Marlyn K. Roberts
Exile's Honor (Heralds of Valdemar Series #6)by Mercedes Lackey
This stand-alone novel in the best-selling Valdemar series tells the story of Alberich...
When Alberich took a stand for what he believed in-and defected-he was chosen by one of the magical Companion horses...to serve the queen of Valdemar. See more details below
This stand-alone novel in the best-selling Valdemar series tells the story of Alberich...
When Alberich took a stand for what he believed in-and defected-he was chosen by one of the magical Companion horses...to serve the queen of Valdemar.
Marlyn K. Roberts
Read an Excerpt
SILVER stamped restively as another horse on the picket line shifted and blundered into his hindquarters. Alberich clucked to quiet him and patted the stallion's neck; the beast swung his head about to blow softly into the young Captain's hair. Alberich smiled a little, thinking wistfully that the stallion was perhaps the only creature in the entire camp that felt anything like friendship for him.
And possibly the only creature that isn't waiting for me to fail, hoping that I will, and ready to pounce on me and cut me to pieces when I do. Life for an officer of Karsite troops was spent half in defeating the enemies of Karse and half in watching his own back.
Amazingly gentle, for a stallion, Silver had caused no problems either in combat or here, on the picket line. Which was just as well, for if he had, Alberich would have had him gelded or traded off for a more tractable mount, gift of the Voice of Vkandis Sunlord or no. Alberich had enough troubles without worrying about the behavior of his beast.
He wasn't sure where the handsome and muscular creature had come from; Shin'a'in-bred, they'd told him. The Voice had chosen the beast especially for him out of a string of animals "liberated from the enemy." Which meant war booty, of course, from one of the constant conflicts along the borders. Silver hadn't come from one of the bandit nests, that was sure. The only beasts the bandits owned were as disreputable as their owners. Horses "liberated" from the bandits usually weren't worth keeping, they were so run-down and ill-treated.
Silver probably came from Menmellith via Rethwellan; the King was rumored to have some kind of connection with the horse-breeding, bloodthirsty Shin'a'in nomads.
Whatever; when Alberich lost his faithful old Smoke a few weeks ago he hadn't expected to get anything better than the obstinate, intractable gelding he'd taken from its bandit owner. But fate ruled otherwise; the Voice chose to "honor" him with a superior replacement along with his commission, the letter that accompanied the paper pointing out that Silver was the perfect mount for a Captain of light cavalry. It was also another evidence of favoritism from above, with the implication that he had earned that favoritism outside of performance in the field.
Talk about a double-edged blade. . . . Both the commission and the horse came with burdens of their own. Not a gift that was likely to increase his popularity with some of the men under his command, and a beast that was going to make him pretty damned conspicuous in any encounter with the enemy. A white horse? Might as well paint a target on his back and have done with it.
Plus that's an unlucky color. Those witchy-Heralds of Valdemar ride white horses, and the blue-eyed beasts may be demons or witches, too, for all I know. The priests say they are. The priests call their owners the "Demon-Riders."
The horse nuzzled him again, showing as sweet a temper as any lady's mare. He scratched its nose, and it sighed with content; he wished he could be as contented. Things had been bad enough before getting this commission. Now There was an uneasy, prickly sensation between his shoulder blades as he went back to brushing down his new mount. He glanced over his shoulder, to intercept the glare of Leftenant Herdahl; the man dropped his gaze and brushed his horse's flank vigorously, but not quickly enough to prevent Alberich from seeing the hate and anger in the hot blue eyes.
No, indeed, the Voice had done Alberich no favors in rewarding him with the Captaincy and this prize mount, passing over Herdahl and Klaus, both his seniors in years of service, if not in experience. Neither of them had expected that he would be promoted over their heads; during the week's wait for word to come from Headquarters, they had saved their rivalry for each other.
Too bad they didn't murder each other, he thought resentfully, then suppressed the rest of the thought. It was said that some of the priests of Vkandis could pluck the thoughts from a man's head. It could have been thoughts like that one that had led to Herdahl's being passed over for promotion. But it could also be that this was a test, a way of flinging the ambitious young Leftenant Alberich into deep water, to see if he would survive the experience. If he did, well and good; he was of suitable material to continue to advance, perhaps even to the rank of Commander. If he did not well, that was too bad. If his ambition undid him, or if he wasn't clever enough to see and avoid the machinations of those below him, then he wasn't fit enough for the post.
That was the way of things, in the armies of Karse. You rose by watching your back, and (if the occasion arose) sticking careful knives into the backs of your less-cautious fellows, and ensuring other enemies took the punishment. All the while, the priests of the Sunlord, the ones who were truly in charge, watched and smiled and dispensed favors and punishments with the same dispassionate aloofness displayed by the One God. Karse was a hard land, and the Sunlord a hard God; the Sunpriests were as hard as both.
But Alberich had given a good account of himself along the border, at the corner where Karse met Menmellith and the witch-nation Valdemar, in the campaign against the bandits there. Frankly, Herdahl and Klaus put together hadn't been half as effective or as energetic as he'd been. He'd earned his rank, he told himself once again, as Silver stamped and shifted his weight beneath the strokes of Alberich's brush.
The spring sun burned down on his head, hotter than he expected without the breeze to cool him, hot as Herdahl's angry glare.
Demons take Herdahl. There was no reason to feel as if he'd cheated to get where he was. He'd led more successful sorties against the bandits in his first year in the field than the other two had achieved in their entire careers. He'd cleared more territory than anyone of leftenant rank ever had in that space of time and when Captain Anberg had met with one too many arrows, the men had seemed perfectly willing to follow him when the Voice chose him over the other two candidates.
It had been the policy of late to permit the brigands to flourish, provided they confined their attentions to Valdemar and the Menmellith peasantry and left the inhabitants of Karse unmolested. A stupid policy, in Alberich's opinion; you couldn't trust bandits, that was the whole reason why they became bandits in the first place. If they could be trusted, they'd be in the army themselves, or in the Temple Guard, or even have turned mercenary. He'd seen the danger back when he was a youngster in the Academy, in his first tactics classes. He'd even said as much to one of his teachers phrased as a question, of course, since cadets were not permitted to have opinions. The question had been totally ignored.
Perhaps because it wasn't wise to so much as hint that the decisions of the Sunpriests were anything other than divinely inspired.
But, as Alberich had predicted, there had been trouble from the brigands once they began to multiply; problems that escalated far, far past the point where their use as an irritant to Valdemar was outweighed by their effect as a scourge on Karse. With complete disregard for the unwritten agreements between them and Karse, they struck everyone, and when they finally began attacking villages instead of just robbing solitary travelers or going after single farms, the authorities deemed it time they were disposed of.
Alberich had spent a good part of his young life in the Karsite military schools and had just finished cavalry training as an officer when the troubles broke out. The ultimate authority was in the hands of the Voices, of course. The highest anyone not of the priesthood could expect to rise was to Commander. But officers were never taken from the ranks; many of the rank-and-file were conscripts, and although it was never openly stated, the Voices did not trust their continued loyalty if they were given power.
Alberich, and many others like him, had been selected at the age of thirteen by a Voice sent every year to search out young male children, strong of body and quick of mind, to school into officers. And there was one other qualification that at least half of them be lowborn, so that they were appropriately grateful to the Voices for their opportunity to rise in rank and station.
Alberich had all those qualities, developing expertise in many weapons with an ease that was the envy of his classmates, picking up his lessons in academic subjects with what seemed to be equal ease.
It wasn't ease; it was the fact that Alberich studied long and hard, knowing that there was no way for the bastard son of a tavern wench to advance in Karse except in the army. There was no place for him to go, no way to get into a trade, no hope for any but the most menial of jobs. The Voices didn't care about a man's parentage once he was chosen as an officer, they cared only about his abilities and whether or not he would use them in service to his God and country. It was a lonely life, though. His mother had loved and cared for him to the best of her abilities, and he'd had friends among the other children of similar circumstances. When he came to the Academy, he had no friends, and his mother was not permitted to contact him, lest she "distract him," or "contaminate his purity of purpose." Alberich had never seen her again, but both of them had known this was the only way for him to live a better life than she had. And there had been a half-promise which he had no way of knowing was kept that if he did well at the Academy, his mother would be rewarded, perhaps with a little house of her own, if she could manage to keep herself from further sin. He had trusted in that particular Voice, though. The priest had no reason to lie to him and every reason to give his mother that reward. After all, Karse needed officers. . . . willing officers, and young boys eager to throw themselves into their studies with all the enthusiasm of youth in order to become those willing officers. Knowing that their parents would be taken care of provided plenty of incentive.
And he had done better than well. He had pushed himself harder than any of his classmates pushed themselves.
Friends? When did I have the time for friends? Up before dawn for extra exercise, all my spare time practicing against the older boys, and after dinner studying by the light of Vkandis' lamps in the Temple until the priests came in for midnight prayers.
Alberich had no illusions about the purity of the One God's priesthood. There were as many corrupt and venal priests as there were upright, and more fanatic than there were forgiving. He had seen plenty of the venal kind in the tavern when they passed through his little mountain village on the way to greater places; had hidden from one or two that had come seeking pleasures strictly forbidden by the One God's edicts. He had known they were coming, looking for him, and had managed to make himself scarce long before they arrived. Just as, somehow, he had known when the Voice was coming to look for young male children for the Academy, and had made certain he was noticed and questioned. And that he had known which customers it was safe to cadge for a penny in return for running errands
Or that he had known that drunk was going to try to set the stable afire. Oh, that had been a tricky thing to manage to stay awake despite aching eyes that threatened to close long enough to be able to "stumble out of bed" and into the courtyard in search of a drink from the pump "just in time" to see the first flames. No matter how much noise is in a tavern, the sound of a child's shrill scream will penetrate it. No matter how drunk the inhabitants, the cry of "Fire!" will get the appropriate response.
Somehow. That was Alberich's secret. He knew things were going to happen. That was a witch-power, and forbidden by the Voices of the One God. If anyone knew he had it The Fires, and the Cleansing. Oh, of course, those whom the One God favors are supposed to be able to endure the Fires and walk from the ashes Cleansed. Not that anyone has ever seen that happen.
But he had also known from the time that the visions first came on him, as surely as he had known all the rest, that he had to conceal the fact that he had this power, even before he knew the law against it.
He'd succeeded fairly well over the years, though it was getting harder and harder all the time. The power struggled inside him, wanting to break free, once or twice overwhelming him with visions so intense that for a moment he was blind and deaf to everything else. It was getting harder to concoct reasons for knowing things he had no business knowing, like the hiding places of the bandits they were chasing, the bolt-holes and escape routes. But it was harder still to ignore them, especially when subsequent visions showed him innocent people suffering because he didn't act on what he knew.
He brushed Silver's neck vigorously, the dust tickling his nose and making him want to sneeze and between one brush stroke and the next, he lost his sense of balance, went light-headed, and the dazzle that heralded a vision-to-come sparkled between his eyes and Silver's neck.
Not here! he thought desperately, clinging to Silver's mane and trying to pretend there was nothing wrong. Not now, not with Herdahl watching But the witch-power would not obey him, not this time.
No Sunlord, help me, not now! He believed in the Sunlord, in His power and goodness, if not in the goodness of those who said they spoke for Him . . . A flash of blue light, blinding him
Then came sight again, but not of the picket line, but another place. Where? Where? Sunlord, where?
The bandits he'd thought were south had slipped behind him, into the north, joining with two more packs of the curs, becoming a group large enough to take on his troops and give them an even fight. But first, they wanted a secure base. They were going to make Alberich meet them on ground of their choosing. Fortified grond.
That this ground was already occupied was only a minor inconvenience, one that would soon be dealt with.
He fought free of the vision for a moment, clinging to Silver's shoulder like a drowning man, both hands full of the beast's silky mane, while the horse curved his head back and looked at him curiously. The big brown eyes flickered blue, briefly, like a half-hidden flash of lightning, reflecting another burst of sapphire. And now, now he knew where! The bandits' target was a fortified village, a small one, built on the top of a hill, above the farm fields. Ordinarily, these people would have no difficulty in holding off a score of bandits. But there were three times that number ranged against them, and a recent edict from the High Temple decreed that no one but the Temple Guard and the army could possess anything but the simplest of weapons. Not three weeks ago, a detachment of priests and a Voice had come through here, divesting them of everything but knives, farm implements, and such simple bows and arrows as were suitable for waterfowl and small game. And while they were at it, a third of the able-bodied men had been conscripted for the regular army.
Alberich's own troops had acted as silent guards for the process, to ensure that there were no "incidents" while the conscripts were marched away, while the weapons were taken or destroyed. Yes, he knew this place, knew it too well.
These people didn't have a chance.
The bandits drew closer, under the cover of a brush-filled ravine.
Alberich found himself on Silver's back, without knowing how he'd gotten here, without remembering that he'd flung saddle and bridle back on the beast No, not bridle; Silver still wore the halter he'd had on the picket line. Alberich's bugle was in his hand; presumably he'd blown the muster, for his men were running toward him, buckling on swords and slinging quivers over their shoulders.
Blinding flash of sapphire throwing him back into the vision, showing him what he would rather not see. He knew what was coming, so why must he see it? The bandits attacked the village walls, overpowering the poor man who was trying to bar the gate against them, and swarming inside. He couldn't close his eyes to it; the vision came through eyes closed or open. He would look because he had no choice.
It hadn't happened yet, he knew that with the surety with which he knew his own name. It wasn't even going to happen in the next few moments. But it was going to happen soon.
They poured inside, cutting down anyone who resisted them, then throwing off what little restraint they had shown and launching into an orgy of looting and rapine. Alberich gagged as one of them grabbed a pregnant woman and with a single slash of his sword, murdered the child that ran to try and protect her, followed through to her
The vision released him, and he found himself surrounded by dust and thunder, still on Silver's backbut leaning over the stallion's neck as now he led his troops up the road to the village of Sunsdale at full gallop. Hooves pounded the packed earth of the road, making it impossible to hear or speak; the vibration thrummed into his bones as he shifted his weight with the stallion's turns. Silver ran easily, with no sign of distress, though all around him and behind him the other horses streamed saliva from the corners of their mouths, and their flanks ran with sweat and foam, as they strained to keep up.
The lack of a bit didn't seem to make any difference to the stallion; he answered to neck-rein and knee so readily he might have been anticipating Alberich's thoughts.
Alberich dismissed the uneasy feelings that prompted. Better not to think that he might have a second witch-power along with the first. He'd never shown any ability to control beasts by thought before. There was no reason to think he could now. The stallion was just superbly trained, that was all. And he had more important things to worry about.
They topped the crest of a hill; Sunsdale lay atop the next one, just as he had seen in his vision, and the brush-filled ravine beyond it. There was no sign of trouble.
This time it's been a wild hare, he thought, and his skin crawled at the thought that he'd roused the men and sent them here at the gallop, and there were sure to be questions asked for which he had no answers.
And I answer what? That I wanted to see how quick they'd respond to an emergency? That would hardly serve.
He was just about to pull Silver up and bring the rest of his men to a halt no point in them running their horses into foundering
When a flash of sunlight on metal betrayed the bandits' location. Alberich grabbed for the bugle dangling from his left wrist instead, and pulled his blade with the right. He sounded the charge and led the entire troop down the hill, an unstoppable torrent of hooves and steel, hitting the brigands' hidden line like an avalanche.
from Exile's Honor by Mercedes Lackey, Copyright © October 2002, Daw Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
Meet the Author
Mercedes Lackey is a full-time writer and has published numerous novels and works of short fiction, including the best-selling Heralds Of Valdemar series. She is also a professional lyricist and a licensed wild bird rehabilitator. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, artist Larry Dixon, and their flock of parrots. She can be found at mercedeslackey.com.
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