With Elspeth, the heir to the throne of Valdemar, now of marriageable age, Talia, the Queen's Own Herald, returns to court. Here, she finds the Queen and heir beset by diplomatic intrigue as various forces vie for control of Elspeth's future.
But just as Talia is about to uncover the traitor behind all these intrigues, she is sent off on a mission to the neighboring kingdom, chosen by the Queento investigate the worth of a marriage proposal from Prince Ancar. And, to her horror, Talia soon discovers there is far more going on at Prince Ancar's court than just preparation for a hoped-for royal wedding. For a different magic than that of the Heralds is loose in Ancar's realm-an evil and ancient sorcery that may destroy all of Valdemar unless Talia can send warning to her Queen in time.
About the Author
The narrator of over 150 audiobooks, Christa Lewis is a 2019 Voice Arts Award-winning narrator, a 2018 Audie Award finalist, and a 2018 Listener's Choice finalist. She has been featured in AudioFile magazine and earned multiple Earphones Awards for recordings that have become Audible bestsellers.
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By Mercedes Lackey
DAW BOOKS, INC.Copyright © 1988 Mercedes R. Lackey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe could be brother and sister, Kris thought, glancing over at his fellow Herald. Maybe twins-
Talia sat Rolan with careless ease-an ease brought about by the fact that they'd spent most of their waking hours in the saddle during her internship up north. Kris' seat was just as casual, and for the same reason. After all this time they could easily have eaten, slept-yes, and possibly even made love a-saddle! The first two they had accomplished, and more than once. The third they'd never tried-but Kris had heard rumors of other Heralds who had. It did not sound like something he really was curious enough to attempt.
They figured on making the capital and the Collegium by early evening, so they were both wearing the cleanest and best of their uniforms. Heraldic Whites-those for field duty-were constructed of tough and durable leather, but after eighteen months they only had one set apiece that would pass muster, and they'd been saving them for today.
So we're presentable. Which isn't saying much, Kris mourned to himself, surveying the left knee of his breeches with regret. The surface of the leather was worn enough to be slightly nappy-which meant it was inclined to pick up dirt. And dirt showed on Whites-after riding all day they both were slightly gray. Maybe not to the casual eye, but Kris noticed.
Tantris curvetted a little, and Kris suddenly realized that he and Talia's Rolan were matching their paces.
:On purpose, two-footed brother,: came Tantris' sending, tinged with a hint of laughter. :Since you two are so terribly shabby, we thought we'd take attention off you. Nobody's going to notice you when we're showing off:
:By the way, you couldn't pass for twins; there's too much red in her hair, and she's too little. But sibs, yes. Although where you got those blue eyes-:
:Blue eyes run in my family,: Kris replied with feigned indignation. :Both father and mother have them.:
:Then if you were going to be sibs, your mother must have been keeping a Bard in the wardrobe for Talia to have hazel eyes and curly hair.: Tantris pranced and arched his neck, and one of his sapphirine eyes flashed a teasing look up at his Chosen.
Kris stole another glance at his internee, and concluded that Tantris was right. There was too much red in her hair, and it was too curly to have come out of the same batch as his own straight, blue-black locks. And she barely came up to his chin. But they both had fine-boned, vaguely heart-shaped faces-and more than that, they both moved the same way.
:Alberich's training. And Keren's.:
:You're prettier than she is, though. The which you know.:
Kris was startled into a laugh, which made Talia glance over at him quizzically.
"Might one ask-?"
"Tantris," he replied, taking a deep breath of the verdant air, and chuckling. "He's twitting me on my vanity."
"I wish," she answered with more than a little wistfulness, "that just once I could Mindspeak Rolan like that."
"You ought to be glad you can't. You're saved a lot of back-talk."
"How far are we from home?"
"A little more than an hour." He took in the greening landscape with every sign of satisfaction, now and again taking deep breaths of the flower-laden air. "A silver for your thoughts."
"So much?" She chuckled, turning in her saddle to face him. "A copper would be more appropriate."
"Let me be the judge of that. After all, I'm the one who asked."
"So you did."
They rode in tree-shadowed silence for several leagues; Kris was minded to let her answer in her own time. The soft chime of bridle bells and their Companions' hooves on the hard surface of the Trade Road made a kind of music that was most soothing to listen to.
"Ethics," she said at last.
"Whoof-that's dry thinking!"
"I suppose it is-" She plainly let her thoughts turn inward again; her eyes grew vague, and he coughed to recapture her attention.
"You went elsewhere," he chided gently, when she jumped a little. "Now, you were saying-ethics. Ethics of what?"
"My Gift. Specifically, using it-"
"I thought you'd come to terms with that."
"In a situation of threat, yes. In a situation where there was no appropriate and just punishment under normal procedures."
"Exactly." She shivered a little. "I thought I'd never feel clean again after touching his mind. But-what could I have done with him? Ordered his execution? That ... wouldn't be enough of a punishment for what he did. Imprison him? Not appropriate at all. And much as I would have liked to pull him to bits slowly, Heralds don't go in for torture."
"What did you do to him? In detail, I mean. You didn't want to talk about it before."
"It was a-kind of twist on a mind-Healing technique; it depended on the fact that I'm a projective Empath. I can't remember what Devan called it, but you tie a specific thought to another thought or set of feelings that you construct. Then, every time the person thinks that thought, they also get what you want them to know. Like with Vostel-every time he would decide that he was to blame, he'd get what I put in there."
She grinned. "'So next time I won't be so stupid!' And when he'd be ready to give up from pain, he'd get, 'But it isn't as bad as yesterday, and it'll be better tomorrow.' Not words, actually; it was all feelings."
"Better, in that case, than words would have been," Kris mused, shooing a fly away absently.
"So Devan said. Well, I did something like that with-that thing. I took one of the worst sets of his stepdaughter's memories, and tied that in to all of his own feelings about women. And I kept point-of-view, so that it would appear to him as if he were the victim. You saw what happened."
Kris shuddered. "He went mad; he just collapsed, foaming at the mouth."
"No, he didn't go mad. He locked himself into an endless repetition of what I'd fed him. It's an appropriate punishment; he's getting exactly what he put his stepdaughters through. It's just, at least I think so, because if he ever changes his attitudes he can break free of it. Of course if he does-" she grimaced "-he might find himself dancing on the end of a rope for the murder of his older stepdaughter. The law prevents the execution of a madman; it doesn't save one who's regained his sanity. Lastly, what I did should satisfy his stepdaughter, who is, after all, the one we really want to come out of this thing with a whole soul."
"So where's the ethical problem?"
"That was a stress-situation, a threat-situation. But-is it ethical to-say-read people during Council sessions and act on my information?"
"Uh-" Kris was unable to think of an answer.
"Let's go at it from another angle. You know how to read people's faces and bodies-we've all been taught that. Would you hesitate to use that knowledge in Council?"
"Well, no." She rode silently for a few more moments. "I guess what will have to be the deciding factor is not if I do it but how I use the information."
"That sounds reasonable to me."
"Maybe too reasonable," she replied doubtfully. "It's awfully easy to rationalize what I want to do-what I have no choice about in some cases. It's not like thought-sensing; I have to actively shield to keep people out. They go around shoving their feelings up my nose on a regular basis, especially when they're wrought up."
Kris shook his head. "All I can say is, do what seems best at the time. Really, that's all any of us do."
:Verily, oh, Wise One.:
Kris ignored his Companion's taunting comment. He was going to question her further, but broke off when he caught the sound of a horse galloping full out, heading up the road toward them, the hoofbeats having the peculiar ringing of a Companion.
"Sounds like a Companion, yes. And in full gallop." he rose in his stirrups for a better view. "Bright Lady, now what?"
Steed and rider came into sight as they topped the hill.
:That's Cymry-: Tantris' ears were pricked forward. :She's slim. She must have foaled already.:
"It's Cymry," Kris reported.
"Which means Skif-and since I'll bet she just foaled, it isn't a pleasure-ride that takes them out here."
The last time they'd seen the thief-turned-Herald had been a bit over nine months ago, when he'd met with them for their half-term briefing. Cymry had spent the time frolicking with Rolan, and both she and her Chosen had forgotten about the nearly-supernatural fertility of the Grove stallions. The result was foregone-much to Cymry's chagrin as well as Skif's.
Talia knew Skif better than Kris did; they'd been very close as students, close enough that they'd sworn blood-brotherhood. They had been close enough that Talia could read him better at a distance than Kris could.
She shaded her eyes with her hand, then nodded a little. "Well it isn't a disaster; there's something serious afoot, but it isn't an emergency."
"How can you tell at this distance?"
"Firstly, there's no emotional-surge. Secondly, if it were serious, he'd be absolutely expressionless. He looks a bit worded, but that could be for Cymry."
Skif spotted them and waved wildly, as Cymry slowed her headlong pace. They hastened theirs-to the disgruntlement of the pack-mules.
"Havens! Am I ever glad to see you two!" Skif exclaimed as they came into earshot. "Cymry swore you were close, but I was half-afraid I'd have to ride a couple of hours, and I hate to make her leave the little one for that long."
"You sound like you've been waiting for us-Skif, what's the problem?" Kris asked anxiously. "What are you doing out here?"
"Nothing for you; plenty for her. Mind you, this is strictly under the ivy bush; we don't want people to know you've been warned, Talia. I slipped out on behalf of a lady in distress."
"Who? Elspeth? Selenay? What-"
"Give me a minute, will you? I'm trying to tell you. Elspeth asked me to intercept you on your way in. It seems the Council is trying to marry her off, and she's not overly thrilled with the notion. She wants you to know so you'll have time to muster some good arguments for the Council meeting tomorrow."
Skif reined Cymry in beside them, and they picked up the pace. "Alessandar has made a formal offer for her for Ancar. Lots of advantages there. Virtually everybody on the Council is for it except Elcarth and Kyril-and Selenay. They've been arguing it back and forth for two months, but it's been serious for about a week, and it looks as if Selenay is gradually being worn down. That's why Elspeth sent me out to watch for you; I've been slipping out for the past three days, hoping to catch you when you came in and warn you what's up. With you to back her, Selenay's got full veto-either to table the betrothal until Elspeth's finished training, or throw the notion out altogether. Elspeth didn't want any of the more excitable Councillors to know we were warning you, or they might have put more pressure on Selenay to decide before you got here."
Talia sighed. "So nothing's been decided; good. I can deal with it easily enough. Can you get on ahead of us? Let Elspeth and Selenay both know we'll be there by dinner-bell? I can't do anything now, anyway, but tomorrow we can take care of the whole mess at Council session. If Elspeth wants to see me before then-I'm all hers; she'll probably find me in my rooms."
"Your wish is my command," Skif replied. As all three knew, Skif knew more ways than one in and out of the capital and the Palace grounds. He'd make far better time than they could.
They held their pace to that of the mules as Skif sent Cymry off at a diagonal to the road, raising a cloud of dust behind him. They continued on as if they hadn't met him; but Kris traded a look of weary amusement with her. They weren't even officially "home" yet, and already the intrigues had begun.
"Anything else bothering you?"
"To put it bluntly," she said at last, "I'm nervous about coming back home-as nervy as a cat about to kitten."
"Whyfor? And why now? The worst is over. You're a full Herald-the last of your training's behind you. What's to be nervous about?"
Talia looked around her; at the fields, the distant hills, at anything but Kris. A warm spring breeze, loaded with flower-scent, teased her hair and blew a lock or two into her eyes so that she looked like a worried foal.
"I'm not sure I ought to discuss it with you," she said reluctantly.
"If not me, then who?"
She looked at him measuringly. "I don't know...."
"No," Kris said, just a little hurt by her reluctance. "You know. You just aren't sure you can trust me. Even after all we've shared together."
She winced. "Disconcertingly accurate. I thought bluntness was my besetting sin."
Kris cast his eyes up to the heavens in an exaggerated plea for patience, squinting against the bright sunlight. "I am a Herald. You are a Herald. If there's one thing you should have learned by now, it's that you can always trust another Herald."
"Even when my suspicions conflict with ties of blood?"
He gave her another measuring look. "Such as?"
"Your uncle, Lord Orthallen."
He whistled through his teeth, and pursed his lips. "I thought you'd left that a year ago. Just because of that little run-in you had with him over Skif, you see him plotting conspiracy behind every bush! He's been very good to me, and to half a dozen others I could name you, and he's been invaluable to Selenay-as he was to her father."
"I have very good reasons to see him behind every bush!" she replied with some heat. "I think trying to get Skif in trouble was part of a long pattern, that it was just an attempt to isolate me-"
"Why? What could he possibly gain?" Kris was fed up and frustrated because this wasn't the first time he'd had to defend his uncle. More than one of his fellow Heralds had argued that Orthallen was far too power-hungry to be entirely trustworthy, and Kris had always felt honor-bound to defend him. He'd thought Talia had dismissed her suspicions as irrational months ago. He was highly annoyed to find that she hadn't.
"I don't know why-" Talia cried in frustration, clenching her fist on her reins. "I only know that I've never trusted him from the moment I first saw him. And now I'll be co-equal in Council with Kyril and Elcarth, with a full voice in decisions. That could put us in more direct conflict than we've ever been before."
Excerpted from Arrow's Fall by Mercedes Lackey Copyright © 1988 by Mercedes R. Lackey
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.