Magics promise vlhm 2, p.14

Magic's Promise v(lhm-2, page 14

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


Magic's Promise v(lhm-2

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Am I avoiding Melenna because I'm shaych, or because I hate to be hunted?

  He shied away from the uncomfortable thoughts, and sent out a thin, questing thought-tendril toward Savil.

  :What can I do for you, demon-child?: came her prompt reply.

  :Just wondering if you needed rescuing.:

  The answer came back laughter-tinged. . - Havens, no! I'm enjoying this one! I'm opening your father's eyes to politics and policies under Randale. Elspeth was always conservative, and got more so as she grew older. Randale is her opposite. This is coming as quite a shock to Withen.:

  Vanyel fought down another grin. :What's he up in arms about now?:

  :The mandatory education law Randale and the Council just passed :

  :Remind me; I'm behind.:

  :Every child in Valdemar is to be taught simple reading, writing, and arithmetic in the temples from now on; every child, not just the highborn, or the few the priests single out as having vocations or being exceptional.

  Morning classes in the winter from harvest - end to first planting. And it's the duty of the Lord Holders to see that they get it.

  Vanyel blinked. :Oh, my. I can see where he wouldn't be pleased. I know where Randale's coming from on this one, though; he talked it over with me often enough. I just didn 't know he'd managed to get it past the Council intact.:

  :Enlighten me, I need ammunition :

  :He believes that an informed populace is more apt to trust its leaders than an ignorant populace, assuming that they feel the leaders are worthy of trust.:

  :That isn't much of a problem in Valdemar,: Savil replied.

  :Thanks be to the gods. Well. The only way to have an informed populace is to educate them, so they don't have to rely on rumors, so they’re willing to wait for the official written word. It was the near-panic when Elspeth died that decided him.:

  :I didn't know that; good points, ke'chara. Young as he is, our Randale can be brilliant at times. As soon as your father pauses for breath-:

  "Now see here, you old boneheaded windbag! Do you want those farmers of yours to be the prey of every scoundrel with a likely rumor under his hat?" Savil had the bit in her teeth and she was off again. Vanyel gave up trying to control himself, and leaned all his weight against Yfandes, laughing silently until his eyes teared.

  This is ridiculous, Vanyel thought irritably, pausing for a moment on the narrow staircase. Absolutely ridiculous. Why should I have to act as though I was sneaking through enemy-held territory just to get to my own bed every night?

  He took the last flight of back stairs to the fourth floor, poorly lit as they were, with not so much as the betraying squeak of a stair tread. He flattened himself against the wall at the top, and probed cautiously ahead.

  No Melenna.

  So far, so good.

  His right eye stung and watered, and he rubbed at it with one knuckle; his eyelids were sore and felt puffy. I should have gotten to bed candlemarks ago, except every time I tried, Melenna was lurking around a corner to waylay me. I hope she's given up by now.

  He peered down the dark corridor one more time before venturing out into it. This was the servants' floor, and if she were still awake and hoping to ambush him, Melenna wouldn't think to look for him up here.

  He counted the doors-the fifth on the right opened, not into a room, but into a tiny spiral staircase that only went as far as the third floor. He probed again, delicately. Nothing in the staircase, or at the foot of it.

  The stair was of cast iron, and in none too good repair. He clung to the railing, gritted his teeth, and moved a fingerlength at a time to keep it from rattling. The journey through the stuffy darkness seemed to take all night.

  Then his foot encountered wood instead of metal, and he slipped off the staircase and groped for the door. He put one hand flat against the wooden panel and concentrated on what lay beyond it. This stair let out only two doors from his own room, and if Melenna were waiting, she'd be in the corridor.

  Politeness - and Heraldic constraints - forebade Mind-searching for her, even if he had the energy to spare. Which he didn't, he had been chagrined to discover.

  And anyway, the non-Gifted were always harder to locate by Mindsearch than the Gifted.

  I'm getting very tired of this. I don't want to set Mother off, and I don't really want to hurt Melenna, but if this cat-and-mouse game keeps on much longer, I may have to do just that. I tell her “no” politely, and she doesn't believe it. I avoid her, and she just gets more persistent. I almost killed her two days ago when she popped out of hiding at me. He leaned his forehead against the door for a moment, and closed his aching eyes. I'm about at my wits' end with that woman. Damn it all, she's old enough to know better! I don't want to hurt her; I don't even want to embarrass her.

  Well, there was no sign of her in the corridor. He relaxed a little and stepped out onto the highly polished wood of the hall of the guest rooms, where the brighter lighting made his smarting eyes blink and water for a moment.

  He opened the door to his own room -

  And froze; hand still on the icy metal of the doorhandle.

  Candles burned in the sconces built into the headboard. Melenna smiled coyly at him from the middle of his bed. She allowed the sheet to slide from her shoulders as she sat up, proving that she hadn't so much as a single thread to grace her body.

  Vanyel counted to ten, then ten again. Melenna's smile faltered and faded. She tossed her hair over one shoulder and began to pout.

  Vanyel snatched his cloak from the peg beside the door, turned on his heel without a single word, and left, slamming the door behind him hard enough to send echoes bouncing up and down the corridor.

  :'Fandes, beloved,: he Mindsent, so angry he was having trouble staying coherent :I hope you don't mind sharing sleeping-space.:

  Straw was not the most comfortable of beds, although he'd had worse. And he'd spent nights with his head pillowed on Yfandes' shoulder before this. But "day" for the occupants of the stable began long before he'd been getting up. The stablehands had no reason to be quiet - and neither did the horses. Meke's famous stud was the worst offender; he began cow-kicking the side of his stall monotonously from the moment color touched the east.

  . - Stupid brute thinks that if he keeps kicking, somebody will come to let him out,: came Yfandes' sleepy thought. :I usually move out under a tree about now.:

  Vanyel raised his head and yawned. He'd gotten some sleep, but not nearly as much as he would have liked. :You move. I think I'll go back to my room. If Melenna hasn't taken herself off to her own room by now, I swear I'll throw her out. Maybe a dose of humiliation will convince her to leave me alone.:

  :Sounds as good a plan as any.: Yfandes waited for him to move out of the way, then got herself to her feet and nudged open the outside door. Vanyel stood up, shoulders aching from the strange position he'd slept in, and brushed bits of straw off his clothing. He ignored the startled glances of the stablehands, picked up his cloak and shook it out as Yfandes ambled out into her meadow.

  :Go get some more sleep, dearheart,: she Mindsent back toward him.

  :I'II try,: he replied, smoldering. :Maybe I'll bring my sleeping roll down here. Maybe when word gets around that I'm sleeping with horses she'll stop this nonsense.:

  :And if she's stupid enough to try and waylay you down here, I'll chase her around the meadow a few times to teach her better manners,: Yfandes sent, irritation of her own coloring her thoughts a sullen red. :This is getting exasperating. I don't care if she thinks she's in love with you, that doesn't excuse imbecilic behavior.:

  Vanyel didn't reply; he was too close to temper that could do the woman serious damage. He folded his cloak tidily over his arm, pretending he didn't notice the whispers of the stablehands as he let himself out of the stall and shut the door behind him.

  "There was a problem with my bed last night," he told Tarn, the chief stableman and Withen's most trusted trainer.

  Tarn was no fool, and he'd been quietly on Vanyel's side si
nce Van was old enough to ride. He was one of the few at Forst Reach who hadn't changed his behavior toward Vanyel when the nature of Vanyel's relationship with Tylendel became known at the holding. Since his wife was one of the cooks, he was quite conversant with "house" gossip. He smiled slowly, showing the gap where he'd had three teeth kicked out. "Aye, milord Van. I ken. There's some invites a body wish t' give hisself."

  Van winced inwardly a little, knowing that this was going to do Melenna's reputation no good at all once this tale got around the keep.

  The stablehands went back to their chores, and he wound his way past them, out into the yard between the outbuildings and the keep. He blinked at the sunlight, seeing just one other person, a vague, unidentifiable shadow in the door of the armory.

  "Vanyel," called a raspy, far-too-familiar voice. "A word with you."

  Jervis. The armsmaster moved out past the door of the armory to stand directly in his path and Vanyel felt his stomach start to churn. In no way could he successfully avoid a confrontation this time. Jervis was between him and the keep.

  "Yes, armsmaster?" he said.

  "I left you messages, Meke told me he'd passed them on." Jervis moved closer, a frown making his seamed and craggy face more forbidding than usual.

  Vanyel kept his own feelings behind an expressionless mask. "That you wanted to spar, yes I know. He did tell me. I'd rather not, thank you."

  "Why not?"

  "Frankly, because I don't feel up to it," Vanyel replied with cool neutrality, though his back was clammy with nervous sweat. Because I know damned well it won't stay polite exercise for long. Because I know you’re going to push me just as far as you can, armsmaster. I'm going to have to hurt you. And dammit, I don't want to let you do that to me.

  "What's that supposed to mean?" Jervis growled, his face darkening. "You think this old man isn't good enough for you?"

  "I'm worn out, for one thing. I just spent the night in the stable because there was an unwelcome visitor in my room; that's not my bed of choice, and Meke's damned stud makes more noise than a herd of mules. For another - Jervis, I've been on a battle-line for the last year. Youwere a mercenary, what does that tell you?"

  I don't want to inflict more pain when I don't have to. And I'm on a hair-trigger; gods, think about this, you old bastard! Remember what it was like, how some things became reflex, no matter how hard you tried to control them.

  Jervis narrowed his eyes. "You look in good enough shape to me. There's nothing you can do, young Vanyel, that I can't handle. Unless you're really no better than, say, young Medren, no matter what all those songs say about you."

  The reminder of the treatment Medren was receiving at Jervis' hands was the spark to the tinder. Vanyel's temper finally snapped. "On your head be it," he growled. "I take no responsibility. You want to spar so badly, all right, let's get it over with."

  He stalked off toward the armory, a sturdy wooden building between the stables and the keep, with Jervis at his heels. He had a set of practice gear here, made up soon after he returned from k'Treva, gear put together at Withen's insistence and unused until now. It was gear unlike any other set at Forst Reach: light, padded leather gambeson; arm, thigh, and shin guards; main - gauche and heavy rapier; and a very light helm, all suited to his light frame and strike-and-run style.

  The armory was not dark; there were clerestory windows glazed with bubbly, thick third-rate glass; stuff that wouldn't admit a view, just light. Vanyel found the storage chest with his name on it. He pulled his gear out and stripped off yesterday's tunic, pulling on the soft, thick linen practice tunic, strapping on the gambeson and guards, and gathering up his helm and weighted wooden practice blades.

  This armory was new; built since Vanyel had left home. There was enough room for sparring inside; most of the interior had been set up as a salle. Vanyel was just as pleased to see that. The older building had been so small that all practices had to be held outside. So far as Vanyel was concerned, the fewer eyes there were to witness the confrontation, the better he'd like it.

  He was shaking and sick inside; he was going to give Jervis a lesson the old man would never forget, and the very idea made his gut knot. He was not proud of what he was going to do.

  But the old man asked for it. He wouldn't take “no,” and he wouldn't back down. Dammit, it's going to be his fault, not mine!

  Van dwelled on that while he armed up; a sullen anger making him feel justified, and burning the knots out of his gut with self-righteousness and a growing elation that he was finally going to pay Jervis back for every bruise and broken bone.

  Until he realized where that train of thought was leading him.

  I'm rationalizing the fact that I want to beat him bloody. That I want revenge on him. Oh, gods.

  The realization made him sick again.

  He went to the center of the practice area, crossing the unvarnished wooden floor with no more noise than a cat. Jervis looked around after donning his own gear - much heavier than Vanyel's - as if he had actually expected Van to have slipped out while he was arming. He seemed surprised to see Vanyel standing on the challenger's side, waiting for him.

  I'II let him make the first move, Van thought, keeping himself under tight control. He's probably going to give me a full rush, and I wouldn't be surprised if he tried to hurt me. Damned bully. But I will not lose my temper. I can't stop my reflexes, but I can keep my temper. I will not let him do that to me.

  But Jervis astonished him by simply walking up to his side of the line, giving a curt salute that Vanyel returned, and waiting in a deceptively lazy guard position.

  Dust tickled Vanyel's nose, and somewhere in the building a cricket was chirping. Well do something, damn you! he thought in frustration, as the moments continued to pass and Jervis did nothing but stand in the guard position. Finally the waiting was too much for his nerves. He rushed Jervis, but he pulled up short at the last second, so that the armsmaster was tricked into overextending. There was a brief flurry of blows, and with a neat twist of his wrists, Vanyel bound Jervis's blade and sent it flying out of his hands to land with a noisy clatter on the floor to Vanyel's left.

  Now it comes. Vanyel braced himself for an explosion of temper.

  But it didn't. No growl of rage, no snatching off of helm and spitting of curses. Jervis just stood, shield balanced easily on left arm, glaring. Vanyel could feel his eyes scorching him from within the dark slit of his helm for several heartbeats, while Vanyel's uneasiness grew and his blood pounded in his ears with the effort of holding himself in check. Finally the armsmaster moved only to fetch the blade, return to his former position, and wait for Vanyel to make another attack.

  Vanyel circled to Jervis' right, bouncing a little on his toes, waiting for a moment when he could get past that shield, or around it. Sweat began running down his back and sides, and only the scarf around his head under his helm kept it out of his eyes. He licked his lips, and tasted salt. His concentration narrowed until all he was aware of was the sound of his own breathing, and the opponent in front of him.

  Jervis returned his feints, his blows, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Vanyel scored on him far more often than vice versa. But every time he made a successful pass, Jervis would back out of reach for a moment. It was maddening and inexplicable; he'd just fall completely out of fighting stance, shuffle and glare, and mutter to himself, before returning to the line and mixing in again.

  This little series of performances began to wear on Vanyel's nerves. It was far too like the stalking he used to get when Jervis wanted to beat him to a pulp and didn't quite dare - and at the same time, it was totally unlike anything in the old man's usual pattern.

  What's he doing? What's he waiting for? Those aren't any love-taps he's been giving me, but it isn't what I know he's capable of, either.

  Finally, when he was completely unnerved, Jervis made the move he'd been expecting all along - an all-out rush, at full-strength and full-force, the kind that had bowled him over time after
time as a youngster - the kind that had ended with his broken arm.

  Blade a blur beside Jervis' shield and the shield itself coming at him with the speed of a charging bull, the horrible crack as his shield split - the pain as the arm beneath it snapped like a green branch.

  But he wasn't an adolescent, he was a battle - seasoned veteran.

  His boot-soles scuffed on the sanded wood as he bounced himself out of range and back in again; he engaged and used the speed of Jervis' second rush to spin himself out of the way, and delivered a good hard stab to Jervis' side with the main - gauche as the man passed him -

  - or meant to deliver it. For all his bulk, Jervis could move as quickly as a striking snake. He somehow got his shield around in time to deflect the blow and then continued into a strike with the shield-edge at Vanyel's face.

  Vanyel spun out of the way, and let the movement carry him out of sword range. But now his temper was gone, completely shattered.

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