This thirteenth anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Lackey herself.
The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom's ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all agesand all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talentscombined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and moremake them indispensable to their monarch and realm. Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.
Now, twenty-three authors ride with Mercedes Lackey to her magical land of Valdemar, adding their own unique voices to the Heralds, Bards, Healers, and other heroes of this beloved fantasy realm.
|Product dimensions:||4.18(w) x 6.75(h) x 0.84(d)|
About the Author
Mercedes Lackey is a full-time writer and has published numerous novels and works of short fiction, including the bestselling Heralds of Valdemar series. She is also a professional lyricist and a licensed wild bird rehabilitator.
Read an Excerpt
One Town at a Time
All trade in the marketplace had ceased. All eyes were turned to the Herald and the two merchant farmers he questioned.
Glad she wasn't in the spotlight, Astrid paid attention as well. It was the only thing she could do as an outlander rope and string merchant. Entertainment, even of the tense variety, was scarce in the Holderkin lands. No one wanted to miss the excitement.
"One and all will see who is telling the truth and who is not," Herald Kalen said, his voice loud enough to carry throughout the marketplace.
The two merchant farmers, one local, one not, stood before the Herald, flanked by a couple of burly Holderkin men. They were rougher toward the outlander than their own man, but they held both fast nonetheless as the Herald began the Truth Spell.
Bowing his head, the Herald chanted half under his breath. He repeated the words-the cadence told careful listeners that he repeated it nine times. As he ended the chant and raised his head, a light blue glow settled about the heads and shoulders of both men. As one, the men acting as guards took an involuntary step backward as soon as the blue glow appeared. Several spectators made warding signs against evil.
"Now," Herald Kalen said, pointing to the outlander, "Is it true that the lamb is yours?"
"Yes, Herald." The merchant farmer nodded vigorously. "I saw my farm's mark on its wool-faint but there. Then he shaved the wool, erasing it. He m-m-m . . ." The farmer stopped trying to force the lie and sighed. "The lamb had been left behind because of a lame foot. It wasn't where I left it when I went back. I thought a wolf had gotten it. I had given up on it."
Turning to the Holderkin wool farmer, Herald Kalen asked, "Is it true that the lamb is yours?"
"Yes." The man struggled, words wanted to leap from his mouth, but he pressed his lips together.
"Why do you claim the lamb as yours?"
After another struggle, the Holderkin farmer was forced to speak, "The lamb was abandoned. It is mine by right. I found it. I nursed it to health over the last week. One of my ewes adopted it. It's my lamb."
"No. I tethered it. He stole it," the first farmer insisted.
The Holderkin farmer turned red.
Herald Kalen asked, "Did you untether the lamb from its spot?"
"Yes." The word came out resigned and angry.
Herald Kalen tilted his head as if listening for something. Then he nodded. "This is my judgment: The lamb will be returned to the rightful owner. You may keep the lamb's wool you shaved as recompense for tending to the injured creature."
He raised his voice to address the crowd. "As you are of the Holderkin lands, if there are other punishments deemed necessary for thieves in Crag's Bluff, that is up to the leaders of the town." He paused, "The lamb is to be returned at once."
A mutter ran through the market as both merchant farmers turned away from the Herald. Unease and unhappiness floated on the wind. The Herald seemed to pay it no mind as he returned to his Companion. The large white animal whickered gently.
"Who's to say that's really the truth? How can we trust such magic?"
Though the words were whispered, Astrid heard them clearly. She shifted closer. Such provocative words were worth eavesdropping on.
"What do you mean?" Darbin asked.
His voice was pitched lower than the man he was speaking to, but now that Astrid was paying attention, she could follow the conversation. Darbin was a local baker. She'd found him pleasant but dull-which was more than could be said of most Holderkin. They tended to be suspicious and rude to outsiders.
"I mean, it's magic. How do we know that Herald didn't force your kinsman to say he stole the lamb?"
This time, Astrid saw the speaker. Wendel, a traveling merchant like her. Whereas she sold good rope and string, he sold berries. Probably from Hardorn. Must've crossed Cebu Pass to get to town, she thought.
Crag's Bluff was the most open town she had encountered in the Holderkin lands. Located on Old Quarry Road near the Border of both Karse and Hardorn, the town saw many more travelers than most Holderkin enclaves. For a single female merchant, Crag's Bluff was downright progressive, with nary a side-eye directed at her. It made for a pleasant change in the mostly insular, patriarchal Holderkin lands. Of course, if she'd had a male worker, things might've been different.
Darbin frowned and watched the Herald talk to the boldest of the children in the marketplace. His job done, he made himself available, but most of the adults returned to work or headed off toward the call of distant drums beating out what sounded like a slow dirge.
A small, satisfied smile flickered across Wendel's face as Darbin walked away, distrust furrowed in the man's brow. She walked to the merchant's side and asked, "What did you mean about the Herald?"
The older man whirled, his eyes wide. They narrowed even as his tension faded and an easy smile appeared as he saw the short, round young woman next to him. "What do you think I meant?"
Shrugging with a side-eye at the loitering Herald and his Companion-a beautiful white horse with blue and white tackle-"I think you meant you can't trust them. But I've been taught that you can."
"Taught by whom?"
"Everyone . . .? "
He hmphed. "That is dangerous thinking . . . to believe something is true just because 'everyone' believes it's true. I need proof."
"I've seen Heralds save people in danger. They're the personal guard of the Queen-"
"Exactly. In Hardorn, we know our King is true. His will is the land's, and protecting the land is his will. If either fails, the other one will, too. We can see the King's will. Can you say the same of those white-clad enforcers? Ones who do magic that can force a man to speak with no one to speak otherwise?"
Astrid didn't know what to say to that. It went against everything she'd ever been taught.
"Ah, never mind me." Wendel shook his head. "Maybe it takes an outsider's eyes to see what is wrong. A fish doesn't know it breathes water until it's yanked into the air by the hook."
"Maybe." Anything else she could've said was lost to the approaching drums.
Fair time in the Holderkin lands was unlike any other place Astrid had ever visited. While they acknowledged and celebrated the Harvest Festival, they did so in a restrained and sober manner. The harvest market was as busy as one should be, but it was interrupted twice a day by a solemn procession that wound through the town and the market, gathering all the good Holderkin to walk to the temple to pray. Twice, because it allowed commerce to continue while one partner attended to their souls and the other tended to their stalls; then they switched when the second time for prayer arrived. Holderkin were nothing if not pragmatic.
Astrid watched the procession with respect and veiled curiosity. Were she vending in another city, the procession would be more of a parade, with smiling crowds and cheering revelers. This procession held many more dark looks and few smiles for those who remained behind. The baker, Darbin, joined the procession after one last considering look at the Herald who stood with polite respect next to his Companion as the people passed by, nearly emptying the marketplace as they left.
It took more than five minutes for a new set of customers to appear. Shaking her head, Astrid returned to her cart and began the work of persuading the farmers and townsfolk of the value of her wares.
The tavern wasn't overly busy, but most of the customers were traveling merchants who crossed from country to country to sell their harvest goods in nearby lands. Despite the borders between them, people from Valdemar, Karse, and Hardorn often broke bread together. Borderlands had a way of either softening the differences between the countries or intensifying them. This Fair season showed a more gentle side of the different countries.
Astrid considered Wendel, who was sitting by himself with his back to the wall. It could be said that the man didn't trust anyone at his back. Or, taking a kinder route, was inviting travelers to join him.
She took her drink over to his table and gesture to the chair. "May I?"
He gave her a long, considered look before nodding. "Company is good in a strange town, isn't it?"
"It is." She sat and thought how to start the conversation.
Wendel gave her a shyster's smile. "I know what you're wondering. Aye, you want to know if my thought about the white-clad bastards is true . . . or if it's a trap for the unwary."
Astrid tilted her head and gestured for him to go on. She didn't accept or deny his assertion, but she let a smile grace her face. He could interpret it anyway he wanted.
"Well, it's true. I speak the words of my heart. I don't trust them. I don't trust a land that requires that all children must be taught about the Companions and that if one Chooses them, it is an honor. How do we know those white horses aren't demons? Did you know, dirt won't cling to them? Dye won't stain them? They've been cursed to show their true nature at all times. Why would that be?"
She had her thoughts, but she didn't express them. "I don't know."
"I suspect its some god's curse . . . or a way of protecting people who have the eyes to see."
"That the people of Valdemar are not well served by their monarchs."
Astrid sat back and frowned.
"I see you thinking now." Wendel leaned forward. "When has the crown ever served you?"
She shook her head. "The Waystations?"
"Paid for by you. Your taxes. The military, paid for by you. The Heralds . . . beholden only to the crown . . . paid for by you."
"I . . ." Astrid stopped and shook her head again.
"It's hard to go against what you've been told to believe, I know. But have you ever seen it in action?"
"No," she admitted.
"This is why Hardorn is better. The King lives for the land. If the land suffers, so does he."
"A blessing. A geas. One our monarch takes on willingly in order to serve the people." Wendel sat back. "Imagine if this land . . . relegated to the Holderkin because none other would have it . . . imagine if it were part of Hardorn. Mud would become fertile soil. Streams would run clear and strong. It wouldn't be this harsh, unforgiving place, but a paradise."
Astrid blinked slowly at him. "Is that true? Could Hardorn's King do that?"
"Yes." He heaved a great sigh. "But we'll never know for sure while the Holderkin lands belong to Valdemar." With a yawn as fake as his smile, Wendel stood. "Forgive me, I need to retire. It's been a long day, and we have an even longer day tomorrow."
:'Is that true? Could Hardorn's King do that?': Kalen laughed in Astrid's head. :Layin' it on a little thick, weren't you?:
Astrid laced her fingers behind her head and stared up at the inn ceiling. Solid wood. Simple construction. It did its job. :I was playing the ingénue, and he ate it up.:
:I'll bet he did. That's why I chose you for this.:
:What's next? He's definitely riling up an anti-Herald sentiment. Arrest him?:
Astrid felt her mentor's disapproval before he answered. :It isn't against the law to speak badly of Heralds. Our people may speak their thoughts, and I'm more interested in the intimation that the Holderkin lands would be better off under Hardorn rule.:
Astrid sobered. :Is that treason?:
:No. Not if Wendel is from Hardorn. If he is, however, that makes this whole thing a lot more complicated than expected. Anti-Herald thought can be solved by giving the area more attention, more help, more care. Showing that we aren't the enemy rather than just saying it. Having someone from Hardorn encouraging secession, that's dangerous and requires more than just a bit of suggestive talk by a flirtatious merchant.:
:We need proof?:
:Yes, my Herald-in-training, we do. Also, your Companion misses you. She wanted us to pass that along.:
Astrid sighed. :I miss her, too. I haven't been away from Elsinore for such a long time since she Chose me. You're taking good care of her, yes?:
:No. I'm letting her starve.:
:As if she'd let you.: They both laughed silently. Astrid allowed her discontent to show through their conversation. :So, now what?:
Kalen took a long time to answer. When he returned, his mental voice was filled with determination. :We find out if he's just a troublemaker from Hardorn who doesn't like Heralds, or if he's something much worse.:
Astrid watched the marketplace with interest. Being the main day of the Harvest Festival, it was the busiest the area had been. There were even scattered signs of joy and light among the Holderkin. As dour as they could be, they did have their own way of celebrating the little things and the changing of the seasons. Small gifts and much needed new tools. Even a few ribbons here or there. Most of the pragmatic shoppers had already come and gone. Her stock of rope had been depleted. It wouldn't be out of character for her to close for an hour to get a midday meal.
With one last look at the busy Wendel, who proclaimed the wonders of his berries-from fertile soil to kind rains to the fullness of the fruit-to all who would listen, Astrid slipped away.
Most of the merchants stayed in the same tavern. The ones who didn't bunked down in or under their carts. She headed upstairs to the rooms and walked past her door to the one at the end. The door was locked. Not unusual. Not for traveling merchants. But the locks in this place were not much of a match for a skilled woman with a strong knife. It was more of a matter of leveraging the lock open rather than breaking it to get in.
Once inside, with the door closed and locked behind her, Astrid gave the room a long look before she moved, trying to remember where everything was before she began her search. There were two packs in plain sight. If she were attempting to keep someone from finding something important in a room, she'd leave out bait. Then again, she thought, a liar always assumes everyone else is lying. It's possible that Wendel is just what he seems: a Hardorn merchant who doesn't like Heralds.