Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wants no part of such things. Nor does he seek a warrior’s path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his if left untrained may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the famed Herald-Mages of Valdemar.
But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil cannot master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin’a⁻in Adept, Vanyel’s wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone’s ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril....
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Mercedes Lackey is the author of the Valdemar series, including Take a Thief and Exile's Honor. She is the coauthor, with Andre Norton, of the Halfblood Chronicles, including Elvenborn. Some of her other novels include The Gates of Sleep, Sacred Ground, The Firebird, The Black Swan, and The Serpent's Shadow. She lives in Oklahoma.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PLEASE—LET ME DIE. . . .
I deserve to die, Vanyel thought in anguish, closing his eyes. I want to die.
:No.: The mind-voice was bright, bright as a flame, and sharp as steel, piercing his dark hope for death. :No, you must not. You must live. Chosen.:
Vanyel thought bleakly back at the intruder, :Let me alone. No one wants me, nobody should want me; I kill everything I care for.:
:But I am here—:
Unable to escape the unknown mind-voice, Vanyel finally opened his eyes—and met a pair of glowing sapphire eyes so full of compassion and love that he knew their owner would forgive him anything. That love reached out for him, and flowed over into him. It couldn’t erase his loss, but it could share the pain—and it didn’t blame him for what had happened.
He groped for the Companion’s smooth white neck and clung there, sobbing himself into exhaustion. And all the while, that bright voice murmured, like a litany, over and over, into his mind—
:I am here, my Chosen. I love you. I will never leave you.:
NOVELS BY MERCEDES LACKEY
available from DAW Books:
THE HERALDS OF VALDEMAR
ARROWS OF THE QUEEN
THE LAST HERALD-MAGE
THE MAGE WINDS
WINDS OF FATE
WINDS OF CHANGE
WINDS OF FURY
THE MAGE STORMS
VOWS AND HONOR
THE COLLEGIUM CHRONICLES
BY THE SWORD
TAKE A THIEF
SWORD OF ICE
SUN IN GLORY
CHANGING THE WORLD
FINDING THE WAY
UNDER THE VALE
Written with LARRY DIXON:
THE MAGE WARS
THE BLACK GRYPHON
THE WHITE GRYPHON
THE SILVER GRYPHON
THE BLACK SWAN
THE DRAGON JOUSTERS
THE ELEMENTAL MASTERS
THE SERPENT’S SHADOW
THE GATES OF SLEEP
PHOENIX AND ASHES
THE WIZARD OF LONDON
RESERVED FOR THE CAT
HOME FROM THE SEA
And don’t miss:
THE VALDEMAR COMPANION
Edited by John Helfers and Denise Little
Book One of The Last Herald Mage
Table of Contents
“Your grandfather,” said Vanyel’s brawny, fifteen-year-old cousin Radevel, “was crazy.”
He has a point, Vanyel thought, hoping they weren’t about to take an uncontrolled dive down the last of the stairs.
Radevel’s remark had probably been prompted by this very back staircase, one that started at one end of the third-floor servants’ hall and emerged at the rear of a linen closet on the ground floor. The stair treads were so narrow and so slick that not even the servants used it.
The manor-keep of Lord Withen Ashkevron of Forst Reach was a strange and patchworked structure. In Vanyel’s great-great-grandfather’s day it had been a more conventional defensive keep, but by the time Vanyel’s grandfather had held the lands, the border had been pushed far past Forst Reach. The old reprobate had decided when he’d reached late middle age that defense was going to be secondary to comfort. His comfort, primarily.
Not that Vanyel entirely disagreed with Grandfather; he would have been one of the first to vote to fill in the moat and for fireplaces in all the rooms. But the old man had gotten some pretty peculiar notions about what he wanted where—along with a tendency to change his mind in mid-alteration.
There were good points—windows everywhere, and all of them glazed and shuttered. Skylights lighting all the upper rooms and the staircases. Fireplaces in nearly every room. Heated privies, part and parcel of the bathhouse. Every inside wall lathed and plastered against cold and damp. The stables, mews, kennel, and chickenyard banished to new outbuildings.
But there were bad points—if you didn’t know your way, you could really get lost; and there were an awful lot of places you couldn’t get into unless you knew exactly how to get there. Some of those places were important—like the bathhouse and privies. The old goat hadn’t much considered the next generation in his alterations, either; he’d cut up the nursery into servant’s quarters, which meant that until Lord Withen’s boys went into bachelor’s hall and the girls to the bower, they were cramped two and three to a series of very tiny attic-level rooms.
“He was your grandfather, too,” Vanyel felt impelled to point out. The Ashkevron cousins had a tendency to act as if they had no common ancestors with Vanyel and his sibs whenever the subject of Grandfather Joserlin and his alterations came up.
“Huh.” Radevel considered for a moment, then shrugged. “He was still crazy.” He hefted his own load of armor and padding a little higher on his shoulder.
Vanyel held his peace and trotted down the last couple of stone stairs to hold the door open for his cousin. Radevel was doing him a favor, even though Vanyel was certain that cousin Radevel shared everyone else’s low opinion of him. Radevel was by far and away the best-natured of the cousins, and the easiest to talk round—and the bribe of Vanyel’s new hawking gauntlet had proved too much for him to resist. Still, it wouldn’t do to get him angry by arguing with him; he might decide he had better things to do than help Vanyel out, gauntlet or no gauntlet.
Oh, gods—let this work, Vanyel thought as they emerged into the gloomy back hall. Did I practice enough with Lissa? Is this going to have a chance against a standard attack? Or am I crazy for even trying?
The hallway was as cold as the staircase had been, and dark to boot. Radevel took the lead, feet slapping on the stone floor as he whistled contentedly—and tunelessly. Vanyel tried not to wince at the mutilation of one of his favorite melodies and drifted silently in his wake, his thoughts as dark as the hallway.
In three days Lissa will be gone—and if I can’t manage to get sent along, I’ll be all alone. Without Lissa . . .
If I can just prove that I need her kind of training, then maybe Father will let me go with her—
That had been the half-formed notion that prompted him to work out the moves of a different style of fighting than what he was supposed to be learning, practicing them in secret with his older sister Lissa: that was what had ultimately led to this little expedition.
That, and the urgent need to show Lord Withen that his eldest son wasn’t the coward the armsmaster claimed he was—and that he could succeed on martial ground of his own choosing.
Vanyel wondered why he was the only boy to realize that there were other styles of fighting than armsmaster Jervis taught; he’d read of them, and knew that they had to be just as valid, else why send Lissa off to foster and study with Trevor Corey and his seven would-be sword-ladies? The way Vanyel had it figured, there was no way short of a miracle that he would ever succeed at the brute hack-and-bash system Jervis used—and no way Lord Withen would ever believe that another style was just as good while Jervis had his ear.
Unless Vanyel could show him. Then Father would have to believe his own eyes.
And if I can’t prove it to him—
—oh, gods. I can’t take much more of this.
With Lissa gone to Brenden Keep, his last real ally in the household would be gone, too; his only friend, and the only person who cared for him.
This was the final trial of the plot he’d worked out with Liss; Radevel would try to take him using Jervis’ teachings. Vanyel would try to hold his own, wearing nothing but the padded jerkin and helm, carrying the lightest of target-shields, and trusting to speed and agility to keep him out of trouble.
Radevel kicked open the unlatched door to the practice ground, leaving Vanyel to get it closed before somebody yelled about the draft. The early spring sunlight was painful after the darkness of the hallway; Vanyel squinted as he hurried to catch up with his cousin.
“All right, peacock,” Radevel said good-naturedly, dumping his gear at the edge of the practice ground, and snagging his own gambeson from the pile. “Get yourself ready, and we’ll see if this nonsense of yours has any merit.”
It took Vanyel a lot less time than his cousin to shrug into his “armor”; he offered tentatively to help Radevel with his, but the older boy just snorted.
“Botch mine the way you botch yours? No thanks,” he said, and went on methodically buckling and adjusting.
Vanyel flushed, and stood uncertainly at the side of the sunken practice ground, contemplating the thick, dead grass at his feet.
I never botch anything except when Jervis is watching, he thought bleakly, shivering a little as a bit of cold breeze cut through the gambeson. And then I can’t do anything right.
He could almost feel the windows in the keep wall behind him like eyes staring at his back. Waiting for him to fail—again.
What’s wrong with me, anyway? Why can’t I ever please Father? Why is everything I do wrong?
He sighed, scuffed the ground with his toe, and wished he could be out riding instead of trying something doomed to failure. He was the best rider in Forst Reach—he and Star had no equals on the most breakneck of hunts, and he could, if he chose, master anything else in the stables.
And just because I won’t bother with those iron-mouthed brutes Father prefers, he won’t even grant me the accolade there—
Gods. This time I have to win.
“Wake up, dreamer,” Radevel rumbled, his voice muffled inside the helm. “You wanted to have at—let’s get to it.”
Vanyel walked to the center of the practice field with nervous deliberation, waiting until the last minute to get his helm on. He hated the thing; he hated the feeling of being closed in, and most of all hated having his vision narrowed to a little slit. He waited for Radevel to come up to him, feeling the sweat already starting under his arms and down the line of his back.
Radevel swung—but instead of meeting the blow with his shield as Jervis would have done, Vanyel just moved out of the way of the blow, and on his way past Radevel, made a stab of his own. Jervis never cared much for point-work, but Vanyel had discovered it could be really effective if you timed things right. Radevel made a startled sound and got up his own shield, but only just in time, and left himself open to a cut.
Vanyel felt his spirits rising as he saw this second opening in as many breaths, and chanced another attack of his own. This one actually managed to connect, though it was too light to call a disabling hit.
“Light!” Vanyel shouted as he danced away, before his cousin had a chance to disqualify the blow.
“Almost enough, peacock,” Radevel replied, reluctant admiration in his voice. “You land another like that with your weight behind it and I’ll be out. Try this for size—”
He charged, his practice blade a blur beside his shield.
Vanyel just stepped aside at the last moment, while Radevel staggered halfway to the boundary under his own momentum.
It was working! Radevel couldn’t get near him—and Vanyel was pecking away at him whenever he got an opportunity. He wasn’t hitting even close to killing strength—but that was mostly from lack of practice. If—
“Hold, damn your eyes!”
Long habit froze them both in position, and the armsmaster of Forst Reach stalked onto the field, fire in his bloodshot glare.
Jervis looked the two of them up and down while Vanyel sweated from more than exertion. The blond, crag-faced mercenary frowned, and Vanyel’s mouth went dry. Jervis looked angry—and when Jervis was angry, it was generally Vanyel who suffered.
“Well—” the man croaked after long enough for Vanyel’s dread of him to build up to full force. “—learning a new discipline, are we? And whose idea was this?”
“Mine, sir,” Vanyel whispered.
“Might have guessed sneak-and-run would be more suited to you than an honest fight,” the armsmaster sneered. “Well, and how did you do, my bright young lord?”
“He did all right, Jervis.” To Vanyel’s complete amazement Radevel spoke up for him. “I couldn’t get a blow on ’im. An’ if he’d put his weight behind it, he’d have laid me out a time or two.”
“So you’re a real hero against a half-grown boy. I’ll just bet you feel like another Veth Krethen, don’t you?” Jervis spat. Vanyel held his temper, counting to ten, and did not protest that Radevel was nearly double his size and certainly no “half-grown boy.” Jervis glared at him, waiting for a retort that never came—and strangely, that seemed to anger Jervis even more.
“All right, hero,” he snarled, taking Radevel’s blade away and jamming the boy’s helm down over his own head. “Let’s see just how good you really are—”
Jervis charged without any warning, and Vanyel had to scramble to get out of the way of the whirling blade. He realized then that Jervis was coming for him all-out—as if Vanyel was wearing full armor.
Which he wasn’t.
He pivoted desperately as Jervis came at him again; ducked, wove, and spun—and saw an opening. This time desperation gave him the strength he hadn’t used against Radevel—and he scored a chest-stab that actually rocked Jervis back for a moment, and followed it with a good solid blow to the head.
He waited, heart in mouth, while the armsmaster staggered backward two or three steps, then shook his head to clear it. There was an awful silence—
Then Jervis yanked off the helm, and there was nothing but rage on his face.
“Radevel, get the boys, then bring me Lordling Vanyel’s arms and armor,” the armsmaster said, in a voice that was deadly calm.
Radevel backed off the field, then turned and ran for the keep. Jervis paced slowly to within a few feet of Vanyel, and Vanyel nearly died of fear on the spot.
“So you like striking from behind, hmm?” he said in that same, deadly quiet voice. “I think maybe I’ve been a bit lax in teaching you about honor, young milord.” A thin smile briefly sliced across his face. “But I think we can remedy that quickly enough.”
Radevel approached with feet dragging, his arms loaded with the rest of Vanyel’s equipment.
“Arm up,” Jervis ordered, and Vanyel did not dare to disobey.
Exactly what Jervis said, then—other than dressing Vanyel down in front of the...
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