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Into the West

Into the West

by Mercedes Lackey
Into the West

Into the West

by Mercedes Lackey


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The long-awaited founding of Valdemar comes to life in this second book in the new series from a New York Times-bestselling author and beloved fantasist.

Baron Valdemar and his people have found a temporary haven, but it cannot hold all of them, or for long. Trouble could follow on their heels at any moment, and there are too many people for Crescent Lake to support. Those who are willing to make a further trek by barge on into the West will follow him into a wilderness depopulated by war and scarred by the terrible magics of a thousand years ago and the Mage Wars. But the wilderness is not as "empty" as it seems. There are potential friends and rapacious foes....

....and someone is watching them.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780756417369
Publisher: Astra Publishing House
Publication date: 12/13/2022
Series: The Founding of Valdemar , #2
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 9,946
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(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


Royal fist met commoner jaw with an impact that jolted Kordas’s right arm all the way up to the shoulder. He was vaguely aware that his hand was going to hurt like bloody hells—but that would be later. Right now, he had a good excuse to let his rage take over, and a good target to vent it on. He had the surge of adrenaline powering him, now. A little thing like pain was not going to stop him.
Not now.
Not when pure rage misted his vision.
Not when all emotion from the pure shit he had gone through the last year was piled up behind him like a tempest, and here was a righteous target to unleash it upon.
His target staggered back. Kordas turned his footing and followed the right cross with a left to the man’s unprotected gut, driving all the breath out of him in an explosive, guttural grunt. The man bent over, gasping, and Kordas followed with a knuckle-splitting right-handed uppercut that knocked his opponent right off his feet. The force of the blow sent the man flying backward. Pocketknife, kerchief, one shoe, and a spray of blood parted company with him before he even landed. Kordas would not have minded if the offender had cracked his skull on one of the tree trunks behind him, but luck was with the wretch, and he landed instead on his back, not his head. Crumpling onto the “soft” uneven ground padded by decades of fallen leaves was akin to falling on a pile of bricks covered by a few pillows.
Uppercuts always work. They’re so satisfying, too.
Kordas knew better than to fight bare-knuckled, but when he saw the man’s expression, drawing his sword just didn’t come to mind. He could instantly read the guilt on the offender’s very punchable face, and didn’t even break stride throwing the first punch. I love this rage. I want to stay inside this fury as long as I can, and just keep punching. I can kick him, I can throw him, I can snap his joints. I can punch down. And why not? I’m in power. What’s anyone going to do about it? Tell me “no”? The Empire taught me early on, obedience comes
from threat of harm. Anyone’ll think twice about crossing me once they see me pound some criminals to paste. I have the authority. I can beat down whoever I want to.
Kordas sucked in air between his clenched teeth.
I want that so much.
Kordas stood over the offender, instinctively stepping into a well-trained boxing stance. Kordas’s vision was still fogged with rage. His hands clenched at the ready, dripping blood and starting to throb. Kordas pulled in his forearms to cover his vitals, and flexed his shoulders, just daring the fool to stand up.
They have no idea of the kinds of rage I keep hidden from them.
The fool was in no shape to stand up. He rolled partly over on his side, doubling into a semi- fetal position, wheezing. There was no other sound but that, and the tense breathing of the crowd that the fight had drawn.
They don’t know how lucky they are, with me. They haven’t seen what I’ve seen.
The downed man’s face was covered in quickly purpling bruises, smears of blood, and a lacerated cheekbone. His body probably looked the same. The way he winced with each intake of breath suggested that there might be a broken rib or two, and he certainly was going to be painfully aware of his sins every time he inhaled or exhaled for at least a week.
Every single bruise and broken bone is deserved.
If his people had been harboring the notion that there was anything “soft” about Baron Valdemar—well, they’d just been disabused of that notion. Word would get around quickly. He hadn’t exactly been looking for an excuse to burn off some of the pent-up emotions from his experiences at Court and the destruction of the Capital, but here it was.
He wanted the blackguard to get up and come at him—while at the same time, he didn’t. The intensity of his fury just moments ago subsided slightly. His rage slammed into the full force of his conscience, and rage broke against it.
But I damned well won’t be a tyrant. I want to be better than that. I want us all to be better than that.
His momentary loss of control made him just a little ashamed of himself.
But just a little.
When the fool on the ground did nothing but wheeze and moan, Kordas stepped back and motioned to the two men of his Guard—that’s what they were calling the loose policing/military group he’d put together, “Valdemar’s Guard”—to come and pick the man up.
“Should we take him to a Healer, Baron?” asked the one who had once been one of his gamekeepers, a tall and weatherbeaten man who frankly looked as if he’d be more than willing to add his own beating to the one Kordas had doled out if Kordas asked him to.
“Just long enough to make sure he’s not dying today,” Kordas said, his words coming out sounding harsh and angry. Well, he was still angry, and he roared the words so all present could hear him. “Splints and bandages are all he gets. No herbs. No Healing. And if he wants something to dull the pain, he’ll have to forage it himself. No help allowed.”
While the two of them secured the creep—and it did not escape Kordas that the gamekeeper ran his hands expertly over the fellow’s ribs, before forcing his hands behind him and trussing his wrists together—Kordas turned away from the miscreant and his keepers, to address the little crowd that had gathered while he had been occupied with meting out rough justice.
And got angry all over again, because the first thing his eyes lit on was the broken Doll that the fool had been abusing and torturing for his own amusement. The torture hadn’t gone on long before Kordas and his men had come racing up to the little secluded spot among the thickets of barberry bushes the bastard had chosen to conceal what he was doing. But it had been enough time that the Doll’s arms and legs were broken in four places, and there was no telling what other damage had been done that was covered up by the padding and cloth. The sledgehammer the fool had been using lay beside the Doll where he’d dropped it after Kordas tackled him.
The Dolls looked like oversized children’s playthings. But they had been the backbone of the Imperial Palace servantstructure, and had replaced most humans in those functions years ago. Kordas wasn’t sure how long ago that had been; long after his days as a hostage, at any rate, because they hadn’t been visibly performing those functions when he’d been held in the Palace.
Maybe Dolls were only for the elite, then. The hostages were not exactly elite. Oh, of course—an important part of having prisoners is enjoying their suffering, so there’d be humans for that suffering, not Dolls that don’t display suffering. Cruelty was the Imperial Way, and I was raised Imperial. It’s in me. I resent that it is, but I resent keeping it pushed down all the time, too. I can’t let it out long. I can’t let the Empire rule me.
I won’t. I won’t be like them. I can do this and not be like them.
As he lost the blinding clarity of rage, he felt his stomach churning, heard the murmurs of the crowd he had gathered, and took a moment to glance up into the tree branches overhead. His knuckles ached dully, but all the physical labor he’d done the past few moons had certainly had an effect—he wasn’t in the least winded, nor did he feel as if he’d just pounded someone to within an inch of his life. He just felt bruised in soul and fists.
He lost his focus on everything for a moment. It may have been the sizzling pain from his hands that incited it, or the shivers—part of the comedown from adrenaline—but Kordas’s mind was racing. His heart beat rapidly. His skin felt as if it was wet, and stretched thin. Pain was still just information thanks to adrenaline, but that wasn’t going to last. His mind switched from subject to subject, desperate for something self-saving.
Steady now. I don’t want to tremble. Everyone gets the shakes, but I don’t want to look weak and undignified. Carefully, now. Don’t show anything wrong. Keep that appearance going for their confidence. He caught himself from tripping, twice, as he walked over to the helpless Doll, lying in a heap against a tree trunk. It wasn’t one he recognized, but it was wearing someone’s old shirt and trews, so old, patched, and threadbare that he was fairly certain they’d been taken from the common rag pile that had been established along with the other common supplies. All of the Dolls had discarded the Imperial tabards they wore as soon as they’d escaped to freedom, and the ones who had attached themselves to a particular individual or family generally wore clothing donated by that family. The rest wore whatever they could find. It hardly mattered if they wore nothing, really, but they seemed to sense that people found an unclothed ambulatory cloth creature much more unsettling than a clothed one, so the ones who weren’t given clothing generally found it for themselves somewhere.
He squatted down on his heels next to the poor thing. “Are you going to be all right?”
He wondered if the Doll had a name. Or if they had even decided to call themselves something. Some of the Dolls had taken the initiative to name themselves, and had put some sort of identifier on their person. They were, as best anyone knew, multiple genders— an easy enough concept that only the most superstitious of Valdemarans took issue with, out of fear—and were natively androgynous in voice and form. He couldn’t see anything on this one, but that didn’t mean the creep who had tortured it hadn’t torn off such a thing. This Doll also didn’t have anything in the way of features other than the stitched-in eyes and mouth all of them were given at their creation. With permission, some of the children and younger folks had been clothing and decorating Dolls as a sort of hobby when their work was done, but at the moment the majority were still in the state this one was. So far, only dense Imperial ink would stick to their sailcloth “skin.” Paint either didn’t stick at all, or peeled off when dry. The ones with painted faces had faces painted onto canvas, which was then stitched onto their heads.
“Thanks to your intervention, Baron, this one survives to be repaired,” they replied, politely, as if they weren’t in agonizing pain. They were, and he knew they were, because he’d asked Rose about injuries to the Dolls, and she had told him that yes, they did feel pain when they were injured, and that the mages who had stuffed the Air-spirits called vrondi into these very material Dolls had said they were supposed to feel pain to keep them from mangling themselves as they went about their duties.
Kordas doubted that. He thought that the mages had been ordered to make them capable of pain so that the plethora of sadists that inhabited the Imperial Court could get pleasure from torturing something that couldn’t fight back. So far as the courtiers were concerned, there was an endless supply of Dolls and no one cared about what you did to them or how you treated them. There would be more by day’s end. When it came to anything in the Imperial Court, the cruelty was the point.
The Doll clearly saw his concern. “Lord Baron, these injuries are less than the torment of enslavement. You put an end to the Capital and Court, and freed us from that suffering. It is well worth this sort of inconvenience to be here with you.”
And that just made Kordas feel worse.
This sort of inconvenience? Life-threatening assault, incomprehensible agony, and still they try to be positive. May I show that kind of bravery on my darkest days.
A fact of a noble’s life is the inevitability of harming others. All a noble could hope to do, were they so inclined, was reduce the amount of damage. At every turn since going to the Capital, Kordas had failed far too often at reducing damage. Thinking of his people, he turned thief, and escalated his grand larceny at every turn. Spying, conspiring. Distraction ploys turned lethal. A well-intended diversion tumbled downward in untold deaths, and the destruction of a place that represented centuries of history.
There was something malevolent about that place, he’d thought many a time. Environments change people. That deceit, madness, and cruelty seeped into me, too. Now, the Emperor and Court were ash, the Capital a debris-strewn lava plain— and that wasn’t guilt-free. The habitat, the wildlife, people’s pets, visitors. Probably a twenty-mile radius of the city was incinerated or boiled away. I only meant to trick and save. I wound up a destroyer for it. I can’t deny that. I can’t get away from those facts.
But I won’t let that be the sum of me.
He hadn’t meant to draw the attention of a massive Earth Elemental to knock the Palace to the ground and swallow what was left. He hadn’t meant to murder the Emperor—well, briefly he hadn’t. He’d only meant for a diversion, so he could escape with his people so far from the Empire that the Imperials would never be able to find them.
But on the whole, he couldn’t find it in himself to regret that it had all happened that way. The place had been a cesspit, fed by everything that was bad in humankind, embroiled in endless war, and led by a madman. There was no way to “reform” that place that he could conceive of, and no real way to reform the Empire. It had been that way for a very long time. Long enough that it had been his grandfather and father who started the plan to escape the Empire in the first place.
And I did give people enough warning to get out, even if all they escaped with was the clothing on their backs and their lives. Most of them didn’t end up at the Lake, but some did by accident. Now they’re far away by a lake and a forest, not cozy in their ancestral homes. And the same goes for my own people. No stability but what we can manage for them. Strange sounds, smells, unknown animals, even the weather is different. It’s a new kind of suffering, but they are alive.
Kordas got to his feet and faced the crowd, which had grown. “Since I don’t seem to have made myself clear before, the Dolls are to be treated as fellow human beings. Not your private servants. Not your personal set of pells when you are angry. Abusing them will get you the same sentence that abusing another person will get you. Exile!” He punctuated the word by pointing to the east with his red right hand. There were some gasps and murmurs, but as he scanned the faces around him, it didn’t look as if anyone disapproved. It was more as if they had been wondering what the bastard’s punishment was going to be, and “exile” surprised them a little.
Did they expect worse? I suppose I could get creative and make him take the place of the Doll he broke, but I don’t think he’d learn better behavior from the punishment, and someone who’ll do this to any other living thing is too dangerous to have around here. There are a lot of things we’re going to have to accommodate, because some of us aren’t fit twenty-year olds with no health problems, but someone with a sick and twisted mind is not one of those things I am willing to have among us. Maybe later we’ll have the leisure to take someone like that aside and make him human again. Not now.
He turned back to his guards. “Load his personal items into his boat, and give him a fortnight’s worth of provisions. Make sure there is nothing on that boat that is from the common stores, only what he brought for himself when he joined us. Confiscate food and consumables like candles that are more than he needs for a fortnight. Make sure to look over his boat for anything reported missing, while you’re checking the provisions. Put him on the boat with his hands tied, and leave one knife where he can reach it—eventually. Then push the boat through the Gate.”
There was more murmuring. This time it sounded like people were coming around to his idea.
“Which Gate key do we use?” one of his men asked. It was a good question. The Dolls from the Palace had brought with them all the stamps for the Imperial Gate keys and a bewildering number of pre-made keys. Kordas could send him anywhere he chose.
And for one brief moment he was tempted to send the man to the Gate nearest the Southern warfront.
But he didn’t know which Gate key that was, and he didn’t want to bother to take the time to find out.
“None,” he said.
But where will I end up?” the bastard wailed thickly. It sounded like Kordas might have broken his jaw.
Kordas’s anger flared up again, and he felt some crafty cruelty come out with it. “You’ll end up somewhere random. If you’re lucky, it’ll be where there isn’t any fighting or looting. If you’re not, well, you’d better cut yourself loose pretty quickly. If you’re unlucky, you’ll end up in what’s left of the Capital, and you’ll fry in your boat. If you’re very unlucky, you’ll end up in what remains of a very fractured Imperial Army, who will certainly welcome you. They’ll even give you a uniform and a shiny little hat. And a job. I think they refer to people like you as ‘arrow-magnets’ and ‘Poomer-fodder.’” Kordas spat. “Wherever you end up, you’ll be out of our lives forever, and that’s all I care about.”
The sign that the blackguard had lost the sympathy of the crowd came when there was a chuckle at the term “arrow-magnet.” Satisfied, he turned back to the broken Doll and saw that they had been joined by three more whole ones— ones wearing vaguely blue tabards with a white “V” and a horse’s head on them, designating them as those who had assigned themselves to Kordas and his family. One was Rose, who had alerted him to what had been happening in the first place; the other two were one that had chosen the name of “Trout” and one called “Cobweb.”
“Thank you for coming,” he told them. “Can you three get this poor thing to the Mender?”
“Oh definitely, Baron,” Rose said, nothing at all in her voice betraying if she felt any emotion at seeing her fellow Doll in such dire straits.
Then again, the Dolls rarely displayed much of anything, and that was aside from the fact that their “faces” were, at best, painted or embroidered images on the canvas of their heads. They didn’t venture opinions on their own, and their voices were always even and pleasant. The perfect servants. Even the one that had been so terribly mistreated sounded as if they were prepared to have a lengthy conversation on the methods of brewing tea if he’d asked them to, regardless of how much pain they were in.
How can this moment become a memorable one? His tutors’ lessons replayed in his head. As a noble, every time you are seen is a performance of your role. Don’t miss chances for weighty statements, when they present themselves. Fate can call upon you for a witty, memorable, or daring show at any time. Puissant nobles have honed the skill of recognizing such moments.
“Thank you,” he said, very aware that after his little speech people were paying very close attention to how he himself treated the Dolls. “Please tell the Mender I will be there shortly.” He took a deep breath, stood, retrieved the offender’s kerchief, and ripped it into bandaging strips, using his teeth and left hand. He spoke a brief spell of healing to sterilize his wounds, and let its effects be visible. He wasn’t in the mood for finesse, just starting the repair.
Let them see I had magical power all along. I could have healed fully before anything else, but chose to bleed instead. They’ll see me bind my own wounds, giving the impression I am utterly self-capable. And they know I don’t mind being in pain. Wait. Wait. Do I actually like pain? It would explain a lot. Why do I feel like whatever it is, it’s not enough work until I’m hurting from it? Why am I thinking about this right now? Concentrate.
They’ve seen me defend a Doll, and check on their wellbeing before tending to my own wounds. That should stick with them.
One thing about all of this, though. Leading by example hurts.
He gave the crowd a raking glance and a firm go-away gesture, implying wordlessly that if they were not busy, they bloody well should be. A second glance assured him that his three Dolls were taking the broken one off without any difficulty (and he hoped with as little pain as possible). Kordas walked on down the muddy path—everything about camping or deployment seemed to turn into mud—healing his hands up as he walked. The pain-blocking had been right on time, but the fractures the pain told of were still there, whether they hurt or not. His right hand seeped blood through the fray-edged bandages. What was it they said in his youth? “If the blood’s fresh and clean, you’ll be all right. You aren’t in trouble till the blood stops flowing.” His slower pace let him get the bones set and pressed. The bandages would help with that, so he left them on. Downhill to a crosspath— also mud, of course— he went where he’d been intending to go in the first place: the corral where his riding horses were.
Arial was finally in shape to ride, and the foal was in the process of being weaned, eating about half solid food and half Arial’s milk, so the mare could be ridden again. She welcomed him with a whinny and a toss of her head, coming straight for him, and she even seemed to welcome the saddle, saddlebag with a pair of old trews and a shirt stuffed into it, and light bridle that he fetched from a rough thatched shelter where the tack was kept. Then again, going for a ride meant getting away from her foal, and the foal was getting to be of an age where she was a bit of a pest. Maternal instincts were wearing thin by now, and the relief of being where the foal couldn’t get to her, combined with the pleasure of going out for a nice amble in relatively interesting, though unfamiliar, surroundings, must be what was accounting for her pleasure at seeing him.
Well, and she does like me, I suppose . . .
Arial whuffled at his bound-up hand, then snorted with disapproval at the smell. “It’s fine, dear, it’s fine. You probably just smell some sadist-face on my knuckles.” Arial apparently had nothing to say, which suited him right now. He let her out of the gate—she could have easily jumped it, but there was no point in letting her know she could—and mounted up, turning her toward the lake and the path around it. Horses were creatures of habit. All the Valdemaran Gold horses had been trained to respect fences and wait for a human to open a gate, so it had happened that many of them could be stopped by a low fence that was only chest high, unless trained out of it. It made keeping all of the horses confined much easier. One thing Valdemaran Golds had in quantity was confidence, so more often than not, uncertain horses tended to follow what the Golds did.
This shore had become a city in all things but name, a long, thin city composed of barges, skiffs, and narrowboats pulled up along the shore of what they all unimaginatively called “Crescent Lake”, boats docked three, four, five, even six deep. The narrowboats, where the high majority of people lived, were the nearest to the bank, with the boats storing all their goods and whatever else they had been able to get out tied prow to stern out behind them. If the tow-path was crowded, you could walk where you wanted to get from boat to boat using planks, and many people did. It had a song of its own, this arrangement. Thumps in several different tones played as slow, suffused wind chimes. When the breeze blew through, the low waves of the lake caused the whole array to bump hull to hull, so closely were they anchored. Interspersed with the thumps was the higher-pitched rubbing of hulls, something like a strange melody. It may account for why there aren’t as many predators as we expected. We’ve effectively beaten drums to drive them away, from the day we got here, Kordas thought. The insects didn’t get the hint, though, and chewed us up until bugchaser lanterns were put up all along the shore. Forget what you learned from tales of quests and adventures. This is the real life of adventure: it always ends up as cold, mud, or bugs. Usually all three.
He and his fellow leaders were trying to keep the land from being over-grazed and the woods from being plundered. That meant everyone was living in a boat, and except for those who must, such as guards and gamekeepers, residence ashore was forbidden. It was safer, too. Nobody yet knew what dangers could come out of that all-too-dark forest. The population being afloat meant they effectively had a moat around them. Kordas had his and Delia’s boats tied up in the center of the lake’s arc, putting them right in the middle. No one could accuse him of keeping himself out of reach of his people.
The original evacuation had been enormous, but when everything had settled and it was determined that the new Duke of Valdemar was going to be a decent man, Kordas had given people who wanted to go back home the option to do so. About two-thirds of them had queued up and returned. The Squire was not one; he was happy in his new village, and the Empress, his prize sow, was happy with her palatial new sty, so some of the Squire’s children had taken two-thirds of the Squire’s pigs and gone back to the Duchy, while the Squire’s eldest divided the remaining third between himself and his father and was going to follow Kordas. Lots of people had done the same. Kordas reminded them that no one could guarantee their safety if they returned—but that going out into the unknown was going to be risky, probably dangerous, and at best uncomfortable, hard work.
The mages, to a man and woman, stayed. They already knew how the Empire treated magicians, and none of them were under the illusion that things would change under whatever general or Great Lord of State managed to claw his way to the Conquest Throne. And there were a lot of them, far more than Kordas had ever anticipated, far more than his little mage-enclave had hosted. Apparently mages who were not a part of the Imperial Court talked a lot to each other.
It was always a possibility that one or more of them was an agent of the Empire.
But at the moment, there wasn’t any Emperor. There might not be an Empire. Whoever they had planned on reporting to probably wasn’t in any position to do anything with the information anymore. Once they uprooted from this place and started on their exodus, there would be no way to get forces after them— they wouldn’t exactly be burning bridges after themselves, but his plan would have the same effect.
Among the refugees there were, of course, the accidentals, the strays from the Capital who had simply flung themselves through the nearest Gate without a Gate key and randomly ended up at the Lake. They mostly had nowhere to go until families who were leaving altogether and had no wish to go back to the Duchy had met up with the dispossessed, who found themselves going from “homeless” to “cottage and a garden, and jobs that needed hands to do them.” Which might not be much, but it was more than they’d had after leaving everything behind. After witnessing the rampaging mother Earth Elemental, they were grateful to have anything at all.
Right now there were only three people who knew the truth about why that creature had torn the Palace and Capital apart—Kordas, the new Duke Merrin, and Kordas’s Herald
Beltran. The Duke was scarcely likely to let anyone know he’d helped murder the Emperor—is that called a co-murder? Kordas wondered—and kick off the carnage. Beltran could be trusted, and Kordas didn’t intend for anyone else to know the whole truth, not even Isla. The Dolls knew, of course, but the Dolls were very good at keeping secrets.
To his eternal relief, the Dolls in charge of the hostages had taken their charges (and sometimes picked their charges up bodily—the Dolls, it seemed, were enormously strong), stuffed the Gate keys to the Gates nearest their homes down the fronts of their uniform tunics, and pitched them through the Palace Gates before coming here to the Lake themselves. We know it was a merciful rescue, but technically, it was also kidnapping children. In doing good, we become someone’s villains. It feels like every decision is mired in unhappy repercussions these days. Well, that’s real adventure, too. Only storybooks end neatly. At least we managed to send those poor children back to their homes.
He’d worried that he’d have to deal with almost a hundred parentless children, with no idea where their loyalties lay. He’d have had to send them home, of course, but that would mean more people who knew about the plans and the escape and . . . well, he was just glad things had worked out the way they had. The Dolls, it seemed, had kept their heads when everyone around them had thoroughly lost theirs—absolutely no one in authority had turned up at the hostages’ area to evacuate them before the Dolls took matters into their own hands.
I really made a dog’s dinner out of the situation, and if it hadn’t been for the Dolls, things could have gone far more horribly wrong, in every possible way.
So there were about fifteen thousand people here now, mostly younger sons and daughters who would likely never have had the chance for a home and land of their own. So, not as many families as he had initially thought there would be, and no one with children younger than eight or nine. There were quite a few families of the Duchy who were tired of the Empire, figured that whoever eventually became Emperor was not going to be all that different from the last one, and elected to take their chances with Kordas. So they were doing better for long-term supplies than he had dared hope.
And now, everyone who wasn’t going into the west with him had already left.
People were used to him riding up and down the lakeshore, and no one took much notice of him except to look up from what they were doing and wave.
He was ashamed of himself for losing his temper so badly back there—but doing so felt so damned good. It felt good to be able to take his emotions out on someone who deserved a pounding—the creep didn’t even know the basics about what he hated. This wasn’t mere stupid behavior, it was inept, and that only made it worse. This idiot had singled out a Doll, who told him that they already had a job to do, and made that an excuse to beat on them— unaware that what one Doll knew, they all knew.
That’s what Rose had told him, when she ran to get him to save her fellow Doll. Knowing they won’t fight back. Knowing he could do anything he wanted. That’s just pure evil, like
torturing a puppy.
But he was glad it happened now, and not after they got underway. Because now people know what I won’t tolerate, and what the price of lawbreaking is. He had come to the conclusion that the best answer to most lawbreaking was going to be exile. It’s “merciful” without putting my people at any more risk. Because risk from within was not something that they were going to be able to allow, not now, and not for a very long time.
He wished they could stay here. If there hadn’t already been people here, people who had a prior claim to this land. And if he wasn’t afraid that despite his best efforts, someone might be able to follow them here from the Empire. After all, he and his mages had managed to do it blind. What could they do if the Imperial mages got their hands on something connected to anyone who was in this mob of exiles? What if they had a plant here, somehow?
He looked landward, and didn’t like what he saw. Already things were looking a little bit stressed—nothing that a good spring couldn’t put right, but . . . over there, goats and donkeys, which would eat anything, had been nibbling on bushes and trees, and the undergrowth had been eaten down to a level where any good herdsman or shepherd would know it was urgently time to move the herds. And pigs, dear gods, what the pigs would do . . .
No, no, besides the fact that other people had rights to this land that superseded their arrival, there simply was not enough room here for his people and theirs. And the strain on the lake—
Well, other people besides him knew this. A lot of mages were Landwise, and he could tell that they were of the same mind. I wonder how many in the Emperor’s Court would have been ill at the mere thought of land management being part of a Duke’s life? I say, if you want to be a Duke, well, it’s vital. Work from the furthest points inward, maintain roads and safety, respond to emergencies, keep the Duchy well-defended, give respect, and always have at least three plans and escape routes.
Right now, he didn’t have three plans, but he did have two. One was to send more people back to the Duchy, if he could find any more that wanted to go. Along with that was to allow a small settlement here. Nothing that would compete with the locals, or make them resentful. That would reduce the strain on the environment here, and they would set up Crescent Lake as their town and hope for the best. The second was, in equal measure, desperate and daring. The scouts had already found a new river on the other side of the marshes, and four mages were setting up a Gate there. It was a lot easier getting two wooden uprights, four mages, and eight scouts across that swamp than it would have been to take fifteen thousand humans and roughly four times that many animals across—and that didn’t count the chickens and waterfowl. The scouts had a Doll with them—and of course, what one Doll knew, they all knew, so as soon as Rose told him the new Gate had been activated, they could link the two and the real migration could begin.
And we’ll go for as long as it takes. Rumor in the villages here says that the lands to the west are ravaged by the Mage Wars, and no one lives there. So we find out if that is true. And we find a place of our own.
By this time, he was at the mouth of the river that trailed into the Lake, draining out of the swamp that was several leagues along. This was where most of the mages had made their own little camp of boats. Most ordinary folk liked the idea of mages, but didn’t care for living anywhere near them. There were, after all, the occasional clouds of stinking smoke, accidental fires, and certainly odd lights and sounds at all times of the day and night. Mages, on the whole, did not much care for living around ordinary folk, either. They were, to say the least, a bit eccentric. Many of them had been bullied in their childhoods by “ordinary” folk. And when they were among other mages, they didn’t have to explain behaviors like pacing for hours, muttering, or suddenly leaping up in the middle of something else to run to “try something out.”
The Mender was here. He was a young protégé of Sai’s who showed a remarkable aptitude for putting the Dolls to rights. A great many of them had come through the Gate injured, on fire, or both, and he had been the first to volunteer to try to fix them. He still hadn’t found a way to free the animating vrondi from the fabric and wood shell, but he could make them as good as new when they needed repairs without putting them in pain.
The Mender had a tent on the shore, although he lived in a barge with five other mages. The tent, one of the ones that had been brought here to establish the beachhead for the migration, was for his work. The flaps were tied wide open to let in air and sun, and Kordas rode up to it and tethered Arial to a tent-peg before ducking inside.

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