sneer.

  Oh, what the hell. In for a sheep - Vanyel went into a full-scale imitation of the most languid fop at Haven.

  The man in question wasn't inclined to shay'a'chern, as it happened: rumor had it he played the effeminate to irritate . . . not Vanyel - but certain of his colleagues - and he also happened to be one of the finest swordsmen outside of the Circle or the Guard.

  Following that sterling example, Vanyel set out to be very irritating.

  “Quite alone, sad to say," he pouted. "But then again, I am here for a rest. And company would hardly be rested.”

  The priest retreated a step, surprise flashing across his face before he shuttered his expression. "Indeed. And yet - I am told young Medren spends an inordinate amount of time in your rooms." His tone insinuated what he did not-quite-dare say.

  I won't take that from Father, you snake. I'm damned if I'll take that from you. Vanyel transformed the snarl he wanted to sport into an even more petulant pout. "Oh, Medren. I'm teaching him music. He is a sweet child, don't you think? But still, a child. Not company. I prefer my companions to be somewhat older." He took a single slow step toward the priest, and twitched his hip ever so slightly. "Adult, and able to hold an adult conversation, to have adult-interests." He took another step, and the priest fell back, a vague alarm in his eyes. "More - masterly. Commanding." He tilted his head to one side and regarded the priest thoughtfully for a moment. The alarm was turning to shock and panic. "Now, someone like you, dear Leren -"

  The priest squawked something inarticulate about vessels needing consecrating, and groped behind him for the handle of the open temple door. Within a heartbeat he was through it, and had the gray-painted door shut - tightly - behind him.

  Vanyel grinned, tucked his head down to hide his expression, and continued on toward the stables and Yfandes.

  "Meke, is there going to be a Harvest Fair this year?" he asked, brushing Yfandes with vigor, as she leaned into the brush strokes and all but purred.

  Mekeal did not look up from wrapping the ankles of one of his personal hunters. "Uh - huh," he grunted. "Should be near twice as big as the ones you knew. Got merchants already down at Fair Field."

  "Already?" This was more than he'd dared hope. "Why?"

  "Liss an' her company, dolt." Meke finished wrapping the off hind ankle and straightened with another grunt, this time of satisfaction. "Got soldiers out here with pay burnin' their pockets oif, and nothin' to spend it on. There're only two ladies down at Forst Reach village that peddle their assets, and three over to Greenbriars, and it's top far to walk except on leave-days anyway. So they sit in camp and drink issue-beer and gripe. Can you see a merchant allowin' a situation like that to go unrelieved? There's a good girl," he said to the mare, patting her ample rump. "We'll be off in a bit."

  :Keep brushing. You can talk and brush at the same time :

  Vanyel resumed the steady strokes of the brush, working his way down Yfandes' flank. "Would there be any instrument makers, do you think?" Forst Reach collected a peddling fee from every merchant setting his wagon up at the two Fairs, Spring and Harvest. Withen found that particular task rather tedious - and Vanyel hoped now he'd entrusted it to Mekeal.

  Meke sucked on his lip, his hand still on the mare's shoulder. "Now that I think of it, there's one down there already. Don't think we'll likely get more than one. Why?"

  "Something I have in mind," he replied vaguely. And, to Yfandes, :Lady-my-love, do you think I can interest you in a little trip?: She sighed. :So long as it's a little trip.:

  :This soft life is spoiling you.:

  :Mmh,: she agreed, blinking lazily at him :I like being spoiled. I could get used to it very quickly.: He chuckled, and went to get her gear.

  Before Vanyel even found someone who knew which end of Fair Field the luthier was parked in, he had picked up half a dozen trifles for Shavri and Jisa.

  He paused in the act of paying for a jumping jack, struck by the fact that they were so uppermost in his mind.

  What has gotten into me? he wondered. I haven't thought about them for a year, and now - Well, I haven't seen them for a year. That's all. And if I can give Shavri a moment of respite from her worry - He pocketed the toy and headed for the grove of trees at the northern end of the field.

  He spotted the faded red wagon at once; there was an old man seated on the back steps of it, bent over something in his hands.

  Shavri, bent over a broken doll some child in the House of Healing had brought to her. Looking up at me with a face wet with tears. Me, standing there like an idiot, then finally getting the wits to ask her what was wrong. “1 can't bear it, Van, I can't - Van, I want a baby -” He shoved the memory away, hastily. "Excuse me," Vanyel said, after waiting for the carver perched on the back steps of his scarlet traveling - wagon (part workshop, part display, and part home) to finish the wild rose he was carving from a bit of goldenoak. He still hesitated to break the old man's concentration in the middle of such a delicate piece of work, but there wasn't much left of the afternoon. If he was going to find the purported luthier -

  But the snow-pated craftsman's concentration had evidently weathered worse than Vanyel's gentle interruption.

  "Aye?" he replied, knobby fingers continuing to shape the delicate, gold-sheened petals.

  "I'm looking for Master Dawson."

  "You're looking at him, laddybuck." Now the oldster put down his knife, brushed the shavings from his leather apron, and looked up at Vanyel. His expression was friendly in a shortsighted, preoccupied way, his face round, with cloudy gray-green eyes.

  "I understand you have musical instruments for sale?"

  The carver's interest sharpened, and his eyes grew less vague. "Aye," he said, standing, and pulling his apron over his head. There were a few shavings sticking to the linen of his buff shirt and breeches, and he picked at them absently. "But - in good conscience I can't offer 'em before Fair-time, milord. Not without Ashkevron permission, any rate."

  Vanyel smiled, feeling as shy as a child, and tilted his head to one side. "Well, I'm an Ashkevron. Would it be permissible if I made it right with my father?''

  The old man looked him over very carefully. "Aye," he said, after so long a time Vanyel felt as if he was being given some kind of test. "Aye, I think 'twould. Come in the wagon, eh?"

  Half a candlemark later, with the afternoon sun shining into the crowded wagon and making every varnished surface glow, Vanyel sighed with disappointment. "I'm sorry, Master Dawson, none of these lutes will do." He picked one at random off the rack along the wall of the wagon interior, and plucked a string, gently. It resonated - but not enough. He put it back, and locked the clamp that held it in place in the rack. "Please, don't mistake my meaning, they're beautiful instruments and the carving is fine, but - they’re - they're student's lutes. They're all alike, they have no voice of their own. I was hoping for something a little less ordinary." He shrugged, hoping the man wouldn't become angered.

  Strangely enough, Dawson didn't. He looked thought
ful instead, his face crossed by a fine net of wrinkles when he knitted his brows. "Huh. Well, you surprise me, young milord - what did you say your name was?"

  Vanyel blushed at his own poor manners. "I didn't, I'm sorry. Vanyel."

  "Vanyel – that - Vanyel Ashkevron - my Holy Stars! The Herald?” the luthier exclaimed, his eyes going dark and round. "Herald Vanyel? The Shadow -"

  "Stalker, Demonsbane, the Hero of Stony Tor, yes," Vanyel said wearily, sagging against the man's bunk that was on the wall opposite the rack of instruments. The instrument maker's reaction started a headache right behind his eyes. He dropped his head, and rubbed his forehead with one hand. "Please. I really - get tired of that."

  He felt a hard, callused hand patting his shoulder, and he looked up in surprise into a pair of very sympathetic and kindly eyes. "I 'magine you do, lad," the old man said with gruff understanding. "Sorry to go all goose-girl on you. Just - person don't meet somebody folks sing about every day, an' he sure don't expect to have a hero come strollin' up to him at a Border Harvest Fair. Now - you be Vanyel, I be Rolf. And you'll have a bit of my beer before I send you on your way - hey?''

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