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By Mercedes Lackey
DAW BOOKS, INC.Copyright © 1987 Mercedes R. Lackey
All right reserved.
The flat of Alberich's practice-blade cracked against Talia's ill-guarded side. She hadn't seen the blow coming, she truly hadn't. That had hurt, and she would lay money on having a bruise despite the padded jerkin that had absorbed most of the blow. The practice blades may have only been wood, but Alberich tended to wield them all the harder for that.
"Faugh!" he spat in disgust, and came at her again before she had recovered from the last blow. This time he connected with her knife-arm, right at the elbow. She yelped, the arm went numb, and she lost her blade entirely.
The hawklike eyes glared at her with no trace of pity, and the scar-seamed face was a demonic mask as he passed judgment on her performance.
He was at least in his mid-forties, if not older, but he hadn't lost a fraction of his edge or agility in the five years Talia had known him. She was panting with exertion-he might as well have been taking a leisurely stroll. His well-worn, dark leathers (he was the only working Herald in Talia's experience who never wore Whites) showed not so much as a tiny sweat stain. The afternoon sun pouring down on all of them had made him look as thin and insubstantial as a shadow. And he had been just as hard to catch.
"A pity it is that Skif is net here to see you. Die of laughter he surely would!" he growled. "Eighteen you are-one would think you eight. Slow, clumsy, and stupid! Paugh! Had I been a real assassin-"
"I would have died of fright before you touched me."
"Now it is jokes! This is a battle-practice-not a comedy. If I wish amusement, I shall find a jester. Once again-and correctly, this time."
Once she was ready to drop with exhaustion, he turned his attention to Elspeth. Now that both of them deserved special tutelage he had changed the hour of their lessons to one shared by no one else, so that he could give his full devotion to the Queen's Own and Heir-presumptive. Rather than being held on the training grounds outside, the two had their drills in the salle. This was a barn-like building with a sanded wooden floor, lined with mirrors, with high clerestory windows to admit the maximum amount of light. Lessons were always held here during inclement weather, but it was too small for mass practices and classes for the combined Heraldic-Bardic-Healer's Collegium students Only those "privileged" to receive private lessons with Alberich took those lessons habitually in the salle.
Now that his attention was off her, Talia found her thoughts drifting back to her surprise of this afternoon.
Talia tugged and wriggled impatiently until she had succeeded in getting the supple, soft, white leather tunic over her head. Pulling it into place over the white raime shirt and leather breeches, she finally turned to admire the effect in the polished metal mirror in front of her.
"Havens!" she laughed, net a little surprised, "Why don't the Grays ever look like this?"
"Because," a harsh voice drawled from the next room, "You youngsters would have your minds on anything but your studies if they did!"
Talia laughed, turned back to the mirror, and preened. Today was the anniversary of her first class at Herald's Collegium-a fact that she'd forgotten until Keren and Sherrill (senior Heralds both, and instructors at the Collegium as well as Talia's longtime friends) arrived at her room with their arms full of white uniforms and wearing broad grins.
For the Heraldic Circle had considered-for less than five minutes, all told-had voted-and had passed Talia into full Herald status with the rest of her year-mates-no surprise to anyone in the Collegium, though by tradition the trainees were not to know when they were to be evaluated until the evaluation had already been made and they had passed.
Keren and Sherrill had claimed the right to give her the good news.
They didn't even give her a chance to think, either-just appeared at her door, swept her up one on either side, and herded her down the long, dark wood-paneled hall of the Collegium dormitory, down the stairs to the first floor, and out the double doors at the end.
From there they had taken her off to the Seneschal's office to claim her new quarters. Now she stood in the bedroom of the suite she'd chosen, marveling at her reflection.
"I look like a real grownup for a change!"
"That is the general idea," Sherrill laughed richly.
She cocked her head to one side, regarding the tiny, slender figure in the mirror. Her unruly red-brown curls were as tousled as ever, but somehow gave an impression now of being tumbled the way they were on purpose. The huge, deep-brown eyes that had been utterly guileless seemed somehow wiser; the heart-shaped face no longer so childlike. And all that change wrought by the magic of a new uniform!
"Talia, your head is going to swell like a spongetoad in rainy season if you're not careful." Keren interrupted her train of thought a second time. By craning her neck to peer around the doorframe Talia could see the riding instructor grinning sardonically from where she was sprawled on the wooden-backed, red-cushioned couch in the other room.
"Don't you know what the Book of the One says?" Sherrill added piously over her mate's shoulder. "'Great pride shall earn equal humiliation.'"
Talia left her bedroom to join them. They were lounging comfortably in her sparsely-furnished outer room, sharing the lone couch.
"I suppose you're both going to claim that you never spent so much as a minute in front of the mirror when you first got your Whites," Talia taunted, strolling toward them with her hands clasped behind her back.
"Who? Me?" Sherrill replied in artificial innocence, lifting an airy hand and batting thick black lashes over wide hazel eyes. "And feed my vanity? W-e-l-l, maybe a little."
"I happen to know for a fact that you spent half the day there. I'm told you were trying every hairstyle you could twist that black mane of yours into, seeing which one went best with the new outfits," Keren countered dryly, running her fingers through her own close-cropped, graying brown hair.
Sherrill just grinned and crossed her legs elegantly, leaning back into the cushions. "Since I can't claim equal, knowledge of what you did on that august occasion, that's hardly a fair blow."
"Oh, I did my share of mirror-gazing," Keren admitted with mock reluctance. "When you're as scrawny as a sapling and flat as a boy, it's rather astonishing to see yourself in something that actually flatters you. I swear I don't know how they do it-it's the same pattern for everybody, and not that dissimilar from the Student Grays-"
"But Lord, the difference!" Sherri concluded for her. "I don't know anybody who doesn't look fantastic in their Whites. Even Dirk manages to look presentable. Rumpled, but presentable."
"Well, what do you think of me?" Talia asked, turning on her toes in front of them, and grinning impishly into Keren's eyes.
"What do I think? That you look fabulous, you young demon. Keep fishing for compliments, though, and I'll likely dump you in the horse trough. Have they told you anything about your internship?"
Talia shook her head, and clasped her hands behind her again. "No. All they said was that the Herald they want to pair me with is in the field, and they won't tell me who it is."
"That's pretty much to be expected. They don't want you to have time to think of things to impress him with," Sherrill replied. Suddenly her eyes sparkled with mischief. "Oh, but I can think of one prospect that would give Nerrissa a litter of kittens!"
"Who?" Talia asked, head to one side.
"Kris and Dirk are due back in the next few weeks, and Dirk got the last greenie-as you should know, since it was Skif-so it's Kris' turn next! Nessa would die!"
"Sherri, it's only my internship assignment."
"A year and a half Sector-riding, most of it spent alone together, and you say it's only an assignment? Talia, you must have ice water for blood! Do you have any notion of the number of hours Nessa-and half the females of the Circle, for that matter-spend on their knees praying for an assignment like that? Are you sure you don't have leanings our way?"
Talia chuckled, and wrinkled her nose at them. "Quite sure, darlings. Just what is Kris' attraction for Nessa, anyway? She's got most of the males of the Circle panting at her heels as it is."
"The lure of the unattainble, or so I would surmise," Keren supplied, lids half-closed lazy with only a glint of brown iris showing. "He hasn't taken a vow of chastity, but he's so circumspect about his dalliances you'd never know it. It drives Nessa wild, and the harder she chases, the faster he runs. She's as caught up now by the chase as by the face."
"Well, she can chase him all she wants. I am not at all impressed by Kris' handsome face," Talia replied firmly.
"Or the gorgeous body-?" interjected Sherrill.
"Or the gorgeous body. Nessa can have all the gorgeous bodies in the Circle, for all I care. Holderkin men are handsome specimens, and I can do without them-my father could have given Kris stiff competition in his younger days, and I've told you what kind of a petty tyrant he was. And my late-but-not-lamented brother Justus was actually handsomer, if you favor blonds, and he was the foulest person I've ever known. I'd rather have a good heart and plain packaging."
"Yes, but Kris is a Herald-" Sherrill pointed out, tapping one long finger on her knee for emphasis. "That guarantees the good heart without having to settle for a homely exterior. No handsome, smiling bastards in our ranks-"
"Sherri, this is all sheer speculation. Until I find out who I'm interning with, I refuse to worry about the subject," Talia replied firmly.
"You are no fun at all."
"I never said I was."
Hmm. Dirk's interning that scalawag Skif-" Keren said thoughtfully. "You and Skif were very thick there for a while. In fact, as I recall, you and he had a rumor or two floating abut your heads. Is that why you aren't interested in Dirk's partner?"
"Maybe," Talia smiled enigmatically. The fact that their "romance" had been entirely without any result was Skif's secret-and hers. The streak of ill-luck and accident that had plagued their meetings had not had any effect on their friendship: except that they had never managed to be more than just that-friends. Oddly enough, though, except for a brief period of anxiety when word had come that Skif had been hurt during his first three months in the field, Talia had thought less of Skif, and more of his counselor. To her own amazement-and for no reason, logical or fanciful that she could think of-when her thoughts strayed in the direction of the former thief and his internship assignment, it was in Dirk's direction that they tended to wander. This was annoying; she'd met the man all of three times in her life, and had never been in his company for more than an hour or two at most. Yet, that homely face and those wonderful blue eyes kept lingering stubbornly in her thoughts. It did not make sense.
She shook her head to free it of those fanciful images. She had little enough time, and had none to spare in daydreams.
"Well, this little wardrobe change of yours ought to surprise little Elspeth," Sherrill said, changing the subject.
"Oh, Lady Bright-" Talia sat down with a thump on one of her cushions, joy extinguished. It almost seemed to her at that moment that the bright sunrays pouring through her windows had dimmed. "Poor Elspeth-"
"Something up?" Keren asked, one eyebrow rising.
"Just the usual."
"What's usual? You know I don't get around the Court."
"Intrigue rising beyond gossip. She's almost fourteen and still not Chosen; there's muttering in the Court that she's still the Brat under the skin and she'll never be Chosen. In Council meetings one or more of the Councilors is usually trying to pressure Selenay into naming an Heir-'pro tem,' as they put it-"
"Who?" Sherrill asked in alarm, sitting straight up. "Who's stirring up the water?"
"You know I can't tell you that! Anyway it isn't just those particular Councilors; it's more than half of the Court. Elspeth doesn't say much, but it's got her very depressed, poor baby. Their timing couldn't be worse. She's already moody enough with the normal adolescent woes, and this has got her in near-tears on a regular basis. When I'm not getting my shoulder soggy, I keep finding her at Companion's Field whenever she's free, sort of lurking-"
"Hoping any minute to be Chosen. Gods, no wonder she's wearing a long face whenever I see her. What's Rolan got to say about this?"
"Be damned if I know!" Talia gifted Keren with a look of exasperation. "You know he doesn't Mindspeak me in words."
"Sorry," Keren winced, "I keep forgetting."
"He's worried, but it could be as much over the machinations and power-maneuverings at Court as anything else. The current candidates are Jeri, Kemoc, and your oh-so-lovely Kris."
"Wonderful people in and of themselves," Keren observed, "But with some not-so-wonderful relatives lurking in the family trees. One would think Kris' uncle Lord Orthallen would have his hands full enough as chief Councilor without wanting to be the Heir's uncle-"
"That man will never have enough power to satisfy him," Talia snapped bitterly.
Keren raised an eyebrow at the outburst, and continued. "Kemoc's horde of lazy cousins would swarm the Court, looking for sinecures-and Kemoc's such a soft touch he'd try to manage it. And Jeri-Lady Bright! Her mother!"
"We'd have a battle royal every day between Jeri and Lady Indra over how Jeri's Council votes should go. I wish her husband would lock her away. Or buy a gag for her."
"Amen. Pity none of them come without baggage. Not my idea of a fun situation. And poor catling caught in the middle."
Talia sighed in agreement. "Speaking of no fun, I'd better scramble. Alberich informed me in no uncertain terms that my new status does not exempt me from his special lessons. I have the sinking feeling that he intends to slap my inflated pride down to pre-student levels, and probably with the flat of his blade."
"Can I watch?" Keren asked wickedly.
"Why not? Elspeth's always there, and there's nothing like being worse at something than a thirteen-year-old girl to really deflate your opinions of yourself. Well, that ought to reinflate her self-esteem a bit.
Excerpted from Arrow's Flight by Mercedes Lackey Copyright © 1987 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.