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The Heralds came through the village of Riverend in the spring, when the snows had receded and the passes, in the steep roads and treacherous flats of the mountains, were opened. Heralds seldom stopped in the village, although they rode through it from time to time.
When they did, Kayla took the little ones from the hold and made her way down to the village center to watch them ride through. She would bundle them one at a time in the sweaters and shawls that kept the bite of spring air at bay, and gently remind them of foreign thingsmanners, behavior, the language children should use in the presence of their elders.
She would remind them of the purpose of Heralds, and promise them a story or two if they behaved themselves, and then she would pick up the children whose toddling led them to cracks in the dirt, sprigs of new green, sodden puddlesin fact, anything that caught their eye from the moment the hold's great doors were openedand hurry them along; in that way, she managed to keep them from missing the Heralds altogether.
This spring was the same, but it was also different; every gesture was muted, and if she smiled at all, it was so slight an expression that the children could be forgiven for missing it. It had been a harsh winter.
A terrible winter.
And the winter had taken the joy out of Kayla so completely the villagers mourned its passing and wondered if it was buried with those who had passed away in the cold.
On this spring day, the Heralds stopped as the children gathered in as orderly a group as children could who had been cooped up all winter.
There were two, a man and the woman who rode astride the Companions that set them apart from any other riders in the kingdom of Valdemar.
''Well met,'' the woman said, nudging her Companion forward at a slow walk. Kayla heard the whisper that started at one end of the small group and traveled to the other. She almost smiled.
Mitchell and Evan began to shove each other out of the way in an attempt to be at the front of the group. Kayla set Tess down and separated them, grabbing an elbow in either hand. She didn't need to speak; her expression said everything.
Bells caught light and made of sound a musical cacophony, which was not in fact dissimilar to the sound it evoked from the children, whose quarrels fell away in the wake of shared wonder.
Well, almost all of the quarrels at any rate; there was still some scuffling for position, with its attendant shoving and hissed accusation. Given everything, this was almost angelic behavior; it wouldn't be good enough for the old aunts, but it was good enough for Kayla. Two years ago, she would have asked for moreand gotten it, toobut two years ago, behavior had seemed so much more important than it was now.
These children were the children of winter, and the winter was harsh; she knew that if half of them lived to be eight, the village would count itself lucky; if half of those lived to be fifteen, it would count itself more than that.
The Herald, an older woman with broad hips and an easy smile, watched the children from the safe distance of her Companion's back; her Companion, on the other hand, had no difficulty wandering among the many outstretchedand upstretchedhands. The second Companion seemed to have a more obvious sense of personal dignityor at least a healthy caution when it came to children; it was hard to say which. Her rider was a handful of years older than Kayla, if at all, but his face was smooth and unblemished by either time or war, and he seemed both grave and dignified in a way that reminded her of her dead. Riverend was a harsh, Northern town; the dead were many.
''Youngling,'' the older Herald barked, her voice loud but not unfriendly.
Mitchell leaped up about six feet, straining to look much older than his handful of years. &'grave;Yes, ma'am!''
The young man who rode at her side laughed. &'grave;Ma'am, is it?'' His glance belied the gravity of his expression; Kayla liked the sound of his voice.
&'grave;Obviously I don't look as young as I'd like to think I do. Ah well, time is cruel.'' Her smile showed no disappointment at that cruelty as she looked down at Mitchell. ''You know the people of the village by name?''
&'grave;Good. I'm wondering where Kayla Grayson lives.''
Mitchell lifted a hand and pointed toward the large hold.
''Will she be down at the mines, or up at the hold?''
He frowned. ''Neither.''
Kayla said nothing.
But she felt it: a change in the older woman's mood and intent; there were currents in it now that were deeper than they should have been. She snuck a glance at the man, and listened carefully. There, too, she felt a determination that was out of place. It put her on her guard.
''Why are you looking for Kayla?'' she asked.
&'grave;We've heard a bit about her, and wewell, I at leastthought it would be nice to meet her on our way through Riverend. We don't often get much call to travel this way.''
''What have you heard?''
&'grave;Well, for one, that she's Magda Merton's daughter, the last of four, and the one most like her mother.''
Kayla hesitated a moment, and hid that hesitation in the action of lifting a child to the wide, wide nostrils of a very patient Companion. She had the grace to wince and pull back when the child's first act was to attempt to shove his whole hand up the left one.
&'grave;That's true,'' she said at last. &'grave;At least, that she's the last of her daughters. You'll have to judge for yourself how much alike they actually are.'' She straightened her shoulders, shifting her burden again with an ease that spoke of practice. &'grave;Because I'm guessing you knew my mother.''
The Herald's expression shifted; it didn't matter. Kayla already knew what the woman was feeling. Surprise. Concern. Hope. &'grave;So you're Kayla.''
''Anne,'' the woman replied. She reached out with a hand, and after only a slight hesitation, Kayla shifted the boy to one hip, freeing one of hers. She shook the Herald's hand and then turned to face the quieter young man. &'grave;If you want to join us, there's food, but I'll warn you, it's spare; we can offer you news, or trade, or waterbut we barter for most of our food, and only Widow Davis has stores enough to entertain important guests.''
The Heralds exchanged a look, and then the young man smiled. &'grave;We're well provisioned. We'd be happy to offer food for our discussion or news.''
''He meansand is too polite to say itgossip.''
But Kayla felt the twinge of guilt that hid beneath the surface of those cheerful words, and her eyes fell to the saddlebags that his Companion bore without complaint. It occurred to her that the Companions and their Heralds seldom carried much food with them, for the villages who fed and housed them were reimbursed for their troubles, and at a rate that made it especially appealing for the poorer towns.
But when the man dismounted and unstrapped the bags from the side of his Companion, she knew, she just knew that they had been brought solely to be offered to Riverend. And she didn't like it, although she couldn't say why.
''Your pardon,'' he said, dipping his head slightly, ''for my manners. My name is Carris.''
''And her name?'' She asked, staring at his Companion.
The Herald smiled. ''Her name is Arana. She is a queen among Companions. And knows it,'' he added ruefully.
Kayla nodded quietly and turned away. ''The hold is dark, even at this time of day; there is only one room with good windows. Shall I send for the mayor?''
&'grave;No. No, that isn't necessary. It's really an informal visit.'' Anne frowned. ''And yes, I did know your mother. She was a very, very stubborn woman.''
''You know that she died.''
Anne nodded, and there was a very real weariness in the movement. ''Aye, I know it.'' But she added no more. Instead, she turned to her Companion and began to unstrap her saddlebags as well. They were equally heavy.
&'grave;I won't lie to you, Kayla,'' Anne said, as she took a seat while Kayla set to boiling water for the tea and herbal infusions that the Southerners often found too thin or too bitter. &'grave;I did not know your mother well. This has been my circuit for a number of years, and although we're often sent out on different routes, we become familiar with the villages along the King's roads.
&'grave;Your mother wasn't the mayor, but she was the center of Riverend. I never met a woman with a cannier sense of the dangers of living in such an isolated placeand I grew up a few towns off the Holderkin, so I'm aware of just how dangerous those fringes can be.
''But your mother had a great love for your father, and for the lands that produced him. And she had a gift, as well, a... clear understanding of people.'' She hesitated, and Kayla felt it again, that low current beneath the words that seemed to move in a different direction from their surface. ''A clearer understanding than perhaps most of us have.'' She waited.
Carris said nothing, but he did clear his throat.
&'grave;We've brought a few things that the village will find useful,'' he said at last, looking to just one side of her face, as if his dark and graceful gaze had become suddenly awkward. &'grave;Magda often asked for aid for the rough times, andandshe made it clear what was needed. There are medical herbs and unguents here, there are potions as well; there are bandages and cleansing herbs, as well as honest tea. There's salted, dried meat in the second bag; a lot of it, which might help. The harvest in the mainland has been... poor this year. There's also some money in the last bag.''
&'grave;You shouldn't be telling me this,'' Kayla said quietly. &'grave;You should talk to Widow Davis; she's the mayor hereabouts, or what passes for one. She'll know what to do, and she'll be very grateful to you both.''
They exchanged another glance.
&'grave;Well, then, maybe you'd better call for the Widow Davis after all.''
Kayla smiled politely. &'grave;If you think she isn't already on her way, you don't know Riverend all that well.''
But Kayla knew something was wrong.
The Widow Davis did, indeed, arrive; she scattered the children with a sharp inquiry about the current state of their chores, and an even sharper glance at the children who had the temerity to tell her they wanted to stay with the Companions, and then eyed the saddlebags the Heralds carried with an obvious, and deep, suspicion.
&'grave;Kayla, go mind the children. If you can't teach them to heed their duties, no one can. I'll deal with the strangers.''
Kayla felt her jaw go slack, but she hid the surprise that had caused it as she nodded to the widow and retreated. These were Heralds, not medicants, and she had never heard the Widow Davis be rude to a Herald before. She was glad that the children had been sent back to their work.
She did not see the Heralds leave, but when she had time to glance outside again, they were gone, the white of their uniforms, and the white of Companion coats, little glimpses into the heart of winter, a hint of the future.
And when she at last tucked in for bed, she fought sleep with a kind of dread that she hadn't felt since she had slept in the arms of her own mother, at a time of life so far removed it seemed centuries must have passed. The nightmares had been strong then; they were strong now.
Many of the village children dreamed. They found a place in her lap when they wished to make sense of all the things that occurred only after they closed their eyes, and she had spent years listening, with both wonder and envy, to the hundreds of broken stories that occupied their dreamscapes.
Not so her own.
She had two dreams.
There was a black dream and a white dream, set against the mountain's winter.
As a child, the black dreams were frightening, bewildering; she would wake from sleep to search for her mother; it never took long. Her mother would come, precious candle burning, and sit by the side of her bed.
''What did you dream of, Kayla?''
She had never seen a dragon; the stories that the old wives told described them as terrible, ancient beasts who had long since vanished from the face of the free lands. Books in the hold were so rare they were seldom seen, and books with pictures tipped in were rarer still.
But there was something in the shape of shadow that reminded her of those pictures.
''What was he doing?''
''Ah. Try not to listen to carefully, Kayla. Dragon tears are a terrible thing.''
&'grave;I think... he's lonely.''
Her mother's smile was shallow, even by candlelight. ''Dragons are lonely; they sit on their cold, cold gold, their hard jewels, and they never come out to play.''
''He would,'' she would tell her mother, ''if he could find us.''
''I think it best that he never find us, Kayla. Riverend is no place for such a creature.''
The white dreams were different.
The snows were clearer and cleaner, and the pines that guarded the pass stretched beyond them to cut moonlight and hide it. But the light was strong enough to see by, and she always saw the same thing: the white horse.
He was the color of snow, of light on snow. And in the hold, in this place just one edge of rock and mountain, where spring came and went so quickly and summer's stretch was measured in weeks, snow was the color of death. Even as a child, she had understood that.
He did not speak to her until her father died.