Magics promise vlhm 2, p.9

Magic's Promise v(lhm-2, page 9

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

 

Magic's Promise v(lhm-2
 



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  Sure enough, people began emerging from doors all over the building, and by the time Vanyel and Yfandes reached the main doors - impressive black oaken monstrosities that had been set into a frame in what had once been the gateway to the center court - there was a sizable group waiting for him.

  There was the usual babble of greetings - Treesa wept all over him, Withen gingerly clapped him on the shoulder, his brothers all followed Withen's example. There was the usual little dance when Withen told a page to "take Vanyel's horse" and Van-again-had to explain that Yfandes wasn't a horse, she was a Companion and his partner and that he would see to her. And as usual, Withen looked puzzled and skeptical, as if he was wondering if his son wasn't a bit daft.

  But Vanyel was firm - as usual - and got his way. Because if he hadn't insisted (and the first visit home, he hadn't) Yfandes would be stripped of tack and given a good rubdown, then locked into a stall like the "valuable animal" she seemed to Withen to be. Van hadn't known what had happened that time until she wistfully Mindspoke him at dinner, asking if he'd come let her out, since she couldn't reach the lock on the door of the stall.

  That night he had gone immediately down to the stable leaving his dinner half-eaten, and with profligate use of magic, created a new split door to the outside in one of the big loose boxes Withen used for mares in foal. Whenever he came home now, that stall was Yfandes', no matter if he had to move a mare out and scour it down to the wooden floor with his own two hands first. And no matter what sort of contrivance Withen had installed on the new door to keep it locked, Vanyel magicked it so that Yfandes could come and go as she pleased. Maybe Withen wondered why the box never had to be cleaned; certainly the stablehands did. But Withen never seemed to grasp that Yfandes was exactly what his son said she was; a brilliant, thinking, creative lady, with all of a great lady's manners and daintiness, who just happened to be living in a horse's body.

  Yfandes was still moderately amused. But Vanyel frequently thought that it was a good thing he'd never mentioned Withen's proposition on that first visit to breed her to the best of his palfrey-studs, or he'd have been using his magic to repair the gaping holes in the stable, instead of adding a door.

  This time, at least, Withen had learned enough through repetition that the loose box had been vacated, scoured and bleached, and then filled with straw. But he still had left the outer door latched and double-locked.

  Vanyel just sighed, magicked the locks in the open position, and pulled the top half of the door wide. He moved the latchstring for the lower half back through the hole to where Yfandes could get at it, then rummaged through his own packs for a longer bit of string so that she could pull it closed if she chose. Needless to say, the strap he'd attached there last time was gone.

  "How hungry are you?" he asked her, stripping her tack and hanging it over the edge of the stall for the stablehands to clean, then beginning to rub her down. Straw dust tickled his nose and made him want to sneeze.

  :Very,: she replied, testing the depth of the straw with a forehoof and nodding approval. Just take the sweat off and get the knots out of my tail; I'm going to roll when I get out, and maybe swim in the pond.:

  He heard Withen's footsteps on the path to the stable, and switched to Mindspeech. :Fine, love, just have your swim when nobody's watching or they'II send half the stablehands to pull you out. Now watch; I will bet you money that Father says, “Are you sure you should leave her that much food so soon after a long ride? She might founder.“: He finished currying her, took the bucket off its hook, and went after grain for her.

  "Are you sure you should leave her that much food so soon after a long ride?" Withen said dubiously from the stable - door proper, his square bulk blocking nearly all the light. "She might founder."

  "Father, she isn't a horse; she knows better than to stuff herself silly. She told me she's very hungry. It's been a hard tour of duty for both of us, and both of us need to get back a little weight." Vanyel hung the bucket of mixed grains where Yfandes could get at it easily. :Now he'll say, “I suppose you know best, son, but-”:

  "I suppose you know best, son, but-" Withen moved cautiously up to the loose box as Vanyel forked in hay.

  "Father, would you stuff yourself sick after a long day at the harvest?" At harvest - time Withen made it a point of spending one day with each of his tenants and several days with his own fieldhands, working beside them. It was one of the many things he did that endeared him to his people.

  "Well -" Withen's heavy brows creased, and for once he looked uncertain. "- no."

  "So, neither will she." He rinsed her water-bucket until it squeaked, filled it with absolutely clear, cold water, and hung it beside the grain bucket. Withen stepped forward as if he couldn't help himself.

  "Son, she'll foul the water."

  "Would Mother drop food into the wine in her goblet?" Vanyel sighed.

  "Well - no."

  "So, Yfandes wouldn't.” Since she has better manners than Mother.

  He Mindtouched Yfandes gently. :All set, ladylove?:

  :Quite, beloved.: Yfandes' mind-voice was yellow and effervescent with amusement. :Does he do that to you every time we come?:

  Vanyel rubbed her forehead between her eyes and she closed them with pleasure. :Just about. Normally he doesn't follow me into the stable, but I get it when he hears from the stablehands what I did with you. Watch out for that so - called “Shin'a'in stallion;” I think he's sometimes allowed to run loose in this field. He might try and bully you; he might decide you’re one of his mares and give you a little excitement.:

  She bared her front teeth delicately. :I'd rather like to see him try anything on me. I could use a good fight.:

  He nearly choked. :Now, love, you 'II scare him impotent, and how will I explain that to Meke?:

  :Cleverly, of course. Go on with you; I'm fine and your father is fretting.:

  "All right, Father, she says she's comfortable," he said aloud, forcing himself not to grin. "Let's go."

  "Are you sure she should be left like that? What if she gets out?"

  "Father," Vanyel sighed, sending the gods a silent plea for patience, "I want her to be able to come and go as she pleases."

  "But - "

  Vanyel wondered if his father ever really heard anything he said. "She's not, “he repeated for the hundredth time, "a horse. “

  Vanyel was in time for dinner, a pleasure he would just as soon have done without. But once bathed, settled into the best guest room, and dressed in clean clothing - not uniform, he wasn't on duty now, not even technically - his good sense prevailed over his reluctance. When the summons for dinner came, he followed the page and took his place at the high table. Withen tried to put him at his right, between himself and Vanyel's mother. Vanyel managed to convince him to let him take the usual seat guests took, on the end, displacing Radevel, who didn't look at all unhappy to be sitting down at the low table.

  Sitting at the end he was spared having to make conversation with two people at once. His seat - mate proved to be Mekeal's thin, little red-haired wife Roshya, who took all the burden of conversation from him. She chattered nonstop, sparrowlike, without ever seeming to pause for breath. All he had to do was nod and make vague noises of agreement or disagreement from time to time, and he actually didn't mind; Roshya's gossip was cheerful and never malicious - if she had a fault it was that she seemed to assume he must know every highborn and family member for leagues around. After all, she did.

  The dark, high-ceilinged hall seemed far more cramped than Vanyel remembered - until he counted heads, and realized that there were twice the number of folk dining than there had been when he was fifteen. He blinked, but the number didn't change. The low table had been lengthened, and a second table set at right angles to it at the other end, making an "H" shape with the high table.

  And the high table had been lengthened, too; when Van had been sent to Haven and his aunt Savil, only Withen, Treesa, Jervis, Father Leren, and any guests they might have had been s
eated there-which had then included Vanyel's Aunt Serina and her Healer. Now, besides the original four, the table included the unmarried children, all three married sons, and their wives.

  Great good gods, this isn't a family, it's a tribe!

  The only one missing since his last visit seemed to be his youngest sister Charis; it looked like the only ones still home were the boys. After a moment of thought it seemed to him that he recalled getting word of Charis' wedding to somebody-o other just after Elspeth's death. Did I send a present? I must've, or I'd have heard about it five breaths after being greeted. That's right - I remember now - I sent that hideously pious tapestry of the Lady of Fertility. Aunt Savil took care of Meke and Roshya for me, and I sent Deleran those awful silver-and-crystal candlesticks...

  But gods, did I do anything about Raster and whatever-her-name-is? That was just seven or eight months ago, I was so tangled up in the Border-fight - I don't remember -

  He continued to fret about that until Roshya's dropped comment about the "delightful bedcurtains, Kaster and Ria were so pleased," told him that if he hadn't, Savil must have sent something in his name. At that point he relaxed a little. From Roshya's chatter, Vanyel learned that she and Mekeal had six children thus far; Deleran and his wife had two, and Raster's rather plump new bride -

  Looks ready to spawn at any moment. Lord and Lady, they certainly didn't waste any time.

  It made his head swim to think about it. Forst Reach was hardly a small holding, but it must be near to bursting at the seams.

  He must have looked as if he were marginally interested in the new bride. Roshya waved her beringed hands in an artful imitation of Treesa, and launched into a dissertation on Lady Ria that was partly fact and mostly fancy - Vanyel was in a position to know. She'd been one of the young women his mother had thrown into his path the last time he'd been home. She looked content enough now with Kaster, which was something of a relief to his conscience.

  He looked back down at the low table in one of Roshya's infrequent pauses for breath.

  No wonder she's thin. She never stops talking to eat.

  Radevel was the only face he recognized down there, although a good half the youngsters had the Ashkevron build and look. Radevel was stolidly munching his way through a heaping plateful of bread and roast when he caught Vanyel looking at him, and gave the Herald a shrug of the shoulders aimed at the mob of children, then a slow and quite deliberate wink.

  Vanyel stifled a laugh. So Father is still fostering dozens of cousins, and Radevel is still stuck here. Poor Rad; what is he, fifth son ? Nowhere else to go, I guess. I bet Father's put him in charge of the younglings. Good choice. He 'II keep them moderately in line. Better him than Jervis.

  He looked back up in time to catch crag - faced Jervis, the Forst Reach armsmaster, giving him an ugly glare. He met the glare impassively, but with an inward feeling of foreboding. He's going to try something, I feel it in my bones. Great, that means I'll get to play cat-and-mouse with him through the whole visit. He looked away when the armsmaster's eyes fell, only to find that saturnine Father Leren was giving him a look of ice and calculation, too, from beneath hooded lids. Delightful, so I have both of them to deal with. Just what I needed. What a wonderful friendly visit this is going to be.

  He continued to make the appropriate noises at Roshya, and ignored the further stares of Jervis and Leren.

  Mekeal had become so like Withen that Vanyel had to blink, seeing them together. Broad shoulders, brown beards trimmed identically, brown hair held back in identical tails with identical silver rings, dark brown eyes as open and readable as a dog's-dissimilar clothing was about all that differentiated them. That, and a few wrinkles in Withen's face, a few gray streaks in his hair and beard. Meke was perhaps a touch less muscular; not surprising since Withen's muscles had been built up in actual fighting during his career as a guard officer, and Meke had never seen any righting outside of an occasional skirmish with bandits. But otherwise - Withen did not look his age; with all the silver in his hair and the stress-lines around his eyes, Vanyel could be taken for older than his father.

  Treesa, on the other hand, had not aged gracefully. She was still affecting the light, diaphanous gowns and pale colors appropriate to a young girl. Even if he had not been aware of the various cosmetic artifices employed by the ladies of Randale's Court, Vanyel would have known the coloring of her hair and cheeks to be false.

  She's holding onto youth with teeth and nails, and it's still getting away from her, he thought sadly. Poor Mother. All she ever had to make her feel like she had some worth was being pretty and me, and she's losing both. Every year I become more of a stranger to her; every year her looks fade a little more. He glanced over at Roshya, who seemed to be doing her best to imitate Lady Treesa, and was relieved to see a gleam of lively good humor in her green eyes, and to hear a little of that sense of humor reflected in what she was saying. Treesa would likely become a bitter, unpleasant old woman on her own - but not with Roshya around.

  The rest of Vanyel's brothers had become thinner, more reckless copies of Meke. They ate heavily and drank copiously and roared jokes at each other across the length of table, emphasizing points with a brandished fork. They’re probably terrors on the hunt - and I bet they hunt every other day. And probably fighting when they aren't hunting. They need something to keep them occupied, can't Father see that?

  The more Vanyel saw, the uneasier he became. There was a restlessness in Withen's offspring that demanded an outlet, but there wasn't any. No wonder Meke is hoping for a Border-war, he realized as the meal drew to a close. This place is like a geyser just about to blow. And when it does, if there isn't any place for that energy to go, someone is going to get hurt. Or worse.

  Servants began clearing the tables, and the adults rose and began to drift out on errands of their own. By Forst Reach tradition, the Great Hall belonged to the youngsters after dinner. Vanyel lingered until most of the others had gone out the double doors to the hallway; he was not in the mood to argue with anyone right now, or truly, even in the mood to make polite conversation. What he wanted was a quiet room, a little time to read, and more sleep.

  It didn't seem as if the gods were paying much attention to his wants, lately.

  Withen was waiting for him just beyond the doors.

  "Son, about that horse-"

  "Father, I keep telling you, Yfandes is not-”

  Withen shook his head, an expression of marked impatience on his square face. "Not your Companion- Mekeal's horse. That damned stud he bought."

  "Oh." Vanyel smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. Lately my mind stays in the same path unless you jerk its leash sideways. Tired, I guess."

  For the first time Withen actually looked at him, and his thick eyebrows rose in alarm. "Son, you look like hell.”

  "I know," Vanyel replied. "I've been told."

  “Bad?'' Withen gave him the same kind of sober attention he gave to his own contemporaries. Vanyel was obscurely flattered.

  "Take all the horror stories coming north from the Karsite Border and double them. That's what it's been like."

  For once Withen's martial background was a blessing. He knew what Border-fighting was like, and his expression darkened for a moment. "Gods, son - that is not good to hear. So you'll be needing your rest. Well, I won't keep you too long, then - listen, let's take this out to the walk."

  The "walk" Withen referred to was a stone porch, rather like a low balcony and equipped with a balustrade, that ran the length of the north side of the building. Why Grandfather Joserlin had put it there, no one knew. It overlooked the gardens, but not usefully, most of the view being screened off by the row of cypresses he'd had planted just beneath the railing. It could be accessed by one door, through the linen storeroom. Not many people used it, unless they wanted to be alone.

  Which actually made it a fine choice for a private discussion.

  Blue, hazy dusk, scented with woodsmoke, was all that met them there. Vanyel went over to the b
alustrade and sat on the top of it, and Withen began again.

  "About that horse - have you seen it?"

  "I'm afraid so," Vanyel replied. His window overlooked the meadows where the horses were turned loose to graze, and he'd seen the “Shin'a'in stud" kicking up his heels and attempting to impress Yfandes who was in the next field over. She had been ignoring him. "I hate to say this, Father, but Meke was robbed. I've seen a Shin'a'in warsteed; they're ugly, but not like that beast. They're smaller than that stud; they're not made to carry men in armor, they're bred to carry nomad horse-archers. They have very strong hindquarters, but their forequarters are just as strong, and they're a little short in the spine. 'Bunchy,' I guess you'd say. And their heads are large all out of proportion to the rest of them. The only thing a Shin'a'in warsteed has in common with Meke's nag is color. And besides, the only way an outsider could get a warsteed would be to steal a young, untrained one— and then kill the entire Clan he stole it from—and then kill the other Clans that came after him. No chance. Maybe somewhere there's Shin'a'in blood in that one, but it's cull blood if so."

 

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